The Best of Us

I spend a lot of time thinking, “What went wrong?” That late Saturday saw this question asked firmly and furiously – it’s hardly surprising, you lose a job peddling overpriced stuffed peppers, olives and fusion chutneys, via email no less, and you can’t help but feel you’ve hit rock bottom – and in the face of all this, I asked, “What went wrong?” Julia had told me this is a negative way of thinking, and that I should have been asking myself, “How can I make it right?”, but I tend to play out my might-have-beens in these lovely little scenarios that all sprout from the point where something went wrong. Then I shout and stamp about because life didn’t actually play out like that, because, as we already know, something went wrong, which – I love Julia, I do, but I had shoved this line right in her optimistic little face – is exactly how I make it right, and it was my plan of action for this particular evening.

 

It’s not a question I’d asked myself during the day. The sun was out – early summer, this is, which means autumn will be horrible and prematurely cold, but sod it, look, the sun is actually out! – and I went to the park with Julia and we ate dirt cheap meal deals on questionable meat wraps and semi-flat soft drinks. I call it a park, it’s a wide stretch of grass in front of a church, separated from the roar of thousands of taxis by a thin strip of gum-encrusted pavement, and even that’s filled with ignorant tourists and angry commuters at the right time of day. But when you’re out there, on your patch of dying grass, London is very much alive, and it feels a bit humbling to know you’re a part of it. A bit. Don’t go overboard, you’re not Boris bloody Johnson or anything, but misdirecting one camera-clutching foreigner searching for the Tower Bridge meant I’d done my duty. I had a right to feel smug. I still had a job.

 

But then the evening drew in, and I came home to find the company for which I’d worked had abruptly gone bust. People don’t buy this rubbishy, pretentious vegetable food enough to justify basing an entire business around it, apparently, and, for the idealistic CEO who had not yet hit thirty, this was evidently an epiphany. I found myself beyond the realms of lividness – I could have told you that, I remember shouting, literally, at the computer screen, I could have told you your garlic and mango chutney is about as vomit-worthy as it sounds! I’d hoped there was maybe some over-hyped organic restaurant he’d been supplying, but no, one-hundred per cent of the income came from this little stall in one of the least popular food markets in the city, food so pungent you couldn’t even force the free samples onto the few browsers who passed by. My fault, perhaps, for not caring enough to look into the business model, but I’m no LSE graduate.

Julia had apparently had enough of me hurling profanities at my computer screen, so she knocked meekly on my door and told me she’d ordered pizza, her treat, and I said I’d eat it, so long as it wasn’t riddled with peppers, olives or chutney. She looked a little upset – of course it had peppers and olives, if you ask for an everything pizza you sure as hell get peppers and olives – but the monitor tan wasn’t doing me any good, and since Julia was naïve enough to try to calm me down, the least I could do was humour her. I joined her in the kitchen, where we munched in silence through the tension, until Julia finally decided to shatter it with a remarkable lack of finesse by making the ever-astute observation, “You’re very angry.”

“Of course!” – I might have said it a little louder than necessary – “Of course I’m angry! And not just because I lost my job, that’s just part of it, but look around you. How can you not be angry? I’ve always believed things are pretty rubbish, but seriously – well they are, right, everything’s rubbish.”

In that moment, I really did mean it: everything was rubbish. The world, that was rubbish. People were rubbish. But I also believed, in all my irrationality, that it was destined to be rubbish. I’ve been told by friends to be sceptical of the concept of a golden age of Britain. My parents lark on and on and on about it – “When I was your age, schools were apparently in the middle of nowhere and we all made a six hour journey to the classroom, plus we only had one pair of shoes between us because your grandmother made the rest into soup” – that sort of holier-than-thou, youth-of-today style rubbish. It’s the mentality of the older generations that seems to assume manual labour gets you into heaven, because God loves muscles, right? Wrong. If there is a God, he hates everyone – or he should – because, actually, there was no golden age of Britain. People have always been disappointing. This generation is as drug-addled and drunk as the last, and the one before that, and the one before that. Ok, so, maybe, at the turn of the century people were more restrained, but at what cost? – oppressing homosexuals and hanging people from wooden beams, that cost. In my head I screamed, “I’d challenge anyone, past or present, to convince me things are not rubbish.”

Rest assured, I thought, in my internal diatribe, I won’t be telling my children, “When I was your age, things were better.” A golden age of Britain has yet to come. Because – broken record, quite clearly, but it’s oh so very true – something went wrong. When I considered the issue on a much larger scale, it became apparent that I would have to go back years and years to find the roots of these social problems. It’s entirely possible that the end of World War Two resulted in a night-of-passion baby for an ill-prepared young couple, who they struggled to raise, who struggled to raise her daughter, who in turn struggled to raise hers, who, as a result, was sitting opposite me trying to make me feel better with slimy pizza and the least insightful observations ever. So whose fault was it? Hitler’s? An overconfident recruitment officer? Durex for its lack of availability? It was becoming harder and harder to find someone to blame – maybe, now, because there wasn’t anyone to blame, but I didn’t see that. I only saw red.

Julia looked hurt. And right then, I felt a twang of something terrible, and the angry voice in my head decided to turn on me, whispering in my ear: “You’re selfish.” And it was right, really. So what if things weren’t going my way? Somewhere in the midst of all these muddled, angry thoughts, this stream of furious consciousness, I must have been aware that, as much as I tried to translate things onto a universal scale – because I am pessimistic by nature, and I do notice the faults in the world – it was really just me. Maybe because I’m some sort of sadistic bastard who likes to think other people are suffering too, I’m not sure, but I was sure as hell trying to make Julia suffer, as I could see, even inside, as I fired mental insults at her, her mother and her grandmother. I was convinced she’d walk out, like she’d heard what I was thinking, and immediately I’d forget this moment of sad calmness and simply add “Julia leaves me” as another stitch to my Bayeux Tapestry chronicling one awful, awful day, but she didn’t. She just rubbed my hand, and that was all I needed.

“It happens to the best of us,” she said, and, in spite of all the vagueness in her statement, I knew exactly what she meant. A man misses his train and goes, “What’s wrong with the world?!”, or a woman gets short-changed at the market and goes, “What’s wrong with the world?!”, or I lose my job and go, “What’s wrong with the world?!” Or perhaps my language had been more colourful than that, I’m not quite sure, but the point remained the same: at the end of the day, life was not a cancer. I was just angry. I was still angry – Julia’s simple words of wisdom or otherwise and her offering of pizza could not quell me completely – but I still went back to our Saturday lunch in the park, misdirecting tourists, in the seldom-seen sunshine, and the ranting and raving in my head fell down just a notch.

Make no mistake, being out of a job was a serious thing, and I still harboured a great deal of resentment to my stupid unprofessional ex-boss and his stupid unprofessional company, and I knew I’d soon be back to my world-weary frustrations, shouting, “What went wrong?”. But the words still rang true: “It happens to the best of us.” We were still again, Julia just gently grasping my hand as it rested upon the table, not seeming to mind that her little finger was just grazing the greasy crust of my slice, but now we were really still, because – as I’d realised, my epiphany, better than the sudden awareness of cruddy sales figures – it was just us. It was funny: suddenly I felt so small, yet it was just what I needed. No global scale, no mountain from a molehill – but I guess that’s just anger, isn’t it? It might sound like an unsatisfying conclusion, but, through the power of comparison, I felt pretty good.

“There’s always tomorrow,” was Julia’s closing statement. She was right: tomorrow would happen, regardless of me. And, despite myself, I couldn’t help but smile, just for a second.

By Brandon Seager

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