First aid for my spirits

Image of Susie Boyt

Downcast following harsh words from an old friend, sad news, and a sizeable professional setback – all on the same day – I thought I’d better give my poor spirits some first aid before they sank irretrievably.

I tried to think of a compensation package that would elevate my outlook while giving the world a little dismissive glance and making it envy me wildly. I was stumped. How do you walk tall when you feel squished? Where can you grab some emergency status? (Is that why people have brimming jewellery boxes?) Where can you demand instant adoration? (Is this why people have pets?)

I needed some champions and fast. I looked out of the window, but the street was bald and bare. I said to my old cherry tree, “Ah, go on, lavish me with a little bit of blossom, go on,” but no dice. My father used to challenge people to a duel on my behalf occasionally, which was quite reviving. My mum used to encourage me to start fist fights, which was eccentric but also oddly encouraging. It was rather ennobling to be thought to have skills in that department.

When the chips are down, what concrete consolations are there: sugar, jewellery, sulking, lace blouses, music, roses, reading in bed, revenge? Is there any task more exhausting, more humiliating than “buoying yourself up”? I needed something more original than any of these usual things, something spectacular and a bit flamboyant, something drastic and final, like, I don’t know, donating my body to science but without the ruinous outlay.

As if the world itself was amused by my outlook an email arrived from nowhere inviting me to give a talk about happiness in the summer. “We so admire your optimistic outlook,” it said, “we know you will inspire others with your wry humour and graceful sensitivity.” Ho ho ho.

Had I dismissed the revenge option too speedily? Revenge is terribly unfashionable at the moment. That’s not a reason to avoid it, of course, but perhaps a consideration. I studied Jacobean revenge tragedy at university for months (I was going through a hard time) and the more I studied it the less interesting it became. If you put poison on the lips of a portrait you know your frenemy kisses every night, in order to kill him; if you bake your adversary’s children in a pie – well, there’s just no winning with that kind of carry-on. I wound up writing a paper on Jacobean revenge that pretty much argued that the elements of these tragedies that weren’t about revenge were the best things about them. Francis Bacon would have agreed with me. And Montaigne. Just saying.

Has anyone ever committed revenge with great style and panache? My brother had a girlfriend once who threw a tin of red paint over his car after he changed his mind about her, and I must say he was rather impressed; flattered, even.

And then I hit upon the solution: I would take my skillset to the next level. I would learn to drive, a thing I have always avoided, for no good reason. AND I would get my ears pierced, another thing I have always avoided because I am afraid of the pain. (There is in my handbag a semi-official looking piece of paper saying, “If this person should ever need a general anaesthetic, please perform an ear-piercing procedure at the same time, pref. inserting large tear-shaped diamond studs like the ones Cilla Black was wearing at the Liza Minnelli concert.”)

I pictured this new me, perforated and nippy, cruising along in a charming vehicle; chasing ice-cream vans for an impromptu cornet; racing with buses; parallelogram parking; negotiating three-point turns; giving lifts to all and sundry, even people who would much prefer to stay indoors. I saw myself entering rooms earlobe first, to a clamour of people congratulating me on my bravery, ears dazzling in the darkness when power-cuts struck. I imagined the life-long friendships I would strike up with all the hitchhikers, the ones that didn’t hack me up and bury the pieces, just for my earrings.

I telephoned my local driving instructor. In his photograph he looked friendly and encouraging, the sort to begin a lesson by handing out hard caramels. The plaid outfit he was wearing gave him a look of Rupert. “Hello?” I said.

“Yes?” he barked.

“I am wondering about learning to drive,” I stage-whispered, almost adding the cowardly lion’s plea of “Talk me out of it.”

“I can’t talk,” he said. “This is not a good time.” He hung up.

I called a nearby store where they do ear-piercing and got a curt message service on which I was told not to leave a message.

They were all against me. I hung my head woefully. But then I lifted it and peered out of the window again and there on the cherry tree was one frail pink sprig of blossom.

“Thank you,” I murmured, almost smiling, stroking my intact ear and looking lovingly at a passing bus. The relief.

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