“I’ve worked out why people like stories,” says Nige. We’re in the Tavern and as is often the case his face is streaked with paint, rather like a Red Indian – Native American – in a cowboy story. I used to think he just didn’t get time to have a shower after painting someone’s house but now I reckon it’s more a badge of honour, or at least a sign to any single woman that he’s got a job.
“Because they have proper endings, unlike in real life?” I say. I’m dressed in a plain blue shirt with grey trousers, rather like an extra in the background of a movie. We’re both leaning against the counter. It’s Monday night and the place smells a little vacant, stories hiding in the shadowed corners as if waiting for the weekend before showing themselves.
“No,” he says, “because the characters can’t escape.”
For some reason I think about Old Harry then, who used to sit permanently at the end of this counter, large buttocks sculpted around the stool seat as if they’d never been separated. Although he didn’t say much, the bar wasn’t the same after he died. After he escaped.
“Like Julie?” I say.
“Well, yeah, but in her case I organised the escape committee and helped her dig the bleedin’ tunnel.”
Nige’s smile is a little taught when he says this but I let it pass.
“Bit part characters can escape,” he says, “but not the leading people.”
“I seem to recall once reading about some pigmies who were shown a load of western movies,” I say. “If the main character went into a shop, bought something and left, they wanted to know what happened to the shop keeper.”
“That’s because in their world, everyone counts; everyone is part of the story. In our culture, hardly anyone counts, just the main man which is yourself, mainly. If you’re a pigmy you can’t escape the world. But if you’re a westerner, that’s all you ever bleedin’ do. So we like stories, novels, movies because they perpetuate the myth that we’re actually in a world we can’t escape from.”
I think about the stories I’ve written. Never once has a character been able to simply leave the story. Unless they’re just the shop keeper who sold the hero something he needed at that particular moment.
“Are you saying we like to read about people who can’t escape their lives because that’s what we do all the time?”
He pauses in the usual way, by lifting his pint glass and swallowing half the contents.
“As usual, Tel,” he says, “you’re complicating things. What I’m saying is that people are reassured by stories because they’re the only place where their heroes, or the objects of their affection, or just their bleedin’ internet service provider, have to stay put until the end. They can’t just start something and leave it unfinished.”
“Unless they have a better-paid job to get to.” I raise my eyebrow in what I hope is an ironic gesture, modifying the dig, which is about the time Nige was supposed to decorate our place while we were on holiday. We came back to find an unpainted house, a step-ladder with cobwebs on the hinges bearing a note that said he was very sorry but Nige had to attend his grandmother’s funeral. The only problem being that he’d told me about this trick long before we’d employed him and I was able to point out later that this was in fact his third dead grandmother.
He blushes slightly, accentuating the white war paint. “Jobs is different,” he says, not entirely convincingly. “Because you do have to finish them.”
“Eventually,” I say, getting the eyebrow into the act again.
“The point is,” he says, “that while we’re obliged to complete stuff what we get paid for, we rarely ever complete the important stories in our lives – you know, romance, friendships. I mean, how many old school mates have you lost touch with, everyone of ’em a loose end what ain’t been tied up? How many girl friends did you break up with and you still don’t really know why?”
He’s got a point, of course. Most of my old girl friends don’t even seem to be in the internet. Although, I’m not sure Facebook is really a story you can’t escape from anyway.
“There are a few story magazines,” I say, “that don’t want you to send them anything with neat, moral endings. Instead they want characters who act ambiguously and don’t always get what’s coming to them.”
He nods. “Yeah, yeah, but they still can’t escape the story, can they?”
I look around the room, at the clumps of locals, and the odd visitor; at the miniature kayak that’s been hanging on the wall for as long as I can remember, it’s oars going rusty; at Eric behind the counter, not cleaning glasses with a white tea towel, because no barmen ever do that any more, gazing intently at his smart phone. It all looks like a place you can’t escape.
“I could stop coming here tomorrow,” I say. “I could escape and no one would even notice.”
Nige puts a hand on my shoulder. “Of course we’d notice, Tel,” he says. “We just wouldn’t bother to go looking for you.”