Friday, 1 August 2014

On Punching Brick Walls

I could be wrong, and I may quite easily have conflated one bad memory with another, but as I recall it was the night of the party. The party was in Overhill Road in East Dulwich, not far from where Bon Scott, one time vocalist of the Australian hard rock band AC/DC famously and tragically cashed in his chips. I didn't know the people, although I had delivered their mail for a couple of years back when I'd been on that route. They were friends of Dora the Explorer, my girlfriend of the time. I'm not sure how she knew them.

I hadn't wanted to go to the party, because I dislike parties as a general principle. I dislike the noise, the smoke, the terrible musical preferences of other people, and my face hurting from grinning at strangers and people in whom I have either little or no interest. I am simply not a person who enjoys social situations, and typically Dora the Explorer told me that this was because I never made the effort to enjoy them, and that I needed to branch out. I was by now well accustomed to her holding four fingers aloft and telling me that I could see five, so there didn't seem to be much point in fighting over it. It was true, I conceded, that the party was in the future, and that I had no psychic ability by which I could see into said future, and I was thus unable to say with absolute conviction that I really would hate every second of the party; and so by default Dora the Explorer was right as usual.

Her name wasn't really Dora the Explorer of course, but she was short and with that same haircut, so the name will do for now. I suspect the anger issues and what we may as well refer to as short woman syndrome were possibly more pronounced than with her animated namesake, but then cartoon Dora was lucky enough to have been born in some undifferentiated third world Banana republic and was thus spared the living hell of growing up in Richmond with an expensive private education and the grim spectre of inheritance tax enforcing sale of the place in France when mother joins Bon Scott in that great big shareholder's meeting in the sky.

So we set out for the party, walking up Lordship Lane towards the Plough, or the Goose and Granite as some faceless corporate carbon blob had retitled the historic pub at the junction of Lordship Lane and Barry Road. We waited at the bus-stop, then caught a bus two-hundred yards to the corner of Overhill Road. Dora the Explorer had declared that this was a long, long way, and too far to walk, because apparently she was only two feet tall and had already walked to the shop at the end of her road that day. I couldn't be bothered to argue. I already knew I would be wrong.

My powers of precognition had been similarly acute with regards to the party. We stayed for three or four hours. I watched Dora the Explorer hand out business cards she'd had printed, advertising her services as a gardener. She had stopped turning up at the two or three regular gardens which she supposedly tended, but I guess she liked the feel of thrusting her business cards in the faces of complete strangers. She called it networking, and this made her a more successful person than the rest of us.

I failed to find interesting conversation because I couldn't hear anyone over the probably ironic seventies disco records rattling speakers arranged all about the house, and the people out in the garden were smoking joints, or partaking as they say in the business. I've always found the smell unpleasant, and the conversation which comes with it dull and repetitive, because no-one can just light one up; they must talk about it as well. I hated the party, having decided that I didn't want to enjoy myself, as Dora the Explorer later explained.

It wasn't a good evening. We weren't fully recovered from the argument which had concluded with my punching a brick wall. As stated, I'm no longer absolutely certain of the terrible party having followed this particular disagreement, but even if it didn't, it may as well have done.

She had arrived at my flat - my new flat - all dressed up and ready to go, purple backpack bulging with business cards, Overhill Road dutifully marked on the map as it sang away in the back pocket of her jungle adventure shorts. If there's a place you got to go, I'm the one you need to know...

It wasn't that I made a habit of punching brick walls, but it was something I did from time to time when experiencing significant frustration. I was almost always on my own, and I never punched too hard, just enough to vent sufficient anger as to allow me to think in a straight line once more. It seemed more dignified than throwing my head back and howling like either a wolf or Robert Plant. I had a friend who broke his guitar hand by punching a shopping centre. It had struck me as a particularly stupid thing to do, not least because the motivating frustration had, as I recall, been some idiocy entirely of his own making, either a heroin habit, or a girlfriend calling him an insulting name having discovered him to be shagging someone else on the sly. Whatever it was, it had been a situation to which poor me didn't really apply, but nevertheless that had been the thrust of his campaign. Whatever my failings, I was at least better than that.

I had moved into my new flat, smaller than the previous one and with the rent costing three times what I'd been used to. It wasn't an ideal situation, but it had been the best I could find, although quite naturally I was not entirely happy about it. As usual, Dora the Explorer's sympathy was not overwhelming. Her lips narrowed, and she flicked her hair, raising her head to regard me through school ma'am spectacles.

'Well, perhaps you should have listened to me for once.'

'Listened to you...' It felt as though I rarely had the opportunity to do anything else, and I was confused as to where I'd screwed up this time given that I'd hardly been actively seeking smaller and more expensive accommodation.

'You'd be helping both of us by moving into my spare room, but no,' and there followed a detailed list of the ways in which I had let us both down.

Dora the Explorer had a room in her house which she rented out to students from time to time. Laura, her most recent lodger, had recently left, leaving Dora the Explorer with no income other than the gardening jobs in which she had lost interest. She had suggested that I become her lodger, thus killing two birds with one stone, providing her with an income, and bringing us one step closer to living together as a couple. I tried to explain that I didn't want to move into her spare room. I had too much stuff, I was in my forties, and I had no wish to be in a relationship with my landlady. Additionally, I doubted I would be particularly easy to live with, and knew for sure that this was equally true of Dora the Explorer.

She expanded on her disappointment, and I understood that my problems had come about because I had failed to do as Dora asked. This was her understanding of the situation. This was her understanding of most situations. She began to explain how hurtful it was to know that I had no respect for her opinion, that I had failed to value her advice, taking another problem to the place in which they all came to rest. Dora would figuratively kick you in the shins, and then complain that you had not thanked her, and when finally you thanked her because it was the only thing that would shut her up, she would complain that you had not sounded sincere and ask you to say it again, and to keep saying it until she believed you.

I went over it again, why I didn't want to move into her spare room, trying as hard as I could to emphasise why it was potentially as bad an idea from her perspective as from mine. As I finished, I realised I had mistakenly reiterated the case for my defence in Mandarin Chinese, and that she hadn't understood a word. Again she explained how hurtful it was to know that I had no respect for her opinion, and that as ever I failed to value her advice.

'Shall we go to this party?' I suggested, hoping to sound breezy and enthusiastic, and that she would be so confused as to forget what we'd been talking about. Unfortunately I forgot to not speak Swahili, and my suggestion came out as yoo a lọ si yi kẹta?

She went on, her voice rising in tone as she began to resemble a tiny female Davros with a Johnny Ramone haircut. She was beginning to rant, the usual stuff about how I never listen, and how her Daleks would once and for all wipe the scourge of the Thals from the face of Skaro. She held up her hand, showing me four fingers which I knew would be five. I understood on some level that this was fucking ridiculous, and that I wasn't going to be bullied this time. An irresistible metaphorical force met a figurative moving object and I experienced a sort of mental white-out.

I had walked out into the hall and thumped the wall next to the door to the kitchen. There were a few small cracks in the plaster and my hand hurt like hell, but for a second all I could think of was how beautiful was the quiet. Then I felt awkward, ridiculous.

Dora the Explorer sat in silence. She had begun to cry.

'What's wrong?' I was amazed at how calm I felt.

'I was scared you were going to hit me.'

'I would never have done that.' This was true. The idea seemed ludicrous. I just didn't work that way, but I knew then that I had only given Dora the Explorer something new with which to beat me over the head. From that point on my terrible temper would be invoked each time we argued as a result of my failure to obey without question. She would refer to battered women, and tell me that this was not a fate she wanted for herself, thank you very much.

Next day we travelled to Richmond to meet her mother, the woman who was the alleged cause of all Dora the Explorer's problems, or at least those problems which weren't directly my own fault. I liked her mother as I had never had a good reason not to. She was small, frail, very old, and almost unfeasibly upper-class. Her face would light up with genuine affection as she finally made it to the door when her daughter came to visit, but the smile would fade as Dora the Explorer began to upbraid her about the state of the seemingly clean and tidy house, or items in the fridge which were past their sell by date. Margaret, a neighbour of similar age and horsey heritage drove us all to a nearby botanic garden somewhere past Hampton Court. We ate a civilised lunch in the restaurant.

'I say, what did you do to your hand, old thing?'

I regarded my swollen knuckles. I had made a brave attempt to affect nonchalance, to eat with one hand as though it were a conscious choice, sawing things in half with the edge of the fork.

'I had an accident at work.'

'Oh goodness! You really must be more careful, dear boy.'

The concern was unexpected but appreciated. I savoured the sensation of someone giving a shit about my well-being, these elderly matriarchs of a world I would never understand, a world which had somehow spawned the passive-aggressive control freak to whom I was betrothed. I looked around the table, at the two old women enjoying the day out and relishing the splendour of their surroundings, then at Dora the Explorer as she scowled at her food, already silently composing the usual complaints regarding service or standards; and I wondered what any of us could have done to deserve this.

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