Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Winningest Way to Manage Your Money

In September 2005 I got into a relationship with a female Hobbit who lived in a burrow with a circular wooden door situated off Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. I suppose, were I a better man, I would conceal her true identity by identifying the woman as, for example, Dora the Explorer or Edna Mode from The Incredibles in satirical reference to her stature and general appearance; but apparently I'm not, so Frodina Baggins will have to do.

The other major event of September 2005 was that I went to Mexico City with my friend Rob Colson. I had grown accustomed to travelling alone to Mexico, and was not sure how it would go with another person coming along for the ride; but it worked out well, and Rob and I became much closer friends than we had been before we left. When I'd first met him as an acquaintance of the artist Keith Mallinson some years before, I hadn't been quite sure what to make of him. At times he came across as abrasive, didactic and occasionally lacking in humour; but by the time we came back from Mexico we had both grown some, and I saw that my initial impression had been wildly inaccurate. We had formed a bond.

Life back in England was strange. I now had a girlfriend whilst Rob was recently parted from one. I had serious reservations about a relationship in which the other partner was repeatedly vanishing on obsessive quests for ancient rings forged by wizards in the hearts of mountains, whilst Rob was wrestling with freelance work and uncomfortable loneliness of the kind which life in London tends to accentuate. Time passed, and things became gradually but steadily worse for the both of us until suddenly Rob had a partner, a likeable girl named Ade whose claim to fame was that she'd once appeared in a Musical Youth video. Months passed and the couple announced that they were to be married. No-one was too surprised, and neither did it seem too soon for such a decision.

Frodina insisted that all four of us get together, that I cook us a meal around my place just like the couples you see on television. Her adventures in the Mist Land of the Orc-Lord had left her with a taste for matchmaking, for dabbling in people's lives, moving them around as though they were pieces on a chess board - or at least pieces on a chess board on a table next to which an orange crate had been conveniently provided for her to stand upon. She was a little too late to tamper with any significant aspect of Rob's relationship, but possibly she enjoyed the prospect of herself and Ade discussing health food and feng shui over a glass of mead as the menfolk strolled about the garden comparing golfing averages. In any case, I enjoyed cooking, and Rob apparently enjoyed my cooking, and so it was a date. I worked in the kitchen whilst Frodina helpfully criticised my uneven selection of cutlery until the happy couple arrived and we were ready to eat.

We ate at a table set outside in the garden seeing as the weather was warm. We talked about this and that until eventually we were done, and all sat smoking fags and relaxing, aside from Frodina who had never smoked and was not psychologically suited to relaxation.

'We have a favour to ask.' Rob almost laughed. I could see that he felt awkward. 'We were wondering if you could do the invitation?'

'Your wedding invitation?'


'Sure.' I was flattered, except I immediately realised I didn't actually know what I was being asked to do. 'You mean like the whole thing?'

Rob shook his head. 'Just a painting. We were thinking of one of the both of us if you could do that.'

'We're getting them done properly, so the time and date and everything will be on it,' Ade explained. 'We just need a nice picture.'

I felt happy to have been asked. I had found myself growing oddly protective of Rob over the last year or so, although I don't think he realised this, and it was an honour to be asked, to be able to do something for him and his girlfriend.

'I'll need some photographs to work from, but I'll be happy to.'

They were talking amongst themselves now, following another tangent. Rob regarded his wife to be. 'Of course my name will need to be in a much larger font as it appears in the invitation.'

'Well, you are the man after all.' Ade feigned serious consideration. 'Your name should appear at least twice as large as mine, and mine should probably be in a less impressive typeface,' - she wheeled a hand in the air - 'maybe Comic Sans, or that really crappy lettering you always used to see on newsagents' hoardings in the seventies.'

Frodina laughed because we were all laughing, and she knew that something funny had been said, and that laughter was therefore the appropriate response. This was a relief as I had doubted her ability to spot the joke, and anticipated testy remarks on the subject of equality. She often used the phrase strong woman when referring to female friends, which always struck me as redundant bordering on condescending given that it seemingly presupposed most women to be weak.

A few days later I arrive at my girlfriend's place. It is late afternoon and I have spent most of the day painting Rob and Ade, retouching the image over and over in a painstaking effort to bring it closer to how they appear in real life. The circular wooden door swings aside and I enter the burrow. I am excited and I tell Frodina that my painting is going very well.

'How much are you charging?' she asks.

I have been dreading this question, so I pause and throw myself into the answer, delivered loud enough to hopefully discourage haggling. 'I'm not charging them anything because Rob is my friend.'

She makes a noise. It is neither kindly nor indulgent. It is a long, long way from you old softie or any equivalent. It is Frodina finding that the rest of the world has once again failed to measure up to her own exacting standards.

'Is that a problem?' I know I should keep silent, but suddenly I'm quite annoyed. I'm tired of her endless judgement.

'Just because they're your friends, doesn't mean it's okay for them to rip you off.'

'How are they ripping me off?'

'You're working for free.'

'That's my choice.'

She heads for the kitchen, clearly exasperated, and when she speaks her tone rises with growing anger, turning the veiled insult into a question. 'I'd like to think I'm in a relationship with someone who is good with money, who isn't an idiot in that respect?'

'I am good with money. How am I not good with money?'

'Yet you're happy to give away art for free.'

'They're my friends. Do you not see what that means?'

I pause to consider that of the two of us, I am the one who has held down a full time job for the previous two decades, whilst Frodina lives in a house bought for her by her mother, has no regular income, and has been many thousands of pounds in debt for quite some time. I recall the occasion when we went to the large branch of Waterstones book store on Oxford Street. I purchased the new DBC Pierre novel, and Frodina spent twenty pounds on a self-help title called something like The Winningest Way to Manage Your Money with a strapline promising that your days of frittering away all those lovely pounds and pennies on shit you don't need would soon be over. I'm still surprised that the entirety of the situation as a discrete space-time event didn't collapse into a superdense irony-singularity. Of course I didn't say anything, because to draw attention to her buying yet another self-help book was to draw attention to the fact that none of them were working, which was the last thing she wanted to hear. I considered all of this but there was too much information to condense into a sentence which would in any case be wasted because I was already wrong.

I shrug. 'I like to do things for friends if I can. Rob has done plenty for me and, quite simply, I wouldn't be able to look myself in the mirror if I charged him for this. It would seem dishonest.'

Like a Transformer, she goes into battle mode. It is not enough to have a different view, or even to prove by some means that her view is the superior one. She will not rest until her opponent has been crushed and humiliated with every bullshit move in her psychological armoury.

I leave, and as I do so I slam the wooden lid of the burrow, causing much consternation in the shire as old Jethro Woodwyrt leaning upon the gate of the next dwelling snaps his clay pipe in half in astonishment. I walk away and it feels good.

Months later we sit through the marriage ceremony in Hampstead, then go on to a reception somewhere in Hackney. I have the chance to speak to Dave and a few of the other friends I know from the vague circle occupied by both myself and Rob, but Frodina - unable to function unless she's making somebody do something her way - requires constant attention and maintenance. It is the last time I see Dave, or Rob, or Ade. I know that everything familiar is coming to an end.

Years later, I escaped the shire and the passive-aggressive clutches of Frodina Baggins, happily leaving behind what had probably been the worst years of my life. I discovered that it hadn't worked out for Rob and Ade either, which struck me as immeasurably sadder than my own situation. I still work for free for friends because I dislike what few creative abilities I can claim for my own being reduced to commodity as something measured by the same essential value system as my ability to, for example, clean a lavatory bowl or stick a leaflet advertising pizzas through someone's letter box. Try as I might, I have never been able to see generosity as a failing, and sadly this is probably why I don't own a yacht.

Oh well.

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