I realised that I was essentially on my own right about the time that I noticed that you weren’t listening to a word I said. Oh, I don’t mean you were ignoring me, like the way the people do in a waiting room; or even just blanking me as if I were a customer in your shop that required the minimum amount of interaction- a text book Tesco tick card of hellos and helps and goodbyes. No, I mean really and truly not listening.
It was the conversation about the greenhouse, I remember it well. You are forever throwing at me in the heat of an argument that I’m pedantic, or I’m asking too much that people should be that precise in their conversation or in their responses, but in reality I do actually recall every word that is said. It’s more of a curse than a blessing, and one I often try to obliterate through sedative amounts of drinking, although inevitably I find losing the ability more frustrating than having it but not being believed. Oh, I know that there are careless words and times when people say things in the heat of the moment, but people tend to remember what they meant, you know? Rather than what they actually said? They forget the role of the listener in the conversation, and how the filters of their experience and emotions can completely skew the most innocent of remarks; there’s no such things as a flawless conversation.
Which leads me to the joke.
It started as a joke, the joke… I was playing a joke by telling a joke, though not feeling either jocular or jocund- in fact, I suspect my intent was positively predatory; a feline, prowling attempt to set a trap and lay in wait. I told it to see what would happen. I told it because you’d not listened earlier, when I talked about what we were having for tea, then you’d nodded absently through the conversation about my mum and the weekend, then, finally, completely blanked me when I mentioned the greenhouse and the cracked pane. I just, slowly… snapped.
I told it quickly, and quietly, certain you were not listening. You were sitting on the sofa. You were watching tv- Friends, I think, the one with the cheesecake. Usually I would start a conversation by trying to attract you; calling your name, or saying, ‘Hey, you know what?’ or something equally mundane until you gradually turned your eyes back to me, sometimes even your attention, before I spoke. The number of times I’ve been in the middle of reading a book, or even online meetings with friends, and you’ve launched into something, not appreciating the depth of my ability to concentrate, then looking aggrieved when I’ve asked you to repeat what you’ve said. So, for once, I returned the favour.
“What,” I said, without preamble, “do you call a man with a spade in his head?”
Your body twitched slightly and I quickly said, “Doug”, leaned as if to stand up and followed with, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
You did appear slightly confused, but, predictably, your only response was to say yes to the tea.
Gradually over the next few weeks it became a game. I would tell you the same joke… as we were rushing out of the door to my parents house… have you locked the back door…spade in his head… Doug … have you got your keys… all shouted in the same voice, every time roundly ignored. I would shout it from the kitchen, down the garden as you swept the leaves, round the shops with the trolley… do we need more… what do you call… coffee… a man with a… yeah, that one’s fair trade… spade in his head?
I started counting how many times I’d told you. It was becoming an obsession.
I whispered it to you when you fell asleep on the sofa. I talked through the bathroom door at you, knowing you couldn’t have heard me if you’d had a stethoscope pressed to the door, but telling it nonetheless. I wrote it on the notice board in the kitchen, then meticulously partially covered it with magnets supporting jaggedly cut coupons and impossible recipes from the veg box.
I mailed it to you. Coded, of course, split into tiny segments forwarded in an email containing a thousand ‘this is really funny’s and ‘pass it on or else’s, an email of some poor cow’s uncovered secret romance, or a fake divorce letter from a bloke called John. Hilarious. I was thorough, pieced every word in, every time.
One time I even told your mum. You were out when she rang. I told it her straight, no messing around with it. She seemed a little bemused, but thought it was funny enough. Ironically, I don’t tell jokes all that often, or that well for that matter, so her confusion was understandable.
Then on Thursday the twenty seventh, you laughed. Six fifteen at night.
I’d told you it twice that day already; once in the phone call I’d made while you were on your way home, the noise of the car covering most of the lines, and earlier, at lunchtime, in reply to the ‘ten cutest pictures of puppies’ email you’d sent me. I wasn’t sure you’d actually read the mail, but I allowed myself to include it in the total.
I guess I got careless. I didn’t realise Friends was on the repeated repeats on channel recurring plus one, so you’d watched it an hour ago. I didn’t realise you’d just stubbed your toe on the table as you sat down. The three hundred and twenty first time I told you the joke, I didn’t realise you were actually listening.
Your laugh was like an electric shock. I jumped. The hairs on my arm prickled. I burned, with an unreasonable, childish anger. Weeks and weeks of pent up anticipation, frustration, indignation, crystallised into a single, poisonous emotion that cursed through me just as though I’d drunk it straight from a Shakespearean apothecary’s vial. I stood. Slowly. And walked from the room.
That should have been an end to it. I should have lost my temper, told you how many times I’d said it, made my high and mighty point about how little you listened. But I found I just couldn’t let it go. I would post it on your facebook wall, tell it to your friends, your workmates. I would write it in joint birthday cards to nephews and brothers; you would raise your eyebrows, but I would shoot back, “Well, you found it funny… eventually….” You started cringing when I said ‘what’ in that particular tone, and then you gradually started noticing it in emails, in texts, in cryptic notes I left you on the fridge. I think the worst was when I pretended to be the bank, writing about our overdraft. The bank manager’s name wasn’t Doug. I knew you knew.
You tried to distract me, mend things, offered holidays and parties, clothes trips and presents. You begged me to get help, talk to someone. You offered to go to therapy with me. But it was too late. I didn’t want you to listen any more. All I could think about was the next time I would be able to tell you; the next time I could prove to myself you weren’t listening. The next time I could prove to myself I was right.
It was Sunday the third when you left. Quickly and quietly. The silence was excruciating.
Three weeks later, on the Wednesday, I got a postcard. From Spain.
I just might die with a smile on my face, after all