Yes, we inhabit the same basic reality, but on top of the basic components---this street, these Victorian houses, traffic lights, the sky---we construct an hallucinatory realm of compulsive ideas, and see everything through them.
But I saw---and all this took a few seconds, I hadn’t yet reached the second lamp-post---that our bubble of unreality is created for our protection. We have to cushion ourselves from death, and if that fails we have to affirm with conviction “Death is OK”. In general we are tolerant of one another’s beliefs, because we realise that others too are wrestling with the same imperative. Death: not just the real thing, but every loss, every shock that reminds our all-too-aware body of its imminent end.
I confess that in the last two paragraphs I have broken my own rule. I have repeatedly used the pronoun “we”. What right do I have to speak for everyone? I am not comfortable with it. So I’ll tell you about my errand: to the barber’s for a haircut. K had also asked me to bring back some bread.
I’m a natural worrier, as I realised by the time I reached the traffic lights, waiting for red so I could cross. Will the barbershop be busy? Who will cut my hair? Should I have waited another week? Is it already too long? Will I have to make conversation, or will there be an awkward silence? What if they cut my hair badly and overcharge me? Will they expect a tip? Will it be an old man or a young woman? You’d think it was my first time.
Then---I was 200 yards away now, I’d spent more time pondering the haircut than on death and religion---I suddenly recalled being five, running out of a barbershop screaming. It was in London and I did not trust Londoners. I had not lived through the War as they had. I’d been in easy-going Australia. Perhaps the barber said “Sit here, boy” forgetting that though small in size I was a human being with feelings. Perhaps I just saw the scissors and razor. Nothing my mother and her friend could say made any difference to my terror. Though I felt shame easily in front of others, my fright was so great that I cared not what anyone thought. I refused to go back in the shop and was prepared to ruin everyone’s day with my screams and tears.
Yesterday’s haircut wasn’t so bad, though the young woman was so quiet that I tried to start a conversation. She had difficulty hearing me so we subsided into silence. I’m guessing she was a recent immigrant, a Pole. She offered me discount as a pensioner, and I got out of there not feeling too damaged, just a little self-conscious, imagining my new short hair made me look a little pathetic, a little old.
I remembered to buy the bread. After further worrying I went to the small grocery called Costcutter, where everything costs more and there’s less choice. I nearly changed my mind when I got inside but felt sorry for the shop assistant, as I was the only customer. So I bought a sliced wholemeal loaf in its own garish plastic bag. For vague ecological reasons I refused the offer of a further bag to put it in, and walked out displaying my purchase for all to see.
I felt a little awkward and didn’t quite know why. Is there anything to be ashamed of in carrying home an undisguised loaf of bread swinging from your hand, when your head is newly shorn? I felt a little defensive. If a sword had been trailing at my side, I’d have grasped its hilt with my free hand, in case anyone gave me the wrong kind of look. In France it would have been different. To bicycle home beret-clad with a nude baguette would have been a gesture of national pride, like singing “Allons enfants de la patrie! Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”
Sometimes I think I’ve grown wisdom, but I’m not immune to that male pride epitomised in the mysterious phrase “Death before dishonour.”