Friends Like These

Last Friday, UK-based social media news feeds were awash with post-election bitterness. Profanities, accusations and rudeness abounded between those who were – according to their profile descriptions if not evidenced elsewhere that day – ‘friends’ with one another. Characterised by a desire to shove opinions down each other’s throats whilst savagely and wantonly disregarding the pesky facts of emotional sensitivity and human decency, this was a war of attrition using words as weapons. And by God was it unpleasant.

To quote a friend who has herself been subject to recent politically-charged vitriol:

“Friendship does not spout vile names. It involves two parties making equal effort. It involves honesty delivered with tact and kindness. It involves laughing, a lot. It involves knowing when to step in and when to step back. It involves communication, balanced and regular. Anything that feels one-sided and wrong, probably is.”

Friendship isn’t always easy. As individuals (the clue is in the name), we will rarely find people with whom we always agree. But that’s okay, because being challenged in our views is the best way we can grow – so long as those who are challenging us do so in a way that is considered, measured and, above all else, respectful. Without mutual respect, friendship cannot exist. In its place is a barren wasteland of forced opinions, deaf ears and closed hearts. This world is full enough of hatred as it is. If we turn on those closest to us, what hope is there for a better future?

Another feature of friendship that is paramount to its survival is honesty. So many people let the behaviour of so-called ‘friends’ go unchecked, despite it impacting negatively upon them, because it’s easier to put up and shut up than it is to rock the boat by being honest. But if you can’t be honest with the person in question, can you truly call your relationship a friendship?

Finally, and most importantly of all, friendship cannot flourish without kindness. When we are going through our own struggles, it is easy to forget that others have theirs too. We cannot change the way others behave towards us during challenging times, but we can try to understand and forgive negative words and behaviour, and stop ourselves from getting drawn into a vortex of negativity.

We are, all of us, only human, and our time on earth is short. Friendship is one of the greatest gifts we have, so instead of squandering it we would do well to work on nurturing it.

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Office politics

An emergency meeting has been called in No Man’s Land headquarters.

“Well?” says Derek, the CEO, tapping his watch pointedly.

“I’ll go first, if that’s okay?” Hazel, the Office Manager, speaks up. Derek nods his consent and she continues. “Well, it’s just that we’ve run out of stationery.” Derek raises an eyebrow. “And, well,” Hazel continues tremulously, “we need some more.”

Derek regards her with incredulity. “Then get some.”

“It’s not that simple, you see,” Hazel says, averting his gaze and fingering the buttons on her cardigan (previously part of a twin set but whose twin had long ago succumbed to a nerve-induced coffee stain).

“And that would be because…?”

“Because John holds the budget and he says we can’t afford it,” Hazel finishes on a note of triumph, passing the baton of blame to No Man’s Land’s Finance Manager at the far end of the table, who glowers at her through his unflattering thick rimmed spectacles.

“Now don’t go blaming me,” John says crossly, “Sadie’s the one who’s been telling you it’s not possible.”

A tut of discontent alerts them all to Sadie’s presence. “I said no such thing,” she remarks. “What I said was you would have to run it past Danielle because she’s the communications person and she’s updating the brand guidelines, so she might well want to wait until they’re done before ordering more stationery. Anyway, I’m just a lowly secretary, what would I know?” She rolls her eyes and returns to the serious business of filing her nails.

“And Danielle would be where exactly?” Derek asks, barely managing to hide the exasperation in his voice.

“She’s in the office,” Hazel offers, “working on the communications strategy.”

Derek sighs, tweaks his tie and scans his Blackberry for new messages, all the while emitting a slow hiss through his teeth. “And I suppose it didn’t occur to you when you convened this meeting regarding communications activities that it might be wise to invite the sole communications person within the organisation?”

Hazel blinks and shakes her head.

“May I recommend that someone phones Danielle and asks her to join us for a moment or two?”

John obliges this request, and seconds later a flustered looking Danielle appears in the doorway. “Yes?” she says accusingly.

“Hazel here tells me we’ve run out of stationery,” begins Derek. “And John here tells me that Sadie’s been saying it’s not possible to order more because you’re doing the re-branding.”

“Correct.”

“Might I therefore ask when this re-branding will be over so we might be in a position to order more stationery, since it’s evidently a matter of most pressing urgency that seems to be grinding my commercial business to a halt and involving the efforts of every member of my staff team to resolve?”

Danielle’s lower lip begins to quiver. “I’m doing it as fast as I can,” she whimpers, “but what with the constant barrage of requests from everyone all the time and these incessant bloody meetings I just can’t focus.” She starts to cry.

“There, there, dear,” says Hazel, putting a sympathetic arm around Danielle’s shoulder.

“Barrage of requests – what a joke,” John pipes up, “all you do all day is sit on Facebook.”

“That’s not true!” Danielle protests. “And anyway, it’s not like you can talk! You’re always playing games on your computer. It’s a wonder any of the accounting gets done at all.”

“That’s true,” Sadie says without looking up from her nails. “You do play a lot of games on your computer John. Pot and kettle come to mind.”

John’s broken capillaries flare up like beacons on the hillocks of his cheeks. “I don’t have to sit here and take these accusations!” He stands up and slams a hand down on the table, leaving a sweaty hand print on the glass. Without another word he storms out of the office.

“And nor do I!” Danielle retorts. “I’ve got a bloody communications strategy to write!” She turns and flounces out of the office after John.

“Oh dear,” says Hazel, “I only wanted some new stationery…”

“Sadie,” Derek says, rising from his chair, “kindly tell all staff to desist from scheduling pointless meetings for the indefinite future. And,” he adds over his shoulder, “make a note to check the filters on the computer system.”

Raw

Why do they say that the air is crisp, as if it were something that one could bite into, that one could touch? The air’s no crisper than the sun, though that at least would burn you to a crisp if you could get close enough to touch it.

It’s funny what thoughts pop into your mind, unbidden, after a traumatic life episode. Here I am, lacing up my boots – the ones with the dodgy soles that let the water in, which are really altogether pointless as it’s almost always wet outside – and instead of thinking about what’s happened I’m ruminating on the physical qualities of the air and the sun. I suppose this could be called a ‘coping mechanism,’ in which case I should probably be glad of it. Lord knows I’d rather think about the air and sun than all the other jumbled mass of thoughts and emotions that are swirling around in the background of my mind.

I call Betty and she tears into the room with her trademark boundless enthusiasm. Betty is a cocker spaniel. She’s brown with white splodges of various shapes and sizes that look as if someone’s used her as a canvas to try and recreate a Jackson Pollock painting. She’s named after the landlady at the bed and breakfast where we got engaged. With hindsight that’s ridiculous, but when we bought her we were sickeningly in love and blind to sense.

I’m walking down the road now, treading the path that’s been so well trodden over our ten year marriage. The tarmac’s hard and unforgiving beneath my feet. Betty’s straining at her lead; she may be an old girl but she’s got more life in her than I’ll ever have. But I won’t let her off the lead until we’re on the footpath. Can’t risk anything happening to her – she’s all I have now.

Charles Reginald Harper (prefers to be known as Reg).

Likes: Arguing (loudly), snoring (ditto), mustard on rare roast beef, red wine, cherry jam, walks in the country, art (except, ironically, Pollock) and obscure foreign literature.

Dislikes: People not agreeing with him (always), his wife (most of the time).

As we veer off the road onto the footpath – Betty scrambling over the muddy terrain as if her life depends on it – I run our last argument through my mind. It was over nothing, as always, something as inconsequential as him not having done the dishes. But then it wouldn’t have killed him to do them, would it? Once in the whole damn marriage?

But I digress. His not doing the dishes aside, all of those silly, petty arguments aside; he was a good husband. It’s funny how it takes something like this to make you realise the good things about a person, to see them in a light that has been dimmed for far too long.

Still. We walk on, Betty and I, through the fields of corn that sway in the light breeze like lovers clasped together in a slow dance. I remember then the dance of our wedding day, the way his hand rested on my waist, the reassuring weight of it.

Where did we go wrong? Somewhere along the journey of our lives together we took diverging paths. I’m not sure either of us knew it at the time, but by the time we did realise it was too late to go back; weeds and thorns had grown across the paths behind us.

When we return from our walk I unclip Betty’s lead and pour myself a scotch; his favourite drink. I sit in his favourite chair and look out across his favourite view. And then it hits me. A tidal wave of grief that I have hitherto suppressed rises up and catches in my throat, emerging as a roar of emotion. Or should that be a raw of emotion, because that’s all I now am – raw.

I don’t blame him for leaving, how can I?

I just wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye.

I took this picture yesterday in East Stratton, Hampshire. It was the inspiration for this story.

The meeting

It was noon when they took their seats around the table, each of them grim-faced like the condemned.

Phil was hungry. Kate was tired. James was nursing a hangover of such epic proportions that he was in no mood to entertain the amorous advances of Shelley, who was meant to be taking minutes but had instead kicked off her shoes and begun to run an exploratory toe up his lower leg.

Danny and Lisa were late, prompting a collective protest which manifested itself in the less than conspicuous form of simultaneous paper shuffling.

Bob was standing in for Rob, despite the fact it had been Rob who set the meeting up in the first place.

“So,” said Phil, struggling to hide his lack of enthusiasm, “where shall we start?”

“Is there an agenda?” Lisa ventured.

“Shelley?” said Danny.

Oblivious to the fact she was now the sole focus of the meeting, Shelley continued her futile doe-eyed pursuit of James, who delivered a well-timed kick under the table. She emitted a yelp and turned back to the assembly, flushing bright red as she clumsily thumbed through the stack of papers in front of her and began to hand them out.

“Much obliged, Shelley,” said Danny, though his tone suggested he was anything but.

Phil’s stomach rumbled. Kate yawned. James, who was getting paler by the minute, took a hearty gulp of his Red Bull and shot Shelley a warning stare across the table, prompting her to look dolefully down at her notepad.

“Look,” said Lisa, making a deliberate show of checking the time on her Blackberry, “I don’t want to speak out of turn here, but if this was meant to be Rob’s meeting and Rob’s not actually here, is there any point in us having the meeting? Shouldn’t we just postpone it until he can come?”

Bob shifted in his seat. “But…” he stammered, “Rob sent me in his place.”

“With all due respect, Bob,” Phil chipped in, “you haven’t been working on this project at all. I’m unclear on how exactly you can chair this meeting when you know nothing whatsoever about it.”

A wave of redness swept across Bob’s bald patch. He hitched his wire-framed glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. “Actually,” he floundered, “I do know about the project,” though his expression said otherwise.

“Name the two key stakeholders then,” said Lisa.

“What?” Bob’s eyes widened.

“The two key stakeholders,” Lisa repeated, narrowing her green eyes like a cat, “name them.” Bob looked panicked. “See?” said Lisa, “not a clue.” She folded her arms and sat back in her chair. “I rest my case.”

“I’d hazard a guess that Bob here knows less about this project than the new temp on reception,” Phil said, rolling his eyes.

“Should I be putting all this in the minutes?” Shelley piped up.

“Come on everyone,” said Danny, “it’s not Bob’s fault that Rob couldn’t make the meeting now is it?”

Lisa and Phil grudgingly agreed.

“Umm,” mumbled James, I’m not feeling all that good…”

“So,” Danny continued, “where have we got to? Shall we just do a quick round up of where everyone’s at with this and just…”

James coughed and raised a hand. “Um, I’m sorry but I’m really not feeling well…”

“James, for God’s sake,” Lisa said, waving his complaint away. “We’re trying to make progress here.”

“Tricky as that’s proving to be,” added Phil.

“Indeed,” said Lisa.

James threw up on the floor.

“Meeting adjourned,” said Danny, adding with a glare in Shelley’s direction, “and don’t put that in the minutes.”

Image

Thinking about meetings brought to mind the initial meetings we had at Raleigh in January 2011. Who would have thought the boy in the middle would become the love of my life? 🙂

I saw you

I saw you today, as I do most days. I was sitting on the pavement watching my icy exhalation as it licked the air like a tongue when you careered straight past me, with barely seconds to spare before your train pulled into the platform. You always seem so flustered, as if the dawning of a new day has caught you completely unawares. Your cheeks betray the exertion of your rush to get ready, your skin shimmers with perspiration. You never seem at peace. Are you – ever?

I saw you today. I was standing near the entrance of the supermarket trying to get warm when you brushed past me. Your gym bag was slung over one shoulder, a sign that you like keeping fit (or at least that you try to). Your practical boots stated that comfort, not glamour, was your priority, as they often do on a work day. Not so at weekends, it would seem – once I bummed a cigarette from you on the high street after a night out with your friends when you were dressed to kill in a mini dress and heels that looked like skyscrapers. Do you remember?

I saw you today. I was begging for money (which I hate to do) but I was starving, what could I do? You were on the phone. Sometimes when you walk past I catch snippets of telephone conversations about bills, arguments with your boyfriend, work worries. Today you were bemoaning your lack of holiday allowance. Do you ever stop to think how lucky you are?

I saw you today. I was slumped down by the bins, drawing my last breath as you ran out of your cosy flat and climbed into a waiting car. You looked happy, for once, and as my own life ebbed away I was glad. You have a pretty face when you’re not frowning. Do you know that?

I saw you. But you didn’t see me.

Image

On the theme of looking but not seeing, I remembered this photo taken on the Mekong River whilst travelling in Cambodia. It was just after sunrise and the man was off to sell his wares to tourists like myself. It made me realise how lucky I was to lead such an easy and privileged life.