Or “I’m beginning to think that I’m not as smart as I thought I was”.
This is a sad story about the end of a four-year friendship. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar but I certainly hadn’t in my near fifty years of living on this planet. Does it still hurt, four months after the guillotine fell? Oh yes. Have I learned something from the experience? I like to think so but perhaps you should be the judge of that…
Let me start by saying that, as a self-professed introvert, friend-making and friend-keeping are not skills that come naturally to me. I have to work damned hard to find common ground with my fellow humans, and then, once that is precariously established, I have to go that extra mile, finding resources of energy from God-knows-where to continue with regular contact, socialising and investing time into these relationships. People person I am not. And that’s what makes this tale of woe especially galling. I did put in the time, the energy, the ongoing contact, the favours and the kindness; I tried so hard and put in everything necessary to make this particular friendship work and, in the end, it failed spectacularly. Or to be more precise, after four years, I was forced to see that it was a mistake to continue trying, it had been a mistake from the start, and I called it a day.
Calling it a day on a friendship is actually something I’ve not done in quite such a concrete fashion. Usually friendships peter out. You find yourself being in contact less and less until one day you wake up and realise that that person is no longer a part of your life and you are no longer a part of theirs. It can be a little sad when you realise but there’s no big decision and no massive wrench.
In this particular case there was nothing so passive, nothing so gentle. It was a friendship of two couples, myself and my husband and the slightly older, portly, friendly couple from around the corner. Let’s call them Mr and Mrs Bright. He was a carpenter (no, don’t think Jesus, no long hair, no flowing beard, no boundless love for all) and she was a care assistant, blonde, bubbly and smiley. Seemingly benign, helpful, albeit a little simple.
When they first arrived, they needed our help. We live in a tiny village in Northern France and Mr and Mrs Bright turned up having naively bought their very reasonably priced house, their ‘Place in the Sun’. The big problem that faced them was an inability to speak a word of the local language. So we were summoned by a mutual neighbour to interpret, which we gladly did with a smile on our lips and a song in our hearts.
Little did we know that this was the first step down a very slippery slope. It started off as a small favour here, a bit of interpreting or a little translating there. Their house was a holiday home but they intended to retire and move permanently to France within a few short months. Should we have been afraid? Yes, we should have been very afraid.
‘How’s the French going?’ I’d enquire innocently. ‘Hope you’re studying. Just a little bit each day and you’ll soon pick it up.’
Mr Bright has tiny eyes, like Milhouse in the Simpsons when he takes his glasses off. And Mrs Bright’s eyes are huge and brown, permanently wide in an expression of fear and surprise. These four glazed eyes and the accompanying slack-mouthed expressions should have been an early warning that learning the lingo was not on their to-do list. I later became aware that learning a second language was not even in their skill set. Neither was writing a to-do list.
In fact, I am now rather strongly of the opinion that the two of them are close to being illiterate and in fact survive on a little guile and charm that allows them to masquerade as near-competent people while getting others to complete a large array of more complex daily tasks that elude them. Let me say that I have nothing against the illiterate, I know some very good people who didn’t have the privilege of education but who still manage, of course, to be very decent people.
Victims of our own kindness, we soon found our daily lives revolved around numerous barely intelligible emails from Mr Bright asking us for endless amounts of information regarding living in France. Using Google also seemed to be outside of his skill set. He asked us to phone lots of companies and institutions as his French was not yet sufficient although he could ‘understand most things now’. His wife also asked us to water the garden and open and close the windows of their house regularly to keep the ever-growing mustiness from taking over the mostly unused house.
Then a worrying turn occurred, one that should have alerted us to the real identities of these lovely people. Mr Bright started asking us to phone up English and English-speaking people for him. Yes, you read that right. He would say it in an off-hand manner, as if it was no big deal, just when we had time and he was sure we wouldn’t mind. In retrospect we were fools for doing this and there were one or two moments when we did refuse, but we seemed to have set up a situation where we were viewed as staff, or carers, who would simply do whatever was asked.
Finally the Brights made their big move to France, they remained in England for a week or so after selling their UK dwelling while we stood sentry for a whole day at their house, overseeing the removal men delivering their furniture and belongings to the house. These guys were clearly at the end of their tether with Mr Bright; communication had been hard (the Polish guy we chatted with spoke perfect English) and Mr Bright ended up trying to make a claim against them for ‘wasting his time’ and ‘stressing out his darling wife’. We declined to be involved – all their belongings arrived from the UK to France in good condition on the day and time as promised and we had nothing else on which to base any opinion.
In the days following their triumphant arrival to the house in France, incessant emails changed seamlessly to an incessant ringing of the doorbell as Mr Bright arrived every day with new pieces of paper he didn’t understand, insurances that needed organising, details of heating systems that needed installing, chimneys that needed sweeping, tax declarations that needed filing and many many other things.
We’re self-employed and were unfortunately obviously at home and, from their perspective, ‘available’. Mrs Bright proclaimed one day with a bright smile and a vacant look in her eyes that we were semi-retired. We’re not. It just seemed that way to her because we work from home and we didn’t define clear boundaries about when we could and couldn’t be disturbed. Our bad.
I began to heavily resent every phone call, every knock at the door, every spelling and grammar error in the numerous texts and messages. My Facebook messenger was soon filled with bigotted jokes shared by Mr and Mrs Bright as they sailed, laughing and smiling, through life in a haze of a total lack of self-awareness. They assumed I shared their taste for racism, sexism, inadvertant animal cruelty through the purchase of fur coats and circus tickets, and environmental sabotage through negligence.
I have to confess that I think this situation would not have resolved itself if a certain incident hadn’t occured. I know I should have conronted them, I should have defined boundaries or even ended the friendship as it was clearly not working, but I hate confrontation and I didn’t.
Given everything I’ve told you, I think you’re going to laugh when I relate what happened next.
As the resentment grew, we consoled ourselves just a little with the fact that Mr Bright still had a garage full of tools from his time as a carpenter. We were in the middle of a small building project and he kindly offered advice and the loan of whatever tools we wanted, to say thank you for everything we were doing for them.
So one sunny afternoon my husband strolled round to their house to borrow a chainsaw. To his intense surprise he arrived to find that blonde, bubbly, smiley Mrs Bright had turned into an angry goblin and she proudly proclaimed that she’d had enough of us treating her like ‘a mug’. There was a small stand-up argument where my kind, soft-spoken man tried to understand what the hell was going on – had he momentarily stepped into a parallel universe where Germany had won the war and where we were the scrounging users?
It turned out that Mrs Bright had been very resentful for some time about us using her husband’s tools and skills, she’d just about had enough of it in fact and she was very angry and wouldn’t see any other point of view on the matter. From her perspective, all we had ever done for them was make a couple of phone calls and then taken total advantage of them in a cruel and unusual fashion.
I joined the conversation, equally confused about in which reality we were now residing. The Brights were genuinely unable to follow any line of argument. At one I point, I stated, slowly and clearly, that there were two points of view here and that they didn’t seem to able to see any other than their own. Mrs Bright looked at me with a triumphant smile and said ‘I am one too’. I abandoned reasoned logic and retreated to my kitchen.
As you can imagine, that was the end of that particular friendship. It was the excuse we needed to extricate ourselves from a time-consuming, happiness-sucking situation, but it has left us feeling perplexed. What exactly was the truth? Did we misjudge every single day and every single encounter with these ‘friends’?
Hindsight is a beautiful thing, of course, and this is where the learning curve kicks in. I’m pretty sure I have learned a lot from this experience, I think I will be better at defining boundaries and I hope I would spot the early signs of such a one-sided friendship in the future.
I say ‘pretty sure’ because the whole affair has left me feeling that I don’t trust my own perception. Maybe they were the evil geniuses all along, preying on myself and my husband who would do everything for them. Or were we really the ones who inadvertently took advantage of these kind people’s generous nature? I mean, this went on for four years. Four years!
I’m clearly not anywhere near as smart as I thought I was and now I’m doubly mistrustful of everyone I meet, which isn’t great for an introverted, non people person who would, despite everything, very much like to make and keep friends.
I saw an anonymous quote recently that stated ‘repeated exposure to the stupidity of another will eventually drive you mad’. So, to save face, this is my current theory – I mixed with stupid people on a daily basis for way too long and it has driven me to the point where my intelligence has been severely affected. This is my excuse for this very sorry state of affairs and I’m totally sticking to it. Most of all I’m afraid to aim higher, to befriend smarter people, in the fear that I will be their ‘Mrs Bright’ in a forthcoming article.
Watch this space.