We were looking through old photos before the wedding. That was a nice one of Anna, the bride-to-be, a few years ago out in the garden with the tulips. I said that’s a nice one of her with the tulips. Jerry didn’t seem to be paying attention. Later at the wedding reception, across the table, I heard Jerry talking to Auntie Molly. I found this lovely picture of her with some tulips out in the garden a few years ago, he said. I felt a tinge of irritation. Actually, I was irked. I mean, that was my material and Jerry had run with it. That’s not fair. Soft skills like that, noticing things, constructing material for conversation, is one of the only things I can do. I have no actual skills to talk of. When the people with hard skills are showing you how the computer works or putting up the shelves or sorting out your shower head, you just stand or sit there and nod along. But that’s all right, because you know that you can walk into a room and say something that will open the conversation up. And now here’s someone getting credit for your material.
The soft skill people and the hard skill people face each other across a dark forest of incomprehension. The hard skill people, complete with their hard hats and overalls and terminology and acronyms are convinced of their superiority. After all, they can do stuff, problem solve. Soft skill folk know nothing. All they have is a certain magical conviction that when they open their mouths, lights come on. They allow themselves to take a conversation where they want, down into any thicket, knowing they can bring it back to the path. Your hard skill people have to keep trudging on the stony gravel thoroughfare. They would not want to stop off in a little copse over the way there. It would seem senseless to them.
So when I picked out that photo for special consideration, chose it as the emblematic one of the bunch, I was actually bringing to bear all the years of invisible training. All that reading of Proust and Thomas Mann, it was all crystalising in picking out the photo of Anna and the tulips, and when Jerry just picked it up and used it for his purposes I shot a dark look across the table. Without the Proust; without the Thomas Mann; without the Arthur Schnitzler. I ask you.
An infallible law maintains that as you grow older certain treats of your younger years become the scourges of your autumnal self. Christmas gradually transforms from a present-laden period of grace to a dread feast where you buy the presents and don’t receive them. You avoid Birthdays which, once awaited with glee, are now another digit on an already listing abacus. This disgreeable graph would plot a distasteful big dipper; as age grows pleasure diminishes.
But might it be that the horrors of our greener years are metamorphised into delectation as we advance towards decrepitude? Sprouts I didn’t like but are now at least a mild source of satisfaction; the notion of boredom changes its complexion these days, an empty day being the ideal to which I most aspire; as things stand I must admit to liking cooking, washing-up, even ironing (if we can omit the business of getting the ironing board out of the cupboard). The pleasures of silence (increasingly difficult to find) have become an absolute, while many years ago, in the long days of childhood, it would have been an absolute purgatory. This graph, then, has its consolations. I look longingly back to the Christmases of old but eagerly forward to the washing-up awaiting me in tomorrow’s kitchen sink.
I have now made my mind up about my last will and testament. I will find a suitable stately home for the weekend. My executor will have to do this. I will be dead. Ten chosen potential recipients of my great fortune will be invited to stay; chosen friends and family. Certain people will be surprised by their inclusion; others disappointed. The final choice will pay no heed to the conventional ties of kith and kin. Friday evening will be a formal dinner. It will be a long banqueting table. On the menu will be oysters, offal, cheese, meringue. A good bordeaux. No champagne. Water will be allowed. Each guest will come with a friend. That will make twenty people. At the head will be the executor tasked to guarantee the correct dress code for the occasion. Unwillingness or inability to respect the dress code will result in disqualification from the pool of potential recipients of the fortune. All guests will be made aware of these requirements. Saturday daytime will be a group ramble in the surrounding woodland. In the evening a drinks party in the ballroom. Dress will again be formal. At tea time on Sunday all guests will gather in the drawing room for the reading of the last will and testament. When the grandfather clock strikes four in the afternoon the envelope will be opened. I think I shall refrain form announcing the results via video from beyond the grave. This would smack too much of an eighties dramatisation of an Agatha Christie novel. The letter will be a sobre instrument. No, I am not looking for murders at the reading of my last will and testament, though who knows what people might resort to when the countdown begins.