Tuesday, October 19, 2010
“It was very much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it.”
- from ‘The Secret Sharer’ by Joseph Conrad.
I was on a coach, surrounded by several other people, one who apparently was my wife of 40 years’ standing. I was in the window-seat – silent.
I wasn’t always silent, but usually silent. I called myself ‘a silent one’ because I was generally silent except when stirred into conversation for the sake of social ease or the obtaining of life’s necessaries or pleasures.
The coach was travelling to Russia via various countries and I should now get to the nub of the situation by saying it was a holiday trip. That much I gathered. The coach group stayed in pre-booked hotels in various cities. However, I sensed that everyone else was there for my benefit, creating this situation just for me, while pretending that they were independent of me, in fact strangers to me – all on their own holiday trip rather than acting as a backdrop for the only real holiday trip: mine.
The only ‘non-stranger’ (in inverted commas) was my supposed wife of 40 years’ standing. The other people – as the days went by – became less and less as strangers as we mingled at mealtimes and at communal tours of various sites of interest. The two drivers of the coach (who took it in turns to drive or to do paperwork to cross various borders or to serve drinks as the coach travelled along through much tedious scenery as well as interesting cityscapes) became very ‘familiar’, in all senses of that word.
How I had gathered that this was all a set-up – just for me – remained a mystery for the early part of the journey but like the co-passengers and the drivers becoming gradually ‘familiar’, the mystery clarified itself – equally gradually – into a distinct mystery, then a known quantity, finally something that I could consider to be a certainty of fact.
I noticed surreptitious glances between the eyes of various passengers as if sizing me up, laughing behind their faces, keeping up the pretence with obvious pleasure. My so-called wife kept a very steady role and I must say she was the best actress of them all.
I often wondered if the whole world outside the coach was in on the act. Many of the roads in Poland had coloured panels to protect houses from sight of the traffic or from its noise. But as I sat in the coach I wondered if it were the houses we needed protection from – or at least me needing protection from the knowledge that all outside the coach was one-dimensional, even the tiny orange bus balanced on the horizon. But that was too fanciful even for me. So I began wondering how long I had been ‘a silent one’ – so-called – this centre of attention who everyone tiptoed around in apparent ignorance of my specialness while all the time scrutinising my every move, even my slightest tic.
I seemed to remember – deep somewhere in my mind – that once upon a time I was full of chatter, completely at my social ease with everyone while serious facts as well as ‘small talk’ tripped over my tongue. I even remembered my name in those times – Barge.
I remembered little else since I had become ‘a silent one’. My so-called wife was the only person I recognised from those early misty times – presumably Mrs Barge. Perhaps I shall never know, never remember, never become ‘me’. Never again.
At that point in my thoughts, the coach reached the border with the Russian Federation at Belarus. According to the coach’s Sat Nav display there was nothing beyond the border – either the Sat Nav system didn’t work beyond the border or there was some other significance. Time would tell. Although I didn’t say much, there was a lot of excitement within me about the trip and what would befall us beyond the ex-Iron Curtain.
Often I felt I needed to assert my character. I did say things from time to time just to be polite – but I tried to plough my own furrow of silent motivation. Despite this and the other passengers’ studied nonchalance about me, I did feel them nudging me in certain directions when they saw me moving in a direction that they did not want me to take. These nudges were not at all apparent but I was certain they were there. My so-called wife’s nudges were more direct, more obvious, and I swam with their tide.
As we left the Russian Federation, I suddenly looked at the passenger who was more silent than the rest. Quite anti-social I thought. I am, of course, what people call an alpha male, and I was the undisputed alpha male on this coach trip and he was, by contrast, the omega male.
The rest of the passengers called me the Daddy of the group. They didn’t really call him anything at all, although his wife told me he was Barge and she was Mrs Barge. And, as his own wife did, the coach’s drivers also called him Barge, not Mr Barge, not whatever his first name was. The Russian guide – called Violetta – who told jokes on the coach’s tannoy during boring parts of the journey had often referred to a stock character in her stories, one called Barge – and we all wondered if she was ridiculing him on purpose.
Now that we had left Russia, Barge was even more silent, as if we had all sucked in the residual parts of his personality. We noticed that his wife talked to him less and less which probably pleased him – because much of what she addressed to him were complaints or nags. Or so we noticed.
By the way, as alpha male, I was spokesman for the group, hence the ‘we’ that I have adopted in these notes. However, I decided one day, at one of the coach’s comfort-stops, to secretly share a few words with Barge when I saw him alone near the foreign toilets waiting for Mrs Barge. He stood looking absentmindedly into a shop window containing Russian Doll souvenirs.
This all happened before the coach left Russia, but I’m only remembering it now for the first time. I must say it felt like talking to another version of myself, someone I might have become given other circumstances of life. He must have been unutterably shy. I am quite the opposite, as proved by me being the Daddy of the passenger group. The two drivers, of course, were in ultimate control, but they were only alpha males by virtue of their job. They probably only acted bossy, because they were paid to do so.
“Enjoying the holiday?” I asked Barge.
He nodded and, breaking his silence, said: “Yes, but it’s a bit like hard work having to leave each hotel with the suitcases packed each morning so very early.”
That was an enormous speech for Barge, needless to say. Surprised, I merely nudged him on the arm and passed on, leaving him to wait for his wife.
Being an alpha male, I don’t normally see the subtle expressions of other people. I cannot empathise. All I can think of are my own needs and how to satisfy my longing to control other people not only for my own benefit but also, it has to be said, for their benefit. So, I surprised myself when I began to notice gradual changes in Barge – a self-confessed ‘silent one’ – as the coach trip progressed. Every time he said something, his head grew slightly larger. You might laugh but I became convinced of this. In hindsight, I probably had an obsession with Barge – and with his slowly expanding head. Not only that, but the skin on his face gradually became pastier, until one day I imagined it would be white and pulpy. My theory was wrong, however. Alpha males are not always right and I have since ceased to be an alpha male as a result of this realisation. Barge taught me a lot even if he didn’t do this on purpose. Even when he was silent for days on end, his head still grew slightly larger, his skin slightly pastier. The speed of this process was therefore nothing to do with his relative silence. Silence did not seem able to control it either way. I determined to have a quiet word with Mrs Barge, in case she hadn’t noticed this process, fearful as I was that Barge was suffering an illness. An illness abroad is an illness doubled.
She did not seem to understand, however.
By the time we reached Helsinki, I had gradually become so worried about Barge that it was affecting me unduly – causing me to be silent, too, for long periods of anxiety. And as you will not be surprised to learn, there is no such thing as a silent one who is also an alpha male.
I cannot remember the exact circumstances of the coach trip’s ending. It sort of tailed off in Calais before we crossed the Channel. I said goodbye to Barge and Mrs Barge after tipping the two drivers. We exchanged details as many coach holiday friendships do in the normally unfulfilled future promises about keeping in contact, unfulfilled even with the relative ease of emailing.
Barge did not have an email but he gave me his real address, and I gave him mine. Mrs Barge and I looked at each other, knowing that this would be the last time we would see each other. Thus is life.
But time has bends and corners that life itself doesn’t. That’s the only way I can explain it, much like a coach trip of the mind. So, a few years later, I visited – on impulse – the Barge address while being in the area, I forget why. Imagine my surprise that she had married one of those coach drivers from the Russian trip, one who had by now retired from conducting such trips. He was still full of himself, all mouth and trousers. If I had once been an alpha male, he was – and still is, I guess – a being I could never hope to become. A man with no chink in his armour at all. All smiles and confidence. I didn’t stay long. I don’t think either of them remembered me from the trip – but they were polite enough when I showed them photos of the coach group on holiday all those expanding years before. I noticed my own face was half-concealed by other faces.
Before leaving, I pointed to Barge's face in one of the photos – a silent one, a rare breed with whom I now empathised rather than sneered at. Mrs Barge nonchalantly pointed to an armchair in the corner which was in half-darkness and as if looking upon it stirred whatever it contained into non-silence, I heard a slight pulping noise and saw the very wide shape of whiteness: a face without features.
I left silently, my mind tongue-tied by unpronounceable Russian letters.