I have been set to wondering why a new acquaintance of mine, a woman not far off my own age, and who seemed so promising as a new friend – isn’t. I met her shortly after I moved in here and everything seemed right – she lives nearby, she’s creative, she’s clever, she has a lovely house and garden, we have mutual friends (it turns out) and – like me – she is single – though unlike me she is a widow and a reluctant single – while I, nowadays, am used to being on my own – and sometimes – quite often I’m almost ashamed to say (for it is so alien to our view of how society should be ordered) I relish it.
We have met four times now – all on very social occasions – the first time after a local gathering when she showed some friends and me around her lovely house after we’d been introduced by someone who thought we would like to see such a beautiful old place, and they were right. It was a very brief meeting but we all thought it was very kind of her. The second time we met was shortly after that when I had a small ice-breaking gathering of local friends and a couple of new ones – my neighbours – including said woman. By this time I had virtually no kitchen and was about to embark on a massive building drive so it was all a bit ad hoc. But that little gathering went off fine. She connected with everyone and left cheerily enough – though I hadn’t spent much time talking to her because you don’t at things like that – too busy making sure people slurp and chew to hunker down for conversation.
The next occasion was at our mutual friends’ place for supper and that seemed fine too – though I didn’t feel I’d got to know her very much better but – well – it was among a group of people and you can’t one-to-one-it very easily in gatherings like that. The last occasion – and with a very long gap between during which my entire house was rendered up to builders and I was left with nothing but a standpipe and a loo and more dirt that you can shake a telegraph pole at, was in her garden for a drink and meet-up of some neighbours of hers one evening. And it was there, sitting in this idyllic garden, sipping Prosecco (of course) and trying not to dribble bits of canape all over myself (with no kitchen you therefore have no washing machine and it pays to be very careful) that I realised I was bored stiff, fed-up with cold food (no cooker at home) and exhausted from dealing with builders – what was I doing sitting here with dust in my hair, grit in my ears, and making polite conversation about the Olympics? What? And why – since this woman does not work – had she not produced dinner in her fabulous house with its wonderful kitchen and marvellous dining room and beautiful china, napery and glass? So maybe some of my restraint in the possibilities of our friendship is to do with resentment at not being fed hot food? Could it be that simple and that silly? I had, after all, suggested that we should nip off one night for supper in one of the many ethnic places around here – but nothing had come of it.
Last night I put this to the friends who were with me when I met her first, and who met her at my drinks gathering, and who gave the subsequent supper party where we met her again. Was I simply being resentful and misjudging her? And they said that they, too, had not really warmed to her in the end. Odd, I thought, since on paper she’s perfect for all of us. But at least it wasn’t only me getting miffed about not being given a hot dinner. The three of us couldn’t – quite – put our finger on the cause of this flatness. And then – when I got home later that night – pondering the woman and why I felt so unengaged – I realised. Or I think I realised – it’s the only solution I can come up with for why. I think it is because she doesn’t seem to have any sense of humour – and – more particularly – she doesn’t seem to have the capacity to laugh at herself and I find that capacity to be one of the most endearing things about good friends. Yes – I think I’m almost sure – she seems to take herself very seriously – and that is a big barrier.
Humour – surely – is the mortar that holds us all together? It doesn’t mean flippancy – of course there are times when things are no laughing matter – that’s a given – you always respect and understand that. But there are times – quite a few of them – when the only solution to getting through life is to laugh at it, and to laugh at oneself caught up in the middle of it. And so far my new acquaintance hasn’t shown a great line in humour. I hope she will but I think she won’t. I shall try my favourite Tommy Cooper joke on her next time we meet – and if she doesn’t laugh – it’s curtains.
It’s appropriate to think about Patrick Parker’s Progress currently as I am living in a building site – with many a tale of arrogant, heedless tradesmen to recount. I will not bore you with details. Just to say that the average British tradesman has proved to be a bit of a wally – with a strange attitude to a Client Female. There have been good tradesmen and builders along the way of this journey into doing up a house – and there have been some who are so extraordinarily dense that you can only assume they were dropped on their heads very early in their lives and never recovered. Patrick Parker had a bit of a problem with his ambition and how to apply it in life. So did his hero Brunel. Brunel – we love that photograph of him in his high hat and his cheroot, do we not?, but what it hides is his huge Ambition and his sheer need to top everyone around him in his quest to be Great. He was Great. No doubt about it. And, running a parallel, my Patrick made it, too. But at what cost? Let me tell you what I discovered about Isambard Kingdom (the Kingdom, incidentally, was not a name bestowed on one destined for greatness and therefore in need of a glorious middle name, it was merely the surname of his mother – but it suited him) while researching him for the novel. Isambard ruled his Kingdom of pushing out the bounds of 19C engineering and transportation with an arrogance and bullishness that must, surely, have had something to do with his being on 4 foot ten inches high (hence the extreme titfer). He bullied his contractors, brought some to their knees, and vanquished others by not paying their bills so that their companies went to the wall. He once wrote to a contractor that he would like to whip him. Nice. I doubt that he was unique in this but it was a painful discovery – how I wanted him to be a real hero, without flaws, but he wasn’t – and that was that. In Patrick Parker’s Progress I have tried to run him parallel with my ‘hero’ to show that – to be great – these men would stop at nothing. But wait – let us think about love for a moment. And the softening effect of love. Not something one readily associates with Mr Brunel but – yes – he loved – once. And this is what he did about it.
As a young man he kept a diary – a very full diary – I don’t know if this was a commonplace or if it was his way of letting things out on the page that he did not want to let out to the world. Well, well. In this diary he charts his love affair and his courting arrangements with a woman called Ellen Hulme – she lived quietly with her mother and Isambard rode to see her as often as he could – he charts this happily in his diary. it was surely a love that was destined to end at the altar. Then that thing call Ambition took hold. Isambard was just beginning to be known as a force in the world of engineering. But he was not a man of connections, nor of wealth. So – in his desire to be Great – he rode to see Ellen Hulme one day and finished the affair – just said No. We know why he did it – he needed to marry well to climb to the heights of his potential – or that’s what he decided. So he ditched poor Ellen and married Mary – a woman of connections, of good middle class family, and said to be a young woman without talents who constituted no threat to his ego. Ellen, so Brunel wrote as if by way of excuse was clearly very bright, she was not like Mary – Ellen ‘quizzed’ him – that’s to say she wanted to know all about what he was doing and how he was doing it – and he used this, in part, as his excuse to dump her. Too intelligent for someone who was only four foot ten? Perhaps. But really, I am quite sure, it was his desire to move into the right class that drove him to make this extraordinary sacrifice. And sacrifice it was. The pages of his diary covering the time that he went to see Ellen and told her it was over have been scored through or torn out by him. He wrestled. He loved her. And he gave her up for his bridges, his railway and his desire to succeed as the Greatest Engineer of his Age. He achieved this, as we know. But, as I say, what a sacrifice it was. A man who gave up love for glory but never forgot that love. And how do we know this? Because, when he died – after having lived an unremarkable married life with his unassuming good wife and family, it was found that he had been paying an annuity to Ellen and her mother for all those years. He never forgot her, you see, and she never married. We can only speculate how much Mr B had to grit his teeth in the face of losing the love of his life to the love of his ambition. I imagine the shock to the good and dull Mrs Brunel when she discovered that her former rival had never – quite – left her husband’s heart – was considerable.
Now – back to the building site. I live on a sofa that is covered with an old brown throw – I have had no kitchen since June and sometimes no hot water for weeks – I eat cold food from the fridge/freezer and have ingested more grit from builders’ activities than a parrot requires – more men stamp through my door than through the door of a bordello – and without any of the fun. But I cling to the belief that once done, this house will be just the way I want it and it will all be worth it. That’s my Ambition. Can’t say I’m any more convinced that I am about Brunel’s Ambition being worth it – but it’s too late now to pull back. My greatest delight, my only certain pleasure, is to sink into my (gritty, dusty) bed at night – and pick up a book – and be transported somewhere else. I have no way of knowing if Isambard read novels. I doubt it. But I am quite sure that Ellen Hulme did. After all, she had the money from Isambard to buy them and the leisure in which to read them – and she will have enjoyed being taken into different worlds after her loss. And she will have found some comfort in them, too.
I’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it