“Couple of friends of mine,” says Nige, “are suffering from middle class community syndrome.”
We’re in his garden, sat in plastic chairs on his decking, surrounded by early summer greens. The sun is low behind his house and the top of the trees are aflare with it. We’re drinking bottled craft beers. I reflect that beer, like everything these days, is another middle class choice syndrome. It’s delicious but for the price of a bottle, you could get a pallet of industrial lager in Tesco.
“Whether or not to be part of theirs?” I say.
“No, which bleedin’ one to choose.”
“Ah. They’re moving out of London.”
“Not quite. They’re buying a second home outside London.”
“So they’re looking for the perfect balance,” I say.
“Yup. They want a nice, supportive village community but not too churchy since they don’t want to feel pressured to make their kids believe in anything. They also want to live close enough to the centre so they get the benefit of cat and kid minders but not so close that everyone knows all their business.”
“Thriving pub but not too loud and blokey?”
He nods. “Close to bleedin’ nature but no local fox hunt or peasant shoot or battery chicken farm.”
“Characters who’ve lived there all their lives but not anyone who votes UKIP.”
“You got it. So they’re scouring the regions for the right mix but of course missing the point entirely.”
“That you can’t pick a community; it picks you?”
“Very pat, Tel. But not untrue. They’ve got money and time and transport links so they can go almost anywhere they want. The problem is working out what they want.”
“Tripadvisor should get into selling property.”
“Well, yeah, then no one would ever move.”
“Then he hits me with the question I knew was coming.
“So,” he says, “would you choose this street now?”
I think about stories again, and the characters we choose to fill them. Do writers go through the same process as Nige’s friends? Do they try too hard to make them fit the story community? Would stories work better if the writer picked a character at random then simply dropped him or her into the first fictional street he sees?
“I know that look,” says Nige.
“I know you know,” I say. “I probably wouldn’t, if I’m honest. I saw one of those get out into the wilds property programmes on TV the other day. This couple had spent months trawling through the British countryside via online property sites but they hadn’t actually visited a single property.”
“Did the programme find them one?”
“No, because they’d got into the habit of rejecting places for being less than perfect. So that’s all they see now, and the imperfections are even more abundant in the flesh.”
“You didn’t choose this part of the country when you moved here though, did you?” he says.
“No. I’d never even heard of it. My girlfriend at the time had a friend who was moving out of a flat near here and we needed somewhere quick.”
What’s really strange, I think, is that while I like living in this street yet didn’t choose it, I know that when I move I’ll be more like Nige’s couple or the couple on TV, and try to find the perfect place.
“Maybe as you get older,” I say, “you believe you have the right to pick and choose your community. You just don’t have the energy to go through all that fitting in and contributing.”
He sighs, which is a rare thing for Nige who, on the whole, doesn’t do ennui. “Every bleedin’ thing’s a decision now, ain’t it? A couple of generations back, you didn’t get any choice at all. You went to the nearest school, whatever it was. Your parents lived in the same place their parents did and where you were going to live, too. You married the nearest girl whose folks were just like yours. You had kids young; the husband worked in the local factory with all the other blokes and the wife kept the home. Must have been kind of comforting.”
“Really? This from the man who married a Serbian goth, who hasn’t got any kids, who works as a builder/decorator in sheer defiance of his excellent but secret educational qualifications, who has the world’s most extensive library of Kennedy conspiracy theory videos, who’s drawing from a huge range of craft beers as we speak.”
There’s a point in here somewhere, to do with writing better. It’s eluding me, like a dream that’s slipping agonisingly into obscurity as you try to keep hold of the ragged edges of meaning that you know it possesses. Perhaps it’s to do with the fact I find so little fiction worth reading these days. Somehow, for me modern authors are like Nige’s friends, restlessly roaming the world of stories but never really taking one on. Instead, they approximate – take a story that’s close to what they want or, more like, what they think their readers want. When maybe what they should be doing is simply taking the first story they come across then making it their own.
“One time,” says Nige, “I was on a job, decorating this woman’s house in Beckenham. She’d been separated for a couple of years, bringing up her daughter on her own, not going out much. She looked kind of mumsy to me at first. Anyway, we used to talk while I was having a tea break or whatever. And I don’t know why, maybe it’s just because I liked her, but this kind of held-back beauty started showing itself or maybe I noticed it because she was such good company. Thing is, Tel, we’d found each other, by chance really. We didn’t want anything other than the company. So, I got to really looking forward to our talks, to enjoying her smile and the way she was with her kid.”
He opens another bottle, fills his glass. I do the same.
“You know what,” he says. “Just about the time I realised I loved her – her, not what she could do for me – and was all ready to ask her out properly on a date, I went round there one morning, pencil stuck raffishly behind me ear, and this bloke opened the door.”
“The husband came back?” I say.
He nods. “Choices, Tel. The kid needs her father; the mortgage needs paying; against that is a stroppy builder from Lewisham who might or might not be the one she hoped she’d find when she was an idealistic teen. The weird thing was, when I looked at her, tried to hold her eyes, the beauty had gone, retreated again.”