I didn’t get on with my landlady. Why? Because she was too nice. Perhaps I should explain.
August 27, 2015
The morning light was pouring through the window into my bedroom and the lamps in the flat were blazing brightly, but my heart was a solid black, like an abruptly extinguished cigarette. Out late the night before, I’d stayed over at a friend’s place, and when I got home early that morning, I found I’d been burgled.
It took the police more than two hours to stroll over from the police station, which is only a 20 minute walk away. They carried out a routine search for fingerprints, which were bound to be non-existent, and told me to go to the police station, where I had to queue for six hours to give a written statement. An officer told me I’d never get my stuff back, but could use the statement to claim on insurance. When I returned to the apartment block the concierge said, “Because you bought your things in China, they weren’t covered by our insurance. But look, we’re not going to ask you to pay for the locksmith.”
Even with a concierge downstairs and the police station not far away, every night I find it hard to sleep. The tiniest sound wakes me instantly, and my nerves are all on edge. For security, I always close the metal window shutters tight before going to bed, but if it’s windy in the night they rattle. Pale-faced and terrified in the pitch dark, I lie awake all night, unable to let go of my fear.
In the end, after a month of both nervous and physical exhaustion, I’ve had to admit that I have over-estimated my powers of recovery, and under-estimated my fear. It isn’t the kind of fear which blows steady for a while, like a hair-dryer, and then is gone – it comes in huge, uncontrollable waves, rising and falling unpredictably, and it has left me constantly on the verge of a mental collapse. I’ve kept wondering what would have happened if I’d been at home that night, and if I were to stay on in the flat, what might happen in the future. The sound of footsteps in the corridor after dark terrifies me, and my whole body stiffens.
The time has come for me to surrender, and give up my eighteen square metres of autonomy.
Living with someone else will mean losing a degree of freedom, and having to accommodate that person’s habits. I’ll also have to pay more attention to how much electricity and water I use. But I’ll no longer have to put up with all these nights of being too scared to sleep.
I called a friend as soon as I had decided, and she recommended Marie.
September 13, 2015
Emerging from the metro, I threaded my way through the crowds leaving work, and found my way to 68, rue Molière using the GPS on my phone.
I rang the doorbell and a friendly female voice came over the intercom: “Come on up to the fifth floor!”
The lift door opened, and there was my future landlady.
Aged about 60, she was wearing a pair of elegantly-embroidered beige pyjamas which concealed her slightly overweight frame. Her short hair was ash-blonde and quite curly, and showed off her mobile face to advantage. “It’s Zhao, isn’t it?” Her smile was warm and open. “Yes, it is. Hello, Madame.” “Please, call me Marie!” “Hello, Marie.”
She gave me a tour of the flat, showing me the kitchen, bathroom and balcony, and when I left, she gave me a key. “You can move in whenever you like.”
Whether she was trusting or just naïve I don’t know, but this elderly lady gave the key to her whole place to someone she had only just met for the first time and who hadn’t even made up her mind to move in. Though such kindness left her extremely vulnerable, of course for me it was comforting and reassuring. I’ve been hoping to live with someone easy to get on with, someone who isn’t fussy or a trouble-maker, as I want to avoid the hassle so often involved in relationships with other people. Marie is warm and kind, and her place is cleverly and elegantly designed ̶ it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.
“She’s extremely nice, a real saint, and I’m sure you’ll get on famously together,” said my friend when she suggested I should move in with Marie. It looks as if she was right.
As I left, I asked Marie, “Is there anything in particular that you like your lodgers to do or not to do?”
“No, nothing – I’d like them to treat this place as their own home.”
And so I’ve moved in with a saint.
September 25, 2015
You’d be hard put to find anyone kinder or more positive than Marie. She has a job in a neighbouring satellite town, but it’s quite far away, so she has to get up at 3.30 every morning, and she turns on the TV to watch the news while she’s making breakfast.
For the French, having the radio or TV on as they breakfast is as much a habit as putting jam on their toast. It does affect my sleep a bit, but I’m not about to protest, as I know Marie has been doing this for many years. I don’t want my arrival to disturb the rhythm of anyone else’s life.
At about 5.00 a.m., in the dark and the chilly morning breeze, she takes the first metro of the day, then an intercity bus, and even after travelling all that way manages to be first into the office. Day after day, apart from week-ends, she goes to bed at exactly 10 o’clock, ready to get up on the dot of 3.30 the next morning. I once asked her, “Don’t you get tired of doing this every day?” She looked at me and smiled, “No, never. I love my job.”
She makes a point of buying me a bunch of bananas from the market every week, telling me “Bananas are very nutritious, Zhao, they’re very good for you” – this in spite of the fact that she herself hates bananas! Early in the morning at week-ends, she goes downstairs to buy me a petit pain au chocolate for breakfast, and puts it on the table in the living-room for when I get up. You don’t necessarily feel like eating the same thing for breakfast every week-end, of course, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings so I always accept gratefully. When a postman comes to deliver something, he is always given a glass of fruit juice, and the neighbours all get to share her food when (on purpose) she’s cooked too much. Every time there’s a holiday, she goes from door to door delivering painstakingly prepared cards. Over the May Day week-end, on Lily-of-the-Valley Day, she brings back a big basket of lilies-of-the-valley, trims them carefully and ties them in bunches, which she then sticks into the gaps around the wooden front doors of the neighbours on every floor.
She is thoughtful, caring, considerate and generous. If one of the neighbours happens to drop in, as they leave they always say, “Oh, how lucky you are – Marie is so nice, isn’t she? Everyone loves her.” This assessment of her is utterly surreal, though superficially Marie does appear to live up to such high praise. Her halo is perfect, flawless, and very substantial. As if, were you to reach out and remove it from her head, it could become a very filling doughnut.
October 21, 2015
Ever since I moved in, Marie has come and knocked on my door every evening at 7.30 exactly, to invite me to eat with her. Regardless of whether I’m trying to plan my dissertation or am busy working on an assignment, basic courtesy demands I have to drop whatever I’m doing and go out to lay the table for her and help her serve the food from the stove.
Being under the control of my parents in the past was annoying, but at least when summoned for a meal I used to feel able to call out “Just a minute!” With Marie, I can’t do that, because if someone goes out of their way to do something for you it’s not polite to keep them waiting and you have to be nice and show up.
First of all we have a starter – maybe a big bowl of vegetable soup, tasting strongly of MSG, or some asparagus, which is Marie’s favourite. According to her, asparagus is full of vitamins and very good for you. She likes to boil it in water for a few minutes, then pile it neatly on green china plates, before drizzling over it some rather tart, bright yellow home-made mayonnaise. We probably have asparagus four days a week. It looks very healthy, and very bland. But it’s like it is with your parents and the way they bring you up – they may well be right about things, but you just don’t want to do as they say. Asparagus may be good for me, but I don’t like it.
However, if somebody goes to a lot of trouble to cook food for you, you have to be courteous and say nice things about it. It’s not hypocrisy on my part, it’s only being polite and grateful. You’ve got no right to be fussy when someone is being so generous and good-hearted, because we’re not savages, after all.
The main course is sometimes fancier and might be roast chicken, pork chops, or tomatoes stuffed with beef, but more often it’s cold sliced ham from a packet. Out of politeness, every time Marie asks me if it’s all right, I tell her, “Yes, it’s delicious, thank you so much.” Marie isn’t the sort to show any overt pleasure or satisfaction when people praise her – she’s always calm and self-controlled, but when the corners of her mouth turn up a little it means that she is pleased, while if they turn down, it means she doesn’t care one way or the other. Like the rim of a china bowl, wiped clean of all traces of soup or gravy, so round and proper that you’d never dare touch it.
Sometimes I eat rather slowly, and Marie finishes before me, so she places her knife and fork to one side, not in a hurry to bring in the next course. If I then start to eat more quickly, she smiles kindly at me and says, “It doesn’t matter, take your time.” Then she laces her fingers together on the table and waits quietly until I’ve finished. I’m grateful for her patience, but at the same time it does make every mouthful hard to eat.
After the main course, Marie will bring out a whole new set of crockery and cutlery and offer me dessert, yoghurt, fruit and coffee. Sometimes I say I’m full and couldn’t manage a dessert, so she’ll get out some yogurts and ask me which flavour I’d like, or else she helps me to some fruit, or if I don’t feel like that either, pours me a coffee. It’s impossible to resist such kindness, and I feel I can’t keep on refusing, so in the end I have to choose one of them, and make sure I go through the whole routine. Only then do I see Marie smile with satisfaction.
Supper always consists of three or four courses, and it’s nine o’clock before I can get back to my room, start work on my heavy load of assignments, and write some of my dissertation, which seems to be taking forever.
In spite of the fact that I feel slightly uneasy about it, I’m truly grateful to Marie for taking such good care of me. To many people, anyway, a life shared in this way would be enviable.
Sometimes Marie takes me out to eat. There is an elegant restaurant round the corner, about a minute from her place, with very original food. We chat as we eat, and I tell her about problems with my studies, while she explains to me about French food culture and etiquette. We eat our fill and then walk home in the gathering dusk, I so full I can barely move, Marie in an orange sweater and with a sweet little mini-satchel over her shoulder, smiling at one another as we pat our stomachs.
At times like that, I feel as if there is a knob of warm butter melting inside me.
October 28, 2015
People have told me that, according to “Mr Nice Guy syndrome,” every “nice guy” is balanced by a whole crowd of trouble-makers who are just out to annoy other people and are unwilling to make any effort at all. But this doesn’t seem to be the case with Marie and me. Though I can’t be described as a particularly nice person compared to Marie, I do feel that basic courtesy and respect are absolutely essential.
If I finish my classes early, I always come out of my room to say hello when Marie gets back from work, and if I’ve had fewer classes than usual, I go into the kitchen and cook some Chinese dishes for her to try. When she has guests, I drop whatever I’m doing and go and help her tidy up and prepare the meal . Almost automatically, I respond to all her requests with “Fine”, “Great”, “Not at all”, “It’s no trouble”. Even though her cooking isn’t to my taste, I still say nice things about it and tell her I really like it. So it looks as if we’re two “Ms. Nice Girls” living together – what could possibly go wrong?
When it comes down to it, though, interpersonal relationships are not like burgers, which cook very fast once on the grill. Mary and I are always friendly and cordial to each other, but we’ve never been on intimate terms. A relationship like ours, built on civilities, is always somewhat lacking in warmth and sincerity. It’s as if both people are wrapped in plastic and though they may exchange friendly looks when they meet, inside they remain disengaged.
In the afternoon, Marie knocked on my door and asked if I had been using the printer in her bedroom. Mystified, I said I hadn’t. I’d deliberately never set foot in her room, so as not to make her suspicious.
“My printer’s broken,” she said. I looked at her doubtfully, not sure what she was implying.
“Did you break it while I was out earlier?” I attempted a clarification. “I’ve never been into your room, ever.” “It’s OK, you can use the printer, I just want to find out what you did, what you pressed, so I know how to put it right.” Her manner was gentle, the corners of her mouth smiling, so you wouldn’t really know she was blaming you for something. “Marie, I really haven’t been into your room,” I declared. “Well, it wasn’t me,” she said, “so it must have been you.” She inclined her head slightly to one side as if to indicate forgiveness, making it all seem very relaxed and showing that so long as I owned up and admitted what I’d done, it didn’t matter.
She’d made her mind up, and was going to stick to what she had decided, with no room for denial or explanation. And yet, alongside that, her behaviour was over-friendly, as if it didn’t matter, there was no harm done. I was alarmed. “It wasn’t me, so it must have been you” sounded absolutely logical and for a moment I felt that she could be right.
When she saw I was upset but stuck to my story, she shrugged and with a gentle smile said, “Don’t worry, you can use it again when I’ve had it repaired.” And back she went into her room.
I’m someone who, even if I’ve done nothing wrong, feels guilty and becomes distressed under questioning, and I must have looked very insecure and perplexed. But if the other party treats matters quite lightly, that too can make you worry that you might be over-explaining and taking things too seriously.
Suddenly, however, Marie’s kind face began to look to me like ink blotches in water, all vague and smudgy, ambiguous and deceptive, and this perturbed me and made me even more defiant. I would have preferred it if she’d questioned me and then we could have cleared the whole thing up; it would have been better if she had looked at me sternly rather than smiling so kindly, but she didn’t. Her lack of concern and her generosity of spirit meant I couldn’t explain further. I felt this was unfair, and I couldn’t work out whether I’d been given a punishment or a reward.
November 10, 2015
I’m now in my second year as a post-graduate, and life seems to have been speeded up. The terms are just as long, but my dissertation is becoming increasingly demanding. I need to use every minute to the full, as I’m getting bogged down and am very conscious of the drumbeat of time. I know what my weaknesses are and I must work even harder to make sure I don’t have a problem graduating at the end of the year.
Apart from at the week-ends, basically it’s Marie who cooks for me every day. As I’ve already said, I’m not a very nice person, and there’s no way I could be responsible for feeding someone else while I’m so busy with my studies. If I were on my own, I’d be free to do as I pleased, cooking chicken soup or pigs trotters if I had lots of time, and making do with instant noodles if time were tight. I’m very grateful to Marie, but would be absolutely incapable of taking such good care of someone else myself.
The ever-increasing number of courses I’m taking are spreading through the whole day and into the evening, like a tide, and when I get out of class in the afternoon I’ve now only got an hour’s gap before my evening classes, which last until 9.00 p.m.
I’d been planning to solve the supper problem by going with my classmates to the student cafeteria or one of the small eating-places nearby, but when I told Marie she said, “Come back here and eat, I’ll wait for you.”
“It’ll be 9.30 by the time I get back from class. That’s too late, there’s really no need to wait for me,” I said.
“That’s not late, I’ll wait,” Her mind was made up.
So she’s re-arranged her hitherto inflexible meal schedule for my sake, but rather than being touched by this I feel tied down. “Marie, if I don’t eat something before then, I’ll be starving during my evening classes.”
“Then have a snack, and we’ll eat together in the evening. It’s always nicer to eat with someone else than on one’s own.” She was smiling at me, but sounded absolutely determined – you could sense her intensity, as if she’d grabbed you by the elbow and commanded: “Stay”.
“It’s always nicer to eat with someone else than on one’s own.” Who could fail to be affected by this revelation of someone else’s capacity for loneliness, and the fragility which this remark implied? However, even if Marie was willing to wait until 9.30 to eat, I wasn’t willing to come back from my evening classes and spend another hour and a half over a meal.
You’ll have realised by now how Marie’s unselfishness shows up my own selfishness. Emotionally and morally, I’ve been beaten hands down. So because I feel some remorse over this, and also out of compassion for Marie in her loneliness, I provisionally agreed to eat with her after getting back at night, but I wasn’t at all happy about it.
This evening there wasn’t a class, and I was round at a classmate’s place discussing our work. Suddenly I got a text from Marie: “Aren’t you coming back for supper?” I sent her a reply: “No, I told you before I left that I’d be at a friend’s place tonight.”
Her brief reply arrived five minutes later: “If you’re not coming back to eat, you should have let me know. I’ve been waiting a long time, and you really should show some basic courtesy!”
I stared at my phone in disbelief, especially at the final exclamation mark, and was surprised by her anger. Nevertheless, I replied politely to this sudden and inexplicable attack:
“Maybe I didn’t make it clear earlier, so there’s been a misunderstanding. When I saw you before I left, I told you I wouldn’t be back this evening as I was going to a classmate’s place to talk about our work, and you nodded. I assumed you’d realise that meant you didn’t need to get supper for me.” After a moment’s thought, I added: “Marie, I’m really very grateful to you, but I don’t believe that preparing meals for me is your responsibility. If I’m not in, there is absolutely no need for you to wait for me before you eat. If this bothers you, in future how about waiting until both of us are in and have got a bit of spare time, and then we can have supper together?”
I’m sick of asparagus, frozen slices of ham and formal meals which last an hour and a half. I keep fondly recalling when I lived on my own, and could put my feet up on the coffee table and eat from a plate on my lap as I watched TV. This isn’t in any way a criticism of Marie, it’s just that we are two people who live life at a different pace from each other and have different habits. I’ve left my family and come overseas to study in order to gain some autonomy, but now I’m finding myself even more hemmed in than before, though in a different way, and this is definitely not what I intended.
Marie wants to be considerate and perfect in everything she does, and besides, she prides herself on her cuisine. I haven’t dared say anything before, in case I hurt her feelings and she felt I was eating elsewhere because I didn’t like her cooking. Her accusation today gave me an opportunity to express frankly what I’ve hesitated to say before.
It took her more than half an hour to reply. She wrote: “May have been a bit touchy because I’m so tired today. Really sorry.”
When I came home later, she was already in bed. I turned on the light in the sitting-room and saw that my place at the table was laid with a bowl and chopsticks, as if to say that everything had been prepared, but somebody was missing. The light shone softly on the lonely table setting. What was Marie’s intention in not clearing away my things? Now I’m puzzled, but it’s night-time and all is quiet – there’s no-one to help solve my conundrum.
November 25, 2015
My separate eating arrangement with Marie has lasted for a while and everything is calm. I’ve regained my personal space and my independence, and have been feeling much more relaxed. We are living together in peace and harmony, as we used to. Marie continues to buy me bananas every week and put them on the table, and at week-ends she still gets me pain au chocolat for breakfast.
At week-ends I have more time, so I’ve been going to the market to buy more food, including lots of vegetables, and have invited Marie to eat with me. But maybe she doesn’t like the taste – three times now she’s said she wasn’t very well and refused, so although I’ll go on cooking, I won’t ask her again.
Marie’s friend Jacqueline has got a new job and needs to stay with Marie for a short while so that she doesn’t have such a long commute. Marie has cheerfully agreed, has generously given up her own bedroom and is happy to sleep on the sofa in the sitting-room. Jacqueline did protest, but Marie said, “I’m used to sleeping on the sofa, it’s absolutely fine, and do please treat this place as your own home.” It was like a script they had both rehearsed.
The two of them eat together in the evenings, just as Marie and I used to: Marie does the cooking, Jacqueline eats the food, says nice things about it and then clears everything away. I stay in my room during their meal-times, while they clatter their cutlery and chat and laugh. I’m pleased for Marie because she has at last found a companion with a lot more time and energy. They’re very close friends, both of them lonely, and they bask in each other’s company. There’s a kind of harmony, I feel – both for the two of them, and for me on my own.
This afternoon, when only she and I were at home, Marie suddenly told me, “Jacqueline has had a fever for the past few days and has gone home,” “I hope she gets better soon,” I replied. Marie nodded, “Yes, otherwise she might have given it to me. I really don’t want to get flu, that would be awful.” That she should take this attitude to a good friend’s illness surprised me a great deal. I asked “Will she be staying on here?” Marie shook her head. “I don’t know how long she intends to stay, but she can’t carry on like this. She hasn’t been paying rent, you know, and I can’t sleep on the sofa for ever.”
I was taken aback by Marie’s revelation of her feelings. Listening to them laughing away so happily in the evenings, I’d thought they were really close. Yet, now I come to think about it, there had been signs beforehand, and I shouldn’t have been surprised.
For instance, the old lady on the seventh floor always buys too much food and then has nowhere to store it, and when Marie heard this she offered to keep stuff like the frozen meat in her own freezer. As a result, whenever the old lady sees me she sings Marie’s praises. Every time she asks Marie if she’s sure it isn’t inconvenient, Marie says it’s fine. But whenever she sees how full the freezer is, she thoughtlessly complains that the old lady needs to get her act together.
And again, when I’ve asked Marie whether she gets fed up with the lack of sleep and the long journey to work, she’s told me that she doesn’t mind it at all and seemed very positive about how much she loves her job and the path she has chosen in life. But every time she gets home she moans about how tired she is, and as soon as the week-end arrives she looks happy and says that at last she can have a break.
Actually, this is only natural, and very understandable: I can be nice to you for a while, but don’t push your luck; when I say “It’s fine” I am being polite, and my niceness is not limitless; I love my job, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get worn out. However, in Marie it becomes suspicious and unnerving. The way she presents herself is too perfect, so that people find it hard to tell the difference between what is genuine and what is fake.
Both Jacqueline and the old lady on the seventh floor are very amiable and appreciative. More than once I’ve heard Jacqueline offer to pay Marie rent, and Marie has always refused. It wasn’t Jacqueline’s idea to take Marie’s bed and let Marie sleep on the sofa. Being at the receiving end of such extraordinary kindness, and finding it hard to repay it in any real way, Jacqueline, like me at the beginning, was hoping to be able to return the kindness. So every day when she gets back she greets Marie loudly and enthusiastically and asks her how she is. When supper time comes, she cheerfully lays the table, extravagantly praises the cooking, and after the meal willingly clears and wipes the table. Sometimes when she comes home she brings a big bouquet of flowers, and before she leaves for work each day, she always leaves a nice note on the table.
At first, you might think it’s great to see good friends spending a lot of time together, and always being so sweet and encouraging to each other. But for me, sharing the same space with a friend every day would ultimately be unsustainable, and having to rack my brains to come up with something new and polite to write would become boring and tedious.
Every day, Marie tells Jacqueline that she’s very happy for her to stay on, and Jacqueline always responds with the utmost affection and gratitude. Why would she even suspect that Marie has secretly been building up resentment against her?
December 21, 2015
This morning I had the last of my end-of-term exams and went home for a nap. Marie and Jacqueline came in at different times and I heard their keys in the lock but I was so tired that I didn’t get up to greet them. Half-asleep, I could hear the two of them having a desultory conversation, the odd word weaving indistinctly in and out of my brain, the fragments of speech interspersed with gentle, comfortable laughter. The sound of their friendly chat made me feel as if I were floating in a nice, warm sea. The exams which had made me so stressed were over, and I felt at peace.
But our ears always prick up when we hear our names mentioned, and suddenly I heard Jacqueline ask, “Where’s Zhao?” Marie answered, “I didn’t see her when I got back, so I suppose she’s out.”
I stared at the ceiling with open eyes, and strained to hear what they were saying.
“I really can’t stand her any longer”. That was Marie’s voice.
What she said next was like when sweetcorn is shucked and stripped bare, kernel by kernel, in front of you.
“She’s a very wilful child, and has clearly been spoiled by her family. And you know what, she won’t eat with me any more!”
“Why on earth not? Your cooking’s fantastic, Marie, and I feel really lucky having you cook for me”, said Jacqueline.
“She always cooks for herself now, and goes to the library all evening, so I never see her. The Chinese go completely berserk when they’re studying.”
I lay rigid on my bed, worried that even the tiniest sound would make things very awkward for us all. I’m a post-grad in the literature department, and every one of my fellow students works harder than me – it’s nothing to do with being Chinese and taking my studies especially seriously.
“And I hate bananas, but I buy them for her every week – and she never finishes them! Look – this one’s almost rotten. Such a waste!”
Now, I’m truly grateful to Marie for buying me fruit, but I never asked her to, and I did tell her there was no need to buy anything for me, that I could buy my own food. But she told me kindly that it didn’t matter, bananas were good for you, and if I didn’t eat them we could give them to the neighbours.
“And on top of that, she doesn’t drink the milk I buy. I keep telling her that we’ve got more than enough and she shouldn’t buy any herself, but she always does!”
This was really unfair. I told her at the very beginning that I don’t like milk, and that there’s only one brand I’ve been able to tolerate since I came to France, and she told me that she usually shops online, and the website she uses doesn’t have that brand. The unselfish provision of food for another person may indeed stem from good intentions, but there is no way I can accept this sort of coercive kindness.
Marie’s final condemnation was, “She hasn’t invited me to eat with her recently when she’s been cooking, don’t you think that’s selfish?”
So she sees her three refusals as my failure to offer her food!
This was the first time I’d ever heard of anyone being unable to tolerate someone else not because that person does too much for the other, but because they rebuff the good intentions of the other. It’s a bit like being in love and the ambiguity that involves – when your other half doesn’t expect much of you, and so you complain, “How can you treat me like this?”
I lay on the bed, holding my breath. I realised that it had all started when I stopped eating with her. As if by not keeping her company at meals I was rejecting her.
If Marie had made it plain before I moved in that she wanted my company, I would never have chosen to live with her. There are some organisations in France which offer free accommodation in return for living with and taking care of an elderly person and chatting and eating with them every day, but our arrangement was the normal one, with me paying to share the flat, and I’d not wanted my life to consist solely of meeting someone else’s expectations. I wanted to live at my own pace.
It was embarrassing to have accidentally overheard Marie complaining like this, and I wasn’t at all sure what to do. She had no idea I was in my room, and in the end I was going to have to come out of it to go to the lavatory, make supper, or use the bathroom. It was inevitably going to be awkward in the extreme.
I held out until after eight, and when I couldn’t wait any longer I opened the door and headed for the lavatory while the two of them were eating. I became aware of a lull in their conversation, like when you throw a piece of screwed up paper into water and it stops rustling, and the sound of cutlery on plates also stopped, as if there was a brief power cut. Right up until I went back to my room, not a sound emerged from the living-room – it was as quiet as when I came home late at night.
Not until I’d been back in my room for a while did I hear the tiny fragments of conversation at the dinner-table resume, but softer this time, like an elusive electric current.
A little later, Marie came and knocked on my door. “Come in!” I said, unsure how to react. She pushed the door open, came in, all smiles, and walked over to me holding a beautifully wrapped present. “Friday is Christmas Day, Zhao – here’s a Christmas present for you!” Her smile could have melted ice, it was so warm – and so scary. I put out my hand to take the gift. Having just heard her criticise me so strongly and unreasonably, all I could say when I now saw her looking at me so kindly was “Thank you.”
After she’d left, I sat at my desk and stared in a daze at the gift she’d given me. The embarrassing scene I’d been worrying about hadn’t materialised, and instead there’d been a show of festive goodwill, a happy scene of landlady and tenant together. I suddenly wondered whether there was any difference between Marie’s pretence that nothing was wrong and my own pretence that nothing was wrong. Had there been a moment of truth in the friendliness we showed each other?
I’m absolutely sure that Marie’s niceness to other people comes from an inner conviction that this is how she ought to behave, but for her the emphasis is on “being nice” rather than on “other people.” She never stops giving, or trying to please, and she comes over as friendly and unselfish, but in actual fact what she is doing is looking for validation from other people and trying to build a reputation for herself. If her good intentions are rebuffed, she loses the way to self-actualisation, and gradually becomes very unhappy. She always claims to be laid back about things, she’s always gentle and considerate, but if she were really laid back she wouldn’t end up losing her equilibrium in the way she does, or feeling so frustrated and aggrieved. She cares more about her own image than the feelings of others, and locks the real her away in a safe deposit box, unable to realise what she really wants. Day after day, she remains calm and unruffled, and packages herself as an illusion, a fake.
The heart is like a homing pigeon, which even when temporarily transported elsewhere can still find its way home following the route it knows. When goodwill is expended but fails to secure someone else’s acceptance and approval, it’s like an investment which brings no return, and true feelings which have been long suppressed can pile up like heavy storm clouds. When it becomes impossible to choke them back and they are brought into the open, they can cause great anguish and exhaustion, both physical and mental.
As for me, it’s plain that I’m reluctant to say things directly, and never have done, frequently packaging myself like an automatic on-line pop-up. My first reaction is to try and enable both parties to save face, so I’m always saying “That’s fine,” or “It doesn’t matter.” I’m scared of awkward situations, and I worry about spoiling a harmonious atmosphere, so I hide things away, meeting the demands made on me by other people even when I’m unhappy about it. In the end, this makes things very difficult, 1) because I’ve not made my standpoint clear and 2) because I’ve caused some degree of offence to both sides. Far from having qualms about other people’s feelings, in reality what I’m doing is trying to wriggle out of any hassle, because I’m afraid of having to deal with trouble and having my equilibrium destroyed.
Marie and I are exactly the same: we’re both trying too hard to pursue ‘niceness’. But just as the excessive pursuit of positive energy ends being negative energy, maybe it’s also bad to try too hard to be nice?
Marie and I have never been open with one another. We have observed the proprieties and been polite, and whenever there’s been a problem what each of us has done first is to send out a kind of front woman, who practises what she sees as generosity and tolerance, and self-righteously sacrifices herself to satisfy the other person.
Yes, Marie and I are exactly the same.
February 17, 2016
The streetlights were coming on and the trams which traverse the city were clanging along their tracks. Night was finally falling, and the snow this evening was very fine. The only warmth between me and Marie was provided by a bowl of cream of pumpkin soup. Jacqueline moved out long ago, and this was a farewell dinner for me and Marie.
She told me one day that she had some relatives who wanted to come over for a holiday, and as they had nowhere to stay, she hoped I’d give up my room, and that she was giving me enough time to find another place. I told her that actually I’d found a new place some time ago, and was all set to go and look at it. Nodding, she said: “That’s wonderful, I’m so pleased for you, I would have been worried otherwise.”
Tonight we sat in the living-room and shared our final éclairs. From the last of her niceness she’d produced all sorts of pastries, a variety of yogurts, many different kinds of fruit, tea and coffee. It was almost as if she were asking me which was the final kindness I’d like her to roll out. I told her I was full, and couldn’t eat another thing. This disappointed her but she didn’t press me, just sat there, adding honey to her plain yogurt, and eating it with a small spoon.
Continuing with our policy of always being polite to one another, I sat and watched as she finished eating. To break the silence, I said “How lovely for you to have relatives coming, it’ll be so much fun.”
“I’d be fine on my own,” said Marie, eating her yogurt. “Every Friday I go and do my charity work, and every day I do a job I adore. My neighbours love me, I have a lovely clean flat, and I really don’t want anyone else here, I’m fine on my own. I’m not keen on having company, but whenever they come over I have to offer them a place to stay.”
She sat there wearing her blue sweater, and layer upon layer of the protective colouring we know as “positivity and optimism.”
February 18, 2016
I left Marie’s place at four this afternoon, taking the last of my cases with me. In the distance, I saw Marie walking towards me. I lowered my head and walked silently ahead, pushing my case and trying to think up some last polite remark, but when I raised my head again, Marie had moved to the other side of the street.
So there we were, me pushing my case along, Marie carrying home groceries from the supermarket, and we passed each other on opposite sides of the road.
There was a group of kids on the street, laughing as they dashed into a narrow cobbled alley, through the shade of the trees, and off into the distance. On this cold winter’s day, that cheered me up. Maybe we should all be like children, and live life more robustly and dynamically, not viewing happiness and positive energy as compulsory, not hiding when we are tired and hurt, having a good cry when we fall over, and laughing hard when we race ahead. Loving our own feelings more than the image we present, and respecting the feelings of other people, rather than pandering to what those people want.
Nobody's a saint – Marie isn't one, and neither am I. But we don’t need to be saints, because when it comes down to it there are many different paths to immortality and if you tried to force everyone to take the same one, it would be bound to cause suffering. To seek wisdom and immortality, it’s best to follow your own path in this world, meeting with ignorance and anger as you go, experiencing both the highs and the lows. Ultimately, that is all a person can be – a tiny self made up of multiple emotions.
The translator interviewed me for my place in university and also taught me for a while after I gained a place. I would love to make contact with her.
Paul Dimelow, October 16, 2021, 2:17p.m.