Elise drops onto a chair. Faith’s already at the table finishing her lunch, a plump pouch of tobacco set out ready for the after-dinner roll-up.
“Can I blag a rollie?” says Elise.
“Sorry. I’m out of baccy.”
You can feel the silence. Elise looks at Faith, then at the tobacco. They both collapse laughing.
“Why do we do that?” says Faith, when she’s got her breath back. “We lie automatically. It’s so pointless. Why?”
It’s a spark of clarity in a murky world. Addicts lie. It goes with the territory. Guilt. Shame. Abuse. The lies become a way to protect yourself. I’m not saying that’s as it should be. In truth, it’s a fact of life for all of us. Addicts are just more upfront about it.
I sometimes think I’m lucky to have grown up when I did. I was a student activist in the 1970s. We took it as read that our phones were tapped. Paranoid? Perhaps. But it turns out we may well have been right. My introduction to information technology was via a departmental mainframe computer, so I assumed from the start there was somebody ‘out there’ who could check up on what I was doing, even if it was only one of the geeks in the IT department downstairs. Thus, when the world wide web crashed the party I never doubted for one moment that someone, somewhere could follow my exploits, read my emails and keep track of my surfing if they chose to do so. Then Edward Snowden surfaced, bringing dramatic revelations about email surveillance. Yes? And? Did anyone believe our online communications were secure? Confidential? That the holders of power had respect for our individual privacy? Surely we weren’t that naïve.
The assumption that Big Brother Is Watching Me is deeply embedded. When Tesco’s Clubcard sidled into my life a few years ago, it didn’t take long to work out that they weren’t interested in saving me a few pennies so much as in making more money for themselves. I bought nappies for a friend. I got vouchers for baby goods. A friend asked me to pick up dishwasher tablets. I got vouchers for a well-known brand. I owned neither a dishwasher nor a baby. It was my first experience of targeted advertising. For a while I was tempted to slip random things into the weekly shop just to see what they’d offer me. It felt as if I’d be pulling the strings instead of them, but I’d actually have been playing straight into their hands.
I’ve been on Facebook almost seven years. We imagine we have control of the image we project on social media, and most of us choose not to post every mood swing or bad hair day. Our profile pictures are selected with more care than new recruits for MI5. But looking back over my past posts I’m alarmed to see how obvious my state of mind has been at times, even though I seldom make it explicit. If Big Brother has been watching, it hasn’t been too hard for him to figure me out. Facebook is a nightmare for our inner Hyacinth Bucket. We want to appear sophisticated. Someone tags us in that dreadful photo from cousin Freda’s wedding. We want people to think we have exciting lives. We end up posting complaints about delayed trains, checkout queues and lost umbrellas.
The truth began to dawn on me a couple of years ago. It really doesn’t matter what Big Brother thinks, or anyone else for that matter. I’m sixty years old, and I never was cool, sophisticated or trendy and I’m not likely to become that way now. I’ve not made wise life choices, at least not by any of the usual criteria. I have no money and no property. I don’t own a car or have a high profile job. I’ve spent the better part of a lifetime trying to please everyone else, only to turn round and find I’ve made nobody happy, least of all myself. I’m not out to impress anyone. I have nothing to hide, and after all those years of trying to be someone I’m not, I can’t even begin to describe the relief.
Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we put so much effort into projecting an image? Into manufacturing a lie that’s as easy to spot as Faith’s tobacco pouch? Is it because we don’t believe anyone could possibly like us the way we really are? Heaven knows, there are enough people out there willing to reinforce that belief. Husbands. School bullies. Internet trolls. Ex partners. Walk a mile in the shoes of a chronic people-pleaser, and you’ll find out soon enough. If you cut off your right arm, someone will want to know why you didn’t give them the left as well.
I sometimes feel I’ve gone through most of my life believing everyone else is in on the secret. You all know how the world works. You know how to be confident and fabulous. You have the keys to success that I’ve somehow missed. But in thinking that way, I’ve given every Tom, Dick or Charlie who’s crossed my path permission to walk over me. I’ve taken on board the biggest lie there is. All human beings are of equal value, except me.
Parting company with this particular lie hasn’t been the easiest. My inner Hyacinth Bucket has been whispering in my ear for well over half a century. Don’t do that dear. Best keep quiet about that. What will the neighbours say? She’s shown me how to sweep things under carpets. To accept the intolerable. To keep up appearances, no matter how high the price. She’s drilled me in the insane mental gymnastics you have to do to live with the unjustifiable. She’s taught me to paper over cracks. To smile when I should have been crying. To say fine thank you, when I should have screamed please help me, I can’t take this any more.
Perhaps it sounds harsh to call these things lies. After all, they’re part of the game. Smile, though your heart is breaking. A stiff upper lip, a new frock, a spray tan or a spot of lipstick. A little white lie never hurt anyone. Where’s the harm? The harm comes when the lies are in control. Time was when everything I did was to please or placate, to make happy or to impress someone else. I got buried in the rubble of my own image.
I own more lipstick now than I ever did, and I don’t care what people think if I wear the wrong colour, smudge it or get it on my teeth. If someone’s going to think worse of me for that, we’re not destined to be friends. Of course Hyacinth comes knocking once in a while. That lipstick’s very BRIGHT dear. You’re going to look a bit SILLY wearing that at your age, aren’t you. Are you QUITE sure you want to post this on the blog? Funny how she always uses capitals. But you know what? Life’s been a whole lot better since I started ignoring her, and began to understand that all human beings are of equal value, myself included.
I’m blogging to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. If you’ve enjoyed reading this, you can find out more about what I’m doing by visiting One25’s website at http://www.one25.org.uk/. You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=JeanMutch where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.