When I was young, I was living with a guy and his best friend wanted to move in. I thought it was pretty reasonable, given that he had nowhere else to live and no job, but my boyfriend said that since he was depressed, and the friend was depressed, they might suck each other into a vortex. I countered that, homeless, the friend would be even more depressed, and that vortex might be worse, even if we didn’t have to see him every day. So we reached a compromise: the friend could move in, with a lot of rules attached.
I can only remember two of them, even though I know there were 33, since they covered a side of A4. He was not allowed to mention Cheadle, where he was from, because it functioned as an anti-Chekhovian motif in his imagination – the opposite of Moscow, the site of all disappointment (“This is reminding me of Cheadle”) and failure (“I’m going to end up back in Cheadle!”).
The other rule was: “No laugh of despair.” He had this incredibly resonant laugh, deep and booming, but also unstable, with its own internal dynamic, so halfway through it would turn into something more like wailing. I could write that down – “Ha ha ha aaaaaargh” – but you’ll only really hear it if you try to do it for yourself. This rule was quite rigidly enforced. One time an awful thing happened – our puppy died of a freak virus – and the boyfriend tore downstairs to put a stop to the despair-laughing, when it turned out the friend was actually crying. Weirdly, there was no rule against that.
It’s not really done, though, is it? You can’t govern the people you live with in a series of edicts unless they are extremely economically precarious and, be warned, young people, you will still be feeling a bit bad about that many years later. But I have reached the point of 2021 when that’s all I want to do. There’s a suite of feelings and thoughts occurring in the house that I want a complete veto over because everyone is irritating the hell out of me.
Last week, I was full of humility and beneficence, preaching about how we all only had one job, which was to love each other, and that’s still true. I am a fresh-flowing fountain of goodwill unless one more person tells me they’re tired, which is all anyone ever tells me, all the way through the livelong day. “How did you sleep?” I greet the adolescents before the 8.45am online roll call that the school has decided is good for morale, with no evidence base that I’m aware of. “Tired.” “Do you want some breakfast?” “Too tired.”
“How’s school?”, I will ask later, or “How was school?”, or if I’m really on top of things, “How was DT?”, depending on what time it is, and it doesn’t really matter, because the answer is always: “Tiring.” (DT is design and technology, by the way, if you’re lucky enough not to need to know this sort of stuff.)
If anybody looks a bit sad or annoyed, I will ask what’s up, and they will say: “Tired”, and religiously, at 6pm, I will ask Mr Z how he is, and he will say: “Unaccountably tired.” I have thoughts on all this, along the lines of: “How can you be tired? You’ve literally been sitting in the same chair for 16 hours,” or: “Something that happens to the same person, at the same time, every day, may be many things, but it is not unaccountable,” yet if I give voice to any of it, they will say: “Well, don’t ask if you don’t want the answer.” For a while I experimented with: “How are you, apart from tired?”, but the 11-year-old got a surrealist kick out of replying: “Tired”, while one of the 13-year-olds called my bluff with: “Apart from tiredness, I am a void.”
Mr Z, when he’s really had enough of anything – the frustration of sameness or the pubs being closed or whatnot – buoys things up with relentless positive self-talk. I think he must have read it in an august publication, maybe the Lancet circa 2003. He’s very diligent about it. Sometimes, it’s huge things to do with his life and work, like: “This is a wonderful family,” or: “I really think society is at an inflection point in the way it deals with serious mental illness.” Other times, it’s: “I’m really pleased we got this new masher.” Or: “Our letterbox is the perfect size.” Or: “Calor gas, it’s effective and thrifty.” Or even: “I think the man in the Portuguese shop genuinely likes me.”
“That’s great,” I may reply, or alternatively: “I can’t take any more of this life satisfaction – it’s endless, it just will not cease. I’m going to set fire to the next thing you find praiseworthy, even if it’s Calor gas and that creates a whole new set of problems.”
“You don’t like positive self-talk,” he’ll point out, “and yet you don’t like moaning. You should make your mind up.”
“They’re two sides of the same coin!”
“Maybe in your mint.”
This is quite a dense accusation, that I’m creating my own currency. I can’t even figure out whether that’s bad. Plus, money is already a metaphor for trust: I don’t think it should be redeployed as a metaphor for anything else.
So that’s rule one: no metaphors that I have not approved.