I tend to be drawn to people who have a sad air about them. A sadness that is subtle, but poignant in its subtlety. Whether this says something about them or me remains a question for another blog post, but what is most curious is that this sadness preoccupies me, both as a writer and a human being. There is always something about their sadness – a moment’s hesitation, a hollow laugh, a melancholic shine of the eyes, a quiver of the lips, or even a throwaway comment – that imprints itself on my conscience. Imagination then gets to work, sometimes days later when I’m out on a walk or having my morning cup of tea, and fashions a whole catalogue of stories that might explain the pain they are hiding.
Just this weekend I happened to bump into an old school colleague. It was on a bus. From the start I could tell he was in a bad way. His hair was dishevelled, his teeth stained, the skin on his scalp peeling. He reeked of booze and neglect. When our eyes met he balked at first but then sat up with his hands laced behind his back and greeted me with the slurred words: “Hey, it’s been years, tell me what’s been happening in your life.”
It didn’t take the honed intuition of a counsellor to spot the tight smile which was stretched like tarpaulin over the broken pieces of his life. What’s more, his gambit pretty much laid down the law that the conversation we were about to engage in would be one-way traffic with him asking all the questions to ensure we didn’t venture into his life. I respected his unspoken request and stayed on safe ground by opting to reminisce about our school days instead.
All the while, however, his current plight kept eddying in the corner of my mind. I could not help noticing the chewed fingernails, the blotchy skin reddened by shame, his eyes that kept darting, refusing to meet mine. The smile that wouldn’t leave his lips, the same smile he used each day to charm strangers into dropping a coin into his begging bowl.
This was someone who had been something of a maverick at school. He possessed an intelligence that could decipher the most challenging maths equations and solve the Rubik’s cube in a matter of minutes. Yet he had a problem with authority. He was no stranger to being put on school reports and his disruptive behaviour frequently had him standing outside the headmaster’s office. Having grown up in the unstable environment of a broken family, he’d always carried a keg of anger which teacher’s seemed to be particularly adept at setting alight. It was clear to many of us on the day he was served his expulsion notice, that after walking out of the school gates he would either use his anger to conquer life or use it to stonewall the world, irrespective of what it had to offer.
I’d very much hoped that in the intervening years he’d have carved out a life of success, a story befitting a Hollywood screenplay and if our paths ever crossed he would regale me with tales of his heady achievements. I’d had him marked down as a computer programmer – someone whose métier would take him to Silicone Valley or leading boardroom meetings at the offices of Apple or Microsoft. Alas, years later, to find him drunken on a bus in broad daylight, trying to hide his shame, made me realise just how abrasive life can be, especially to those who are forced to start on the back foot. If there’s any consolation, I suppose that had he become that success story I probably wouldn’t have been preoccupied by him all weekend, and the nib of my pen wouldn’t be quivering to write the story of the angry young man whose life is on an endless spiral until the day he wakes, suddenly alert, swatted by the realisation that it is now or never. I guess I can give him a happy ending, which is worth something, right?