On a Bateau Mouche in Paris, a woman clasping a baby was speaking into her mobile telephone: “She says he’s a slacker, like it’s something really special? Like it’s the same as being a heart surgeon or something?” The Louvre went past. The on-board recorded commentator said, “There is the Louvre museum,” in a French accent. “Look at the Louvre museum,” everyone said to their children. The woman with the baby, baffled, carried on with her call.
“I don’t get it. Like I’m meant to be impressed that he’s a slacker? You know, my feeling is a slacker is nothing so great. A lot of slackers, they just don’t amount to that much? So don’t tell me they’re the future. And, maybe, don’t lead with it when you’re introducing your boyfriend to your dad. Like, maybe, don’t be proud of it? Like, maybe, keep it quiet?”
At that moment a text from a friend came through on my phone: “Did Henry James definitely never have sex?”
“Um … can we speak later? It’s a bit complicated,” I texted back.
Seeing the sights, peacefully, in the digital age is virtually impossible. “Starboard, observe the Eiffel Tower, designed by Monsieur Eiffel,” the commentator said. It could not be denied. I remembered a snatch of a Marie Lloyd song I like to sing sometimes: “I’d like to go again/ To Paris on the Seine/ For Paris is a proper pantomime/ And if they’d only shift the Hackney Road and plant it over there,/ I’d like to live in Paris all the time.”
I was feeling complicated, as back in London a friend with the spare key was coming to stay in my empty house. She was a new friend, whose opinion means a great deal to me. Paris was all well and good but seeing its sights felt like fiddling in burning Rome. What would she make of my home? Of me?
Before I left I thought of set-dressing things to give a certain precise impression. If so, of what? Would it be hammy to leave the odd letter or diary entry visible in a way that might cheer and impress? Could I display photographs suggesting I was a dark horse, without quite specifying why?
I could plant expectations, then instantly flout them. I could subtly make a case that I am bigger, better, cleverer, kinder, sharper and sweeter than I am. (Be proud and powerful, I thought, as the experts advise. It didn’t quite work for me last year but tomorrow is another day.)
An artfully angled cushion and some pink-tinged white anemones could suggest volumes. A postcard from Anita Brookner leaning against Judy Garland’s actual 1950s white leather address book, open on the page with Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr and Doris Day side by side? Could a battered edition of the Zweig biography of Balzac, left in the hall, its flyleaf inscribed with: “To my darling husband with deep affection, Muriel, Christmas 1947,” strike the right note?
Yet it’s horrible to be summed up. It never feels good when someone says, “This is SO you,” even if the item in question is your new dress that you wear with pride. Could I leave hints that my surroundings, in fact, did not represent me accurately at all, that they went against the grain of me in a way that really thickened the plot?
Something I particularly love about my mother is that, though I have known her all my life, she constantly surprises. You can neither guess nor second-guess her, and you’d be mad to try. She actually says things and thinks things that could not possibly have come from her, quite often. Yet this inconsistency is not reliable as very occasionally she foxes you by doing or saying exactly what you’d predict, dashing all theories. It’s all very, very, deep. I am not like that at all. It was recently said of me, “It is quite surprising that you like a shallow bath,” but that is the best I can do.
I knew exactly what I didn’t want my house to say. I didn’t want any kind of scene that would conjure a Philip Larkin poem: no unshaded, overhead, 60-watt bulbs to indicate dreams fallen short. No dreadful, squalid clutter that spelled despair. Our attic is a disgrace but I hope no one’s ever called it “fulfilment’s desolate attic”. Yet my skirting boards let me down a little. Those chairs.
On the boat in Paris, the slacker lady was giving her baby a bottle, looking thoughtfully into the distance. I pictured my friend making herself at home in my home, pouring milk into tea, sitting in my chair, living my life. Could be worse, I suddenly thought.
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