September 25, 2005

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.


At September 26, 2005 1:46 pm, Anonymous 586 said...

I think this kind of thing happens to everyone in time. This is probably down to your ex-landlady having no memory of something that did happen, and therefore you are crediting her with remembering everything, as she owns the house and should know. Not necessarily the case, and particularly from the obvious point that your own memory is crystal clear (an understatement).

I've been lecturing now for nine years, and have an awful job in classifying students at their place in time going back beyond 2001. Your landlady possibly falls into the same bracket.

Last month I was shown a photograph of myself in Hania (Crete) in September 1999. I remember the holiday well, or so I thought - but I have absolutely no memory of the restaurant where the photograph was taken, or the town, or the day we went. Other people in the photograph seemed remembered it well, apparently ....

At September 26, 2005 7:53 pm, Anonymous ATP said...

Sounds to me like "you didn't meet a man who was there" too.

At September 29, 2005 3:45 am, Blogger edjog said...

it seems like we may have a certain amount of commonality in our (hmmm... how to put this without those useless diagnoses) unhelpful character traits.
Myself, I have come to realise that it all hinges on self obsession, because nobody else actually really cares, or even notices, when I say something that I feel might make me seem weird and get flustered and embarrassed about it, unless I draw attention to it.
You may be ok with feeling and acting the way you do, personally (self again see?) I wasn't and am doing something about it. Tell you what mind, don't go looking for that social confidence in a bottle or any other mind bending substances, I did and it's made me truly insane!
One time, I heard some people talking in my kitchen and was pleased to learn that they were actually bitching behind my back:

A) because it wasn't just the paranoia,

B) because there really were people in there.

Perhaps you've already gone there? These days I'm going there instead and it's helping.

At September 29, 2005 11:15 am, Blogger Paisley Whitworth said...

You know, it's probably a good thing you didn't talk to this lodger - he probably would have hung around a bit longer; you'd have tried to introduce him to people, only to be met with uncomfortable silences, shortly followed by internment in a place with nice padded walls.

In conclusion, social reluctance is useful in dealing with people who aren't there.

At October 14, 2005 4:52 am, Blogger Shunra said...

I use that self-same poetic snippet as shorthand to explain my son to people who need to be around him and just. don't. understand.

He's got an official diagnosis: Asperger's Syndrome. The poem is much faster for people to understand - it's how he comes across to the neurotypicals.

Personally, I "pass" most of the time. The rest of the family is at varying stages in between.

We each and all love cats more than anything else, though.

At October 14, 2005 10:41 am, Blogger ejh said...

Hmm. Practically everybody gets diagnosed with Asperger's. At some point I'll write something on the subject.

At April 13, 2006 9:42 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi ejh,

I like your profile - I too am a cat lover, an unemployed librarian; an Englishwoman abroad and still a socialist after all these years. I have a preference to be a hermit and live in a cave, but am currently studying to be a psychologist. I can't figure that either. Unfortunately, I am not a chess player, though the game intrigues me. I would be interested in any comments on Asperger's syndrome - my partner has been diagnosed as such - though there also is a family history there.

As for "I met a man who wasn't there" - can any one of us prove we are here? We think there is an external world, but how do we know? Our perception of such is regulated by the firing of neurons in the brain. What you perceive as 'blue' may look like my 'pink' - we'll never know.

At August 27, 2007 7:04 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

excuse me but what does this riddle mean?


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