One of the downsides of living a largely interior life is that others find you dull – so very dull, in fact, that they cannot think of anything to ask you when they meet you. I have noticed, you see, that when ‘exterior’ people bump into each other in the street they tend to enquire about a whole range of things –
How are the kids?
How’s the revising going for that big exam?
Did your Aunt Mabel ever make that attempt on Everest?
And so forth.
It’s like they have a mental filing cabinet. They see you walking towards them in the street. Quickly they open a drawer in the filing cabinet and out pop the kids, that big exam, Aunt Mabel, Mount Everest and a whole lot of other potentially conversational stuff. Memory – it’s a rag bag. Dylan Thomas put it much better than me, a very long time ago:
I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs Prothero and the firemen.
But when people meet me – or rather realise they are not going to be able to avoid me – on the street, they have no Mrs Prothero, no convenient firemen. When the silence becomes too awkward most of them ask one of two things:
Do you still have all those cats?
How’s your mother?
And what can you say?
Still quite old.
It was not always so. During my married years Ex’s friends would often come to the house to visit him – never us. Often it was to discuss model engineering at great length whilst staring into the middle distance; very occasionally it was to buy a painting; once in a while it was to persuade him to fix their lawnmower. (It’s one of the things with being self-employed and working from home – people don’t regard it as proper work, so you’re bound to have time to fix their lawnmower or get their grandfather’s pocket-watch ticking again.)
During my married years all these middle-aged ‘men’s men’, for whom I was an embarrassing and inconvenient appendage to the Real Person of the house, if absolutely forced to address me would enquire either –
And what can you say to that?
But worse, spend too much time alone and you become as uninteresting as other people think you are. I went to visit my friends the other day, and we had coffee. You know how, after a conversation you tend to go back over it, try and remember what you said? As I clambered into the car and headed for Tesco’s all I could remember was that I had talked nearly all of the time about dustbins and those little orange caddies they provide you with to recycle your food waste. Oh yes, and maggots. Those little orange caddie things are prone to maggots, which is why hardly anyone uses them. And there’s nothing worse than maggots…
And so I think, should I try to do a number of Interesting Things, to help out casual acquaintances? Should I maybe volunteer to feed the homeless, then people could ask:
Have you fed any more of those homeless people recently? And I could say, Well, yes, actually I fed one only yesterday. Soup, it was. And sandwiches.
Maybe I should attempt to become good at Sudoku. Instead of staring at my Chinese Sudoku board (“Number Is Alone”) for three hours, then giving up because the numbers just won’t go in the right places, maybe I should get good at it and go in for competitions.
Maybe I should join a fitness group and become taut and toned like those people in the post-Christmas home fitness ads. Then acquaintances who inconveniently bumped into me in supermarkets could gush:
Is that really you? I hardly recognise you, you’ve got so slim! And just look at those abs!
Or maybe I should try and knock up a cynically quick novel – a thing about rampant vampire lust, perhaps, or some sort of murder mystery involving a locked gymnasium and a vaulting horse, or a body buried under a vegetable patch resulting in a suspiciously wonderful crop of onions. And then people could ask:
Did you ever get that vampire novel published?
And I could say.