Thursday, 16 August 2012
The Pyjama Test
Recovering from any operation is a fairly long and tedious process. Recovering from the proctectomy was longer, and more tedious than I’d ever experienced before, and it was my 9th or 10th surgery (lost count somewhere in the late 80s, and missing notes mean I’ll probably never be quite sure). I’d expected it to be much the same as before; I’d certainly thought it would be a similar experience to the ileostomy op a year earlier. My surgeon kept telling me this was the biggest of all operations, but I don’t think I ever took in what that might mean for afterwards.
I have a high tolerance for crap tv – over my years in bed, I’ve watched entire series of both the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent (oh, the shame), but there are things I draw the line at; if you ever catch me watching ‘Take Me Out’, for example, you have my permission to do just that. Guns are difficult to acquire in the UK, so if you can’t get hold of one of those, a knife will do, but just a quick slash across the jugular please – I know I’d deserve it, but a little mercy would be appreciated. A bit of kindness. I’ve had a rough couple of years.
One thing that alleviated the tedium of healing was visitors, and I had quite a few. One afternoon, my forthright friend (the one who pointed out that I could empty my bag into any toilet, back when I was first bagladied up) came over, furious about a book group she’d just been to. ‘We discussed the book for fifteen minutes and then everybody talked about their children’, she complained. It wasn’t what she wanted; it wasn’t the point, and she didn’t want to go back to that book group ever. She wanted to come to my book group. I pointed out that I didn’t belong to a book group and she said that I should start one. It should be called ‘Wendy’s Bed Book Group’ and only have lovely people in it and that was the book group she wanted to belong to. It seemed like a much better idea than channel hopping and maybe finding myself waiting to be garrotted, so I agreed to sort it out. It wasn’t as easy as you might think. For a start, I was trying to start a book group thirteen years after it had first been fashionable; most people I asked had either tried it and hated it, belonged to one already, or found the idea totally abhorrent. A couple of my close male friends, with whom I discuss books regularly and often, told me to fuck off, in that warm, snuggly way that only close friends can. One female friend told me she’d been to a book group where there had been an explosion (she didn’t explain any more than that), and was quite terrified of the whole idea now, which seemed fair enough, and so elaborate if it was a fabricated excuse that she deserved respect for that alone
There was another factor that had to be taken into account, of course – I needed to be comfortable with any and all members. When I was having a particularly bad day, the book group would indeed take place on and around my bed. On better days, I would go downstairs to the lounge, but in both instances, I would be in my pyjamas. Ill people have different attitudes to what to wear when sick, but for me it’s unequivocal: if I’m not well, I’m in bed and in pjs. If I’m feeling good, I’ll be up and dressed. But to get dressed and then get back into/on the bed feels like I’m conning somebody, quite possibly myself. Like there’s a chance I might get in the car and drive to Brent Cross, or go for a sushi lunch in Crouch End, when there absolutely, positively isn’t. Even going downstairs to recuperate in the lounge feels odd to me. I’ll go hang out on a sofa when I’ve got visitors and it’s a goodish day, otherwise I’ll stay in bed, because I’m not well; I’ve just had big, fat, horribly, scary surgery, I can’t sit on my painful bum unless there’s a pressure cushion underneath it, and pretending to be ok isn’t something I’m going to do. Ergo, if I wasn’t comfortable with someone seeing me in
my pyjamas, they weren’t going to be welcome in our book group. Besides all that, I’m a writer – pyjamas are my default clothing choice.
Finally, we ended up with several women and a token male. After the first few meetings, young kids, acting roles and general untogetherness had whittled us down to four. My forthright friend, a close writer friend who will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing Teen and me to the delights of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the token male, and me. It worked. Though we did think maybe we should expand a bit; we had dissent on most books, but we worried that we’d soon be able to anticipate what each of us thought without actually having a discussion. So token male suggested a man he knew with whom he’d talked book groups. I asked if he’d be ok with me in my pjs, and token male thought he could handle it. So new man was invited.
New man was fine; he arrived early the first time he came, and I found myself alone with him (in clothes – I lost my nerve about the pjs thing) feeling awkward. I asked what books he liked, and we disagreed on about three before anybody else turned up. But it was good to have a new book brain in our gang; one we couldn’t anticipate. In fact, so much could we not anticipate him, none of us foresaw that one day he would turn up with somebody else in tow. A pretty woman, dressed as if for a garden party (the rest of us women were dressed as if for a front room discussing a book on a Sunday afternoon), who arrived with new man, clutching the book we’d been reading for this particular meeting. The book was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It was the first book all of us were agreed on – we all loved it; loved its daring; its brilliance; loved that we could relate to all the characters, felt like we knew them. I should tell you, I’m not usually good at being warm and welcoming to uninvited people in my home – I have been known to turn away uninvited party guests in the past, but I’m trying to change that; I decided I’d be completely open to this person, despite none of us having any real idea why she was there. New man didn’t explain; she introduced herself by her name, ignored husband when he brought tea for all of us, and still I tried to keep a welcoming demeanour. I doubt I was very convincing. And she hated the book; she said she couldn’t relate to any of the characters, had never met people like them in her life. And still I smiled. My forthright friend asked her what her favourite book was and her answer was a children’s book about a bunny that died. By now, I wanted to laugh and point and ask her what the fuck she was doing in my house, but instead I was just grateful not to be in pyjamas. She wasn’t horrible or anything; she just wasn’t the kind of person any of us could relate to. They left early; we looked at each other in silence for a moment, then all started squealing at once – ‘who was she?’ ‘Did anyone know she was coming?’ ‘He must have invited her ages ago – she’d read the book!’ It was all too weird.
Token male was charged with asking him what he’d been thinking, and the next day he did; new man replied that he thought it would be a nice surprise for everybody. The woman herself facebooked token male thanking us all for making her feel so welcome. It makes you wonder how she feels in other company. Or maybe we were better at acting than we’d thought.
A couple of days later, I found myself in a kind of retrospective panic. I was ill; these were strangers in my home – what if I’d had a bag leak in front of them? What if they’d even glimpsed my bag and wondered about it? How had this situation occurred? They must have seen my pressure cushion; what had they thought? Probably that I’d had haemorrhoids; I hate people thinking I’ve got haemorrhoids; they’re so ordinary. I’m much more complicatedly and fascinatingly ill than that, and now these two virtual strangers, who didn’t even get one of the best books any of us had read all year, might be thinking I was one of those haemorrhoid people. I didn’t want them back; either of them. I spoke to my Buffy loving friend and she agreed; she said she’d not enjoyed the group so much since new man had joined anyway. I spoke to my forthright friend and she agreed – actually she vacillated a bit; she liked the challenge of new people, but agreed that if the rest of us were uncomfortable we needed to ask new man and his garden party friend to leave. And of course token male would have to do it; he’d invited new man in the first place.
I got really paranoid as I waited for token male to do the deed; they knew where I lived, what if they were furious at being chucked out of the book group and threw bricks through my windows? What if they started parking outside and just staring at the house? What if I remembered that new man was essentially a perfectly decent guy and stopped being such a paranoid loon?
As it happened, new man didn’t see what he’d done wrong by bringing an uninvited person to the group without asking first; didn’t get how carefully we’d chosen our little band of readers, or why. But he didn’t want to smash my house up either. He actually wrote a very nice email saying he’d asked another friend who agreed with us that he’d done a weird thing, and thanked us for inviting him in the first place. He wished us well in the future. He was the nice guy he’d been all along, if a little misguided.
I learned a lesson though – it was one I knew already, but it was reinforced, and I think it’s a good rule for life. If you wouldn’t be comfortable with someone seeing you in your pyjamas, you probably shouldn’t have them as a friend. You might think it doesn’t apply to people who are only in their pjs at night; or those who sleep in the nude, but give it some thought. It just might be a good rule for you, too.