5 Surrender

There are plenty of reasons to suppose that we should, and should be able to, learn. In every other sphere of life this seems to work just fine: you burn your hand on the hot handle of a saucepan on the hob, you know better next time. Maybe not next time, but the time after. You wobble on your bike a few yards as a boy with your older brother or your friends or your dad holding on to it and they shout ‘go!’ and ‘faster!’ and you go faster and they let go of the bike and you stay upright and you have the hang of it and you can now ride a bike. You may still fall off occasionally, but the principle is down and you can tick that off your list. You practise and practise and practise the piano and if you have a modicum of talent and a bit of a musicality in your ear you will become passably good at playing. If you have a lot of talent and a great deal of musicality and love what you’re doing you may become exceptionally good and turn into a professional musician, a concert pianist; if you are god’s gift to improvisational jazz, you may become Keith Jarrett. Languages. Mathematics. History. Even writing, people even teach writing, which suggests people learn it. Chemistry. Not love though. Not the chemistry of love. Not the mystery of love. Not the vexation of love. Not the love of love.

Lukas (who’s not really called Lukas either, I’m changing his name too, though I doubt he will read this, and if he does, I doubt he will recognise himself) does to me what dozens of men before him have done, never deliberately, hardly ever even aware, most certainly not with any ill intentions: he infatuates me. In him. Is infatuate a transitive verb? In a passive sense? If I am now infatuated, that would suggest I have been infatuated and since I can hardly infatuate myself—unless I sport a substantial streak in narcissism—the person who infatuates should, if logic had anything to do with it, by definition be the infatuator, with the person who’s infatuated the infatuatee. Logic has very little to with it. Lukas is a little taller than me and a little younger. I’ve always wanted to be a little taller than I am (though I am not, by averages, short) and while I spent the whole of my teens wanting to be older, and never really in that sense since have wanted to be substantially younger than I actually am, I relate well to people who are a little younger, partly because part of my brain has not really caught up yet with my actual age, and partly because another part of my brain has always been far ahead. Age doesn’t really matter to me. Or so I like to believe, though the seconds ticking away so implacably, two and a half billion of them, give or take a few: that troubles me.

Lukas (and I like the name Lukas, not least because I now associate it with the man I have off the top of my head given it to), is German, though you wouldn’t immediately think so: his accent makes him sound more like a Dutchman who’s spent a lot of time in the States, or a Europeanised American. He and his girlfriend have joined the choir together, and on the first evening of the new term he sits next to me, and I feel like a schoolboy. I feel like the schoolboy precisely who fell in love with Michael when he joined our class, he aged seven, most of us then aged eight. This is ridiculous. I know it is ridiculous, and my young brain infuriates at the idiocy of my heart, while my old brain manages a smile that sits halfway between condescending and indulgent. Of course you are now infatuated, it says, my old brain, to heart. Worry not. Like all previous infatuations this one shall pass, and you will laugh about it later. Soon, in fact, because I have so much experience now, so much insight—very nearly wisdom—to give you and to ease the imminent transition from infatuation to friendship imbued with love of the friendship kind, a love that is unentangled, appreciative, mutual, but free.

You idiot! says my younger brain, you child, you pubescent teenager: you, at the age of fifty are allowing yourself a crush on somebody who has just introduced you to his girlfriend and who is absolutely certain to fancy you about as much as his grandfather’s drinking pal Ralph. (I like the idea of Lukas having a grandfather with a drinking pal called Ralph, and I feel slightly flattered that I should remind him of him. That’s how absurd I am at this moment…)

There is nothing to be done. When he misses a couple of rehearsals, I miss him. When he returns, my heart leaps. In the break, when he’s standing, chatting to his girlfriend, I join them. I make a point of talking to her as much as to him, so she doesn’t feel left out, but I really only have eyes for him. It is ridiculous, even pathetic, but thoroughly enjoyable too.

Maybe that’s what this is about: maybe the reason the heart won’t learn is not just because it doesn’t really have to, and not so much because it can’t, but simply because it doesn’t actually want to: the pleasure of being a little in love, of being infatuated, of being just a tad drugged by endorphins is just too great to forego forever. And why should it: this kind of love doesn’t cause any harm. It’s not even causing pain, curiously. In the past it did. In the past, I would get over my infatuations through pain. That is no longer the case. Probably because while the heart steadfastly refuses to learn, the head is really quite capable now of putting it all in its place.

Also in the choir is another sweet man who is quite a bit younger and quite a bit shorter and maybe also a little bit rounder than me. And he’s roundly adorable too. I just want to hug him, every time I see him. He reminds me of Paddington Bear. How could you not cuddle Paddington Bear? And until not so long ago there was a young man who was just very beautiful. Or so I thought. I don’t think I ever spoke more than about three and half sentences with him. And of course there was Edward…

George looks at me puzzled. ‘I think you should go with the heart,’ he finally says in a calm measured tone, looking me straight in the eye. I’m momentarily stumped until—dragged out of my reverie—I remember my question: what does he make of the heart?

Really?’ I surprise myself with my surprise. I mean: I agree with him, but isn’t he the one who too often has precisely not done that, and now he’s telling me?… ‘Yes.’ He speaks with a slight accent and a tone that makes him sound a little aloof and a little bemused and a little detached and a little curious, too. I remember being all of these very well, but I don’t remember sounding them. ‘The only times I’ve ever been unhappy was when I did not follow my heart. You know: “you regret the things you haven’t done, never the things you did…”’ Yes, but: you’re telling me? If I knew this then, and he’s probably right, I knew this then, then how come I still make exactly the same mistakes?… hang on. Did I not just say they’re not, maybe, mistakes, at all, they’re maybe just: my modus operandi.

‘Assuming, George, you could find the ideal partner for yourself, who would that be?’

‘Oh I don’t think such a person exists.’ – He doesn’t even have to think about it.

‘Why don’t you think so?’ I’m beginning to feel a little inadequate, talking to myself, aged twenty-one.

‘Well, because there is no ideal person. For anyone. People just accommodate each other and get used to each other’s foibles, and when they find somebody who they can bear more than they can bear being alone, they settle with them, for as long as that’s true, and sometimes quite a bit longer, mainly because they can’t be bothered going through the hassle of separation. Or because they’re comfortable enough. Or because they’re afraid.’

‘And you?’

‘Oh I’m not afraid.’

I thought as much, but I need to be sure: ‘Can you bear being alone?’

‘I love being on my own. I love being with people, and I love being on my own. I need a lot of time and a lot of space for myself. I function exceptionally well on my own.’

That is so true. That was true then, that is true now. Thank you, George: I function exceptionally well, on my own. Thank you. But does that necessarily mean I couldn’t function even better with someone? Ah, here we go again…

5 Youth

Talking to the man who doesn’t need to shave fills in me a well of melancholy, sudden and post conversation. The conversation features the most delightful frog in short film history (yet to be made), among many other things that give me mirth and pleasure, not least looking into his silvery eyes. Unlike most other young men of an age at which they don’t have to shave, he holds my gaze, steady as a hypnotist. His eyes are memorably shaped, as if they were placed in his face upside down, just a little. Silvery grey.

The sadness sets in after I’ve left the party at which we spend a couple of hours or so talking as the sun goes down over the back garden. It’s more of a backyard than an actual garden, with wild grass growing all over and a neighbour’s dog actually digging up his there hidden bones. I’d never seen that before, other than in comics (and I’m not an avid fan or consumer of comics, haven’t been since I was about twelve). It’s not his youth that brings on my deep sorrow verging on despair, nor anything he said nor the fact that he is bright and well spoken, nor let alone that he doesn’t seem to need to shave. I reckon I must be close to twice his age but luckily not as old as his dad. His dad sounds ancient and excellent, formidable in one field or another. By age though, I could be his dad. This casts a pall of umbra over my otherwise sanguine disposition.

I know! I’m having my midlife crisis. It’s plain and perhaps just tadwise banal. I am projecting my discomfiture with the impending calamity of fifty onto the part of my mind that clings on to diversion for dear life. I make believe. The irksomeness of my situation begins to creep up on me, like a nebulous mist. (Tautology.) I have made it to midpoint completely unnoticed: I am invisible to the naked eye. And the next few days will have been cataclysmic, so small wonder I’m having an existential wobble. But the good thing is that this time I did not fall in love: not with my friend on the South Bank (though that would have been easy), not with the young man who doesn’t need to shave. (Easier still.) Most certainly not with Poshvoiced Hoodie and, no, not with the man in a blue shirt at Clapham Junction, should you wonder. (Have you ever noticed how many sprucely scrubbed men, tender in years and wearing ironed blue shirts, stand at any given station on any commutable morning… – It’s a rhetorical question?)

As well as being unfamous, I am also perennially poor. My chosen path of professional endeavour has so far yielded no hint of a fortune. This has the advantage that I remain unencumbered, I suppose, by wealth’s weight: what I don’t have I can’t lose, and I know more than I care to cerebrate that the things I own own me quite as much. Take my laptop for instance: without it I am nought. I have dislodged myself to the continent’s end, but my Mac is still here: I find that reassuring.

I will the straw in my drink to suck up one more residual sip of tomato juice laced with vodka, and it complies with a gurgling sound, which attracts the attention of a boy sitting two tables removed. He gives me a look of aloof disdain, and in his eyes, which are the colour of mine, I detect a familiar glint that I cannot put name nor nature to, no. He seems to consider disapproving of me but stops short of a sneer, and his very fine lips instead curl into almost a smile. I’m so surprised at this, I put down my glass and smile back at him, which changes his demeanour to a tinge of distaste.

He, much like the young man who does not need to shave and whom I am yet to meet, has no facial growth, and his lightly tan skin looks fluffdown soft. He appears as out of place here as I do, and quite as at home. Wherein lies a paradox that tickles me and I catch myself grinning just to myself.

The boy lets a few moments pass in contemplation of his plate on which there appears to have been a kebab or salad, as if to decide whether or not he should scrape the remnants of whatever it was with his fork or knife or even fingers (though he doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who, given the choice, would use his fingers to scrape up anything, let alone food); or maybe he’s versed in the mystical art of reading the scraps. As far as I can tell from where I’m sitting (and without ungainlily craning my neck) it looks unlikely that the plate is going to yield up much insight. He appears to come to that same conclusion himself and now looks up, but not at me or at anyone in particular, but into the generality of the world straight ahead, a little bemused and distracted.

I feel like I know him already but clearly I don’t. I have no idea. I have a looming sense of foreboding.

Insomnia [1]

I never lost much sleep over losing sleep. Doing so seemed, well, counterintuitive. Illogical. Self-defeating.

Those friends—one or two—who complained of restless nights, of tossing and turning, of simply not switching off, baffled me: why not just get up, if you can’t sleep, and do some work, I would wonder. Or if you don’t do the kind of work you can pursue in the small hours of the night or the morning, why not, maybe, read? Or watch a film? Watch a documentary for example, or a history programme? Phone a friend in New Zealand, or in Australia: there’s bound to be one you’ve mostly forgotten about, because they never comment on social media. They’re actually there: just call them up out of the blue and say: ‘hey! How is it all hanging with you?’ It will be a lovely surprise.

‘Oh, but then I’ll be tired in the morning,’ my sleepless friends would say. But you’ll be tired in the morning anyway, I’d think and say: ‘I see. That’s inconvenient, certainly.’ I didn’t really see. Though I realised it would be inconvenient to be tired in the morning. Then again they were tired in the morning anyway, because they couldn’t sleep, so why not be tired having done something useful, or interesting?

A very good friend of mine who often found it difficult to sleep told me she worried a great deal about it, because it made her feel neurotic. I half bethought me there was perhaps a seed of self-knowledge contained in this sensation. I didn’t think it friendly to say so, so I said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ She would go to bed at nine thirty, ten at the latest, and then lie awake. She used to use earplugs and a sleep mask and close the heavy curtains of her bedroom. And not sleep. ‘You never have that problem?’ I never had that problem.

I can sleep in any kind of setting, light or dark; I have a high background noise threshold (I mostly just zone out of it), I sleep any time, day or night; my window, except during coldest winter, is always ajar, my blinds don’t darken the room, they just afford a bit of privacy; I usually go to bed about three, three thirty in the morning (sometimes, if it’s been a heavy day or an early start, or an early start is impending, an hour or so earlier), I sleep until ten, maybe nine-thirty; I don’t set an alarm unless I absolutely have to: my body appears to require seven hours of sleep now, almost exactly, to wake up, slowly and a little reluctantly, always, but essentially to fully functioning order restored. So long as I’m warm enough, I am fine. I don’t even mind my lover snoring. I simply clamp onto him and fall in with his breathing, no problem.

The problem started when Edgar, my most sensible friend, told me he couldn’t sleep. ‘Why not?’ I asked him. He said he didn’t know, he just couldn’t. It was annoying. Beyond annoying, it was tiring: he’s a university lecturer, he needs to be awake during the day, to do his thinking, his preparing of lectures, his reading, and his lecturing. Being tired is not just inconvenient for him, it’s debilitating. Suddenly that made sense. And now I was worried. If Edgar, my least neurotic and quite possibly most intelligent friend, suddenly, out of the blue, simply can’t sleep, and for no particular reason, but to the point where it interferes with his operability, then who is safe from this menace? I decided, uncharacteristically, to probe further:

‘Has anything happened to make you lose sleep over it?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Your relationship is going well.’

‘Splendid. Except we sleep in separate rooms at the moment, because I can’t sleep. And I snore.’

‘Aw. – Ah well, many couples sleep in separate rooms.’

‘They do.’

‘Your children are healthy?

‘They’re excellent, thanks.’

‘Your daughter-in-law has calmed down a bit.’

‘A bit. It’ll take her a while, I suppose.’

‘I suppose. – University not undergoing too many changes, no upheavals?’

‘Just the bureaucracy, it’s creeping in, it’s taking over. It’s a nightmare.’

‘Ah! There you go! You are worried about the bureaucrats taking over!’

‘No I don’t worry about them, I’ve got tenure. They just annoy me, they have no imagination.’

‘Of course not, they’re bureaucrats. How about… how about… food? You eat well, don’t you?’

This is an unnecessary question: Edgar eats exquisitely: he is one of the best chefs I know.

‘There really is no obvious reason,’ he says, a tone of resignation in his voice.

That worries me: if Edgar, of all people, quite possibly the most up-for-it, can-do person I know, is sounding resigned over being unable to sleep, then who can fight this disease. Disease!

‘How is your health?’

‘My health is all right, thanks, how is yours?’

‘Mine is just dandy, thanks. Do you take any exercise?’ I’ve recently latched on to the need to take exercise, it’s an age thing; has Edgar?

‘Of course not.’

‘Maybe that’s the cause of your inability to sleep.’

‘I have never taken any exercise in my life, I burn all my calories in my brain.’

This is probably true. The brain uses a lot of energy, and Edgar is one of the most avid thinkers I know; but thinking doesn’t aid circulation.

‘You maybe should go for a walk now and then.’

‘I go for short walks all the time.’

‘Maybe you should go for a long walk, every day.’

‘You do that, don’t you?

‘I do. And I sleep like a baby.’

‘What, wake up every few hours and scream your head off, until somebody rocks you and gives you some oral gratification.’

‘I walked right into that, didn’t I.’

That’s why I like Edgar, he doesn’t take any nonsense from me, or from anyone. And he’s brought up a whole brood of children, he knows what he’s talking about.

‘Have you thought about therapy?’ (Of course he hasn’t.)

‘Of course not.’

‘Then I don’t know what I can recommend. Read, maybe. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. People rave about it. I tried reading it five times, I fell asleep every time. It’s like a switch: I get to about page three, four, maximum five, then I’m out. Just like that.’

‘I’ve read it. It was entertaining.’

‘Maybe try reading it again… – or: maybe try reading about something you’re really not interested in, at all.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like the Spanish Civil War.’

‘The Spanish Civil War?’

‘Yes: are you interested in the Spanish Civil War?’

‘I have never given it a moment’s thought.’

‘Try that.’

I meet Edgar for coffee about two weeks later, as we are both in town. (We are not that often both in town at the same time, we lead busy, cosmopolitan lifestyles that involve being out of and in other cities and towns respectively all the time.)

‘How is it going?

‘Fine thanks. Just very tired.’

‘Still no joy with the sleep?’

‘It’s getting worse.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Thanks. You are, of course, to blame.’

‘Me?’

‘Yes.’

‘How come?’

‘Well, I started reading about the Spanish Civil War: it’s fascinating!’

‘Oh, but that’s great, isn’t it?

‘Yes and no: I’m learning about European history, which, frankly, I knew little about, but the books now keep me awake even longer.’

‘Ah. Well. That was an unintended consequence. Maybe you have to find something less stimulating to read, and less likely to be of random tangential relevance to you. How about botany?’

‘Botany?’

‘Yes, you don’t have a garden, do you.’

‘No.’

‘And you don’t want one, do you.’

‘Absolutely not.’

‘Well there you go: why not read about botany, that will send you to sleep.’ (If that doesn’t send him to sleep, I think, then nothing will. Then again, there are botanists, so who knows…)

It’s nearly the end of June and I’m about to go on a lengthy trip, so I forget about the business of sleep for a while as I cruise around Europe in an open top car. This feels both extravagant and romantic. I’m doing it on my own, because I don’t at that point have a partner, and I’m enjoying the freedom, the spirit, the air. I sleep in a different b’n’b every night, almost, and most of the time on my own. Only on one occasion is the host so flirtatious, so attractive, so sexy that we end up spending the night together. In Bordeaux. I eat well, I drink well, I sleep well.

Edgar and I are having dinner, on my return. He’s cooking, the way he usually does, in passing. He has the knack for rustling up something delicious as if it weren’t happening, while we’re talking. It’s fascinating, and a little disconcerting. When I cook (which I only do since recently, thanks to an online service that sends me all the ingredients in a box, together with clear instructions, which I follow to the letter and get annoyed with if they are even remotely vague, which thankfully happens extremely rarely), I have to give it my full concentration. I follow the steps. My cooking is in essence a connecting of dots: it’s reading the sheet music and making it work. With some success, I might add. Edgar’s cooking is all jazz and improvisation. The steak is particularly juicy on this occasion, and the roasted vegetables with fresh herbs are out of this world!

‘You’ve surpassed yourself, Edgar! This food is amazing!’

‘Thanks.’

‘The vegetables, they are so tasty!’

(I notice I’m discoursing in exclamation marks, all of a sudden! But they’re warranted!)

‘Thanks.’ Edgar is humility personified. ‘I grew them during the summer.’

‘You what?’

‘I grew them, in the garden.’

‘You don’t have a garden. – Do you?’

‘I do: I asked the neighbour down on the ground floor who tended the garden and he said nobody does, it’s a crying shame, and so I said: let me.’

‘But you know nothing about gardening.’

‘Well, I’ve been reading a lot about botany lately, and it’s really quite the most interesting thing. And stimulating.’

‘O-oh.’

‘I know, it doesn’t send me to sleep, of course; it keeps me awake, but hey: we have exquisite vegetables now, and those herbs.’

I fear me I may have to change me my strategy…


Insomnia [2] >

 

5 Surrender

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5 Youth

This post has moved. You can now find it here.

 

EDEN was originally published in random order. Starting 1st August 2018 it is being reposted in sequence. To follow it, choose from the subscribe options in the lefthand panel (from a laptop) or in the drop-down menu (from a mobile device).

If you are the owner of the link that brought you here, please update it; or if you know them, then please do let them know.

 

Thanks & enjoy.