I wrote a post a year ago on talking to myself and thought, yep that’s cathartic. Now my dirty secret is out there I can move on, I can deal with this openly. And then I found myself arguing with a poster on a train station. Which was fine because it was a terribly annoying poster that needed to know the reaction it was causing. And in a way the fact someone else heard me shouldn’t matter in London where all sorts goes on.
But I became conscious that the listener-in was enjoying himself which made me wonder if this was because (a) my banter was intrinsically entertaining; (b) the listener really had no English to speak of and wondered what I was saying; or (c) they were preparing to join in and make it a three-way debate.
And therein lies the trouble with what appears to be a large unfriendly impersonal city like London. It isn’t. People talk to you; they ask you the way or to take a picture; they pass the time of day or comment on the book you are reading or your shoes. Of course there are days when no one speaks and no one makes eye contact but then you jump out of your skin when you realise another human is talking to you.
Perhaps I need to adopt an angry face. Or to stop talking to myself. Yes that is it.
The thing is, I’ve done this for a long time. And not just a simple chat. I have conversations with myself, taking on different roles. I don’t think I always have but I can nail for sure when I became aware that (a) I was (b) they were often out loud and (c) they could be quite, erm, boisterous.
In the early 1990s I was elevated to run the department I worked in. On one level an achievement and a matter for some personal pride; on another, it was muggins’ turn and involved some rather obvious ‘rather him than me’ ism. We were in financial difficulty back then. Something ‘had to be done’ and the person previously in charge wasn’t doing anything. It was a significant responsibility and, as with most of my career, I came to the new role fully briefly and well prepared – yeah right.
It took some months for me to get on top of things but one thing became clear very early: there had to be some personnel changes. And that meant I was going to have some of the bleakest, most awkward conversations of my working life. I began to find myself imagining the next scene, trying to think of what they might say and how I might reply. Or what was the correct pose to adopt: sympathetic; caring; hard nosed bastard?
As the time grew ever closer, so the imagined conversations became more detailed and, increasingly fraught. One evening, some time in 1994, I left the office, the night before such a meeting. It was dark, wet and late. I caught the train to West Dulwich from where it is a 12 minute walk to my house. The train was empty and the streets emptier. As I turned into my road, I reached an imagined point in the next day’s interview where I had been accused of duplicity, of back stabbing, of moral cowardice.
I began a rather good, if possibly grandiose and maybe even a little grandiloquent riposte. I included gestures. As my hand swept – rather magnificently I seem to remember – to emphasise a killer point I became aware of a rustling in a shrub ahead and to my right. Normally I’d assume an urban fox and barely give it a thought but my senses must have been heightened. Something about the rustle made me stop and peer through the gloom into the depths of the shrub.
Staring back at me were two startled, probably terrified eyes, surrounded by thick rimmed glasses. Not a fox. Indeed patently belonging to a different class of mammals: Homo Sapiens.
The shrub was not the kind you normally associated with human nesting. It was tight packed and spiky.
‘Are you ok?’
It was an obvious thing to say. Well, obvious if it had been me saying it. But it was they who said it. This apparent shrub dweller was, in fact, someone I had seen a few times locally – probably a neighbour if I had paid attention – and, beyond their current incumbency, gave every sign of being utterly normal, by the social conventions and mores of this part of South London.
As they extracted themselves from the bush – involving, as it did a full body combing and some loss of blood – they explained that they had heard a mad man arguing with himself and decided to hide. It was only as I drew level they recognised me – my rants being common currency, not that I knew it then – and assumed I must be having some kind of fit or moment of demonic possession. They were genuinely concerned.
We parted amicably enough considering the extent of the perforations from which they had suffered. I walked home slowly. I hadn’t realised I was speaking out loud; and if I was, that I was speaking so forcefully; and how had I not seen or heard them as they leapt to safety into that shrub? I determined then and there to ensure that I kept such conversations internal in future.
Three days later, I made my way home. I had survived the much dreaded conversation – it had been civilized and constructive – but the follow up, discussing severance was due and that was the next potential crisis. As I approached the shrub a voice behind me said, ‘Glad it went well.’
I looked back at my neighbour. They said, ‘You sound relieved.’
‘Was I talking out loud?’
‘Like last time?’
And I thought I was keeping everything to myself.
Occasionally – I’m no longer in a position of authority so such stressful one to ones are a thing of the past – I find someone looking at me curiously. I force myself to assume they are surprised at my luxurious beard or dapper dress sense.
But I have a sneaking suspicion that I have been oversharing my overactive imagination once again.
Is this only me? Do you startle strangers into becoming shrub incumbents? And what do you talk about?