It was lunchtime and I was determined to get out of the office for a while. The sun was shining. I bought my lunch and walked down to the riverside, organising myself on the rustic wooden bench with my book in one hand and a forkful of pasta in the other, the food box resting on my suit jacket folded carelessly on my knee. The river was grey and limpid, like something from a Rudyard Kipling story. The sun burned through thin cloud making the air humid, and it was bright in a way that made me squint though this didn’t alter my determination to read. It was a few moments before I noticed the man standing by the wall making a phone call. He was there, casual, in his grey suit, a man with blond hair and a neat little beard. His tie wafted in the light wind and he was clean and pressed and polished in the way men are in the City. He was holding his phone away from his face, on speaker phone or Facetime or something, and he was telling his friends or his family or whoever it was on the other end about how he had proposed to his girlfriend, and the way he told it was all magic and wonder and a testament to his romanticism. It was discomforting. I could hear the whole conversation, as he smiled and weaved around telling everyone everything, not caring who was listening: oblivious. It felt like a pose, like I was watching an episode of Made in Chelsea (which I never watch) but played out in real life and real time. He talked about Morocco, about the ring, about someone’s wedding in Italy, about who was going to marry them, about his expectations and hers, about his dreams. He was happy and open and nakedly indifferent to the people around him.
I turned back to my book, concentrating my mind on the page; trying to drown out the empty chatter in the background, the falseness of it, the strange way it made me feel. Yet I couldn’t shift it. And then the idea came to me that I, sitting there reading, was doing the exact same thing. It felt like a pose. There I was, all seriousness, an older woman sitting by the riverside reading. Suddenly I existed not as a woman doing something for myself but as a woman doing something to be seen doing it, to present myself in a particular light. Was I reading for me, or to let others know who I was? It might be quiet, but it was still public. Was there really a difference between the man and me?
I wondered, then, if there is anything we do which is not some kind of presentation, a matter for public consumption. Is it possible, ever, as a social being (even one as anti-social as me), to be free from the need to present an image? Even by rejecting it, we demonstrate something about ourselves. My quiet studiousness was no different, really, to the man and his (perceived by me to be) exhibitionism. Except his was more honest, perhaps.
I was reading because reading is a route to truth, yet sometimes the truth is present in a scene unfolding before us and we just need to use a different kind of language to read it. The man told me something truthful about myself. His message, not intended for me, was nonetheless important.
‘Hell is other people’ Sartre once said, and that phrase is often used, erroneously, as shorthand to describe how annoying other people can be; but in the play ‘No Exit’ where the line appears, in its context, it was meant to reveal how other people reflect upon us our worst characteristics, our fears and desires, and in this way they deliver ‘hell’ because the hell was within us all along and what they do is expose it. In the luscious, rare sunlight, in a moment which was dedicated to my favourite activity, I realised, viscerally, what hell is to me. It wasn’t the man, but my judgement of him. The sun still shone, the river was still grey and limpid, my book lingered in my hand yet I was different entirely.