Fans of Oscar Wilde (actually, anyone who listened to their English teacher at the relevant time in secondary school) will recall the (meta?) fictitious character of Bunbury in The Importance of Being Earnest. Bunbury is the invalid friend of Algernon Moncrieff who is the play’s secondary hero, a charming but selfish dandy. Hmm . . . sounds familiar. To be precise, Bunbury isn’t anything because he doesn’t exist. He is pure invention by Algernon and provides the latter with a reprieve from real life: that is, any social engagements that he wishes to swerve. As his creation, Algernon has the power of life or death over Bunbury or, to be less extreme, the power of health or ill-health. Bunbury ‘becomes’ ill at very convenient times, therefore providing Algernon with ideal escape routes.
Most probably, you can see where this is going. The Rastafarian had a ‘Bunbury’. The Rastafarian’s Bunbury was his neighbour. At the start of our relationship, the Rastafarian played in pubs every night from Sunday-Thursday, but then this became less regimented, until he was playing maybe two or three times a week. I used to call in after work sometimes and then, possibly, we would spend the evening together, eating at his place, going to my house to walk Rusty, then going to a pub for Open Mic.
Then, one week, everything was different.
Most days that week he’d messaged me at work, asking if I could call in as soon as I’d finished. Most times he’d had an expertly prepared meal waiting for me, but shortly after finishing, every time, he’d looked at his phone, anxiously and said that he was going to see his neighbour or his friend. He alternated between the two, but I don’t view The Friend as his Bunbury, as it could be a different one each time. But not so with The Neighbour; I had enquired about The Neighbour, with whom he seemed to have an overbearingly close relationship. He was a family man and like the Rastafarian, was here from overseas, possibly from Rwanda too but I can’t be sure. He visited him more than most people visit their neighbours and I imagined that he had a fridge well-stocked with Kronenbourg 1664, as I had realised that the Rastafarian was, sadly, driven by drink and decisions were largely based on what outcome would provide him with the most beer.
He seemed a little too concerned with his appearance, though, considering he was only visiting The Neighbour. He often tied his dreadlocks into a ponytail or tucked them into a cute little hat but once or twice this particular week he tried to wrap them into a turban, which was not pleasant, because he asked for my help and when it still didn’t work, he actually had a tantrum.
In truth, I didn’t mind a week of not seeing so much of him; I had said that I liked quiet nights in as well as going out. Ideally, those nights would include him but, like a cat, nights were for going out as far as he was concerned and days were for staying in sleeping.
However, the following week brought the same scenario . . . going there after work, eating, him announcing his plans to see The Neighbour. He’d disposed of our Facebook friendship too and his anxiety manifest itself in his curious denim-plucking habit. He had behaved peculiarly at the weekend, also, when I collected him from work. He appeared to suffer from an attack of claustrophobia just as I turned into his road.
‘Stop the car! I need to get out! I want to walk the rest of the way!’ he screeched, like those children you see in supermarkets sometimes, who want sweets and have learned that the more noise you make, the more likely will your wish be fulfilled.
‘What? Why? What’s the problem?’ I reacted wearily, becoming a little jaded with his propensity towards being not so much of a drama queen, but more of a melodrama queen. But he bellowed even louder and I was concerned that he might do something really dramatic (and dangerous) like grab the steering wheel. He had shoved his degree certificate under my nose whilst I was driving once, because, despite the fact I was picking him up from town at the last minute to ensure he got to work on time, he was enraged that I hadn’t taken the day off work to attend his graduation. I contended with bitter words of venom all the way to his place. I was indignant I wasn’t going to drive him 40 minutes to work, after the verbal abuse he had spat at me between town and home, but because he needed a lift, he became fawning and submissive until I gave in.
Back to his claustrophobia. He started loosening his tie, frantically, as if it were suffocating him:
‘Hot – too hot – need fresh air – honey, I’ve been working all night!’
Although his performance was poor, I stopped and agreed that yes, he’d been working all night, but he’d been working outside . . ? In the cold? Did he really feel the need for more cold, fresh air?
But there was little point in arguing – I had neither the ability nor the desire to detain him in my ‘claustrophobic’ car. I had said earlier on the journey that I’d like to use his loo at his place before setting off for home but I figured I’d sooner tolerate another 10 or 15 minutes of discomfort than risk an over-reaction at the probably unreasonable request to use his toilet.
So, the following week, when the same pattern recurred, dinner, phone-checking, announcement to visit The Neighbour, I decided not to be so accommodating. OK, I said, I’ll get going soon.
The Rastafarian checked his phone . . . once, twice, I lost count in fact.
‘Honey, I do not want to pressure you . . . ‘
‘Oh I know you wouldn’t do that,’ I replied, provocatively, I thought, ‘but it’s ok – I’ll go soon,’ I said with pacifying tones.
The denim-plucking began.
‘So stressed!’ I commented, as I gently placed my hand on his, in a mock-comforting manner.
‘Honey,’ he started.
‘It’s ok,’ I said as I pretended to yawn whilst stretching, ‘I’ll just nip to the loo and then I’ll be gone, so you can go visit The Neighbour. Be sure to say ‘hi’ from me!’ I winked at him and slowly rose, secretly placing an earring I didn’t much care for, next to the sofa. If nothing happens tonight, I thought, at least I’ve set Option 2 in motion . . .
I sat on the edge of the bath, on my phone, for a few minutes only before something happened. I knew that I had pushed him perilously close to the sun and he was in danger of tumbling into the unforgiving sea.
There was a knock at the door and even though I had engineered this so that I witnessed it, I couldn’t help feeling slightly sick at the confrontation to come.
The voice belonging to the knock was female. It was a voice that was unaware of who was just feet away, the other side of an inch or two of wood. It was a voice of someone who was grateful to come in from the cold and I can only assume that during her entrance, the Rastafarian was not unlike a rabbit in the headlights of a car, fully aware of what was to come but powerless to stop the wheels that were already in motion.
I opened the bathroom door and just stood, so that the voice, which now had a face and a body, could assimilate the information now presented to her. Because of my suspicions and my deliberate procrastination, I was prepared for this, but she wasn’t and for that reason I pitied her. She was nothing like me: short, stocky, short blond hair, wearing sporty clothes that had once been brightly coloured but were now faded. She was exceptionally fair-skinned and had a troubled complexion, which may be why she wore no make-up, but the result was an unhealthy look. I said very little in the ensuing onslaught of words. She was Eastern European and had a heavy accent, so like the Rastafarian, wasn’t always easy to understand and some of her statements were phrased awkwardly, but that was, in part, due to her fierce rage, I expect, which the entrance hallway was too small to contain.
Evidently conscious of this, she moved into the lounge, where her ferocity continued to spill forth and although both she and I were clearly victims in the overall situation, she had assumed the role of ‘persecutor’ in this scene and the Rastafarian the role of ‘victim’ as she fired accusations and insults at him from across the room, because she needed some distance to be able to take good aim.
At one point the Rastafarian walked past me, winked and chucked me under the chin, in full view of The Ex (which didn’t seem to be an apt title for her anymore) and I was disabled by his brazenness. I wasn’t a part of the argument until The Ex asked the Rastafarian if he was seeing me.
‘Nooo!’ he drawled, with the manner of someone who was lying.
It was at this point that I assumed a role – I, too, became a persecutor and expressed my surprise to the Rastafarian with a shocked look and a pointed ‘What?!’
She asked me the same question and I told her candidly that I was his girlfriend and had been since August. At this juncture, she asked me to leave, which I thought was short-sighted of her. Far better, I felt, for the two of us to take this opportunity to expose the Rastafarian as a liar and a cheat, by having a conversation in his presence, so he couldn’t twist the truth with each of us afterwards. But, she was overwhelmed by wrath which can render the cleverest people foolish, so I welcomed the opportunity to exit such a distressing situation and left, stooping by the sofa to collect my earring which wasn’t needed anymore.
As I walked to my car, I reflected on my relationship with the Rastafarian and decided that if it were a movie, you would think it far-fetched. There are a few things that I’ve left out that, in the words of Hilaire Belloc, would make ‘one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes’ (for those who don’t know the poem ‘Matilda’ it contains random capital letters). Funny that I should recall a poem about a child who tells lies. Matilda pays a high price for her lies and, whereas I’m not keen on the current use of the karma phenomenon to suggest that people will pay for their mistakes, I feel sure that the Rastafarian’s use and abuse of people will work against him one day. I don’t relish in that surety; moreover I just know it will happen one day. I pity the Rastafarian. I look at his life and I wouldn’t want to live it but we’re all steering our own boats. I tend not to share Facebook memes, but I love the one that goes: ‘If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree.’ According to the Rastafarian, I was ‘lucky’ and it was ‘alright’ for me. You would think that my career just popped up and presented itself to me, or that I just stumbled across my house one day and moved in, because these are the things, apparently, that constituted my ‘luck’. Of course, I do feel blessed in many ways: I have two awesome children and I have my health, to name two blessings. And I do recognise that there are people in this world who are less fortunate than I am. But the Rastafarian’s ‘poor me’ aura is what stops people from living their lives to the full. I had to accept that I couldn’t fix him. My loans (which won’t feel like loans until they are repaid) of money, lifts to work, rounds of drinks, the emotional support and so on . . . were all just sticking plasters on wounds which needed more, but only he can help himself. It is all dependent on when he decides to do this.
I got in my car and drove away, feeling like a jumble of sadness, exhaustion and relief.