…statements which may appear to be benign but which carry with them a second meaning which will invariably be offensive
Of course, Oscar was delighted to bump into Susan walking along a street during her lunch hour. He may have been a little surprised, a little put out, quite a bit thrown off his train of thought, pulled up short and may have felt a tingle of dread somewhere deep in one of his intestines, either small or large – but the smile which jumped into his face could have betrayed nothing but complete, utter, sincere and unadulterated delight.
“Still working over at…”
Susan nodded. She smiled the smile of someone who wasn’t overly keen to portray a delighted and willing partner in a delightful chance meeting. She didn’t seem to have any problem with appearing a little surprised as well as uneasy at how things might unfold here on the street in front of all these people, some of whom she might know, some of whom would be out on their lunch break from her office, and some of whom who might even relish the idea of caricaturing whatever scene was now about to be played out whenever a sufficient audience had congregated at the coffee machine in the office.
“Still…” Susan began to return the opening conversational gambit.
Oscar nodded quickly in order to void lying – at least, lying explicitly.
When he was going out with Susan, lying was never an issue, never a problem – it was done without giving the whole quagmire of honesty a second thought. But coming across someone on the street like this, a woman who once goaded him into saying “I love you”, it didn’t augur well to have to start off with a lie – yes, I’m still employed, gainfully employed, fully employed, employed to the highest degree at Didsbury Girls’ School. The lie, explicit or implicit, still had a rather negative effect on Oscar. As he nodded his part of the conversation he could only dwell on the fact that he had to immediately resort to lying on meeting someone from a past he had always felt glad to have left behind.
“So… how is Paul?”
This question from Oscar was so contrary to the flow of conversation, a flow he wasn’t all that familiar with, what with him being caught up in the quagmire of honesty and the reality of his rapidly deteriorating life, that it stopped Susan dead in her tracks – there was at least twenty seconds of silence weighing heavily between them before she thought to offer the answer – “Fine.”
Oscar made out as though he was weighing the significance of this answer carefully – he was doing fine was he, your new boyfriend, old friend, he’s only a friend, I have lots of friends who are men, Paul’s not like that, don’t be silly, there could never be anything between me and Paul, but he’s doing fine now, so that’s all right.
“Funny how thing’s turn out,” Susan commented, by way of countering the objections Oscar’s heavy nods betrayed.
“You have to laugh.”
Oscar hoped that he didn’t betray any trace of bitterness, as he felt none. But more than that, he hoped that Susan didn’t discern any bitterness in his reply. What can be worse than the feeling of bitterness, the gnawing feeling in your gut which keeps you awake at night and has you lying in bed waiting for the alarm to go off in the morning, but the thought that other people are aware of your bitterness – people who have every reason to believe that they are themselves the root cause of that bitterness?
So Oscar smiled the smile of someone who was not at all bitter and so would have come across as someone who was in thrall to the sharpest bitterness of them all.
The next three hours or perhaps it was twenty seconds; it was difficult for Oscar to judge, as time and space had been disrupted, and time had split into two channels, one running at a speed which must have been hundreds of times faster than the other, but it was difficult to tell the relative speeds, especially as Oscar was beset with sundry thoughts rising up at him from a murky past, thoughts he had hidden away falling out on top of him, and thoughts bulging out of the sides at him and bubbling up from the pit of his stomach.
There were words which Susan uttered which did succeed in entering the melee of Oscar’s head – words which were vaguely familiar and which became themselves the originators of streams of thought which shot up from the ground beneath his feet and only served to further bewilder him. But most of the words corresponding with the opening and closing of Susan’s mouth were lost once they bounced off the distracted face of Oscar.
But it was Susan’s teeth, her two large front teeth, which only the sincerest of embarrassed grimaces on her behalf would reveal, which finally snapped Oscar out of it, whatever it was he was entangled in, and allowed him to utter coherent responses to direct questions and to begin once again to discern basic implications of what was said and not said, though his skills of comprehension were severely out of kilter.
“You know Paul said he saw you last Wednesday walking through town. He said you seemed a little… distracted.”
Oscar gave himself a couple of seconds to work out the implications of this – Wednesday is a school day, he had assured Susan that he was still…
“But of course I told Paul that it couldn’t have been you, because Wednesday is a school day, and you still are working over at…”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Oscar managed to utter in a relatively dismissive tone. But he couldn’t manage a smile, afraid of what Susan might next decide to launch at him.
“I’ve not seen you around since…”
“I’ve been really busy.” Oscar though this reply would be inviolable.
“You never did send in that draft… the novel. You were slaving over it every spare minute you had… locked in your study.”
“You know me,” Oscar sighed the sigh of a perfectionist. “I’m a perfectionist.”
These hours of being locked in his study flashed in front of Oscar’s out of kilter conscious mind – hours of shading in the white space inside the capital letters “O”, “P”, “D”, “R”, “B”, “A” and “Q” – “Q” was a real find, only three capital Qs in the whole of “Doctor Zhivago”.
“If you spend any more time working on that great novel it will be far too great for our humble firm.”
“I’ll remember my friends.” Oscar was so pleased with the sharpness of this remark that he smiled and so rendered it blunt.
“When you’re famous.” Susan smiled back.
“When I’m up there getting my Nobel Prize for Literature I’ll be sure to tell the world about the three months of joy you gave me.”
At least now Oscar could turn around and walk away with some semblance of dignity, with a certain sense of victory, but also with the grim certainty that not only was he bitter, but the very cause of that bitterness, Susan – he could feel the smile on her face burn into his back – would be comforted by an awareness of his bitterness for some time to come.