The people collector

“But that’s not how I want to spend the bank holiday.”

“It’ll be all right.”

You looked at me with a slightly raised eyebrow.

“It will. I bet there’ll be lots of interesting people.”

“Interesting to who?”

There was an obvious answer. Him. Dave. My friend who had invited us to one of his garden parties in York. Since we now resided in Bristol that meant either both going or spending the weekend apart, which didn’t seem right considering we’d been living together less than six months.

I don’t know where your reluctance came from but you were never keen on meeting Dave. It must have been something I said. The way I talked about him. The way I found it so hard to explain who he was or why we were friends.

You’ve only met him once. It was a leaving meal. He couldn’t come to our farewell party so arranged to meet us in town. You liked Wendy, his wife, although you said afterwards that you couldn’t understand why she was with him.

You didn’t like Dave, and it showed. When we sat down Dave was his usual charming self and asked all about your work as a beauty technician. I found it fascinating how much he seemed to know and how germane his comments were. You felt manipulated. You said that he was showing off; that he was degrading your career, making light of it and basically saying that what you did was so simplistic that with no training he could still understand everything about it.

Eventually he gave up on you. Your answers became more and more monosyllabic. I was surprised as you usually love talking about your work. I tried to help by giving you prompts; trying to get you to tell one of your fascinating and hilarious stories about things that have gone wrong. It didn’t work. You told the tale with so little relish that it was hardly interesting at all.

“I don’t want to be in his collection.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to be one of the interesting people he collects.”

I’d never thought of it like that. I wondered if it was true? And if it was then what did that mean for me?

“Interesting like me, you mean?”

You didn’t answer. You didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of scoring a point. You’d either have to admit that you were wrong about him collecting interesting people, or you’d have to admit that I was an interesting person.

I smiled.

“What?”you said.

“I must be interesting. Otherwise why would you be with me?”

You smiled and our impending argument was evaded.

“What if we don’t stay with Dave? We could stay with one of your friends and then just go over for the garden party.”

It’s was compromise we could both agree to. I left you to make the arrangements while I emailed Dave to say yes to the garden party and no to his invitation to stay.

*

Things didn’t work out as planned. Sometimes life gathers momentum and once you start the ball rolling you can’t stop it. You might be able to nudge it onto a slightly different track but that’s about it.

All your friends had other plans. Not one of them was in York over the bank holiday and what surprised me was that none of them offered to let us stay in their empty homes. Dave would have if he was away. I’m sure he would.

Plan B involved a hotel. That would have worked but I let the plan slip out and Dave insisted that we stay with him. We’d run out of excuses. You suggested that we play the sick parent card but we had both inherited morals that prevented it.

We arrived exhausted by the bank holiday traffic delays. Dave was waiting with a glass of whisky for me and a multitude of choice for you. You plumped for gin and tonic and then had to choose from the six flavours on offer.

Dave was incredibly sensitive to our tiredness. He pointed out our bedroom and encouraged us to make ourselves at home. He said we should just rummage to find anything we needed. Then he left us alone to relax with our chosen tipples.

I lifted my whisky, you clinked glasses with me.

“See. It’s going to be all right,” I said.

*

It was all right. It was even better than all right, especially for you.

Dave and Wendy lived a comfortable middle aged, middle class life in a reasonably well proportioned house with a surprisingly large garden. Dave had a secure post as a university lecturer teaching creative writing. It was somewhat surprising that he hadn’t been made a professor already. It was sure to come.

You assumed that’s where I’d me him. Personally I’d admit to a huge overlap between politics and creative writing but the university keeps the two in their separate silos. I actually met Dave through whisky, but that’s another story.

Wendy was an accountant and quietly got on with earning more than Dave. She didn’t talk much about her work but Dave found it fascinating, treating it like a foreign country full of charming local culture. He was like an ambassador, making introductions and encouraging everyone to visit.

In the morning I helped Dave erect a cocktail bar in their garden while you and Wendy focussed on food.

As we carried more crates of bottles through the kitchen Dave interrupted you, “Mike tells me you want to set up your own beauty business.”

“Hair and beauty,” you replied. “With my friend Tash.”

“That’s brilliant. I remember last time we met. You told me about your work in that beauty shop in Askam. I think you were really frustrated that it wasn’t your own place. You had so many ideas. While you’re here make sure you pick Wendy’s brain. She’s a real wiz on the finances. I bet it costs a lot to get a new business going.”

You nodded and we continued into the garden. Money was your biggest concern. It was the only thing stopping you. It was the only thing you talked about. I almost laughed when I next passed by and heard you and Wendy deep in conversation about interest rates, limited companies and tax.

Guests started arriving at three. We’d both changed into our party gear. You looked great in your green dress. I’d gone for a polo shirt and jacket. It was a little too warm but I liked the way the two worked together.

You’re more garrulous than me. I like parties where you get to talk in depth with one or two people. My idea of a good night is finding a Tory voter I can influence, or a communist with a capitalist heart that I can expose. I’m always drawn to people I disagree with.

The first to arrive was a poet you’d heard of. You even remember the title and first line of one of his poems. I watched a massive smile bloom on his face, which never faded throughout the whole night. Dave looked across at me and nodded with an almost smug expression, as if he had done something clever.

Your comment about Dave collecting interesting people caused me to step back and observe. The guest did include a collection of conventionally interesting characters. Unsurprisingly there was a large smattering of writerly types, and a good number of scholars from an eclectic variety of subjects. There were also musicians, artists and other creatives such as architects, dancers and sculptors.

But there were also plenty of what I’d call ordinary people. For starters there were neighbours. Almost everyone in the street turned up and the few I managed to encounter had jobs more like Wendy’s than Dave’s.

Then there were the other friends. Like me. People Dave had picked up over the years. I’d met many of them before. There was Phil, a retired office clerk who Dave met when he lived in Leeds. Anna, a mother, whose disabled child who was currently littering the garden with raucous laughter as he moved from group to group. Simon, as usual was sat in the corner nursing a beer. I met him many times. He never said much but Dave gave him such respect that you felt there must be something more to him than met the eye. One day I hoped to find out what it was.

There were many people I’d met through Dave who had become friends. Others I had to call friends because there was no other word that fitted. They weren’t colleagues and acquaintance was too slight a word.

I realised that was Dave’s gift. Somehow he linked people up in a way that meant you almost became family. These were people I could rely on. People I could contact at no notice and get their help. I had on many occasions; to decorate rooms, for informal legal advice, to speak as my guest lecturer, for advice on holiday destinations, to fix my car.

I spotted you happily chatting to a musician who you really should have heard of. I listened to enough of your conversation to realise you’d be caught in Dave’s net. The musician’s next gig was in Bristol and you offered our spare room. That was reluctantly declined but a plan hatched for a late night meal at our favourite Thai restaurant and I heard your phone beep as it accepted free VIP tickets.

*

I was still wide awake. I thought you’d dropped off, but you turned towards and told me someone called Max was going to lend you money to start your new venture. I wanted to know more but you were slipping into sleep. You sensed my anxiety and stayed awake long enough to tell me not to worry. You’d worked it all out with Wendy who had written up an agreement. It wasn’t a legal contact but it spelled out how the loan would work and anyway Max was all right. Dave trusted him.

I thought about Dave’s panoply of guests. A whole garden flooded with interesting people; from the man who cleaned Dave’s carpet to the Bishop of Knaresborough. Some of them were interesting in their own right, others, indeed the majority were made interesting by Dave. By his interest in them. By his unerring ability to find their spark and combine it with other flames in a wonderful conflagration that destroyed barriers and ignited possibilities.

I gently slipped out of bed. There was a spare dressing gown on the back of the door. I quietly descended the stairs secure in the knowledge that my chance of finding a good whisky was a certainty rather than a mere possibility.

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