It’s difficult, writing words for others to read. Not properly difficult in the sense of hard, physical labour, or difficult like learning to play the piano. Just difficult to know how to get your tone of voice right, how much to reveal and how much to admit. When I started writing things down it was a continuation of my childhood bad habit of talking to myself. Then you become aware of the audience and unless you’re careful, you end up trying to second guess what the audience wants to hear.
On Saturday we’re shopping in The Lanes in Brighton. We are coming to the end of a week’s holiday and it’s time to buy a present for the good friend who’s looking after our cats back in London. What do two middle-class gay men, wealthy by any reasonable standards, buy as a present for a single version of the same? Expensive bath foam, of course, from one of those shops which sell nothing else, shops that are both a delight (because lying in a hot bath, in the dark, listening to a Paul Temple mystery on the radio is a genuine pleasure) and an obscenity (because bath oil is bath oil is bath oil, regardless of the mark-up applied to the tube of sodium lauryl sulphate you buy).
But I’m happy, because the holiday has worked. We are both redeemed from the stress of work, for a time, and have slept well and walked dozens of miles along the coast and over the Downs. Life is good. We are lucky. The gift is purchased. We come back out into the Lanes.
And the sky darkens and the rain starts to fall and in the narrowing light I see my reflection on a plate-glass window, a comfortable well-fed man holding a preposterous bag of bath oil. I feel a warning stab of discomfort.
Because of the rain we head for the nearest cafe. As do dozens of other shoppers but we’re lucky, we beat the queue and we get a window seat and blow on our flat whites and laugh at the drenching we received.
A man my age has the table next to us, hunched over a copy of the FT. Everything is neat, down to his used tea-bag, tidily placed on his saucer. But the cafe is filling up. A younger man approaches, balancing his bag and a cup of frothy coffee. He comes to Tidy Man’s table.
“Is this chair free?”
Without looking up, Tidy Man grunts assent. Coffee Man slides into the free chair, but of course as he does so, his bag falls from his arm and catches the coffee cup, which slops some of its contents onto the table.
Nothing. Nihil respondit. Coffee Man fetches a paper napkin from the counter. As he comes back I see him more clearly. His brow is furrowed with concentration and he seems to have a slight twitch.
He dabs at his spillage with the napkin. The table — of course! – – has a wobble, so even as he mops up his own coffee, he causes Tidy’s tea to spill. Tidy, who still hasn’t acknowledged Coffee’s existence beyond the initial grunt, picks up his paper and stands up.
“Bye then”, says Coffee Man.
Tidy manages to filter past Coffee Man and exit the cafe as though the only human being in the shop.
I’m not explaining well why this upset me so much. There is a yearning for some form of human interaction from Coffee Man which is tangible. He frowns over his coffee cup. When he looks up I smile at him. But not for long enough, because I’m always hyper-sensitive to not give the wrong signal, and just as Coffee Man begins to return the smile, I break contact and look away.
In the street outside I say to Keith:
“Did you see that boy?”
And Keith says:
“Yes. A poor soul.”
“I wanted to hug him, to tell him everything will be alright. But I couldn’t even say hello properly.”
“Everything won’t be alright anyway.”
We walk home along the seafront in silence. And I’m thinking: reaching out to other human beings ought to be the easiest thing. Why do I find it so difficult? Yes, I was projecting, but I’m more like Tidy Man in his self-contained space than I like to admit. Don’t we all feel pain at isolation? We can see it but it’s so hard to overcome, maybe it’s always been hard but it seems to have become harder, I think we’re more suspicious of the motives of others than we used to be. If I were of the left I’d make some excuse, as I’m on the right I make another, but that’s all these explanations are: excuses for not touching. I remember my lonely weekends in Harlow, when I’d visit the supermarket solely in order to hear a human voice that wasn’t piped in by Radio 4. I wonder at the effort it took for that young man, to overcome the problems life has thrown at him, to get his act together to come out for a cup of coffee and some social interaction, to end up receiving nothing.
The sun has broken through, I can feel Keith close to me, I remember that I’m not alone, and feel the weight of the preposterous bag of bath stuff in my hand.
“This is a stupid present for a man. We’ll give it to your mum. Let’s have Simon over for dinner one night instead. To say thank you properly.”