It was crowded in the pub and we were sharing a table with a group of older men wearing dark polo shirts. I’d ordered whitebait, a heinously unethical way to eat fish, so when this guy turned round and peered at my food I was expecting him to tell me that it is basically the veal of the sea and I am a terrible person. But he just asked what it was. I told him it was whitebait and invited him to try some. He shook his head and said ‘is it really whitebait though? Because, you know, sometimes it isn’t.’
I looked at the whitebait and tried to imagine what else it could possibly be. I thought about the scene in Anchorman 2 where they’re in a fast food restaurant in the desert and the chicken they think they’re eating turns out to be a bat. At a loss, I looked around the table for clues. His three companions were all younger than him and looked bored, and I realised it wasn’t about the whitebait at all. He was drunk and lonely and saying any old nonsense that might engender a response.
I asked if the men were his colleagues (they are), what they do (they ‘look after computers’), and whether he enjoys it (he does). Then without missing a beat he told me he’d heard that suicide is the biggest cause of death among men under 45 and he doesn’t understand why, because his dad died when he was 14, and he lost his five children in his divorce, and he didn’t kill himself. He said people are weak these days.
I expressed my sympathy about his dad and asked how he died (it was a heart attack). I said I was sorry that he’d lost his kids and that must have been very hard. He made a dismissive gesture and reiterated that he couldn’t understand why people kill themselves. I asked him whether he was saying that he couldn’t relate to that feeling. He told me, a little angrily, that wasn’t what he meant. I suggested that the motivation to end one’s life prematurely doesn’t stem from grief (which gets easier over time) so much as a sense of total worthlessness (which doesn’t). At this point he started ignoring what I was saying and talking over me, which was more than a little irritating. I reasoned that he wasn’t actually curious about suicidal ideation. Maybe he just wanted someone to recognise the pain he’d been through.
So I said again how sorry I was about his dad and his kids, and I was about to venture something about him having done really well to handle it all, but in my mind it sounded trite and patronising and assumptive and perhaps factually incorrect. Because if you’re seeking reassurance about this stuff from a stranger in a pub that you just started talking to three minutes ago then maybe you haven’t handled it well. And if you stumble through life not confronting the trauma that is affecting the way you see the world and the way you treat the people around you, does that mean you’re stronger than the person who realises how broken they are, how very difficult it would be to fix, and probably not worth it at the end of the day?
The man (his name was Andy) asked if he could buy me a drink, and I said no thank you I was going to go home. I didn’t say that I was getting very tired trying to figure out first what he was saying (it was noisy in the pub and he was slurring his words), and then what he actually meant, which was different again. He told me when he was a kid his parents used to take him to the pub over the way and sit him by the window with a pint of lemonade, and he’d watch the boats go down the river. He looked happy, and I realised that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t tell him he’d handled everything really well, because he thought he had.
I shook his hand and said goodbye. He said maybe he’d see me here again, and I could find him by ‘putting Andy Telford into Google’, and I laughed because he’d said he works with computers so I expected him to know how Google works, or at least to know that if you google ‘Andy Telford’ you find the Andy Telford who left his wife and five kids for their 16-year-old babysitter and then had to leave his home town because his neighbours called him a paedo. I also laughed at the assumption that I might want to stay in touch.
I shouldn’t have laughed about that, or the other thing. It just took me by surprise, that’s all.