I n t e r e s t i n g

by Murray Bail

NOT MANY PEOPLE like me. I have no friends. And I would like to know why. People begin friendly enough, at least not unfriendly, and nobody is rude to me, yet none have taken the next step, which is taking an interest in what I have to say, how I manage to live. I don’t know what I have said or not said, or what it is about my manner that has put them off. It doesn’t take long before I see there is little of hope of them becoming my friend, or friendly towards me, let alone getting to see them again, already they are casting around at other people for possible friendship. People don’t seek me out. They don’t need me. People quickly lose interest in me. I don’t find other people especially interesting either, I can’t off-hand think of one I’d like to see again, but at least I stay in the one spot and keep talking – I make an effort. I have things to say about many different topics! There is plenty to notice in a face, including mine. I’d say that’s something most people haven’t picked up, don’t bother about, although it’s an area I’ve been concentrating on for years. If I’m talking to somebody I make a point of paying attention, and yet I notice they don’t look at me. People are concerned with themselves, nothing much more. For some time now I have made a practice of looking closely at the face of whoever I am talking to. I am put off by those men and women who have the deep vertical lines running down from the eyes, giving them a permanently worn disappointed look, in men mostly, as if they’ve thrown in the towel. I don’t just scan a face, I have been known to stare too much. Often I finish their sentences for them. On first meeting when the slate is clean I notice their politeness. This is how we are all supposed to be. It doesn’t take long for their attention to shift and they move away. And then I never hear from them again.

What is the matter with other people? I don’t understand why a person should be interested only in themselves when there is a huge amount of untapped interest nearby, for example in the seriousness among the people in front of them. I suppose my concentrated manner can at times become off-putting. People like a bit of fresh air, as if I am too concentrated. Near the Botanical Gardens I saw coming towards me a person I knew, if not a friend almost a friend, or so I imagined, and before I could prepare my mouth and shoulders in readiness for all that is necessary, less than six paces away he crossed the street and in his rush to escape almost collided with a cyclist. I ask myself – why? Here’s another example. Only a few weeks later I bumped into Graeme L, who I knew from my previous job, and without breaking stride he gave me a couple of rapid hand-waving motions in front of his nose, the signal being, ‘Can’t stop! Can’t stop!’ As he went on taking long strides I wanted to catch up to him, perhaps take him by the elbow. Instead I told myself he must be late for an appointment, and I remembered he was never punctual. Some people set out to be late, apparently wanting the attention. They then become addicted to it. It was not as if we didn’t know each other. Often we shared a bench in the sunlight outside the office eating our sandwiches, until one lunch hour I saw him waiting not at our usual bench but another bench with two or three others, leaning back and laughing loudly, over-laughing I would say, something I had not seen before. After that we never shared our sandwiches. He had repositioned himself there, at a distance, a conscious decision. It isn’t necessarily something about me that people don’t like – if that’s what you’re thinking. What about them – the ones who are rejecting me? I don’t know where their superiority comes from. It’s not as if they themselves have anything better to say. In my experience most people on earth don’t have much to say. I remember reading in the local newspaper, we all think we are more interest- ing to others than we actually are. I’d agree with that 100 per cent. Our view of ourselves doesn’t quite match what others think. It follows that other people are not as interesting to me as they think they are. I can’t think of any person I would want to seek out because of their interesting attentive personality. Last week I entered a lift in Macquarie Street for an appointment with my optometrist, and the one and only person facing the doors was Leon Rosenquist, the stranger who had formed some sort of liaison with my step-sister, thirty-four years of age, who I had watched playing tennis one Saturday afternoon, and if I’m not mistaken, we chatted together over a cup of tea afterwards. Now alongside me in the lift he studiously gazed at the ascending numbers as they lit up, without the slightest acknowledgement of my presence. ‘You really do need your eyes tested. Remember me?’ I was on the point of saying, my sleeve touching his elbow. The whole building was filled with optometrists and hearing-aid specialists. He stepped out at the seventh floor, having successfully avoided speaking to me. I assumed he was feeling awkward about his behaviour towards my step-sister. I had noticed how off the court he couldn’t take his eyes off the perspiration patch under her armpit, which had spread into the shape of a pear, or a humid country, Africa.

Just one friend would be better than none. The reluctance on the part of others to take notice of me makes me in turn falsely talkative, more anxious to please than is necessary, which only makes a difficult situation worse. Women also avoid me. It is done differently to men. That goes without saying. Women are just as likely to give a wonderful smile as they turn away. And if there were two of them they would no doubt go off rolling their eyes. I have never developed the special way men are expected to talk to women, said to be entirely different to men talking to men. Women are not attracted to me, not even lonely women, and there are many of those in Sydney, lonely women, so I am told, although as explained I make little impression on men, they have other interests, why should it be any different with women?

I met Elaine at the bus stop October last year. It was raining. I managed to hold the bus as she fixed a shoelace on the footpath. I am not an unkind person, I don’t think anybody would say I am. I actually get a buzz out of being helpful. At the same time I invariably pause if I see a blind man feeling his way with his white stick outstretched, not wanting to help. For some reason I sat down next to her after she’d done the shoelace. There were plenty of other spare seats. Being of some assistance as she squatted to tie her shoelace I thought gave me permission. She had a red handbag, matching red shoes. When a woman matches too obviously it is a worry. I said something – I forget what. She kept looking sideways out the window. I noticed then she had a red brooch in her lapel. Without warning she stood up, as if I had tried touching her. One of the passengers stood behind me. The driver asked me to get off. ‘This is not where I wanted to go,’ I wanted to say, putting my foot down. Such a misunderstanding left a sour taste in my mouth. All very unnecessary! If I went over the disappointments I have experienced over the years the list would be a mile long, and many more I have forgotten. By disappointments I mean misunderstandings, the discourtesies large and small, the avoidances, any glance or turning away that produces confusion. By any standard my situation is a difficult one. If there is laughter nearby I become irritated, even when it’s not directed at me. I couldn’t go on without developing a thick hide. It’s pigeons I have trouble with. I can’t bear the sight of them. If there wasn’t one left in the world I’d be happy.

The fact that I am ordinary in dress and manner makes my lack of success with people even odder. Anybody of unusual appearance or speech can be off-putting. That’s a given. My childhood was normal, average, if you like, nothing out of the ordinary there. I saw my father hit my mother with his open hand. She must have said something wrong in his eyes. My mother would go for days without talking. Often she looked tired. But she had several women friends who sat with her in the afternoon in the lounge-room over cups of tea and talked for hours. It was as if I wasn’t there. What they talked about I have no idea. Sometimes they were reduced to whispering. One night my father threw a pot of lamb stew through the glass door dividing our dining room from the lounge-room. I never found out what that was all about. Nevertheless they also laughed together, my mother and father, more than most married couples, which obviously made up for the rest.

I am of average height, some would say of short stature. While I regularly see men taller than me, I see many who are shorter. These days men are taller, bigger all round, not that it does them any good. I like to be clean-shaven. I am wary of the beard. What effect are the beard-growers aiming for? I notice some have shaved their head, while growing a beard, which has never made a lot of sense to me. I tried growing one once, and soon realised my mistake. In the mirror I had become uncertain. I wouldn’t trust that man. One by one I believe I have eliminated the remaining unattractive faults, such as bad breath, half-listening while people tell me something, and being too insistent about a minor point in conversations. I quickly forget people, those I’ve just met or have known a long time. Whose fault is that? I should listen more. At least give the impression of listening. But then shouldn’t others do the same? Why don’t they listen to me? It would be a wonderful thing if at least one person listened to what I had to say. Most of what is said is not worth listening to. The rubbish that comes out of people’s mouths is incredible. Still I should listen more. It goes without saying. As well I probably show that I am not listening, when I should be doing a bit of chewing of the bottom lip and nodding. And instead of asking themselves if what they were saying was rubbish, other people turn away as soon as they see I am not listening to the rubbish. When talking now I make a determined effort not to state the obvious. Always say something in a fresh and interesting way! I too have been guilty about commenting on the weather. If there is something we have no control over whatsoever don’t say anything at all. Rehearsing things to say can be helpful. But then I run out of steam. There’s no point in saying ‘good morning’ if I’m not feeling so good.

Without family or friendship we are alone. With friends we end up being alone anyway, but without a friend we really are alone. I have plans to travel. I have always wanted to go to Birmingham. I have never seen it snow. Everybody else in the world has been in the position of placing a hand on a shoulder, or holding the hand of another. I live in the house alone. Perhaps that doesn’t help.

Recently my parents passed away. It was on the Hume Highway, near Goulburn, a perfectly clear afternoon. They were driving to Canberra. I have no idea why. It is a very good thing I don’t have a wife or children.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 51: Fixing the System © Copyright Griffith University & the author.