HUMAN NATURE – a short story

The next post will be on or before Sunday 5th May

HUMAN NATURE – a short story

It was in the roasting summer of 1984, meaning all of thirty-five years ago, and I was at a crowded party held in an exquisite country cottage on the outskirts of a small town in my native West Cumbria. That town, unlike most in the decaying industrial belt along the Solway Firth, was also undeniably handsome, one of two such townships in fact (the other I can disclose, and despite all its thronging Lake District tourists, is Keswick by Derwentwater). I had been there about twenty minutes when suddenly something very unexpected happened, involving myself and the hostess Connie. We had been chatting a while, and she seemed to me distracted, possibly unhappy, though Connie who was in her mid-forties and a talented sculptor, was so legendarily vague and self-absorbed it was impossible to detect any subtler shades of mood. At any rate she urged me to reach up at the elegant and massive antique table, where a beautiful array of colourful food was on display, including as centrepiece a chromatic mountain of fish kedgeree cleverly tinted with odorous saffon. Connie, who had fine brown hair and limpid eyes, and a habit of smiling when you least expected it, suddenly moved some six inches in front of me, after being stood by my side in conversation. Without more ado, as if it was some party game or forfeit she had just then ingeniously invented, she reached blindly behind herself and took firm hold of both of my hands. She then placed them swiftly on her breasts, meaning on top of the pretty floral-patterned blue blouse she was wearing, and started studiously massaging them into massaging her. As part of this lightning manoeuvre, she effectively pinioned my arms with her back pressed against my chest, almost as if she had bagged me as a custodial specimen, her private pet and exclusive possession, and with the clear hint she was unlikely to let me go for the rest of the evening, or possibly for ever.

You might imagine I was shocked at this point, but in truth I wasn’t, or at any rate not very much. This was not, I stress, because either Connie or I had ever had any feelings for each other, though we had always been friendly and chatted easily enough should we bump into each other at the cinema or theatre or in the streets of the small town. Nor was my wife Maria, who was stood a few yards off and could clearly see Connie clutching my hands to her blouse, remotely put out by the bizarre and compromising spectacle. Maria and I had been happily married for five years and neither of us had ever strayed and neither ever would, and when she saw what was happening  (and thankfully she’d observed Connie’s preliminary unilateral grab) she raised her eyebrows and smiled as if to imply that Connie was Connie, and therefore her Carry On Shenanigans in Bloody Old West Cumbria didn’t mean anything in the last event. When we compared notes later, we both agreed that Connie being so perennially scatty, vague, abstracted, in her own little sculptor’s world, not quite there, and a dozen other straining modifiers and metaphors, that never quite expressed her absolute yet always completely elusive nature… that because she was all of that, she was a special and forgivable case, which is to say not wholly responsible for her actions. In many ways one assimilated her to the status of a child, rather than an adult, even though she had two teenage daughters, Kezia and Jane, and made a decent income teaching sculpture in a technical college. Maria better than I, had rapidly understood what this naive manoeuvre was all about, for my wife had known Connie’s husband Tam a few years before she and I had met, and Maria had seen him, invariably minus Connie, in action at sundry other parties, where his womanising was comically autopilot and undisguised. Hence, even though Tam had no obvious new lover in tow here tonight, Maria and I deduced he must have one tucked away somewhere else, and somehow Connie had learnt about it and decided to play a kind of artless six-year-old’s tit for tat by grabbing Maria’s innocent husband and getting him to massage her vigorously in public.

Tam, who had also observed the whole thing, simply grinned at me now with a look of comic apology and grateful understanding of my obvious tolerance. Like Maria, he raised his lazy eyebrows as all-purpose disclaimer, as if to say, you know what Connie is like, it doesn’t mean anything, because it is Connie. It was evidently no more consequential than if one of his daughters, say Kezia when she was just six, tired and in a tearful tantrum, had shouted, I blinking hate you Dad! and then stomped off to bed in a petulant fume…

At length I realised I couldn’t stay there for ever, annealed to Connie’s perspiring back, so prised myself away as best I could.

I said to her, “I think Maria wants me…”

Connie looked moderately astonished. “Really?”

It was hard to work out whether she had been boozing to excess in that enveloping mist of vagueness, though I thought on balance not. In any event, she began chatting affably to someone filling their plate, and as if nothing had occurred. Maria meanwhile was signalling me to come over and look at something which was causing her great amusement. She pointed smiling to another example of extreme lack of inhibition, though in this case it was reciprocal and unambiguous. One of Tam and Connie’s neighbours, a stocky, bluff and argumentative college lecturer in his late thirties called Hughie, was centre floor and was extremely drunk by eight o’ clock. Hughie was married with two small children, but was conspicuously not here with his wife Tamsin, who most likely was seeing to the kids only three doors away. Instead, he was dancing with an attractive and impressively dressed young woman with mesmerising fair hair and very large ear rings, who was probably about fifteen years his junior. She was called Cora and might perhaps have been a college administrator or a friend of someone here, but no one seemed to know who she was or how they had met. Cora might well have been trying in principle to dance, but Hughie was more or less collapsed like a laden sack into her arms. Like two teenagers at some old-fashioned provincial disco, they were smooching heavily, and Hughie wore an expression of addled, beatific rapture, and she too was smiling contentedly as he squeezed and massaged her skirted behind like some parody of a leery Mafia boss… and for all the bemused partygoers to see…

Maria snorted her merriment. “Look at him kneading her behind as if it was bread dough and he was a drunken baker. Some people don’t care, do they? It’s a hell of an education being here, in my opinion.”

Tam Driver and Hughie James were two working class boys made good, and both by coincidence were from rural East Anglia. They were both comfortably tenured college lecturers in obscure West Cumbria, and were now living only yards apart in expensive renovated cottages, situated in what is decorously called The Fringe Lake District. Hughie might be prominently here at Tam’s party, but there was a fair chance he had invited himself, and not without a crude pugnacity. The pair of them were outwardly amiable in the public sphere, but certainly no love was lost. In private Tam thought Hughie was a philistine, and not just because he was currently treating Cora’s backside as if it was two lemons from which he was trying to squeeze every last item of juice. Hughie like Tam taught the Humanities, and he took an interest in amateur drama and musicals and penned the occasional unpublished poem. But he was also comically addicted to the radio agricultural soap opera The Archers, which made his older colleague snort with incredulous contempt. Tam had informed me that when Hughie went on a six-month sabbatical to Canada, because it was pre-internet days, he actually got a friend to tape six months’ worth of the soap on audio-cassettes and post them out week by week to Toronto, an epic labour of love on the part of that most selfless dogsbody. The Archers fan also very much relished crime novels, which thirty years ago had less chic status than they do now, and which certainly did not spawn a hundred TV adaptations in the form of Nordic Noir. Determined Hughie had even wangled permission to teach a module in Crime Fiction at the college, and thought he was an innovative genius for doing so. This of course stoked Tam’s incredulous ire, and he growled to me one day:

“Teaching fucking ‘crime novels’ for fuck’s sake! Anyone with any brains knows there is only one detective novel worth reading, and only ever will be. Fyodor Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment I mean. All the rest are tepid cross word puzzles for stand-up comedians like Hughie James.”

Tam was also a poet, but unlike Hughie, a published one. He had an original talent and a fine intelligence right enough, but was innately ambitious and craved after a Faber or equivalent imprint, which eluded him painfully for the rest of his life. Thanks to his heavy smoking he died of a rapid cancer aged only sixty, having divorced dizzy Connie and remarried her diametric opposite, a shrewd and balanced former lawyer’s wife called Marjorie, just a year earlier. It didn’t help his career that writing for the Sunday broadsheets and various magazines, he was a merciless critic of both prose and verse, and was impressively frightened of no one, Booker and Nobel winners included. I bristled and all but cheered in my chair one day, as I read with admiring envy his reasoned, copiously evidenced, and irrefutable demolition of a ventriloquial if vainglorious Martin Amis novel of the Nineteen Eighties…

Tam had sneered, “It would be nice if Martin, or his other unconvincing avatar Martina, as he terms himself here, could manage to distinguish prose from pose… I don’t believe a word of this vaudeville joke of a novel.”

Only a week later, in an august Sunday heavy, came a mocking excoriation of a preening Julian Barnes masterwork, where the jovial authorial voice, according to Tam, was absolutely identical to the breezily facetious tone of Barnes’s TV reviews in the New Statesman a decade earlier. Soon after, for good measure, with meticulous and decorous precision, he stamped on the latest hilarious epic poem by the TV polymath Clive James, even declaring that his eminent Scottish editor should spend a night in the Edinburgh stocks for printing something so amateurish and dire. Within a single month, Tam had put his hobnailed boot into that hallowed unassailable triumvirate, and thus become an insolent heretic who had declared that all three emperors wore no clothes. If all this should sound meagre, inconsequential and masonic stuff, be aware that the number of truly fearless and independent-minded critics, both then and three decades on, could be counted on just two fingers, which is to say that Tam Driver constituted a full fifty per cent of the national quotient.

Tam was one of my best friends, and yet he was one of those (and they are always men) who I could have talked to for a thousand years, and never known who was sat there before me. He rarely spoke of anything personal, and if he did it was a distanced precis or a polite summary, not a revelation, however modest. I know perhaps five men in the whole world who are not like that, which explains why I prefer the company of women, the majority of whom do not hygienically summarise but speak with a natural transparence about themselves. Sometimes of course a biographical horror can make people hedging and self-protective and it was only after Tam’s death I learned that he was in a near fatal car crash when he was just five years old. I had known the man for twenty-five years and knew nothing about the accident, nor it transpired did even one of his closest friends. That protective distance of his was consonant with his avowed intoxication with Art, meaning literature and great music, in his case the finest classical composers and jazz. He had abandoned school defiantly at sixteen and done countless humdrum jobs, before becoming a mature student and spending three years reading the greatest of books and listening to Bach, and realising what in his terms, life was finally all about. However, there is an inevitable penalty for making High Culture your Deity (or in making it your Wife or your Husband  by marrying it) which is that you often become incapable of being  an ordinary soul and thus of talking  to other ordinary souls, and I have seen Tam patently at a loss to talk unselfconsciously with even the friendly old men with their flat caps in the corner of a Workington or Whitehaven or Maryport saloon bar. Meanwhile Tam would have been the first to acknowledge that many of the greatest writers: Hardy, George Eliot, Dickens, Zola. Gorky and many more, have the acutest of ears and can render the tone and timbre and consequence of the speech of ordinary folk, not as cosmetic local colour, but as the enduring stuff of life itself…

None of these reflections came into full focus for me, until four or five years after Tam died. One evening I was thinking about the considerable number of people one meets in this world, who lack any sense of private boundaries, meaning they are frequently presumptuous, would-be controlling, and often irritating, and can occasionally catastrophically get on your nerves, and who no one in their right mind would wish to share a closeted month of self-catering on a minor Outer Hebridean island in severely inclement weather, in say mid-January…

But what are we to do with such people, I ask you directly now in the spring of 2019, and I also ask myself, and I also ask the ghost of the poet Tam Driver. Should we, to preserve our basic sanity and our treasured independence, ignore them, run like the wind from them, satirise them, pillory them, incarcerate them, excommunicate them from polite or impolite society, and if so should it be forever more?

The answer came after reading the works of the Donegal writer Peadar O’ Donnell, born in the 1890s on a remote and tiny Irish island, and whose first tongue was Ulster Gaelic. In a nutshell, what the Irishman said was, tempting as it is, you cannot kick the bores and nuisances and monomaniacs and busybodies and pains in the arse, and serial adulterers, and not even the drunken gropers out of your, or anyone else’s life for evermore, it simply cannot be done. On the manifest grounds that if over the course of history, everyone had successfully done that, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Dickens, no Dostoievsky, no Virginia Woolf, no operas, no Verdi, no Donizetti, no Rolling Stones, no Joni Mitchell, no anything worth having, and Tam Driver would have been the first to be up in irate arms about that…

What O’ Donnell said was:

The great thing about this world is that it is full of people. Human nature is great stuff

In the reductive technical world of Psychotherapy, it is called Deliberate Reframing. In the Gospels, it is called simply a Parable. In Zen it is called a Koan. To achieve such an exemplary insight, you need to have the patience of a saint, and the mind of a child, and the instincts of a dog and the prescient silence of a cat…

And the reward, at the end of the day is…

Who knows?

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