Jaguar

Lunch is sacrosanct, so even though nobody’s around I leave the building and stroll through the industrial estate to the nearby café. I don’t have an umbrella and almost right away my suit is dark-spotted with drizzle, but there’s music in my headphones and I want to spend an hour somewhere else, a place where the chatter won’t be about my work, where I won’t recognise any faces.

I approach the t-junction. The turning right, the road less travelled, heads past anonymous office buildings full of people doing who knows what, past the giant DIY superstore and the garden centre, all the way to the roundabout, the dank concrete subways and the grim carvery nobody ever visits. I think about what a strange place this is, that it only really exists from nine to five, and then I see the Jaguar.

It’s a red E-type – not just any red but a perfect pillar-box red, a colour so vibrant that everything else is smudged into a dreary monochrome. It saunters, it slinks up to the turning. I can’t drive, but I know a head-turning car when I see one: this is it, all curves, low to the ground, the antithesis of every crash-tested blocky box on wheels scuttling along the main road, refusing to let it out. I can’t drive, but I know that the uglier a car, the less classy the driver’s manners are.

It shouldn’t be here. I think that as I walk alongside it, craning my neck. It should be on the Cote d’Azur, in the Cotswolds or Tuscany. It should be on a sweeping road where it properly belongs, not waiting at the end of the lane that leads to the tip, across from the snack van selling burgers to the anglers sitting fruitlessly by the manky lake.

I make sure, as I slow down to get a good look, that I don’t look through the window to see the person in the driver’s seat. Beautiful cars are like beautiful houses or beautiful watches, they often belong to the undeserving. I know this won’t be driven by Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, I understand that it would kill the mystique if I saw the man (because, sadly, it will be a man) whose hands rest on the steering wheel.

The Jaguar is in no hurry. It’s built to zip along roads, but as a spectator it could never go slowly enough for me. I watch with sadness as it pulls away, recedes towards the horizon. I’m struck by the fact that, like all gorgeous things, it doesn’t have a bad side; there’s no way you could photograph that car without capturing how stunning it is.

The rest of the walk is uneventful. The rain eases off. I reach the café, sit by the window, eat an awful salad, check my phone. I don’t entirely feel like I belong, as usual. But then I remember that flash of red, and I know that there’s no shame in that.

Purpose

Last Christmas Day, my wife and I were in Granada at the bar of Bodegas Castaneda, calling across the hubbub for more vermouth. There were two concessions to the festive season: the bull’s head on the wall wore a Santa hat and a tinsel necklace, the hams hanging from the ceiling were strung with fairy lights.

Later, keen for somewhere quieter, we explored the narrow labyrinth, finding a street lined with Arab tea rooms. Most were grand affairs, but we were drawn to a modest one: a cluster of small, dimly lit rooms, octagonal tables with beautiful marquetry, dotted with candles, surrounded by low stools. A little heater glowed red in the corner.

At the next table, Japanese tourists passed round a shisha like it was something dangerous. I admired their spirit of adventure, wondered if they did it because they felt they should. Above us, three people sat at a table on the mezzanine, only accessible by stepladder, having a hushed and intimate conversation. I thought of all the novels their story might be.

The owners were a couple – she was sturdy and bustling, he was tall and slim, all beard and elbows. Their welcome had a quiet power; we ordered tea and they retreated into a tiled kitchen, almost like a booth, a tiny place where everything happened.

I was transfixed by the rhythm of their dance in that confined space – coming and going, serving customers. I thought of my wife and I, stepping round each other in our little kitchen at home. Had we got it down to an art, the way they had?

The tea came and the man poured it, theatrically from a great height, into our delicate glasses. I’d had a stinking cold all day, but I could taste this perfectly.

“We should make this at home.” said my wife – knowing, I suspect, that we could never recapture it.

“Yes, definitely.” I said, knowing that too.

We went back the following night and two nights was enough to make us regulars. Their English was better than our Spanish: the woman told us they were the oldest teteria in Spain. They came to Granada as students, thirty-three years ago, set up this place and never left. I don’t know if that’s true but anyway, it was the only teteria for me. We drank tea in comfortable silence, watched the awkward couples at the other tables, and I felt at peace.

I remember I read a book about happiness on that holiday. It said that we’re happy when we do things we enjoy, or things with a purpose. Appropriately, I didn’t finish it because it bored me and I couldn’t see the point. But thinking back, perhaps I understand: that evening our pleasure was that couple’s purpose, and their purpose made me happy.

We brought some tea home, and made it once. Hardly to my surprise, it wasn’t as good as the couple’s in that tea room. But I like to think our dance matched theirs.

 

Prisoners

We stopped at Jaurès metro station, waiting to change lines, feet aching after an afternoon spent slogging through Montmartre in the punishing heat. Too tired for the stairs, we took the lift down to the basement with a dozen others. When we arrived, the gate out on to the corridor was shut. Someone tried to open it, to no avail.

We returned to the lift to find there was no button anywhere to call it back. We were in a small chamber, tiles on the wall, the faint scent of urine long since passed lingering in the air. Stranded.

There was an intercom button on the wall to call the supervisor. A dependable-looking lady pressed it and explained the situation. A voice crackled back. My French could just about work out what was going on: someone would come down and open the gate.

Minutes passed. Passengers walked past on their way to the platform, saw us through the bars and did a double take. This was how being a zoo animal must feel, I thought.

One woman stood exhausted by her pushchair, another glowered. Someone else pushed the button and there was another exchange, this time more heated. More seconds passed, and more commuters did too.

It felt as if the smell got stronger.

An older man went up and hammered the intercom button. A tinny voice tried to placate my fellow inmates, but they were having none of it; our only lifeline, drowned out by a chorus of angry voices. My wife’s eyes met mine and my eyebrow slowly levitated. I was enjoying watching people cope more badly than me. It happens so rarely.

After that the man stabbed that red button every thirty seconds. He didn’t care whether anyone answered or not by then; he did it because he was furious and it was all he could do. You didn’t need to understand French to sense the growing feeling of unrest.

Eventually a kindly man came down and opened the gate. It slid open with a satisfying clunk. He said something apologetic – about technology, I think.

Most of the people filed into the corridor. The glowering woman berated him vocally, shouting and swearing. One of the passengers had a kid down there, she said. This had made her late for something, she said. They were still at it as we finally slipped through the gate and made our escape.

Ah, France. If this had happened in England we would have been ever so nice. There would have been awkward glances and eye rolls. We’d have pressed the button and apologised for getting stuck. Ages would have passed before we would consider pressing it again, and if we had we’d have apologised even more. Otherwise nobody would have spoken; that chamber would have been quieter than the Sacre Coeur itself.

We’d have thanked the man profusely when he set us free. And then, almost in unison, we’d have bitched about him all the way to the platform.

Paris

A few years back, my wife and I went to Greece on holiday. The hotel was a short taxi ride from the airport; within half an hour we were high up in the hills, looking out over the sea, while our fellow passengers back at the airport were still jumping on coaches. The hotel staff took our suitcases and fixed us a long drink while they checked our room was ready.

We sat there, the strikingly blue pool at our backs, starting to relax. I imagine my wife’s stream of consciousness went like this: I can’t believe how warm it is, the pool looks beautiful, I’m really looking forward to this, I wonder what the room will be like.

And mine? I spotted a couple going past, wheeling their cases, on their way to reception to check out, and thought In a week’s time that will be us. The circle of life: for someone to arrive somebody has to leave. Even as I had arrived, I was imagining leaving.

I tell people this story when I want them to understand how the world can look seen through my eyes. Every morning on that holiday my wife would wake up thinking Another day! What shall we do today? I, on the other hand, would get out of bed and think Only five days to go, four days to go, three days to go.

I remembered that story in Paris last week. As we sat under the arches at Kings Cross eating brunch, I had a vision of myself trudging back through the station five days later, bank account emptier, memory card fuller, dreading work the next day.

For my wife the streets of the Marais were a maze full of old favourites and new discoveries, a map ready to be explored, a page waiting to be filled. For me it was a bunch of bars I’d never visit and restaurants I’d never eat in, all better than the ones we ended up choosing.

“I’m frustrating you, aren’t I?” I said over a drink in a coffee shop I absolutely felt I should visit. It was okay, but I couldn’t help wondering if maybe we should have gone to another one slightly further up the road, or maybe gone to a more traditional Parisian pavement café.

Or maybe we should have got on the metro and gone to Saint Germain, or climbed the Eiffel Tower. Maybe the conversation should have been happening in the Pompidou Centre instead as we looked at an impenetrable canvas on the wall and tried to fool ourselves that we understood it.

Three days to go.

“It doesn’t frustrate me.” she said, and I could tell by her look of pity and warmth that she was telling the truth. “It’s sad that you can’t just enjoy it like I do.”

I told her that I’d write an essay about it. Now I have, and all I can see in these eleven paragraphs is everything I missed out.

Disconnect

My wife calls me once she’s settled in in her hotel room and I think, not for the first time, about the awkward time difference between Helsinki and here. Two hours – not so big that conversation is impossible, but significant enough to make it jarring. She is in bed, her journey and her day almost over. And me? I’m sitting on a wall outside having stopped on my way to the pub, not long having been admiring the gorgeous, coral-coloured sunset over the side streets.

The conversation feels disconnected, too. I am always talking as she’s talking, the gaps in our sentences and the pauses and silences never quite lining up. I wonder, really, whether we are having the same experience. It’s frustrating to be in two different places, in more ways than one. Two hours – so her morning is my morning, her evening is my evening, only not quite. And the phone call, much as I miss her, has that air of “not quite”, too.

We swap stories. Her flight, her spilling her coke on the plane, the man with only one leg next to her helping her to mop it up. My awful meetings and conference calls, my skirmishes with morons, my meal for one on the sofa. I don’t tell her how big the flat feels, or how I partly went for a walk because outside seemed so much smaller, but it’s true. I think, too, about our rushed goodbye this morning on the crowded train, how unsatisfactory it was. Any long relationship sometimes feels like a ladder of hellos and goodbyes.

Her voice gets more muffled and smaller, and I know that I don’t have her for much longer. The next thing you know, it will be tomorrow for her, but it will be tonight for me for a while yet. Only two hours, but that can feel like a long time.

When we hang up I go to the pub and sit in the front room. I drink my cider, read my book and listen to the ukulele practice out the back. It’s nerdy and exuberant and I love it – men and women, all ages, enthusiastically launching into a cover of “Delilah”. I make out kazoos, wheezing away in the background. I chat to the landlord, I enjoy hearing all those voices, I soak it all up. I am in a big group of people now, and yet I’m still disconnected.

I suppose it will be like this for a while. It used to be difficult, now it’s just different.

The following morning I wake up to a breezy text from her talking about her breakfast. I can hear it in my head in her voice, and in my head it’s strong and clear, not stifled by miles and tiredness. I smile as I put on my coat, lock the door and head for the station. But, of course, she has already started work by then.

Condolences

Two cards did the rounds at the office today, arrivals and departures.

First, a huge glittery card with an outsized bear on the front marking the arrival of Steve’s third daughter. Inside, big exuberant handwriting expressed joyous sentiments; the women were a hubbub of excitement on the left hand side and opposite them, the men joked about Steve living in a house powered by oestrogen. It’s always hard to know what to put that nobody else has written. “Pretty soon you’ll need a minibus” said Ed’s elegant cursive, and I could tell he was pleased with that.

An hour later, a smaller card, a picture of a muted bouquet: Paul’s dad died at the weekend. Lisa bought the card in her lunch break. None of us knew Paul well; it’s even harder to find something to say in these circumstances. Our handwriting was smaller, more restrained, the gaps between the trite sentiments as big as the gap between the comfort we wanted to give and the comfort we actually did. Nobody wanted to go first.

I was struck by the sincerity of Lisa’s inscription.

“Have you got experience of writing these?”

“No, I just made it up. Tried to be genuine. That’s nothing, Neil Googled his.”

“You’re joking.” I said, although I should have known she wasn’t – the message had a certain gravitas Neil didn’t usually possess. (“I’m sorry, this isn’t going to be a good meeting” he once told me before starting our fortnightly 1-1, “I’m really hung over.” “Me too”, I replied).

“I couldn’t help it.” said Neil. “Those things are difficult.”

We all laughed, even though we knew it was wrong. It felt like the only way to respond.

I found a website (“Quick Condolence”, because quick is what people are looking for, it seems) and read out the howlers to my colleagues. We are consumed with grief, one said. X was a great man, said another. We know the day will come but death always leaves us with grief seemed especially cheery.

“Stop making me laugh.” said Ed. “I’m trying to write in this. You’re not helping.”

He handed the card back to me.

“Your handwriting’s appalling. It looks like you’ve said ‘I’m sorry to hear about your boss’.” It would have been both appropriate and inappropriate – Paul got a new manager a fortnight ago; the jury was out.

“Fuck off does it.”

Tony inspected it. “It does. Do you want some Tippex?”

“Imagine if you’d written the wrong things in the wrong cards. Paul would be getting At last! You’ve got some sleepless nights ahead of you and Steve would have got My deepest condolences.” I said.

More guilty, involuntary laughter.

Later on, I couldn’t help but think about lunch with my dad the previous week, his childlike glee at showing me his new wristwatch, his delight at the food and all our shared jokes. I knew he’d appreciate this story. It made me glad there was still plenty of time to tell him.

Blogs

My last house was a grand, handsome place; big rooms, big windows, a well stocked bar and a wide, sweeping staircase. I’m not sure if you ever saw it.

My favourite thing about my last house was the parties: I used to love them. At first they were daily affairs, then weekly, then once or twice a month. It was hard work organising them, but I remember how much fun they were. I’d set everything up, sit back and watch everyone having a great time. Conversations would start out of nowhere, all these disparate people chatting about all sorts – arguing, disagreeing, going off on tangents. I would sit in my favourite chair and often I’d just watch it churning away around me, feeling at the centre of things. It suited my ego to do that. It always has.

They were a bit like the parties in The Great Gatsby, I suppose, without the underlying air of melancholy. Actually, that’s probably not true, because that underlying air is usually there. If you know me, you know that.

People would always leave my parties too soon, but it didn’t matter because there was always another party just around the corner. Some of my guests became friends. Many of them would throw their own parties – I’d go to some, but often I’d stay at home. It turned out that I liked being a host but I wasn’t much of a guest. I’d show my face, because not to would have been rude, but I never stayed long. Some people weren’t fans of that, because they only really went to your party in the expectation that you’d return the favour.

Eventually I was only throwing a party once a month, and less and less people came. One day, I stopped and thought Why am I doing this? I sat in my favourite chair, and I looked round the room, remembering the echoes of all those conversations, and I couldn’t remember.

When I moved out, I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t leave a forwarding address. A few people said how they missed my parties, but not many. I get the occasional letter, but that’s all. Every now and again I overhear someone saying “remember those parties?”, but it doesn’t make me nostalgic, or happy, or sad. It doesn’t really make me anything.

My new house is a little cottage, small and cosy. Some weeks somebody visits, some weeks nobody does: but that’s fine, I wouldn’t have room for all those guests, not any more. It doesn’t bother me: the light glows softer in the new place, there’s always a bottle of wine in the fridge and I can see the lake from the garden. Most days it’s just me, my thoughts and that view. And you know what? I love it here. You should stop by some time.