Northwords Now Issue 36

The FREE literary magazine of the North

A Question of Honour

by Ian Tallach

It goes without saying - technology has changed our lives beyond what anyone imagined just ten years ago.

So why say it?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page. Well, the same screen, if you like. Language lags behind, as always. Language languishes. Ha! The old ones are the best. Is that an old one? Probably. There’s nothing new these days. Except technology.

I’ve got to tell you something. But, first you have to know – I’m not a luddite! Let all reactionaries step aside. Defeatists, gainsayers, regressive elements – be gone! And let the future in. The future is now … now. It used to be so distant: futuristic, if you like, but that’s all in the past, that kind of thinking. What I mean is, let us all be grateful for the revolution … of convenience. Together. We can do this thing together. Count me in!   

But, I do need to tell you about the party last Thursday night, at our place. Mainly colleagues, straight from work, fresh from the office, not yet fully disengaged from whatever they’d been doing. Everyone still at their interface, the flicker of computer screens behind their eyes. Well, I’d forgotten we’d invited this old-timer. He’s our neighbour. Always talking to us in the lift. We couldn’t really not invite him. Eustace is his name. D’you know anyone called Eustace?! Thought not. The man is 85 or thereabouts.

Anyway, he makes an entrance at exactly the right time - he and his wheelchair. The guests have almost all arrived but no-one’s talking. Interaction put on hold while ties are loosened, drinks are poured and nervous eyes take in the room. Some sip their wine but hold it in their mouths; the silence is so thick, that even swallowing might draw too much attention. I swear it’s that bad! If we had a camera on the ceiling – a go-pro, maybe – filming this would be of interest to psychologists. Psychopathologists, more like. Ha! Not funny, really. Bridge, my partner, and I are serving drinks. At least we’ve got something to do, but I’m embarrassed beyond words. This is our party. Our fault. And I can’t even speak!

So, Eustace has no place to wheel his chair but to the middle of the room; the peripheries are all used up. He brings with him a smell of pipe-tobacco. Pairs of eyes that had been darting furtively about now find a place to rest: a focal point. And seeing this, he laughs … throws back his head and laughs. A long, sonorous, wheezy, chuckle! All 90 pounds of him, bent over in that wheelchair, helpless as a baby, gasping for another breath. He coughs. But when he finally inhales, he looks around and, I can only guess, he sees a sort of desperate expectation in their faces. A hope … for levity, a safety valve … a social laxative. Something like that.       

I hand him a glass of merlot, which he guzzles. He wipes the stain from his lips with the back of his hand. ‘Girls and boys,’ he says, clearly enjoying himself. (Why not, I say. Company directors, area managers and systems analysts all put in their place! Brilliant!) And there’s something about his casual tone, a sort of gentle mockery, like Dylan in his prime, that makes it feel like he’s addressing us from somewhere else. A younger, freer time, I guess, when things were more spontaneous. Roles are reversed now. He’s young: we’re old. Now we’re the ones who’re standing stiffly to attention, in obeyance to some stultifying protocol. ‘Virtual tradition’, maybe you could call it. Ha! You’ve got to laugh.

Then he says something cringeworthy, but funny too - ‘Double-u, double-u, double-u! Who-the-hell chose the only letter with three syllables? Obviously, someone who didn’t speak! In any event, I was in the library, trying to send an e-mail. Trying, being the operative word.’ A titter passes round the room, like some dousing from a sprinkler, nipped in the bud before it can get out of hand.

‘I’m sorry, folks,’ he hangs his head. ‘I’m interrupting. You youngsters have a party. Don’t mind me.’

There’s an awkward pause. Eyes shift in my direction. The blush is rising up my face. I stammer out -‘N … no. You’re not interrupting anything. The floor is yours.’

He chuckles again. The atmosphere is still up-tight, but something lifts. ‘Well, alright,’ he clears his throat. ‘The librarian – lovely girl – you folks would say she was ‘a hottie’, but I won’t; last thing I want is people saying ‘dirty old man’ behind my back!’ There’s another round of suppressed laughter like a tiny wave collapsing on a pebble beach. Then he continues. ‘Anyway, this librarian comes over. She looks like she’s about to whisper, but she doesn’t. Just like all the others in that bloody place, she practically shouts. It’s embarrassing! Not so long ago you’d hear a pin-drop in the library. There was a kind of etiquette; people came there to read, not have a party! There was a sort of unspoken unspoken-ness: almost something sacred about being surrounded by knowledge.’

‘Why did you call her over?’ I ask, trying out my voice to see it’s still there.  

‘Because of honour!’ he smiles with his eyes and lifts a trembling forefinger to point at no-one-in-particular. ‘Well, to be exact, how to spell it. Honour. It was underlined in red, in my e-mail. That’s why I called her over. Well, she says I need to click ‘review’ and then check ‘spelling and grammar.’ And it tells me to spell it h-o-n-o-r! Well, I suppose you can guess the rest – she said someone must have set spellcheck to the American version. Ah! Relief. I wasn’t losing my marbles! I could spell it h-o-n-o-u-r if I liked. As for the Yanks: each to their own. Life’s too short to get curmudgeonly.’

I handed him another glass of wine.

‘Well’ he slurs, after guzzling that one too. ‘Next thing I know I’m on this thing called Wiki … ehm …’

‘Wikipedia?’ Jane, normally the boldest of team managers, is reduced to mumbling behind the back of her hand.

‘Thankyou! Wikipedia, exactly! It tells me, just in case we need another definition, that honour is ‘the idea of a bond between a person and society.’ Sounds pretty abstract. I looked at the pictures. There were two: one of a nobleman in the 18th century, defending his honour – pistols at dawn and all that. And the other depicts a Japanese Samurai about to commit seppuku: ritual disembowelment. Heaven help us! I can almost hear you all conclude that honour is a bad thing. Throw it out! It’s holding us back. Chose the opposite – dishonour! Either way, it’s just an abstract noun.’ He pauses for effect. ‘Like love. Yes, love’s a bit archaic too. People do the cruellest things for love!’ He’s gritting his false teeth by now and forcing out the words. ‘Life would be so much more convenient without the things we can’t define: qualities, concepts, abstractions. Well … true.’ He looks around the room. ‘BUT, trouble is, we might just be defined BY them. So, boys and girls – this is my parting shot – love each other. Honour each other. Don’t ever forget! This is the stuff of life! When you’re my age, you’ll see. But looking back it’s all too late. I wish I’d loved more, honoured other people more. Yes. It has to do with other people. It’s all to do with other people.’

At this, he collapses in a fit of coughs and splutters. And we’re thinking this could really be his parting shot. It certainly did sound valedictory. And at that moment, Jane chokes on her pinot noir. She grits her teeth, but this only ensures the purple mist is evenly distributed to every corner of the room! We all explode with laughter. Eustace slaps his thigh, fighting for breath and almost going blue. He rallies, though, and smiles, accepts another wine, downs it and tells us he must go. ‘But, thank you all!’ he says. I wheel him to his flat across the landing, followed by a round of cheers, applause and hoots.

He might as well have been Bob Dylan.