Friday, 19 April 2013

Yellow Brick Runway

Marian enjoyed what is generally described as a privileged upbringing, although by her account it was traumatic and difficult and not in the least bit enjoyable, albeit for reasons that never really struck me as significantly unpleasant. Her father was descended from numerous well-remembered men of great historical significance, and I think her mother had worked at the British Embassy in Paris or something of that sort. This accounted for Marian's mother owning a second home in the south of France, specifically in a village called Th├ęza where she would spend six months of the year back during happier times.

Naturally we just had to go and stay there, although by this point in the relationship I'd begun to regard Marian's suggestions with a mixture of weary resignation and fear; because almost everything she did became horribly complicated as a matter of course, and somehow it was always my fault. We were to catch an 11:40AM flight from Stanstead Airport near London, and she spent much of that Sunday evening making it quite clear how disappointed she would be if I were to be late, given that we had planned to leave her house by 9AM the next day - which was cutting it close, but I thought we could probably make it. Being a postman I customarily rose each morning at around 5AM, whilst Marian, being effectively unemployed, rarely emerged before noon, but it didn't really seem worth the bother pointing this out in respect of my routinely anticipated failure. Regardless of circumstances, I was never very good at arguments.

By 8:30AM on Monday morning I couldn't see the point of drinking yet another coffee, and so I set off for Marian's house which was a couple of streets away from where I lived. I arrived early and she wasn't particularly glad to see me; and nor was she anywhere near ready to leave. I smiled and thought calming thoughts. That which will be, will be, I told myself.

As Marian continued to get ready, or at least to do whatever else it was she had decided needed doing at the last minute - possibly some hoovering, although I may have remembered that wrong - I humped her two heavy wheeled suitcases down the stairs to the hall.

'Do you have any more room in your bag?' she asked. I looked at my single lightweight rucksack dwarfed by her luggage mountain and told her no.

'Well, what else can you carry?'

She began to hunt around for a third case to fill.

By 9:30AM we were ready to leave, or so I believed. I hefted my rucksack onto my back, and extended the handles of Marian's two largest cases, ready to haul them off towards the bus-stop.

'You definitely can't take anything else, no?' She pulled an inconvenienced face, one that implied grudging acceptance of a compromise. 'Oh dear.'

The compromise was that she carried one of her own cases herself, the smallest of the three; or specifically she placed it down by the front door in readiness to carry it, having just one more thing to do prior to departure.

I looked to the ceiling and drew a deep breath.

Marian returned from the kitchen with a supermarket carrier bag and went out of the door. I considered her suitcases, then went to the front gate to watch her walk up and down the street filling the carrier bag with litter - coke cans, discarded cigarette packets, food wrappers and the like.

'What are you doing?' I asked. 'You know we're supposed to be catching a plane today?'

'There's plenty of time.'

'But what are you doing?'

'It's something I have to do.' She wandered past, down towards Goodrich Road, still gathering rubbish and stuffing it into the bag.

I thought about it some more, telling myself the usual kind of thing I always told myself on such occasions. We haven't left, but the flight isn't for another two hours, so there's no point getting pissed off until we've actually definitely missed it; but even I had given up believing this sort of crap, at least since our trip to London Aquarium.

Planning to leave at midday, we had arrived about a quarter of an hour before closing time and somehow ended up locked inside with all the fish. We eventually found some member of staff to let us out, but it wasn't even the first time it had happened. A year earlier we'd been locked in at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes.

Marian picked litter, tutting to herself.

'Is this like some ISA thing, like an exercise?' I was trying to sound interested and casual so as to avoid setting her off. We all have our little rituals. Some of us are just better with the timing.

'You wouldn't understand,' she said, which was true.

Having had a traumatic and difficult childhood during which her mother had once left her alone in the car for half an hour with just a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop, Marian was into self-improvement and wrestling with her many inner demons. Her shelves sagged with the weight of books sporting titles like Shoes Made of Rainbows and Choosing to Say Yes!, and she subscribed to the teachings of an organisation called ISA - which stood for the Institute of Self-Actualisation. She never really told me what went on at ISA meetings; apparently it was too important to be revealed to outsiders. The idea was that I should join and find out for myself, but I was reluctant to do this on the grounds that it all struck me as faintly sinister. So far as I was able to tell, ISA had taught Marian to actualise herself by blaming the trauma and difficulty of her childhood on other people, and often on me, which seemed unfair as I hadn't even been there. I'd more or less given up habitual grousing about work - my one pleasure - because even the mildest note of dissent shared with this supposed love of my life would trigger her ISA training and she would try to get me to self-actualise, or something.

So what are you going to do about it?, she would demand in response to even the most obviously rhetorical complaint, eyes popping out like a defiant Pekingese, a failed 1950s school mistress demanding to know how you propose to settle the debt of your crime.

I imagined Marian sat in her sack cloth robes amongst all those other ISA recruits in their dimly-lit chamber of caringness and empowerisationment, explaining to the Grand Poobah how pissed off she would get when people dropped their litter in the street.

So what are you going to do about it?, he would demand.

At 9:40AM we left, Marian in the lead, urging me to hurry as I hauled our cases along towards the bus-stop. We caught a bus to Camberwell, then Liverpool Street Station, then a train to Stanstead Airport. We arrived on the concourse at around 11:10AM just as it was announced that the gates by which we were to board our flight to Perpignan in the south of France were now closed.

Marian, having enjoyed what is generally described as a privileged upbringing, tended to regard everyone as potentially sullen waiters who had just brought her cold soup garnished with at least one fly. We were all just staff to her. She went to the desk, pulled herself up to her full 4' 7", and explained in shrill upper-class that our gate had closed before we were able to board, then demanded to know what they were going to do about it?

There were no more flights to Perpignan that day, so we both stumped up an additional ₤40 to reschedule for Tuesday morning and went to catch the train back to London in silence. Marian tried out a few general disparaging remarks on the subject of poor service and the unhelpful attitude of the woman working the desk, but I didn't respond. I wasn't going to be complicit in her shrugging off this latest balls-up, not with all the personal responsibility drivel she regularly laid at my door whenever I failed to purchase her preferred brand of toilet paper.

Forty minutes passed without a single word spoken as the train took us back to Liverpool Street. I was thinking about the bus journey, most of which had been taken up by Marian explaining how my arriving at her house prior to the agreed time had somehow made her late, and a number of other matters which she proposed should be taken into consideration as my fault; but at last, she was silent. I felt  calm as I tried not to smile.

'I suppose that was down to me,' she eventually said.

I gave no direct response, instead drawing attention to the fact that since leaving the airport I had not uttered a single word of reproach. This I offered by way of contrast to the many occasions when - for example - my failing to return a bath towel to the correct designated rung of the rack had effected her transformation into Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Marian was silent for a moment, then in duly chastened tones suggested we both needed to make a special effort to be on time tomorrow when making our second attempt to catch the daily flight to Perpignan. It had become our fault, and we had both made mistakes, which I knew was about as generous as could be expected. She spent the rest of the day in contemplative mood, and actually managed to stop being unpleasant for a few hours. It was strange and  unsettling, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Next morning, we caught the flight as planned. The plane went up into the sky, taking us to the south of France and a whole new set of screw-ups arising from my habitual failure to think of anyone but myself.

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