I knew it was all going to go wrong when I first told her that I was a member of Médecins Sans Frontières and she smiled. It was a smile I would have given anything for – so pure, so warm and from her lips to me – but to see it made me feel sick, and the recollection of it now turns my stomach. You see, I wasn’t a member of Médecins Sans Frontières; I worked in a pea factory turning cans, and that smile meant that my lie had unexpectedly succeeded and that more lies would have to follow.
The next time I saw her it was a Thursday. She was undertaking a PhD and had a study date in a trendy café across from the fire station, and we had agreed to meet there after. I blustered in wearing a long coat, scarf and gloves, though I never normally dressed that way – I had just whipped round the charity shops on the way up the high-street and bought anything I perceived to be vaguely doctor-like. She beamed again when she saw me – that gorgeous, innocent, facial expression – and I wished that she’d stop it. I ordered a strong, black coffee and sat down.
‘What do you think of the humanitarian crisis in Bolivia?’ she asked. She had to start right in with the doctor theme, didn’t she? I could tell this was going to be tricky.
‘It’s atrocious!’ I cried, slamming my hand down on the table. Coffee sloshed wildly and she jumped, banging her knee on the table and upsetting the coffee further.
‘Gosh, these things really affect you, don’t they?’ She exclaimed, rubbing her leg.
‘Affect me? I have friends out there now who risk being shot in order to save those people.’
‘But who would shoot them?’
That was a good question. I wished that I knew what she was talking about. I wondered briefly where Bolivia was and decided on The Baltic, although I didn’t want to say anything. It occurred to me that I didn’t quite know where The Baltic was either. I drew in a deep breath.
‘What you don’t know about the Bavarian Government is quite large, it seems.’
‘That’s what I said.’
‘I thought you said…’
Who looks stupid now, I thought.
‘But that’s horrid, why would the government shoot doctors working to save the lives of its people? It makes no sense.’
I didn’t want to patronise her.
‘Sweetheart,’ I said, ‘There are sinister things afoot in this world, have you ever considered that the Beh… Bolivian government don’t want their people to survive?’
She went cross-eyed and pouted strangely as she juggled this thought in her head. It was the least attractive I’d seen her and I hoped that she didn’t pull that face often. I mean, I wasn’t putting in all this effort, sweating and demeaning myself to spend my time with a woman that looked like a startled trout. I wondered whether this was her sex face. It was true that I had confused women before in bed…
‘But surely they would report that on the news, I mean if doctors were being threatened like that by an oppressive government.’
I could see I was going to have to patronise her.
‘I’ve seen things. I’ve been there and it ain’t nothing like the news.’ (I kicked myself internally for the use of “ain’t nothing”) ‘To me the news is like fiction. Propaganda, really. Take, for example, that girl who went missing. She didn’t really go missing. She didn’t even actually exist, she was entirely computer-generated.’
She laughed. Laughed at me. Here I was disclosing the occult secrets of my high-flying life and she was just mocking me. Of course none of it was true, but I was putting a lot of effort into making it seem true and believing it myself. The least she could have done was the same. It made me slightly miffed. Her demeanour changed.
‘You’re being serious?’
This was a difficult question to answer. If I said “yes” I would have to convince her it was true, which was looking like a tall order, but if I said “no” I would have to back-track, and pretend that I wasn’t annoyed.
‘Well, of course she wasn’t computer-generated. That’s taking things a bit far. But there was certain information about her that was computer-generated. I have a friend inside the BBC. It happened that the government were passing the bill for compulsory I.D. cards that day and wanted a diversion. The girl is safe and well I’m told.’
She sat back in her chair, I didn’t like the way things were unfolding in her expressions.
‘It’s all a bit paranoid isn’t it?’ She said at length, ‘I didn’t realise you were into conspiracy theories.’
I was losing her.
‘I wasn’t… I mean I’m not, I’m a rational man. You don’t get through medical school if you’re not… rational, that is. But there are things I’ve discovered that are shocking to me. I knew I shouldn’t have told you about them.’ I gave out a shrill laugh. ‘Now you think I’m crazy!’
She loosened her defensive posture a little.
‘I don’t think you’re crazy. If you say you know these things then I guess you at least believe they’re true. I just have a hard time being so cynical about society, that’s all.’
Cynical, was I?
‘Society is a wonderful place: I know that. There are lots of lovely, brave people. I work with a lot of them. Hell, I’m not too bad myself!’
She smiled again, leant over and put her hand on my knee.
‘No, of course! I’m sorry. What you do is very brave and heroic. It must be very stressful for you.’
I took a sip of my coffee with all the nonchalance of someone who didn’t think that someone else was insinuating that the strain was obviously too much for them.
‘Well, how’s the PhD?’ so masterfully I changed the topic.
‘It’s quite fun actually, I’m surprised at what a breeze I’m finding it.’
That was a lie if ever I heard one. How pretentious of her to sit there and act like her doctorate didn’t stress her out? And why was she squinting like that?
Suddenly I realised that someone was standing behind me. I twisted in my chair and beheld my supervisor’s face beaming down at me.
‘Mind if I join?’ He said. ‘I wouldn’t bother but this place is packed.’
I had half an inclination to answer him honestly. Mind if he joined? I minded that he was alive. I wanted to scream at him for being so stupid as to exist, here, at this moment. There he was grinning over me, responsible for all the problems of my life and not a care in the world himself.
‘Please, that would be lovely.’ I said, with a magnanimous swoop of my finger. ‘But no talk of any kind of work of any kind, not even the slightest mention of it. I’ve taken to not talking shop on my days off. It’s serious now – a very strict point.’
He sat down.
‘But we were just kind of talking shop, weren’t we?’ She said.
I tried not to speak through my teeth at her.
‘And now I’m sick of it and we shall change the subject.’ I unbuttoned the corners of my lips so that they could form what I hoped was a friendly smile. ‘If you don’t mind, of course.’
‘So…’ He said, slurping at a latte. ‘Aren’t you going to introduce me?’
‘Introductions are so passé if you ask me, it’s common practice to simply become quietly acquainted with a person nowadays, rather than being formally introduced,’ I said. They eyeballed each other for a second, at a loss what to do in this higher echelon of polite society that I had thrust upon them.
‘Well I’m Dave.’ He said.
My superior knowledge was wasted on them. I knew what was coming next. Wheels turned in my head as fast as wheels can turn.
‘So where do you guys know each other from?’
He was going to answer even though I’d strictly forbidden it – didn’t he get a thing? I interjected.
‘We know each other from work! But please, enough about work. Life is for the living, so let’s find a more congenial topic.’
Dave was eyeing me with a bemused look. I realised that the doctor-ish affectations of my voice were unusual to him.
‘Hark at you!’ He exclaimed, ‘you’d have thought that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth.’
She was scrutinising Dave and I could see her brain was ticking.
‘Dave, you don’t look like…’
I didn’t know what to do so I inhaled a mouthful of coffee and spent a good few minutes choking it out. It was painful but I guess it cleared the air in one way or another. They fetched me some water, I held my breath and took a swig.
‘Fish!’ I cried, wishing to change the topic. ‘Does anybody have any fish? I think they’re terribly relaxing.’
No, it seemed that no one owned any fish, least of all me.
‘Well does anybody like to eat fish then? One of you must like the taste of fish. It’s a bit fishy I know but you get used to it.’
‘I like a good haddock with my chips after a long shift.’ Said Dave. Why would he never keep his mouth shut when somebody asked him a question?
‘Shift?’ She enquired.
‘It’s a kind of entree don’t you know? It’s a parochial thing – shifts and fish and chips, you’ll have to try it.’
‘No..’ Dave said, ‘that’s not what I meant…’
‘Oh Dave come now, don’t argue with me over the finer points of gastronomics.’ I knew that he didn’t know what gastronomics were, but he was too proud a man to admit it. Instead he put his lip out sullenly.
‘Good. That’s cleared up then.’
‘But I’ve never heard of shifts as an entry.’
And I’ve never known why people don’t shut up when you obviously want them to.
‘Come on! You were just talking about them – gastronomically speaking – how can a man bring a subject up himself and then declare that he’s never heard it. You’re being facetious.’
I wasn’t quite sure what facetious meant so I knew that he wouldn’t know. I just hoped that she didn’t know, or better still – that it was the right word. He was suitably at a loss. Unable to argue in the face of a superior vocabulary, he finally buttoned his stupid face. I glanced at her and saw that she was squirming in her chair like she had piles.
‘Well!’ Dave declared. ‘I’ve got to go.’ He stood up. ‘You working the late shift Tuesday? I’m doing it for some extra beans, before Marge drops. She’s due in three weeks, exciting, eh?’
‘What shift?’ She said. The assertiveness in her voice made me hesitate.
‘The Tuesday shift at the factory. You know I’m his supervisor? I’m sure he’s told you I’m a pain in the arse. Truth is he’s a lazy bastard, but I let you off, right? Right. Toodle-pip!’
He toddled off. My eyes dropped from the back of his fat head to meet hers. I didn’t know whether she was going to go red or white. She pursed her entire face.
‘Oh,’ she said. She gathered her belongings tersely and escaped without so much as a by-your-leave. I sighed with relief and took some more coffee, musing that some women are more trouble than they’re worth.