How She Became A Loner

“I just don’t like people,” she says.

“How can you not like people?”

“That moment – when I sense a stranger is about to speak to me – is a moment I dread. If I could, I’d just ignore them and walk away. I’d press a button and disappear. I’d do anything to escape.” She studies my face. Our eyes are similar, but there are so many differences. “How can you like people so much and be my daughter?”

Mum’s a loner; there’s a sad truth to what she says. “I just do,” I tell her. “And I’ve met bad people, like you. I just don’t judge everyone by someone else’s mistakes.”

She lets out a little huff of can’t understand and shakes her head as she gazes down at the floor. “That moment, when I realise a confrontation is imminent, unavoidable, I grit my teeth, make a secret fist and do what’s socially acceptable. I say. ‘I’m fine, thank you, how are you?’”

“But it’s not a confrontation, it’s just a conversation.”

“Not to me.”

The way she eyes me now, hard and direct, tells me she never forgave. “I quite like unnecessary conversations,” I say. “I get a wave of excitement when someone a bit different walks up to me. Sometimes, I go up to them and start talking.”

“God no, I couldn’t do that.”

“Is the fear because of ‘never talk to strangers!’? Is that why?”

“No, your gran used to say that all the time. She was obsessed with the idea that some paedophile might grab one of us, but that’s not what used to bother me. What I feared were friends turning against me. Some of them did.”

“Who?”

“My best friend, Janice. She said we’d be close forever, at least until University. Liar, she was. A new girl arrived in our class and she preferred her instantly – she wore nicer clothes than I could afford – and that was it. Gone for good. They wrote a nasty letter about me and handed it round.”

“That’s not a friend, that’s just cruel.”

“She was my friend until that. That’s why it hurt.”

We sit quietly for a second then she looks at me inquisitively. “So, what’s it like?”

“What’s what like?”

“Liking people? Talking to people, out of choice?”

“It’s like taking the lid off a tin without a label. You never know what you’re going to find inside. I’ve met them all – the friendly ones, the fascinating ones, the bizarre, the unpleasant, even the aggressive ones. It depends and it’s a spectrum, like personalities are. Conversations vary in detail, legibility and levels of kindness, ranging from the angry young drunk in Peckham,” I do an impression of a geezer, “‘What the fuck do you want? How much did you pay for that phone?’ to the old man carrying a sleeping bag who spotted me sat on a comfy-looking bench from across a precinct in Stoke: ‘I’ve not had a problem with my teeth for years. Couple of dentures, an X-Ray. The nurse said I needed to spend two minutes twice a day brushing. Who has time for that? I’m a busy man. How long do you spend brushing your teeth every day?”

Mum laughs.

“I said to him, ‘Probably about a minute after breakfast, a quick go over midday and then before bed if I can remember.’ I lowered the book I’d been reading prior to his interruption – the Gormenghast Trilogy – and smiled into the face of what could have been one of its characters.”

“Sounds it,” she says.

“And he said, ‘Yeah, exactly. Best part of two minutes, max. And have you seen that new notice they’ve got now? The one that says if you’re late for your appointment you’ve to pay a fine and they might not see you again? The NHS don’t even do bridges now, you’ve to pay private for those. You’re looking at three-four-hundred quid a pop. Who has that sort of wad in their back pocket? I’ve got bills to pay.’ He points into his mouth. ‘Half of these are glued in.’

Mum grimaces. “Too much detail.”

“Yeah, that sometimes happens. But detail is something you can’t make up. I’ve met, in broad daylight in busy streets in well-known towns and cities, a gay priest selling a caravan, a drugged-up teenager reciting Keats and a mum and her two sons, both with Down’s Syndrome, dancing to Like A Virgin by Madonna in a chip shop queue.”

“Where did the music come from?”

“They had their own radio.”

Mum just stares at me, open-mouthed.

“Oh, and I had another conversation involving teeth not long ago. This friendly builder stopped me on my way to work and, amongst other things, said his gold teeth were worth more put together than his boss’ Rolex and BMW.”

“You’re like your gran, attracting oddballs. It’s because you’re pretty.”

“It’s my unassuming nature and lone wanderings.”

“Yeah, well, on a serious note, be careful.”

“I am careful, but I think you’re getting too careful.”

She turns away so I can’t see her face. She always does that when I get closer to a reason.

She’s pale, tired; she looks old. Older than her years. And she knows it. She murmurs, “Can never be too careful.”

“Some people are so careful that they don’t go out anymore, don’t talk to anyone. They don’t have anyone.”

“I’ve got you.”

“I can’t be there every time you need someone to talk to.”

“Not asking you to be.”

“I’ve got books to write, libraries to sit in, weirdo strangers in the reference section to chat to about their life stories.”

She laughs; she used to be a librarian before retirement pushed her fully off the social radar. She eyes me again. Her smile fades. “I know you’re trying to break my barriers down, but you won’t. You can’t. Even I can’t anymore. I don’t like people and nothing is going to change that. I wouldn’t chat to a stranger at gunpoint.”

I shrug. “Well, I think you’re missing out. The kinds of strangers who want to chat at gunpoint are the most interesting of all.”

End of post

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