I met a man who wasn't there
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish that man would go away
There's a story I used to tell about being anti-social. When I was living in Brixton as a lodger I had the upstairs room in a three-storey house. On the middle storey there were two other rooms, at ninety degrees from one another on the landing: the one immediately opposite, if I came down the stair, belonged to Janet, the landlady, while the one to the left was, for a long time, free. I had occupied it at the beginning, when there was a longer-standing tenant in the upstairs room, but on their departure, I moved upstairs. I was the only tenant for a while, before, eventually, the other room was filled.
I wished it otherwise. I am reclusive, which is a difficult way to be when you live in a city that allows you no proper accommodation unless you are well-off. I do not much like to talk to other people unless I know and trust them very well. In truth, I can't. I cannot make small talk, cannot ask how are you?, cannot, certainly, say pleased to meet you without churning up inside and wanting to be left alone. There are, presumably, words for this, phrases incorporating the term Disorder, descriptions masquerading as diagnoses. But whatever you call it makes no difference from my point of view. I find it very difficult, often impossibly difficult to socialise in the way that most other people would consider normal, and if I'm asked to do so I just clam up in discomfort. For this reason, I didn't want another lodger - and when another one arrived I found it very hard. It is hard to be a recluse in the middle of the city. If you want to be a hermit, you really need to find yourself a cave.
Anyway, prior to the arrival of this other lodger - so the story went - there had been somebody else, for a short time, maybe a month, occupying the other room. I never knew them. I never knew their name. I never knew their name because I never spoke to them. Not once, not even a hello. Perhaps a nod in response to a good evening? Possibly. I couldn't really remember. I kept well out of their way - and, of course, the more I did so, the more awkward it became. Keep it up for only a few days and you can still plausibly claim that it was just coincidence, you happened to be out when they were in, you happened to be in a hurry when you weren't. But keep it up for weeks and you have to explain why they've moved into a house with a madman in the attic.
Fortunately the dilemma was resolved without ever becoming intolerable. They didn't stay for long. After a while, perhaps a month, they seemed no longer to be there. In truth, when I started to think about it, I wasn't sure I'd ever seen them. I didn't pursue the question. I didn't ask after them. I was just relieved that they were gone and that - for a while - I could resume my reclusive residence without disturbance, just me and an unobtrusive landlady and a couple of companionable cats. And occasionally when discussing my lack of socialibility with other people I would roll out this story as an example of my unwillingness to interact with those I do not know.
Beware of what you do not know: there's more of it that you might think. On Thursday I took up an invitation to go round for dinner at my old place and meet the new cat (an occasion for which I naturally dressed up in my newest shirt and finest tie, since one always likes to make a good impression on meeting a new cat). During dinner we were talking about new lodgers and old, ones I had known and ones who I had not, how long they had been there, what they were doing now and what rooms they had occupied. So I brought up the story of the lodger who I never talked to and whose name I never knew. I brought it up: I went right through it and then I went right through it all over again, because Janet didn't have the faintest idea what or who I was talking about. Over the course of a few minutes, it became apparent that if I had never met this lodger, or could not name them or put a face to that non-existent name, the explanation was straightforward: they had never existed in the first place. There had been no other lodger. They had never been there. In one way or another, I had made them up, imagined them. I would have hallucinated their existence had I ever been sure I'd seen them.
Thinking about it, as straightforward explanations go, this was not the most straightforward I had ever come across, nor the most comfortable. I understand how, writes Winston Smith: I do not understand why. One question was, what was I thinking of? Another was, why was I thinking it? It's one thing to be under a misapprehension, that somebody else might be moving into your house: it's another thing entirely to think they have. You might make up all sorts of stories about somebody you've never seen, but even that is not the same as their not being there in the first place. Boo Radley was not as Scout and Jem imagined him: but Boo Radley was really there.