Last week on a familiar nine hour flight home from Sao Paulo I dozed fitfully for ten to fifteen minute periods before waking abruptly in a mild panic each time, sometimes alarming and other times amusing neighboring passengers. I cope with the unnatural confinement of long flights by having at least two books available, one paper, the other on my i-pad, so when the aircraft overhead lights dim its at least an attempt at civility towards other passengers, add a couple of gin and tonic’s and the dim glow of the flight map to remind me how tediously slow these journeys can be. The books I had chosen were “the Invention of Nature” on Alexander Von Humboldt, who had around 150 years ago battled swarms of mosquitos, dangerous wild animals and disease in the jungles of Venezuela which were below me at that very moment. The other was a Rebecca Solnit book which in one passage described the infamous mid-century leap by Yves Kline from the upper stories of a Parisian building and which was also fortuitously timed as I glanced at the small moving map in front of me and saw my plane itself make a leap of faith from land mass to the Caribbean Ocean.
During these shallow iterations of sleep, I woke to find that I had remembered my dream, a rare occurrence, one which I am thankful for as it provides a flash of insight into my subconscious which retains its own secrets. But the dream faded quickly and slipped through my fingers like fine sand despite my best efforts, I only knew that at its indistinct core was envy and jealousy because when I was fully awake there was the inexplicable shiver of guilt and remorse.
Envy had crept into my relationship like the sudden appearance of a church mouse, at first both surprising and charming, proving that there is a vitality and still a place for raw adolescent feelings. But then the concern that with one there could be an infestation, and before long it’s impossible to think of anything else and so traps are set, increasingly inhuman, to get rid of this pest. Was the root of this ugliness the act of “writing” itself? I may or may not, have a pang of envy over a writing course Mary took, and ironically (or not) the subject she wrote about were envious feelings.
How did these enter my house, under which gap in the floorboards, or through which unseen hole? It made me think of envy during the remainder of the flight, not the circumstances, but its taste, its scent, its micro-climate, its sound, its color. My Mother had a slightly Germanic happiness with regard to the misfortunes of others, thinly and unconvincingly disguised as humor, where evenings watching the television would predictably have moments where she would sit up and say “ Ohhhh look at her, she must be green with envy!” and then sit back in a state of self-satisfaction. How did envy come to steal the color of green? It’s as ancient as the Greek’s, as old as Chaucer, but for me the it’s the most beautiful, lively and vibrant of the color spectrum; Van Gogh’s intense pea green shutters in Arles, the endless canopy of forests seen from a high peak in New York State, the luminous, turquoise water coves in secretive bays in Cornwall, the magical, semi-iridescent flash of the underside of a Kingfishers wing, blue-green, as it darts over the still, heat soaked bay in Southampton.
Thinking of the last time I felt envy, I was at a loss; Is there anyone I would want to change place with?,certainly not someone due to success or wealth, but also more as protection from unrealistic aspirations and increasingly from the curse of materialism, most objects now will most certainly outlive me. But in my youth, and my teenage years and twenties it was another thing, I was on fire for advancement and ambition and my memory searched backwards to those times while I was entrapped in the cage of this aircraft.
My strongest pull of envy happened in the mid nineteen eighties when I left London and took a job in rural Wales, for the Laura Ashley Company, which made very English looking fabrics and furnishings. I was working in Finance and the vast majority of the workforce was in fashion, female, also in their early to mid-twenties. There was not a lot of entertainment outside the regular local pub culture and it was a little like being an expatriate where we were the outsiders who must make our own fun, and to a certain extent, replicated some of the wildness and abandonment of those communities. Sex was much on every one’s mind of course, much sought after until suddenly it wasn’t, we found out that the AIDs disease that had devastated the gay community in the USA (and which had been called Gay Cancer) was now everywhere, even here in Wales, and impacting heterosexuals also, the unfairness of it! all we knew was it was a death sentence with no hope of a cure just an agonizing death preceded by large purple marks on your body and vaguely flu like symptoms. I will never forget someone coming back from a weekend in London saying that she was afraid of touching a trash can in case she contracted the disease; it became a powerful and omnipresent cloud hanging over all of us.
Socializing was a group activity, sitting for long periods in pubs or restaurants usually chance arrangements and it was on such an occasion that I spotted a tall thin women, shyly at the end of the table but strikingly beautiful. Like many others I had a girlfriend left behind in London but I had made it known to anyone who would listen that we were in the process of breaking up, with the possible shameful exception of the girl in question. I had a metallic blue VW beetle, already vintage which had its own unique charm, a fun car under any circumstances but in the tight lanes and empty roads of mid-wales with its magnificent scenery, it was wonderful to drive with the windows down and the cleansing pure green air on my face. One day I received the surprising news that the girl in question was “interested”.
We dated for a few weeks until an event took place which could only be described in an unabridged version of this story, let’s say I made a mistake, or rather my self-absorbed side made a mistake, which resulted in unanswered phone calls and a message not to contact her again. In a few weeks after this I had already planned a long holiday in India and I left on that trip, thin and weakened, before arriving on that continent. It took my mind off her for most of the time but still I felt her walking by my side occasionally and hopeful, embarrassing ghosts of redemptive conversations existed while I sat alone, poisoning myself in cheap makeshift restaurants while burning in the heat. All would be explained, all forgiven just as soon as I was back in Wales. But first I had another drama, in the form of amoeboid dysentery that found me lying in a dirty cheap hostel while the first rains of the monsoon came thundering down, drowning out all other noises, and the bone dry streets literally changed in minutes to muddy, treacherous rivers. It was a relief to see the British Airways plane in Delhi and I made a vow never to return, one that I have ignored countless times since. I did find myself work behind a desk a few days later, in mid-Wales, the other side of the planet in every way, having lost close to twenty percent of my body weight in the last six weeks.
The new look also went down well, new, more fashionable clothes purchased, and universal comments that I had never looked so good at a time when I had never felt worse were accepted with mixed emotions. The plan was that I was sure to see her again at the big social event of the autumn, a costume or “fancy dress” party which took over an entire local village and where almost everyone attended much to the astonishment of passing motorists. There were only a few Pubs and so it wasn’t long before she and her friend were spotted with two men, one of which I knew to be well liked with a certain crude, local charisma, a combination that was clearly working as she had come out of her shell and was performing, acting out her stories with surprising theatricality and grace that was new, and confounding to me. I had never seen this side, this outgoing, fully engaged person and wondered where she had been keeping this and why it had been withheld. They had also made an effort to dress and had Disneyesque outfits, a princess costume for her and a prince for him….their coordinated efforts immediately worrying, had they dressed together? I stood staring at them frozen, already defeated. Did I mention that my own anxiety about the event meant that I put off selecting an outfit until the very last moment? in desperation I borrowed a fake knife that appeared to go through my head and self-created blood stained shirt, a horror movie victim, and now realizing what was obvious to all, no outfit could have been a more apt metaphor. When they eventually saw me, the look of disgust had me turn and walk out, an act of drama that was below me but unavoidable. I knew then the smell of envy was stagnant beer soaked floors, its taste was an inexpensively bitter whiskey hurriedly drank, its color the brown smoke-stained walls and the wind blowing down from the grey hills was its weather. And its sound was laugher and the faint ghost of a voice persistently following me onto the street “Ohhhh, look at him, he is green with envy”.
It was envy for the easy going nature of the guy she was with; she had no interest in the neurotic, the hyper sensitive person who would rather watch an art documentary than a football match. There was faux wholesomeness about him, an apparent effortless nature….he was comfortable with himself in a way that I never quite was, but there was also a sense that he was holding up a mirror, and I liked neither party. It seemed to be the prerogative of the locals, the working class, to point out the pretensions of the new comers, a game they could always win. Adopting the stance of the work-class hero was the easiest route to take and in England and I despised it.
Opting myself for revenge using cruel humor (where could that have come from?) and telling a friend later that they were like the attractive but vacuous couple in Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” who he interviewed at random on the street; in reply to his question about how they achieved happiness, she said “I am shallow and empty and have no idea’s and nothing of interest to say”, and her male partner says, “I am exactly the same” and Woody says, “I see, you have managed to work something out….”.
Several years later I was in an artist’s studio in the East end of London and there was the familiar face, again alone, and apparently also feeling no happiness in seeing me. Mildly surprised at my total indifference towards her and knowing now the absurdity of imagining any kind of future together, the sentiment must have radiated, as it made her linger and look at me for a few moments longer than necessary, in curiosity, the way some animals behave to detect signals of weakness in other species, before walking out of the door into the London streets.