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Slights

 

1

Often we feel a person who passes for a friend is in fact a rather more subtle enemy. And where with our enemies we can usually avoid them, or if necessary confront them on the very basis of shared antipathy, the apparent friend, the subtle enemy, may require the most oblique, most contingent and most fortuitous of situations to reveal themselves – and to reveal oneself in the very process.

A good example that comes to mind took place some time ago. I was living in Morningside, a pleasant and genteel part of Edinburgh, and in a granny flat belonging to the woman who owned the stone-built, two storey house to which the flat was attached. She was a comfortably off forty year old divorcee with a fourteen year old son away at boarding school. At the time I moved in I was working in a bar and doing a business course at a local college. At thirty one it was obvious my life hadn’t been the conventional success story my landlady might be expecting from her expensively educated son, but maybe, I surmised, she wasn’t compelling the son to be successful, just simply making clear that a decent education would maximise his life options.

Perhaps I wanted to believe this because it left me with optional possibilities in living in that attractive, reasonably inexpensive flat in one of the better parts of town. Had I understood her thinking more clearly, or at least my interpretation of it, would I have stayed on?

For it wasn’t as if I demanded the security of the place. I had long adjusted to what I called my baggy life, a life chiefly interested in buying second hand CDs, burning expensive new ones that friends had bought, watching films and reading and collecting books. The business course was, for me, an alibi, a grant, a tax-free existence, and a student life as much as anything else, and it wasn’t the first time I’d taken the money and adopted the lifestyle, and might not be the last either. If people would offer disapproval as I brassily told them of my casual approach to advanced learning, I would say that while they might see education as a stepping stone towards the big pay packet, for me it was an occasional holiday from the low-paid, full-time work I had been doing on and off since sixteen.

2

But of course such accusations would come from enemies, and were rejected out of hand. Yes I would listen to alternative perspectives, comprehend opposing arguments, but these opposing views could never get inside my nervous system, nor inside my head. If someone asked about the specifics of my life, they would receive honest answers in direct proportion to the specifics they themselves initially provided me with. If they thought I had acted dishonestly, I would suggest that their accusations of my dishonesty were proffered only because of the honesty I had provided them with in the first place. I would then hastily place them as enemies, and work on their contradictions and denials, using the specifics they provided me with less to attack them than to defend myself.

For example there was one evening where I was sitting in the pub with a couple of friends, one of whom, Bill, had recently started a ‘proper’ job, moving from freelance work to a permanent position on an Edinburgh newspaper. It was a pub proud of tradition, evidenced both in its century old football and cricket cards hanging on the walls, its rickety pots and pans hanging from the rafters, and the hundreds of old, single malts behind the bar. Not the sort of place I’m usually comfortable with – we had decided to drink there on Bill’s instigation, who said for a few of his new work colleagues it was their regular.

So there we were with a few of Bill’s new workmates and I got into a discussion with one of them. She talked about her job, and I talked about my life. After a while, in the middle of what I thought was a cosy discussion with a journalist in her late twenties, I noticed her tone change as she started asking questions that were simultaneously intrusive and revealing. She said it was unreasonable of me to move in and out of education at will. I said I thought it unreasonable to jam one’s foot in the parents’ doorstep after the parents’ son had died of a heroin overdose, just because their newspaper wanted a story. And of course this wasn’t my opinion necessarily, but the opinion of the journalist who only a few minutes before had been questioning the ethics of her job. I had long since mastered the art less of defending myself against accusations of being amoral, than of querying how moral the accusers themselves happened to be.

But does such a position leave me understanding other people’s ethical positions, but never demanding from myself an ethics of my own? Are there certain circumstances where it isn’t enough to probe another’s contradictions, but where one also has to delve into one’s own confusions? Is this what happens when the person dealt with is somewhere between a friend and an enemy?

3

Barbara, for that was my landlady’s name, seemed to share the values I would expect from a friend. She believed in people discovering life, she said, and I reckoned that in my own quiet way I was one of life’s discoverers, for I certainly wasn’t one of its careerists. But then what was Barbara? She was, in her job a teacher, a secondary school, low-profile pedagogue teaching French who entered the profession a decade previously. Before that, she proudly announced, she had been a bohemian bum in London and Edinburgh, fishing out an article from the very paper Bill and the young woman whom I had been arguing with wrote for. Barbara said that after her degree at university she lived for a couple of years in a squat down at Stockbridge on St Stephen Street, and after that, at the beginning of the eighties, got politicized and moved down to London, stayed for about five years and moved back to Edinburgh near the end of the decade.  She would talk about how, when living in Edinburgh and holidaying for a couple of days in the Highlands, she and a friend would stay up smoking hash and listening to music all night, and go out and pick mushrooms early in the morning, returning for breakfast before sleeping for much of the day.

Such stories then suggested she would have no problem with my lifestyle, which at least consisted of getting up usually no later than ten thirty each morning, and eschewing anything stronger than the odd pint and quality blow when it was available. In fact one of the first things she said after I mentioned the idea of smoking hash in the flat – a litmus test name drop to find out how liberal were her leanings – was if I knew of a decent supplier. (I did.)

So my lifestyle choices seemed similar enough for the lodging situation to work out, and Barbara and I moved towards a sort of friendship. What else were we likely to disagree over? About once a week I would go through and eat at her place, and after a couple of months I eventually suggested she eat at mine. If eating in her dining room carried an air of the formal by virtue of the large eight chaired dining table and high ceilings, eating at my place was necessarily intimate. The flat had a high-ceilinged bedroom which doubled up as a study, with the bed – broader than a single, narrower than a double – raised like a top bunk, with a desk and chair beneath it. The other room – the kitchen and dining area – had a false ceiling, and four chairs hunched up against the walls surrounding the table. A couple of friends had been around for dinner before, but then the intimacy on that occasion, I believed, was not in the setting but in the close acquaintanceship.

Was I attracted to her? Let me just say there was something attractive in her. She seemed to me a beautiful older woman – but an older woman of about fifty – so that I ruled out any hint of sexual possibility with her, and, when finding out she was almost ten years younger – I eventually asked at what age she had her fourteen year old son – she lost some of her ‘disinterested’ attractiveness as she crept into an age bracket in which I might have found her attractive myself.

It was with this knowledge that I invited her around for dinner, and was it perhaps having already offered this fact of her age, if obliquely, that she might have assumed I was inviting her around for more than a meal? After all, shortly after moving in, I had casually commented on how attractive she was for what I assumed to be someone who was fifty. I had said something along the lines that she must be doing something right: eating well, exercising… And if that assumption on my part had made her a woman who looked five to ten years younger (thinking she was about fifty), then was it not fair to assume that she had in turn assumed she looked several years younger than her actual age (knowing that she was forty one), and thus making her look in her mind, in relation to my comments, in her thirties? Hence, in terms of looks, only a few years older than me.

This is all mentioned, I hasten to add, not to make me out to be irresistible, merely to suggest reasons for the awkwardness of that particular evening, and also of the events that were to follow. For when we add together my initial favourable comment on her attractiveness, the gap of only ten years between us, the forced intimacy of the flat, and the problem I had concluding the evening, a sexual liaison seemed more likely than improbable. Which isn’t to say she was unequivocally attracted to me more than she was attracted to any number of other people, but certain circumstances, if set in motion, and then not followed through, may carry the force of a rejection.

I guess at two o’clock in the morning, as she finally got up to leave, I should have made a pass at her. Not that she would necessarily have accepted it; but she would at least have felt attractive whilst refusing it. As she said on a couple of occasions, when you’re over forty, and a woman, people often look at you as a banished body, with hints of greying hair. To be honest that’s exactly how I must have seen her that evening, or rather, I suspect, that’s how she saw herself after leaving the flat without a hint of sexual interest on my part.

It was to be the only time she ate at my place, and I wasn’t invited back to hers for dinner until about six weeks later. The two events combined, along with a few biographical details I shall soon divulge, should be all the evidence required to explain why I moved out. Perhaps.

4

My parents lived in Edinburgh also, and my father worked as a janitor in the very school in which Barbara taught. I kept this detail from Barbara because, I surmised, or rationalised, it would mean introducing her to somebody she had no need to know and vice versa. Anyway, in the weeks following on from the meal at my place we saw very little of each other, and it was as if, I believed, we were both trying to find a way of retaining a friendship, and landlady/tenant conviviality, without creating another awkward situation.

Then one afternoon after she’d returned from school, she caught me just as I was leaving the flat and asked if I fancied a meal at her place with a couple of her friends. She also suggested I bring Bill (he who supplied good quality blow at a reasonable price) and his partner. I said I would ask them, said that I’m sure they’d be in agreement, and looked forward to an evening more comfortable than the last one in Barbara’s company.

Friday night arrived and I was standing talking to Bill in Barbara’s kitchen, glass of wine in my hand, while Barbara was talking to John, a colleague of hers from school, and while the colleague’s wife was talking to Bill’s partner. Out of the six of us, four were in teaching – only Bill and I weren’t – so it wasn’t surprising that it should have been the main conversational topic that evening. But the nature of the conversation – or rather one strand of it – seemed more than inevitably contingent.

Halfway through the meal Barbara started to explain, with additional comments from John, that they had a small problem at the school, a problem so slight that it needn’t be cause for concern but would usefully open up a conversation. John said that the school janitor had recently put up a sign outside his little office insisting that the kids must put their rubbish into the bins situated twenty yards apart on each side of the corridor. However, Barbara added, quite tipsy by this stage, the notice was full of the most appalling spelling mistakes. The kids, John continued, were simply ignoring the notice. Barbara interjected that the kids  couldn’t take seriously a man who couldn’t spell.

I asked them in a voice that I am sure sounded a little unnatural, whether they thought of telling him about the errors. Barbara reckoned there was no point, saying that he was an agreeable little man in his office, who for years minded his own business. When he would eventually find out about his faux pas he would go back to his anonymous tasks.

I asked what these might be. Barbara insisted his simple janitor duties – it was really for a headmaster or someone in authority to put up the sign, not the school’s general handyman surely.

It was Barbara’s use of surely that most rankled, and it was also that Bill must have wondered whether she was talking of my father. She hadn’t mentioned the school in which she and John taught, but Bill knew my father’s profession, so the way she talked derogatorily of the job alone would have sufficed for him to notice the insult. Throughout I could see Bill’s head was down, while his partner, Sal looked across at me, her look perhaps too readily sympathetic.

5

It was a month after that I moved out. But not before visiting my father at his school. I hadn’t seen him there for maybe ten years, and had no excuse – and perhaps no better reason – other than to see him at his work. The issue of his spelling errors I slipped into the conversation as if an afterthought. Briefly glancing up at one of his signs as I sipped a cup of tea he had just made, I said – “a couple of spelling errors there.” “Well, you know,” he replied, “spelling had never been much of a strong point. Come to think of it, someone else seemed to mention it as well.” He said he didn’t quite get what she meant, but he supposed it was a reference to the spelling mistakes.

I asked him what she looked like – it was obviously Barbara. She had asked him a couple of other questions – more personal than you’d expect from an impersonal person he said – and I asked if one of them had been about his kids. He said yes it had been, saying he’d told her briefly about me.  I then asked him whether he could tell me exactly when she asked him, but he was too vague for me to be able to pin the moment down to specific dates. I then regretted not visiting him sooner after that dinner. I had waited more than a fortnight, as though looking for a pretext on which to justify visiting him in his own environment, before giving up and seeing him anyway.

Does the detail of timing matter? I think it does, because if Barbara had visited him before the dinner it suggests a pre-conceived maliciousness; if she visited him afterwards on the basis of noticing my discomfort during the conversation, something much warmer and empathic might have been going on. She might not have known during the meal that she had been talking about my father, but she might well have known during the meal, seeing my discomfort, that she had been talking about someone like my father. And from there it wouldn’t have taken a great leap to enquire whether the very janitor with the same surname as me, was dad. However, I think that if it were done out of maliciousness, would that not suggest I had hurt her deeply that night six weeks earlier in ways that I couldn’t initially perceive; and she had chosen a conscious method assuming that my methods – keeping her talking till two in the morning without even a hint of a kiss goodnight – had also been conscious? Then again, maybe she was just casually dismissive of a janitor who couldn’t spell, and went to his office perhaps a few days after the dinner simply to suggest he should take a look at the sign’s spelling mistakes.

Maybe finally what counts here, though, was the casually dismissive comment about the janitor which galled the most – the casual class consciousness of her way of being. But if that is the case, perhaps she feels something similar going on in me – the casual age consciousness that might have been in my very body language and relevant to the words I expressed on an evening in her granny flat that was temporarily my home, while I had dinner with an older woman who was in fact not really that much older than I was. Perhaps had she been more obviously a friend we could have resolved the situation; maybe had we liked each other less initially we wouldn’t have needed to create a situation in the first place. But whichever way I look at it, there’s something that left a none-too sweet taste in my mouth, and that might, finally, have nothing to do with Barbara at all. She merely brought it to consciousness.

 

©Tony McKibbin