I was once asked, “so what do you write about”?
I thought about it for a while, and decided that I generally write about nice things happening to nice people. There are certainly variations, people change in stories, things hurt them, people have baggage, but generally I like triumph over adversity.
I’m going to pick a story that I wrote after my book was sent to the printers, but before it had been printed as an archetypal story of mine. It’s “nice”. I was told as a kid not to use the word “nice”. It was too common. But I like “nice”. I’m sorry.
So while I’m on this nostalgia kick, here’s my story written 5 years ago originally here in 4 parts (as so many of my stories are), but now collected together…
It’s called “Preparation”…
Last night I dreamt of mandarins again. I know I’m worrying about the meal. Why do I put myself through it? Twenty people for Christmas lunch. I used to think it was for the kids so they would grow up seeing their family. And lately I’ve convinced myself that I’m doing it for Bob. He always used to love Christmas. I wonder how many times I’ll have to say it before I can forget him making the kids put all of the presents back under the tree because they were being too noisy.
No, I might as well admit that I do it for me. We never had fun at Christmas when I was a girl and I suppose I’m making up for it. Sometimes I do wonder when this fun is supposed to happen. I mean before you’ve served up, you’re cooking like crazy. During the meal you’re worrying about pudding. During pudding you’re trying to stop Malcolm setting fire to the napkins or Uncle Paul from getting too carried away with the brandy butter. And afterwards there’s the washing up.
Paul isn’t my uncle he’s my brother. I wonder when I started calling him that as though it was his name or his title? I guess it was around the time I started talking to the kids more than I spoke to adults. Just when I thought I was about clear, I now seem to spend quite a bit of my time in the company of the grandchildren.
I do know the part of Christmas I love most. It’s not watching the kids unwrap the presents. There is too often disappointment in some of their faces. I knew we were spoiling them when they were little but I didn’t see what harm it would do. Now I know they expected bigger and better presents every year, so now probably anything less than the
keys to an actual rocket ship is a bit of a let down. So no it isn’t that. It’s sneaking about the night before helping Santa fill the stockings. See there I go again, I’ve clearly been spending too much time with the grandchildren.
Now. It’s time to get out of bed. I’ve got a busy day today. I’m having lunch with a man. God, that sounds more exciting than it probably will be.
I had Simon on the phone last night giving me dating tips. As if he knows anything about it. He’s never even had a girlfriend. Well I suppose he still dates even though he thinks he can’t tell me about it. Right, must get up.
I pull into the last car parking space and turn the engine off. The radio stops talking at me and suddenly everything is peaceful. Or at least everything outside my head. I try to collect my thoughts but it’s hard to focus. This was a stupid week to have a date. All of the time I’m thinking of all of the things I should be getting ready for Christmas. Simon was right, I do need to spend more time thinking about myself for a change, but I’m just not sure that this week was the best week to do it.
I tilt the rear view mirror towards me and take a look at my make up. I think about re-applying but out loud I say “it’ll have to do.” He’s picked the nice little bistro that opened recently. It’s a good choice to go somewhere new, there is less baggage – less chance that I had a previous date here. I walk in and can already tell that I’m going to like this place. There is a certain feel when you walk in, a certain light that feels warm and welcoming. I can see Brian over at a corner table. He looks up at me and smiles and I instantly remember why I’m here. That smile is a big part of it. He looks at me like he actually wants to see me. I’ve started to be able to tell the difference between that look and the one my children give me, the one where they want something from me.
As I get close to the table Brian stands to greet me. A single peck on the cheek, a slight waft of his aftershave. I give my coat to the waitress and sit. I can look at him now properly and I do. Then after a second I realise I’m almost staring and so I look down for the menu.
“Drink?” he asks.
“Yes, but I’m driving so it’ll just be the one.”
“You look lovely today.”
I’m never sure exactly what a comment like this is supposed to mean. I haven’t got time now – I’ll over-analyze it later.
“Thank you. And you’ve had your hair cut.”
“Not since you last saw me – I don’t think.”
“Ah, it must be the candlelight. You look very smart.”
“Thank you. Now how about that drink?”
I look at Brian. What do I think about him? How can I judge? He’s not quite the man I imagine when I close my eyes. But on the other hand I’m not sure that man exists. In fact I know that man doesn’t exist.
The man I see when I close my eyes is my dead husband without the inconvenient bits. Not just that he’s dead, actually him dying was one of the most self-improving things he could have done. God that sounds harsh, I don’t mean that the way you think I do. All I mean is that when he was alive I always had this lovely perfect vision of him, the feeling, the idea of him was perfect. And I have that again now. But then, when he was alive, he’d go and open his mouth or do something that would be so… so… disappointing that actually now he’s gone it’s a bit easier to preserve his perfection. The only problem for poor Brian is that now he has to live up to a completely impossible version of Bob. It seems weird because I know, and you know I know because I just wrote it, that Bob wasn’t actually like that in real life. But this is being written in the cold light of day (well I’m in bed, it’s warm and it’s night-time but that’s neither here nor there). But when I’m meeting with Brian it’s not about cold-light-of-day decisions. Somehow I’m measuring him against dead Bob and that’s not really fair. He’s all right, he’s lovely, but…
No. He’s fine. That sounds terrible. I want to say… He’s what I want, he’s what I need. That’s true actually. I need somebody who isn’t part of my family. I need somebody like that because I want to be thought of as special. I want to know that they are interested in me. I wonder how really rich people cope. I know that the only people who want me for something other than pure desire are my family who want me to provide. But if you were loaded you’d have to worry that any man would be after you just for your money. Brian’s richer than me though so I don’t have to worry about that. Why am I even thinking about it? I do find myself just whittering on sometimes.
We’ve been eating in silence. Brian decides to break it.
“So,” he asks, “what have you been thinking about?”
“You,” I say.
“What have you got to think about me?”
“Well, I’ve been evaluating you. Sort of deciding.”
“I hope…” he pauses, “I hope you don’t decide to decide too early. I’ve got a lot of interesting things to try… to show you if you’d be interested.”
“Don’t worry Brian. I was… I was just having some difficulty. I mean, I’m not used to this kind of thing.”
“What kind of thing?”
“Well a date?”
“Sorry,” says Brain smirking, “it’s just that… God this is going to sound stupid. But I’ve been out with some women recen…. In the past… and none of them… not a one… has realised that they’ve been on a date. They think they are on some kind of bridge meeting. They compliment me on the choice of food, on the choice of wine, but some of them even bring a friend. They have no idea. At least you know that you’re on a date.”
“How many women?”
The question, “how many women?” I’d asked was hanging over the proceedings like a bad stink. Brian had frozen, he’d been freed for a second into saying something that he clearly truly felt. Something actually fucking interesting. Sorry about my language – but that’s what I feel. My contemporaries act as though it’s proper decorum to pretend you died about five years ago.
“Sorry Brian, I didn’t mean that question the way that you’re thinking that I did.”
“What does that mean?”
“I just meant…” I pause, I’m trying to decide how to phrase it. “I just meant, huh.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“Oh no, God no… I just was just thinking that I wanted to pause the date, because… While I realise I’m on a date and I’m therefore supposed to disapprove of you going out with others, I’m old enough and wise enough to realise that you must be, and that I’m not the only one. I’m not moronic. There are a lot more single women of my age than men. But what you were saying just made me feel like one of the blokes down the pub for a second. I imagined all of the twittery women I know who are so totally clueless. And for a second I just wanted to laugh at them with you. That’s all.”
“Well that’s okay then.”
Brian, I could tell, was looking at me differently. I wonder what that meant. And then suddenly I didn’t know what to do. Could I go on eating, or did I need to talk? I knew I was really waiting for him to talk again but I didn’t know where to look or what to do while I was waiting. I decided to plump for a overly large glug of my wine so I could keep looking him in the eye. He looked flustered, I was flustered too I could feel the tops of my ears starting to go red. And then I decided to help him.
“You know what Bri, lets order us up some more wine – I’ll get a taxi home.”
“Good,” he smiled that smile again. And he actually exhaled. It was so sweet. I wanted to hug him right there and then.
I smiled back at him and suddenly we were a team. We were on the same side against the rest, whoever they might be.
As the taxi pulled away from the bistro I thought about how I sometimes can really surprise myself. I used to think about how I was too eager to please others. It used to worry me. Over time I realised that pleasing others pleased me, and that in many ways that’s all there was to life.
Today I realised, finally, that all encounters, all conversations, are a two way street. You wouldn’t drink neat gin, you wouldn’t drink neat tonic but together they make something beautiful. They come together to create something better than either of them can be by themselves. I wanted to be nice to Brian, I suddenly realised, not because it wouldn’t help me but because it would. That’s what we’re all doing.
It’s only a problem when you stop taking part yourself. When it stops making you feel better to take part in the exchange – that’s the only time it’s a problem God! Stop thinking! And you think this sounds like crazy over-analysis? You should hear my brain in an hour.
I’m in this taxi, it’s going to my house. My house with my family in it. My family who are there for Christmas. Who are there to enjoy themselves.
And I’m bringing Brian to have dinner with me. How’s that for making myself feel happy?