Pain au chocolat
By Simon Barget
We lived together for what must have been ten years. I hardly knew him. That’s not to say we didn’t interact. He talked a lot. He talked about his problems, his difficult childhood, he went hell-for-leather into his family history. From between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, he hardly stopped mentioning his fuck-up dysfunction of a family. Fragments of these conversations rebound in my head. I could recite most of them parrot-fashion but then I couldn’t be sure I had it all down pat. He would say one thing one time and then say another the next. I never pulled him up on his inconsistencies because I knew how annoyed he could get, I knew how he despised it, and although he never remotely did anything mean to me personally, would never be mean to me back, I didn’t like him to feel uncomfortable, I didn’t want him to think he was wrong, I hated that awkward look on his face that made it so clear that he was stymied, that look of confusion etched with discomfort and pain, of knowing that you weren’t telling the truth and that you couldn’t tie things together, which was always the case, and that if it was your Dad who’d been such a shit then why on earth were you harping on about your mother, or why did he like one person one moment and then the next declare that he had never ever liked them -- he could say these things within minutes of each other -- or why was he vegetarian one week and then the next week I’d catch him eating a take-away burger, or why did he say he hated London and the next moment tell me how he loved living exactly where he was because it was so peaceful and he couldn’t imagine being any other place, I didn’t want to point all this out to him not because I was concerned about the comeback, I just genuinely felt for him and his confusion and I didn’t want to see him upset, I couldn’t stand the look on his face.
But we didn’t just talk deep. We spoke about all things, trivial things as if he was obligated to share every last thought that went through his head. Everything from thinking that he would presently get up from the couch and go into the kitchen and see what was there in the fridge, and he couldn’t quite remember but he knew that some of the left-over penne with tomato sauce was there in the little Tupperware pot which clipped shut with those neat little brackets, not much of it though and it would be dry by now, a completely different beast from the penne you take out the pan after cooking with the actual sauce and the pasta in it having just brewed and concocted and suffused it all nicely together, all steaming and piping, and then sprinkling a few bits of basil on it which you can taste and feel when you put the pasta in your mouth and it was always even less tasting of anything than it was when he first cooked it to be honest, and he would have to put salt on it which he didn’t necessarily want to do because he was a bit worried about his blood pressure, brought to his attention albeit only once by his GP and as being only very slightly elevated, but then he also knew that there was half a baguette still unfinished on the worktop but then he wasn’t sure that he wanted to eat more bread right now after having had quite a lot of bread already today, more than he usually rationed himself for, and he also wanted to keep some of it for tomorrow for breakfast – he had to have some bread-like, carby substance lined up for breakfast -- which he would most probably want to warm up in the oven -- and it would end up overcome with that nice golden brown hue, that he did realise, he foresaw that bit, but then again he wasn’t sure, because he liked to buy a pain au chocolat every morning from Gail’s and then he wouldn’t be able to get one, or he would, but there would be no point having the baguette and the pain au chocolat together, that would be complete overkill -- he would certainly not eat both -- and it was much more exciting having the pain au chocolat, no contest, he loved the gooeyness and sweetness and flakiness and the way it cracked and the fact that the butter was so cooked into the pastry that you didn’t have to be so aware of it and the consequential effect on your arteries and he put it in the oven as well to make it hot, but then that would mean he would have to go out and actually get the pain au chocolat and he wouldn’t necessarily know how he would feel in the morning, I mean whether he would have the energy to go, never being certain whether he would sleep very well at night, and when he hadn’t slept he felt completely gone and washed out and awful the next morning, certainly didn’t feel like going out, and he hadn’t slept all that well the past couple of nights despite now having this special sleep aid thing/device under his pillow which had made his sleep significantly better and deeper over the past five months, but then again he did like going out in the morning because he felt it was partly exercise although not proper exercise, and not the exercise he really felt he should be doing which was running, he always felt the stringent need to be running at every possible waking moment, and sometimes even going out for a walk made him feel worse because it brought to bear that he should really be running at the time in question and he could be running now since he was out, and he really wasn’t running, he was walking, he knew that, and then he might even see a few people jog past him thereby being even further reminded of that fact, but then again it was good to get air in his lungs and he said that the air even smelt and felt clean and fresh and slightly sweet when you first breathed it in so that going out and walking was still un a very low-key alternative to running, it was still outside and breathing and getting air in and out but then again the thing he really liked about running was sweating and he knew that unless he walked in a berserk fashion like a maniac, he wouldn’t break out into any sweat at all even a few beads so why kid himself he wasn’t going to walk at that pace because it made him look possessed and faintly ridiculous and it wasn’t worth the covert glances,
and then slowly slowly he would start to tail-off and power down to take a breather although you never knew when and whether he would carry on because at any moment he could find something, anything, parse anything to the last phrase or sentence, it was relentless the force behind it, how he managed to find more things to say about any tiny little point such as this one which had started innocuously with the mention of some penne in the fridge and I’d be having a little bit of respite as I was sitting on one of the upright hardback chairs in the lounge, the ones whose presence meant I didn’t have to endure the dirty couch, and he’d stop for a second or probably not even a second but some time measurement much shorter than that even, but shortly after stopping he’d resume pretty sharpish, he’d start talking about something else, something completely unrelated that he hardly even knew he was doing or why, he was hardly even aware of it, but he was going to pick up his phone and open Facebook and then it all happened so quickly and without him really knowing, without him being there, but he started telling me he had been looking at a couple of posts and he’d clicked on something that had rediverted him to a website about therapists wherein the person who had posted was advertising an eight-week course of group therapy, but it wasn’t that bit that he actually told me, he just said that he knew this person, so I didn’t initially know which person he was referring to, and that this person used to go to a group-sharing thing many years ago which this person presided over (which person??, I was still thinking) and this group sharing session wasn’t even real therapy and it got messy sometimes because people could be mean to each other falling into the temptation to tell each other what they really felt and thought about each other and this made him think that maybe this guy who had posted was not really cut out or suited to be a therapist or what he meant really was that he was surprised that he was doing genuine/conventional therapy rather than the questionable new-age bogus type he’d been caught up in for so long or if he was he had now decided to become much more conventional and regimented and basically compliant and then he had wondered whether he was qualified and had done all the exams and all that long training you needed to do and didn’t it take seven years or something to become qualified but the thing was, the point of all this was that when he told me all this stuff it was all cast in a critical way, it was all negative or competitive, trying to bring that person down, the person to whom he was referring, or trying to measure himself up against the person and hitch himself up, not feeling good enough or feeling better than but not really fully believing that he was better, and so then feeling worse and feeling that that person would criticise him or not like him or not want to see him or not want to be with him if he saw him now and that he felt almost thankful that he didn’t have to therefore be with that person now and physically actually see and perceive them and that he could just be presented with an idea of them in his head and when he wanted, to some degree, he could shove that idea out of his head and the thought would go and when he told me all this I could literally feel his exhaustion and his turmoil and how full of angst and energy it was, all this wasted energy, because when he told me I felt blown over and always a sense of hardly knowing where all this came from and how it could come from a person that on the outside seemed quite normal and balanced and reasonable, there seemed to be a disconnect between how he looked and the bilge he was displacing, but it was by no means over and the next thing was that a person didn’t look right/good/genuine on their new Facebook profile photo, something inauthentic about it, or attention-seekerly or snide or arrogant, he could never really put these things into words, so I never quite understood, the sentences were always partly-formed, and it would be pointless me trying to reproduce them, but lots of them tailed off or even started in the middle, and then the random interjections, such as in the thing about the therapist, he quickly rattled off in no time at all that this second Facebook man was also training to be a psychotherapist and that wasn’t it odd, as in a coincidence, that two people he knew were wannabe therapists and that their posts had appeared consecutively, one after the other, sometimes words I didn’t even know or bits of words broken off and then new words and he just expected me to follow him and the thoughts were, like I said, exclusively self-biased and negative.
Every time he wanted to say something he would come in to my room and tell me, or if I wasn’t there he would WhatsApp me and sometimes at the moment when he started to address me at the moment when you’d expect the person to look over and see you and notice you and just take in for one tiny second what you are doing, whether you’re sitting or lying down, or at your desk, what you’re actually doing at the very moment when that person who has come to talk to you walks in, what the expression on your face was, and how your body looked to them, what position it was in and what all the body language said about you in that moment and how you were and whether you actually wanted to talk etc., well he never even once looked at me and would just deliver what he had to deliver as if I was a sponge or a glutton for punishment. It was clear to me that he almost didn’t believe I existed, or that I existed only for the purpose of being sounded out, only as a background as something he didn’t know the faintest thing about.
Of course he saw me, you can’t miss me, I’m big and blonde, I’m muscular, I’m friendly with my wide beaming smile. Maybe people take me for granted; there’s something comforting about me. But he didn’t seem to take me in, truly acknowledge me, or if he did, it was rare, I could count those times on one hand, I would say they were greatly in the minority.
And so despite all the individual things he told me, all the literally tens or hundreds of thousands of things over the course of ten years, and he told me everything, he never spoke to anyone else, no friends and was estranged from his family, I didn’t really feel I knew him because the things he told me did not hang together. The picture I got was not clear at all and I couldn’t work out what type of person he was in the end: kind, rash, impulsive, thoughtful, reasoned, shy, overwrought, it was impossible to come to a conclusion.
And so I realised that what I was dealing with here was a child. You could not give credence to anything a child said and the best thing to do was just to go along with it, nod your head, smile, whatever the child said you could just agree, not that you cave in to its every whim but you just didn’t contradict it and though it felt strange at first, it felt like I was diminishing him to adopt this attitude, but actually it was as if he didn’t notice at all, it was so bizarre that blanking him produced no negative reaction in him at all, no complaint or anger, and so I got used to doing it and the more I did, the more it worked, it just so happened that he started to come in less, fewer barge-ins and interruptions, or he would come in and say something but it would really only be one or two sentences and then you know what, the sentences became more coherent less cluttered, and the thing that had never happened would happen, which was that he would just turn round and leave me right alone and then once not so long ago, he came in and he asked me how I was, he looked at me and I was so taken aback and thrilled, I was actually impressed, I decided that although I had been toying with the idea of moving out for several months, I thought it cannot be so bad to stay now and I just looked up at him and he looked at me and we both smiled and that was that -- it all changed in one instant -- and I can’t remember what was said after that moment, if anything, and I suppose it doesn’t really matter that I can’t get a handle on him because we’re getting on rather well now Simon and I, and like I said he doesn’t go on about small things, the things you can sweat, anywhere near as much as he used to and things are in the main pretty chill.