Friday, 6 April 2012

Memories, misty, water-coloured memories . . .

No, I haven't been watching Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear, nor the film they were parodying. For some reason I was just thinking about things you learn in childhood. I remember that my brother had done something to annoy me, so I'd been annoyed, but then I had wanted to play a game with him. I knew it took him ages to get out of sulks, so I offered up an apparently sincere apology for whatever it was, and we played a game. It's a lesson that served me well later on, and less well on a third occasion I can recall! But we'll come to that third instance in due time.

The second occasion took place back in secondary school. I shall try to scythe through the trivia here. We had a weekly charity collection at school. I tended to give more than my fellows, more because of a lack of understanding of money, perhaps, rather than any inherent generosity of spirit! Besides, in terms of my fellows, fifty pence was generous, so we're not talking St Francis of Assisi here. The charity varied. We had just been told that today's collection was for a cancer charity. The thing about not wanting animals used in medical experiments is that you don't want them tortured to death or otherwise killed. So my teenage mind was in a bit of a quandary, and I wasn't sure whether I should support this charity. A girl, let's call her "Francine", was one of the collectors. She was also a strong proponent of fox-hunting. We had, needless to say, argued about this, and had had a particular row the previous day. So she was still in a bad mood with me and I with her.

So when she came around the classroom, soliciting donations, she angrily waved the tin at me, scowling. I think she had begun to lambaste me when I had failed to produce my usual pittance. That irked me since she'd just come from another lad, who'd given nothing. That thing about redheads and having a temper? I don't know if it's true, but teenagers are always full of testosterone, anyway! So I snapped, calling her a "disgusting fox-hunter" and shouting at her for expecting money from me. Then she burst into tears. Frankly, I was a bit surprised. She had been ruder to me, and I, in turn, to her, the day before. Moreover, she had started this little contretemps. Those of you who fancy yourselves amateur detectives should re-read what I have already written, as you can probably guess what I later found out.

Yes, it turned out that a friend or relative of hers had recently been diagnosed with or had died from cancer. I forget whether I unearthed that myself or whether Si or Will solicited the information on my behalf. So come lunch-time break, I ended up seeking her out and apologising profusely and - yes - insincerely. Do not for a moment assume that I didn't think of this poor unfortunate - the sufferer, that is, not Francine. But I was a self-absorbed teenager, and perhaps a little cold in my feelings, albeit not my insincere words, to Francine.

I suspect that George Eliot is responsible for bringing on this bout of introspection. To some outside observers my first words would have smacked of utter cruelty. After all, nobody could see that I was wrestling with my conscience about the morality of supporting a cancer charity. It would not occur to most people that there was anything to wrestle about. It is, after all, a horrendous thing, and the sooner it is expunged the better. So an outsider might assume I was aware of Francine's friend's suffering, and that I was using it as a goad with which I might torment her. After all, about half the class seem to have been aware of it. One might argue that part of the problem was that the school was segregated by gender for the first five years, so women (girls, really) were something of a mystery.

The real reason I did not know is that Francine and I did not get on. We did not understand one another. I have a sentiment from her in my leaving book, stating that "The countryside is important!" I completely agreed with that statement. I do now. So why did she feel the need to state it? Because to me "countryside" did not mean what "countryside" did to her. To her the "countryside" involved fox-hunting, and anyone opposed to that was perforce opposed to the whole kit and caboodle, and probably fancied cementing over the whole lot and "putting up skyscrapers in the Bottom Field" or somesuch. Anyway, I said that I was sorry for upsetting her. It still seems something I could only have avoided if I had been writing a book, and was possessed of omniscient knowledge of every characters circumstances! How could she have known I was struggling with an ethical and moral dilemma? How could I have known she had suffered a personal tragedy?

The third instance was one where everything collapsed quite completely. The thing about pretending to be sorry for having done what seemed reasonable at the time is that one cannot do it forever. In my case about four years seems to be my limit. I tantalise and tease you with that figure, which may appear to be plucked from the aether. I shall explain. The longest relationship I have been in lasted four and a half years. My ex, J, had decided to stay on at the university where we had met, doing a postgraduate degree. Our mutual friend, Amy, had been very taken with the outline of the course, and her enthusiasm had infected my affianced. Amy enjoyed this particular course tremendously, although I got the impression from J that of all the students only Amy enjoyed it! The rest of the students aside, J hated it. I had been a little perturbed when she suggested it, as our mutual friend, Chris, had spent every free moment complaining about the course, his fellow students, the lecturers - in short, everything! - when he had taken it a couple of years beforehand.

J had no recollection of this. I never have been sure whether she had a remarkably bad memory or I have been blessed (or cursed) with an exceptional one or if we all simply forget irksome, inconvenient elements of the past. I am not saying she had a bad memory because she forgot one relevant thing, but because she forgot at least two. Perhaps she forgot more, and I have in turn forgotten them! I can't think of anything likelier! :-D Back when Chris had been hating his course, I had had a serious disagreement with my house-mates. J was coming over to see me a lot, and my house-mates had a list of complaints, including that she was not paying her fair share of household bills, given how often she visited. It all led to a flaming row, and I moved out. Two years later, when we were in another house, my friends Kev and Hanne were seeing one another. Jenny was quite annoyed that Hanne was visiting so much, and felt that she was not paying her share of the household bills. I reminded her of the past incident with my house-mates, and she had no memory of it whatsoever. I remember the excruciating embarrassment of having a chat with Kev about the current state of affairs! I don't recollect what came of it in financial terms. Be fair, it's nearly a decade ago now, and emotions stick faster than dry facts!

After that explanatory detour, I shall return to the situation of J's final year at uni, on that postgrad course. She was not having a good time. She had a terribly propensity for believing herself inferior. J was uncommonly bright. The year before she had taken a module of Beginners' Ancient Greek, missed a few lessons, felt herself unable to keep up, and decided she was too far behind to take the course the following term. Her pass mark in the final test she took? 96 or 98% - yes, exactly: she had a brain but refused to believe it. So when she was thoroughly miserable about a course, she was even more down in the dumps. The thing about being depressed is that one needs cheering up. So I would drive to her from home. I dislike driving as a rule. I'm quietly competent at it, as a rule. I don't race about. The thing I hate is other drivers - and every reader who drives will agree with me that everyone else is the problem with the roads these days!

By British standards it was a long trip. American readers, I know, will scoff and say they drive that far to get the milk and morning newspaper. I speak to insufficient others to know where they lie on this Anglo-American scale of Boring Driving Conversation. I think I once managed it in just under four hours, though it was probably actually just over four hours. No stopping, mind. Welsh roads are, if you are not of the cognoscenti, narrow, coiling, frustrating affairs. One can be stuck behind a single lorry carrying logs for an hour, with no opportunity to overtake as he trundles along at 37mph on a 60mph road. I don't blame the driver for his/her speed. Sometimes on those major Welsh roads 37/60 of the speed I can make my car go is far too reckless! But after four or five (on a bad day) hours of driving, I was not in a good mood. After a week of a frustrating course, J was not in a good mood! Snap! Snap, snap, snap! Tears. Exhausting attempt to cheer her up while suppressing my own irritation. I've gone through all this in a previous blog.

So that is where we come in with the insincere apologies. You cannot keep them up forever. By the end, she would complain about various things. "Why haven't we gone on as many holidays as our friends?"
"I didn't know you wanted to. Do you want to go somewhere now? Where?"

"That isn't the point!"

"Yes, dear."

"Yes, dear." That is a positive death-knell in my ears. It became a passive response to everything. I gave up pretending to apologise.
"Why don't you ever discuss difficult subjects with me?"

"Because you get upset and burst into tears!"

Her tears shed.
So the next time, it became:

"Why don't you ever discuss difficult subjects with me?"
"Yes, dear, it's very wrong of me."
Her wrath aroused.

I don't think there was a good way of dealing with that situation. I suspect that the very fact that the situation was there was "a candle pointing the way to [the] dusty death" of our relationship. She said she wanted me to discuss difficult things with her, but whenever I tried, she cried. So I found it was far less work to say "Yes, dear" in response to everything. I gave up pretending to be sorry, as the benefit of her rage set against her tears was that she did not weep. Anger was a lot easier to ignore than sadness. I suspect that in one sense, "Yes, dear" was beneficial. If I had just continued in my old way of trying to cheer her up every single time she cried, things might have dragged on longer, and we might even have ended up married. I cannot imagine a more disastrous union than that for either of us!

There is a passage in the psalms: Harden not your hearts. I ended up with a very hard heart for quite a while after that business came to an end. Deceit is not always a bad idea, and is frequently essential in everyday life, but when you have to lie every day to yourself and to those you love, you will come to regret it. Whether you are religious or not, it is apt to consider at this time of Easter, that the Biblical account is that after Judas deceived and betrayed Christ he did not profit from it in the end. If you prefer a more amusing look at deceit, then I saw a funny little book in the bookstore the other day by Charles Saatchi, entitled Be the Worst You Can Be. The first page made me chuckle, even if I wasn't enticed to buy a copy. Anyway, Happy Easter, folks! :-)

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