June 27, 2014 5:39 pm

Without fear of favours

You become obsessed with whether she is going to charge you or not

Why is everything so complicated? Because I make it so?

The key to life, just now, seems to me to be selecting the correct things to worry about. You need to choose the mildly taxing over anything associated with dismay. You need to go for puzzles and riddles, little conundrums, such as where on earth has that candyfloss machine gone? You know you hid it when sugary pink fluff became a breakfast staple last summer, but where is it? And maybe try not to fret about what to say when you hear 13-year-old girls use the word “rapey” to describe a person who is really friendly, and “abusive” to describe enjoyable banter and teasing.

Worry, rather, about how small pink rosewater-flavoured meringues are three times as easy to make as macaroons, and, to my mind, more delicious, but do they make people take their hats off to you in the same way? And then not obsess about a very elderly and ill American lady who recently told you, “Life’s a ride where they sure make you pay at the exit.”

You need to reconstruct the joke, working backwards, about the Dutch washer-upper and his hirsute octopus-type pet whose punchline is, “Now Hans that do dishes can be mild as Gervaise with Miles’ new furry-lipped squid”...That sort of thing.

My friend Zoe told me, when we were 18, that she fell asleep wondering what would happen if you fried green vegetables in salad dressing. Could it be the most delicious thing ever? Or not?

The worry du jour, and it’s not in the least unpleasant, is as follows. Sometimes a friend does you a favour – or is it a favour? – drawing on her professional skills (in law, in architecture, in publishing, in interior design), advising you in a detailed way (quick back-of-envelope sketches may be involved but not printouts), pointing you in the right direction, preventing you from error or the ceiling coming down, and you are unsure whether the favour has been construed as work or not. You mull and ponder the nature of the transaction even as you are receiving the advice. Her tone is informal. There is much laughter and coffee drinking. You hope what you are doing together is seen as work, because otherwise you could strike her as demanding or, that dreadful thing, needy. You said, early on, “Do please think of this as a job of work,” and she laughed modestly. But what did that laugh mean?

You become rather obsessed with whether she is going to charge you or not. You sincerely hope she will, you meant her to from the start, and, deep down, you don’t really like people doing you favours because, lavish as hell, you like to be the one who does favours for others. Yet a tiny part of you would be rather thrilled if she did not charge because it would be so, well, friendly. If no bill comes, you will enjoy thinking of the perfect present to give her, and yet, surely, it’s straighter if you just add, “Do please send me an invoice for your brilliant help with X,” as a PS on an email about something else. But could it sound a bit high-handed? Might, “Please let me know what I owe you,” sound resentful?

These things are famously delicate. As a teenager I once thanked my mother, quite formally, for all she had done for me in my life. “That’s a terrible thing to say,” she said. Ouch.

So you wait for things to become clear in the fullness of time. If the work is to be a gift, you will thank her profusely, think of what else you can do in return to please her, but you cannot do this until a bill does not arrive in case your flurry of thanks makes her feel the piece of work she has done is being relegated to the status of favour when she did not see it as such.

Meanwhile, if it were a favour and not a job of work, in this interim period where things remain unclear bill-wise and you hold back slightly on thanks and fully on gifts, you run the risk that she may feel insufficiently appreciated for her kindness and get the hump. What to do?

You don’t know what to do but you are grateful to her and to the whole situation for taking care of many hours and staving off other things that are truly worrying. That is a gift worth a great deal.

susie.boyt@ft.com, Twitter: @SusieBoyt

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