Otto English explores, well, that thing. The thing we can’t forget. The thing that’s everywhere, inside and out.
Late in life, Harold Pinter wrote a short play called Apart From That in which two men, Gene and Lake, have a stilted conversation over the phone.
“How are you?” Gene asks and Lake tells him that he’s well and asks the same of his friend who says that he too is well “apart from… oh you know.”
And so the conversation goes on, with both men reassuring each other that they are both well, really well, “all things considered”, apart from some unmentionable, lingering anxiety that neither feels able to properly address. The brilliance of the piece exists in what is going on below the spoken word.
Pinter’s final play was inspired by the cancer then eating away at him and which eventually took his life. It echoes those uncomfortable conversations people have when some unwelcome illness visits itself upon life. Like all great art, the play reverberates beyond the limitations of its genesis and, in the era of this new ‘C word’, Apart From That has blistering relevance.
Sometimes it’s possible to forget ‘it’. I’ve worked from home for years and so am fairly proficient in isolation. But the world beyond these walls has taken on a jarring otherness and venturing into it is a journey into the unspoken. I notice it most on the weekly shop. Everything feels much the same until I get to the supermarket and see the queue and the little table where you are invited to spray sanitiser onto the handle of your trolley. We wait patiently, two metres apart, until the security guard lets us in. Nobody mentions the “C word” but it is there, lingering in the disquiet of the line.
Once inside, it’s possible to slip into the old routine. Food is back on the shelves and you can even find toilet rolls, but in the aisles I notice someone in a face mask, looking anxious and waiting for me to move around them at the recommended distance. At the tills, the cashier scans my items as usual and asks me if I want bags, but she is doing it from behind a newly installed safety screen, while wearing protective gloves.
We shoppers are wary of each other but warier still of ‘it’. I think about everything I touch. I think about it being on the packaging. I curse myself for brushing my hand against the conveyor belt.
It’s the same with the daily walk. Strolling up the road, as the empty buses go past, chatting away to my kids, it’s almost possible to imagine that nothing has really changed. But, once inside the park, there is an alternate reality. A dozen new paths have appeared, carved out by joggers taking their allocated hour of exercise. Sometimes, we bump into friends and hold stilted conversations several metres apart.
“How are you?”
“Very well and you?”
“Really well. Apart from… oh you know.”
And yet, for all of this abnormality, not everything is unwelcome in the age of the ‘C word’. Chief among my limited lockdown pleasures has been a return to telephone conversations with actual friends. Since ‘the thing’ appeared on these shores, I’ve found myself dialling numbers and hearing voices I haven’t heard in years. In the days before smart phones and the internet we used to do that all the time. Ringing someone up for no better reason than to simply chat was once an integral part of our social interaction but it had almost been lost until, well you know, the thing came along.
Last week, I called my old mate James for the first time in almost a decade. We shared the sadness and joys of 10 years; the lost or ailing parents, the little triumphs and what gossip we had of other friends mislaid along the way. As we said our goodbyes, I found myself telling him how much he meant to me and how much I missed him and how ‘when we get through all of this’ we needed to have that pint, as my voice wobbled a little down the line.
How will it be remembered? The big events of the past are there in letters, diaries and memoirs and, while there are plenty of blogs and tweets and articles being written for public consumption, the private and the personal and the ‘written just for the hell of it’ are mostly no more. No doubt an inordinate amount of literature and art will spring from it, but maybe something else will linger.
On a more private level, this enforced house imprisonment has bought us all time to reflect and re-engage with the lost art of being human; a moment to say all the things that too frequently go unsaid to those who really matter. But Apart From That…