Anguished in the sunshine

1st September 2006 at 01:00
Why is it that things are never what they seem? That appearances are deceptive? Motives muddied? Words slippery and imprecise?

A friend of mine came back from a writing course recently, scratching his head over the knotty problem of "sub-text". "It's like this," he told me, "even though you write one thing, your readers have got to think you mean another." He provided me with the following, by way of illustration. "A woman goes into a greengrocer's and asks for a pound of carrots; but what she really wants is a shag."

With me it was the milkman. Our conversations were only ever in note form but even that managed to go dramatically awry one day. He left me a note, prepared by the Co-op head office, asking me to ensure I paid up my account by Friday as it was the end of the Co-op financial year. I left him an envelope containing seven shillings and six pence - you can tell this was a long time ago - and a note wishing him "Happy New (Co-op Financial) Year".

The next time I saw him, I thought he was going to hit me. "I'm only trying to do my job," he said, giving me the straightest of "straight" looks, "and I can do without snot-noses like you writing me sarky little notes."

If my friend had written the scene, the sub-plot would run something like this: The milkman gets up at 4.30am in all weathers and earns a modest sum for eight hours a day, six days a week, of hard graft. When he gets to the home of a certain university student, the curtains are always drawn, no matter whether it's nine, 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning. And as this is a tale set in the good old days, he also knows that part of his hard-earned taxes are going to support the sarcasm-spouting, milkman-baiting life-style of said snotty-nosed twerp. So what to the twerp was a witticism of penetrating insight he thought was a rotten piss-take designed to lampoon and lacerate a heroic member of the working classes.

With those long summer holidays - now safely behind us for another year - it's more a question of connotation than sub-text. And for me and other like-minded tormented souls, it is the difference between all the connotations that you're supposed to experience and those that actually do crowd in upon you, that most comes to mind.

What's supposed to happen on holiday is that all the worries of work and home are left behind you in the puddles outside Heathrow, allowing you to just sit back and "enjoy". Words like relax, unwind and de-stress are the order of the day.

If only it were that simple. OK, so the cares of college life may slip away with that first delicious glass of something chilled as you sit out on the terrace and watch as sultry day translates itself into balmy night. But once those cares have gone, what comes to take their place? Work at least provides you with a given. An inescapable imperative to get up in the morning. I labour, therefore I am.

Once that has evaporated though, what is there mentally to replace it? Now, instead of worrying about something, you find yourself worrying about nothing! At least with "something" there's a chance you can do something else about it. But what's to be done about nothing?

From here, it only gets worse. If you manage to tear yourself away from the torments of nothingness, you just might start to get to grips with all those big questions which you spend all year avoiding: why are we here? where are we going? what is the point of it all? Cue that insidious element guaranteed to make any holiday go with a swing: existential dread.

Those of you with a mind disposed to religion might be feeling a little bit smug here. Because unlike us less certain souls, you may have ready-made responses to these seemingly unanswerable questions.

But wait. Isn't a period of mental inactivity the ideal opportunity to fall victim to every true believer's nightmare - religious doubts. And then, like Martin Luther wrestling with his twin demons of Protestantism and constipation, you might find you have your own devils to contend with.

Sadly, your sense of growing gloom is likely to be further compounded by your partner. Partners can be difficult people sometimes. And it's a fair bet that they'll flatly refuse to join you in spending your entire month in the sun wallowing in mental anguish. More likely, they will have swallowed the glib delusion that holidays are something to be enjoyed. They might even try - horror of horrors - to cheer you up.

But let's look on the bright side. Although long by the standards of your average 1970s milkman, a lecturer's summer break soon slips on by. Look out of the window. It's early September and the rain clouds are gathering. So let me be the first to wish it you: Happy New (Academic) Year!

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