Friday, 17 May 2013

My Angry Bird

'You were perfectly happy sitting on that wall,' Marian informed me, showcasing one of her stranger psychological quirks, namely the belief that reality would bend to her will if she insisted hard enough. She used to do the same thing in response to my general grousing about work at Royal Mail. I would return home after an eight hour day of carrying back-breakingly heavy weights in the pouring rain and grumble that I hated my job with what I felt was some justification.

'No,' Marian would inform me testily, 'you love your job.'

Her logic was that I loved my job because were it otherwise I would have packed it in to seek alternative employment, perhaps as a guru or working the line at a homeopathy plant. I'm still not sure if she genuinely believed that the world would change to accommodate her will if she just mantra-ed really, really hard, whether she was O'Brien in Orwell's 1984 showing four fingers whilst challenging me to deny the count of five, or whether she was simply a dangerous moron.

We were on holiday in the small coastal town of Looe in Cornwall. Marian had slipped into the local branch of Boots the chemist whilst I patiently loitered outside, sat upon a drystone wall for what ended up being forty minutes. It wasn't that she was waiting for a prescription to be filled or engaging some unfortunate member of staff in an argument, and it wasn't even a particularly capacious branch of Boots, but nevertheless she managed to spend forty minutes in the shop. I had gone in to find her after the first quarter of an hour but she had made it clear that she was not going to be pressured or rushed. At last emerging, she smiled a sardonic smile, seemingly daring me to offer comment. Marian's understanding of selfish behaviour pivoted upon the identification of those involved rather than any act in which any of their number may have been engaged. If she had for some reason broken into your house and laid a fresh bowel movement on your living room carpet, protestations would be battered down with terse rhetorical questions like oh, so I'm not allowed to break into your home and shit on the rug - is that how it works now? Whatever the situation, with Marian involved there would always be two sides to the story, the side of Marian, and the side of those being selfish and unreasonable; and so, knowing that whatever I said would be wrong, I said nothing, but even silence was no defence.

'And your problem is?'

Understanding that I had already lost, I sighed and explained that I hadn't enjoyed sitting on a wall outside Boots in Looe for forty minutes, and it would have been nice to have had some indication of how long she expected to be so that I might have at least taken a stroll down to the beach or something.

'How on Earth could I have known how long I was going to take?,' she asked, exasperated. 'I can't predict the future, Lawrence; and anyway, you were perfectly happy sitting on that wall.'

The logic of this defeated me, and I said no more.

We wandered down towards the harbour, watching seagulls, and pretending there was some purpose to our relationship; or at least I assume that's what Marian was doing. By that point I had begun to wonder what the remainder of 2008 held in store for me, and whether I could extricate myself from my girlfriend's regime and put as much distance between us as possible; but the problem was that I had foolishly moved into the spare room of her house six months before, optimistically hoping that the situation would improve, which it hadn't and I was now rapidly losing the will to live. I had got to the stage where the best I could do was to just get through each day as it came.

Deciding the morning could get no worse, I figured I may as well drop the bombshell, the thing I had been too scared to mention.

'I'm going to Coventry to stay with my mother at the weekend.'

She fell silent for a moment. I could see the storm cloud forming above her head like in a cartoon. 'And precisely when were you going to tell me this?'

'I've told you just now.' I found it peculiar that my hunch had been right. I had known this would make her furious without having any clear idea why. She was nothing if not consistent, like an old testament God with larger breasts.

'So you just spring this on me now whilst we're enjoying our holiday?'

'It's Wednesday, and I already told you I was probably going to visit my mother at the weekend.' I didn't bother to question the assertion that we had been enjoying our holiday, because I knew it would turn out that I'd enjoyed it at least as much as I'd enjoyed sitting on a wall outside a chemist for forty minutes.

'You said you were probably going to visit her. This is completely different, Lawrence!'

I gave no reply. There didn't seem to be much point. I had told her about the planned visit a week earlier, but apparently that had only been an informal notice and could therefore not be considered as official confirmation.

'So I'm not allowed to come with you?'

It seemed better to say nothing. Part of the reason I wanted to go and see my mother was that it was already difficult getting time off work without anything else, and I hadn't seen my mother in about a year, plus Marian had tagged along on my previous trip up to the Midlands and it hadn't gone well. I really needed to get away from her for just a few days.

My mother disliked Marian, although I'm not sure I was actually aware of this at the time. She later told me that her first sight of my girlfriend had been in the rear-view mirror of the car as she waited to collect us from Coventry railway station, and her loathing had been immediate and absolute based on that initial moment of horror. Unfortunately my mother's first impression turned out to be absolutely on the mark, cemented by complaints submitted concerning the sheets on the bed in my mother's spare room - clean and fresh yet somehow not up to Marian's exacting standards. My girlfriend expected, even as a guest in someone else's home, to be waited on because she was worth it.

They were both gardeners in a professional capacity to a greater or lesser degree, and I initially hoped this might provide some common ground, but Marian's attitude seemed typified when she asked my mother who she enlisted to perform manual tasks such as lifting up a heavy flower pot. Her concept of other people as pack animals was further emphasised when the three of us visited Stratford-upon-Avon for the day and Marian handed me the greetings cards she had purchased, explaining that they were heavy so I was to carry them. When we left, my mother took me aside and said, 'please don't bring her here ever again,' although I don't actually recall this, and found it amusing when later she reminded me of it. In recent times I have learned that none of my friends liked Marian, and it feels good to know that my measure of her personality during that final year had been on the money, give or take a few minor details.

Meanwhile, back in the holiday which I had just ruined, Marian appeared for a moment uncharacteristically vulnerable. 'Your mother doesn't like me, does she?'

At the time, I had somehow missed those small clues which would have either confirmed or denied this. Possibly I had blocked out any information I didn't want to hear, anything which might underscore the subconscious fear that I was in a relationship with Genghis Khan.

'I'm sure she does,' I said, somehow managing to believe it myself. 'I don't know what gives you that impression.'

We walked on in silence, heading inland along the side of the quay. After a moment I noticed I was alone. Marian had drawn to a halt a little way back and was now watching gulls in the water. This sudden unannounced cessation of forward motion was something she did often, and this time I decided to call her bluff. Instead of obediently going back or waiting, I carried on, enjoying the solitude, enjoying not having to account for every last thing.

I had arranged the holiday and called the bed & breakfast, because I always did; because just as soon as Marian made it clear that we were going to go away and have a good time even if it killed me, she would begin to wail about how she always had to do everything for herself and how just once it would be nice if I made some effort; and so I would end up having to do everything for fear of being judged as wanting, which I believe officially qualifies as Kafka-esque. I'd sat in silence for two hours as we came down to Cornwall on the train because Marian had refused to speak to me at some point for reasons I can no longer recall and may not even have understood at the time; and I think there on the quay was the point at which I stopped caring.

After ten minutes, she resumed mobility and we walked on, looking at lobster pots and boats - talking, but barely. I expect I apologised for thinking only of myself, for rushing her in Boots, for my continued efforts to ruin the holiday, for my informing her of my weekend plans with only three days official notification, for assassinating Martin Luther King, and for the terrible methods by which I had driven the white rhino to the verge of extinction. I expect I apologised because I always did, and it was the only language she really understood, and because I still had some hope of enjoying the rest of the holiday.

Five years later and at 5,000 glorious miles distance from Marian, I am able to look back and recall all that I genuinely enjoyed about that week in Cornwall - the cliffs and the sea, the sheer adventure of being in a new place, watching sea lions from a boat out in the bay, and the carrier bag of paperback gems I brought home from the wonderful Bosco Books in Shutta Road. I look back at what few photographs I managed to take before I sat on the brand new digital camera Royal Mail had given me for twenty years service, and I no longer understand the presence of that small, angry woman stood next to me in just two of those thirty-seven pictures, if ever I understood it in the first place. What endures is that I enjoyed that week in Cornwall in spite of Marian, and what didn't kill me made me very much stronger, or at least strong enough to begin work on my escape tunnel. It might be stretching a point to call it irony, but with hindsight I probably did enjoy sitting on that wall up to a point. There were better ways I could have spent the time, but for those forty minutes, the brief respite was enough.

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