By: Kim Farleigh
Maria said: “In Europe, women can wear whatever they like.”
Charles thought: Here we go again. The usual blind superiority. Will I ever escape from it?
Blind superiority annoyed him. He wasn’t sure why. It just did. It got to him like nothing else.
He hadn’t been to the pub language exchange for a year. People’s prejudices had driven him off twelve months before; and now there he was at the exchange again, enduring reality distortions, the table he was at beneath a cabinet that displayed the medieval armour used centuries before to carry blind superiority across Europe.
“Not in France,” he replied.
“True,” Diego said.
Charles, Diego and Maria were sitting around the table with Belén, a silver armour suit beside them in a corner, the suit’s helmet like an alien’s head, spikes protruding from that head in three places, like sharp dogmatism, chain-mail with Saint George’s Cross, red cross-hairs over heart, nobility and piracy interchangeable, according to belief.
A battle-axe hung from chains above the armour, heads cracked to bring civilisation to those who had already created it.
Had the axe wielders realised that?
“You can’t cover your face in France in civil-service buildings,” Charles said, “or at school.”
“But you don’t have to cover your face,” Maria said.
“No,” Charles replied, “but you can’t cover it either.”
“So?” Belén asked.
“So maybe you want to cover it? In some Arab countries, women have both options.”
Bemused silence. Why cover your face?
Charles was on a crusade “to insert objectivity into human skulls,” a tough task he knew.
“It’s a question of democracy,” Diego said.
“Not necessarily,” Charles replied. “Democracy often means far right, so women from some religious backgrounds can’t wear whatever they like.”
“They can on the street,” Maria said.
“Not in Denmark,” Charles replied. “There you get fined for covering your face in public. They use the excuse of terrorism, the terrorism we’ve created through our colonialism. Other European countries would love to impose the same repression.”
Surprise deepened the silence caused by the rising ogre of the diametrically unconsidered.
“The only countries I’ve been in,” Charles continued, “where women wear whatever they like, and feel comfortable, are Palestine and Jordan. Yes, Arab countries. Jordanian women often cover their faces when shopping to avoid people they want to avoid. That’s freedom. They told me this with exposed faces. Imagine the situation in super-right-wing Hungary. Or in Bavaria.”
“It’s not against the law in Bavaria,” Maria said.
“Do you know that for a fact?” Charles asked.
“No,” she admitted. “But your face has to be exposed in France because France is secular.”
“And if you wear crosses,” Charles asked, “would you have to take them off in government buildings—in secular France?”
“Maybe not,” Maria acknowledged.
“So,” Charles said, “stop believing and try empiricism. It won’t kill you.”
That silence returned, that pre-storm quietude born from losing arguments.
Maria rebounded with: “I wouldn’t want to go to a country like Egypt. They’re fanatics. The religion has made them mad.”
She had never read a book on modern Egypt, but she thought she was informed. Prejudices, however, turn the ignorant into overnight experts.
“Like under Franco?” Charles said.
Under Franco, women couldn’t open bank accounts without a man’s permission. Several women got executed for rejecting Catholicism.
“That was different,” Maria said.
“I agree,” Charles replied. “In Egypt you get executed for wanting democracy, not for rejecting Islam. You can even choose Christianity or even atheism. Notice how Christianity finishes with anity. Perhaps inanity? Or maybe insanity? Under Franco’s Catholic dictatorship you got executed for anything. And imagine if you had had sex outside marriage. Wow, what a crime! Having sex with someone who wasn’t beating you up. That probably made a change from the husband, who, of course, was protected by Franco’s No-Divorce, Wife-Beating, Catholic Dictatorship.”
The silence resembled atmosphere before a thunderstorm.
Belén broke it by saying: “At least gays feel comfortable here.”
“Like under Franco’s Catholic, Gay-Hating Dictatorship?” Charles replied. “Imagine if you had been gay during Franco’s Catholic, I stress Catholic, No-Divorce, Gay-Hating Dictatorship. How comfortable you would have felt then? And where exactly is here?”
“Spain,” Belén replied.
“The whole country?” Charles asked.
Collective prejudices turn superiority into fact.
“What would happen if gay couples walked around holding hands in small villages here?” Charles asked. “Even in Madrid I’ve been insulted just for being British. What do think would happen to them?”
“Homosexuality is now accepted here,” Belén said. “We have gay marriage.”
“It doesn’t matter about the law,” Charles replied. “Murder is against the law and people do it. The law exists to win votes. Acceptability depends on attitudes. Where do most gays live in Spain?”
“Madrid and Barcelona,” Belén replied.
“And why? Because of job opportunities?” Charles asked.
That thick, misty silence returned, inviting thunderous responses.
“What even happened here during last year’s gay parade?” Charles asked.
“A pro-family demonstration,” Maria replied.
“Yes,” Charles replied. “And what does pro-family really mean?”
The question produced a cold front behind which flooded that silence.
“Well?” Charles asked. “What does it really mean?”
“Anti-gay,” Maria admitted.
“Yes,” Charles said. “No gay marriage and no adoption of children by gay couples. That was in Madrid, yes, here, where hundreds of thousands of homophobes marched, screaming: A child needs a mummy and a daddy. That demonstration was organised by the same deluded Catholic primates that repressed women and gays under Franco. Sorry, I mean under Franco’s Catholic dictatorship. I stress Franco’s Catholic, No-Divorce, Wife-Beating Dictatorship.”
“I admit,” Belén said, “I’d forgotten about that demonstration.”
Pregnant Prejudice gives birth to Selective Memory. So-called perception often isn’t perception, but the complete lack of it.
“Imagine,” Charles said, “if you had to live in a small village in Spain.”
He stared at Belén’s beautiful, dark-green eyes. She looked like the British actress Gillian Hurley.
“You’d be asked constantly why you weren’t married,” he said. “When are you going to have children? It’d be non-stop. Maybe you could call it the lingering aftermath of a Catholic dictatorship? Franco’s Catholic dictatorship. The dictatorship that took place in Spain. Yes, that dictatorship.”
“It happens when I go home to Galicia,” Belén admitted, half-smiling.
“Maybe you should concentrate on problems in Spain,” Charles said. “And leave the rest of the world alone. Some people here scream and don’t listen. They call that conversation. They think they’re sociable when, in fact, they’re anti-social.”
“That’s true,” Belén acknowledged. “I never thought of that.”
“But there aren’t many people like that,” she added.
“Yes, there are,” Charles replied. “You’re probably always with the same people. I’m not.”
William had returned from flat hunting. He had left the pub an hour before to see a flat. His landlord wanted to sell, so William had to find another place to live. He sat beside Diego, facing Belén.
“It happens,” William said, referring to screaming, “because people socialise here in big groups.”
He had arrived just in time to hear the comments about screaming.
Charles disagreed with the Big-Group Theory. He had witnessed non-listening screamers in all situations.
“We’re different,” William said, referring to those he was talking to. “You have to realise that.”
He stared at Belén, making her accept her superiority over the masses. He didn’t have to try hard.
Different, hey? Charles thought. Ha! Like hell!
He recalled an Auschwitz survivor saying: “Major events begin with small, unconscious prejudices that grow into something larger.”
These people would “grow larger,” Charles thought, if circumstances permitted “growth.”
“Often here,” he said, “you get interrupted. Usually you can’t finish a comment.”
William faced Belén with a look that said: “True.”
Being William’s disciples, disagreement was taboo.
“Anyway,” Charles asked, “how was the flat hunting?”
“Bad,” William replied. “A ridiculous price.”
“There’ll be more properties in the market in September,” Charles said.
“That’s true,” Belén said. “Prices’ll drop soon.”
William’s elbows hit the table; he glared, saying: “Can we perleaseeee talk about something else?”
His searing, blue eyes silenced his listeners, surprise taking another form: stunned silence caused by the rational becoming unexpectedly hysterical for no apparent reason.
Charles cracked that silence by asking: “What are we talking about?”
“You know what we’re talking about,” William replied.
William was unconsciously accurate. The others stared with ignorant, questioning eyes, while Charles thought: It’s his mother.
“The property-rental market in Madrid?” Charles asked. “We’re banned from discussing that?”
Charles shattered the brittle silence by adding: “I thought the property-rental market in Madrid would interest people living in Madrid. Belén—do you live in Madrid?”
Charles’s flippancy seemed darker than William’s hysteria because the others were William disciples; and Charles was dismissive of self-esteem gained from group acceptance. Real self-esteem, he knew, only comes from universal acceptance.
Can you trust people whose self-esteem doesn’t depend on group acceptance?
Someone called Yolanda appeared. She sat beside Charles whom she had met years before. William went and sat beside Belén. Yolanda and Charles spoke about what they had been doing lately, while William and Belén whispered to each other about Charles. Charles caught William saying: “Despite that, he’s not unpleasant.”
Charles and William often met to watch football. They were from the same town in England, but had gone to different schools. Willian had told Charles that Belén was “scatterbrained.” William adored people’s contradictions. Other people’s contradictions, especially women’s, helped William relieve the frustration of being unattractive to women. His short height and relative poverty didn’t help; given that many women denied the importance of those two factors when judging men this heightened William’s love of other people’s contradictions.
He soured again when Belén left, Charles’s “stubbornness” apparently having driven her away, not knowing that Charles had attacked her “prejudices,” and that she thought Charles had heard her say: “He’s so argumentative.” People usually are when you lose an argument.
God, he heard me, she had thought.
She wasn’t worried about Charles’s opinion, but about him mentioning this to the others, who knew why Charles had been “argumentative.” Potential embarrassment had forced her out.
William stared miserably at Yolanda as she asked him: “How are you?”
With burning, blue-fire eyes, William hunched as if to pounce.
“Okay, I suppose,” he grumbled.
He had wasted time on an overpriced flat when wanting to speak to beautiful Belén, who may have been “scatterbrained,” but she was still beautiful and often interesting. She had even told William that many women’s expectations were unrealistic, the perfect comment for winning William’s admiration.
Concern-eyed Diego observed William, leaning forward over the table, worried about his social God’s distress. Being Head Disciple, Diego assumed William’s feelings arose from profound veracity. Unconscious traumas, as usual, weren’t considered. How can social Gods have prickly, immature, unresolved traumas? Impossible!
Charles and Yolanda ignored William. She was happy. The course she had had to do for months after work each day was now finished—thank God!
William stared as if an affront had occurred, a monumental incident of vast import. Affront had happened, but in childhood, Charles wondering if William was capable of realising that. He doubted it given that William scorned Freud. It was probably a good thing that William did scorn Freud. Sudden self-knowledge could be destructive or useful, depending upon attitude; and Charles suspected that William’s attitude would not have been up to the task of accepting unforeseen revelations that went to the heart of a disturbed heart. Maybe William’s repression of Freudian theories is Freudian repression in its purest form? Charles thought.
When he and Yolanda left, they said goodbye to everyone, except William, who was being too grumpy for social pleasantries, William’s pale-blue eyes firing out the hot glare of mental conflagrations.
Diego rose to say goodbye to Yolanda. Diego ignored Charles. Charles had said: “I don’t agree,” when Diego had said that John Dos Passos had been a better writer than Hemingway.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Charles had said, emphasising that Diego’s “opinion” had been stated as “undeniable fact.”
There had also been democracy: and crucially William’s disdain towards Charles.
Outside, Yolanda asked, her face fractured by bewilderment: “What’s up with William?”
“Belén probably left because of me,” Charles replied. “At least that’s what he probably thinks.”
“He wasted time looking at an overpriced flat when he would have preferred to have been speaking to beautiful Belén. Probably because of me she left early.”
“Getting upset because of that is ridiculous,” Yolanda said.
“Those things were just catalysts,” Charles replied.
“He told us to stop talking about the property market in Madrid because he wasn’t happy with having wasted time looking at that flat. He said: ‘Can we purleasseee talk about something else?’ It was the longest perleeeeessee since Chamberlain asked Hitler to behave. I asked him what we had been talking about. He said: ‘You know what we’re talking about,” I thought: ‘Yes, I do. You don’t.'”
“What didn’t he know?”
“That his reaction was caused by something far more significant than just wasting time on an overpriced flat when he could have been speaking to Belén.”
“I hope so,” Yolanda said. “It’d be incredible if it had been only that.”
“Having to look for a flat at his age,” Charles said, “would mean failure—for his mother.”
“Violently so. William was the gifted golden boy destined to shower his mother with surrogate success. He was number one in his year of economics at Oxford. His mother bragged around town that William was going to become a big shot. He couldn’t handle the pressure. He hates success so much in others that people who mention their achievements get labelled self-absorbed.”
“Yeressss,” Yolanda realised. “One day at the exchange, someone said how happy they felt because of a recent big promotion. William became morose. I couldn’t understand why. But what you’ve just said explains it.”
“William’s mother expected big things,” Charles said, “so she attacks him for his so-called failures, so he attacks her contradictions to get revenge. He loves contradictions in others so much that his don’t exist. Recognising contradictions in himself would mean he’s like his mother. Seeing them in others offers satisfaction, maybe just plain relief. But it’s much easier to see these things in others than in yourself.”
“The things that happen before your face and you don’t even know why.”
“At least you realise you don’t know why. That’s way above people who think they’re experts when they’re ignorant. They have no idea that their ideas aren’t ideas at all.”
“What are they?”
“Magmatic prejudices heaved up by volcanic superiority in the name of alluring belief.”
Yolanda laughed, nothing funnier than piercing comment delivered seriously, the surprising passion behind it creating the humour, a stern-faced general of noble countenance on a bronze stallion in the square they had just entered, the general directing troops amid the lit-up froth of a fountain, the general’s two-metre-long sword, erect at eighty degrees, “a penis of probity, the steel rod of national glory,” according to Charles.
“That general,” he continued, “wasn’t a murdering, rapist thief, but the embodiment of virtue in virtuous Spain, a demi-God of moral purity guided by God’s impeccable will.”
The furrows around Yolanda’s mouth curved with booming bliss.
“That’s what they told us in school,” she said. “And why would they lie to us?”
“Because,” Charles replied, his eyes slashes of titillation, “it’s what you want to believe. And, my God, do people believe. They love it. They’re drunk on it. It’s their biggest neurosis, like a daily glass of dizzy, fizzy, brain-twisting champagne.”