Consistent Hypocrisy, short story by Steve Dooré at Spillwords.com

Consistent Hypocrisy

Consistent Hypocrisy

written by: Steve Dooré

@stevedoore84

 

He had never understood the world he had chosen to live in. Since he’d left the forest, he’d immersed himself in what the civilised humans called the “real world,” and by their own measures he’d been rather successful. He understood the mechanics of that world, how it worked, and how to get the best out of it. He understood that if you treated life as a competition, he would always stand a good chance of winning. However, in a fundamental way – deep down, in his being, he didn’t understand it. From where he sat, inside it but very much of the outside, it made no sense at all.

He stared for what felt like thousandth time in to the mirror and came to the same conclusion. The eyes never changed. The frown never turned. And those black lines never faded. The permanence was terrifying. He had tried adjusting the mirror, moving backwards and forwards, even squinting. The mirror man never changed. He just looked back, and although the lips didn’t move, the figure was clearly saying “hypocrite.”

This bothered Vin. He knew what we all know, deep down. Hypocrisy is inevitable. It’s part of the human condition. So why do we feel so awful about it? Why is it considered such a failing? He couldn’t articulate it – but he felt it. He felt it every second, in every fibre of his aching body. This place made you feel like everything mattered, and you were getting everything wrong. Had he been back home, back in the forest, he would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. But here, he couldn’t. It mattered, and he hated that it mattered.

If he had any dignity left, the pills in his hand would be making his way through his body now, restricting his breathing and slowly taking him away. Taking him back. Instead, he put them back in the bottle, replaced the bottle in the cupboard and stepped out of the en suite and into the bedroom to get dressed for the day.

He knew that there are, of course, varying types of hypocrisy. What he was thinking about was the long-term implications of the model of hypocrisy. Short-term or concurrent hypocrisies are more difficult to forgive.

People live some seventy-plus years, he thought. They form opinions every single day. These are not consistent. They can’t be – the linear passage of time, or accumulation of knowledge and experiences and the external influences on our everyday lives sees that our opinions, our values and ethics, our very identifies are fluid and changeable. To live a life with no contradictions is impossible, yet we strive for it constantly, and judge those around us when they fail.

Earlier that evening he had surveyed the shoe polish aisle in the big supermarket in town with astonishment – for an entire aisle is what it was. Who knew there were so many ways to shine shoes? He knew in his heart and soul that this didn’t matter. There is no sociological or rational benefit to having shiny shoes. It’s a distraction, a thin but effective veil slung over anything more meaningful. Let them shine shoes. Did he need anti-moisture, stretch-resistant or ultra-shine? He didn’t know, and he wished ardently that he didn’t care. But he did. He cared because other people cared, and those people cared because he cared, forming a perfect, infinite circle of insignificance. Superficiality was an infection, and the world – or at least this world – was clearly in the grips of a largely unrecognised epidemic.

Later, looking at his now gleaming shoes (£2,000, unique, Italian artisan. Not as expensive as some, but with enough chic and sophistication to turn the attention of a room towards his well-dressed feet) he knew he had made the wrong choice. Italian leather wouldn’t stretch anyway. He should have gone with the ultra-shine. Never mind, nothing he could do about it right now, although he would order a batch of each later. He should have done this earlier of course, but sometimes he liked to go to the shop for a taste of what he thought of as the real world. Perhaps the idea of a billionaire looking for a dose of freedom and happiness in a deserted supermarket at six in the morning would be laughable to some, but Vin had long since retired from laughing.

He would often look back to the beginnings of the business. He now ran a multi-billion pounds empire that produced fully-recyclable sticker books. The partnership with Disney had sent the company into the stratosphere. Annual sales were hitting 200 million packets of stickers annually in the UK alone, supported by a sizable market share in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, the United States and, South Korea. At the beginning, though, he had been just an artist, trying to make a living through doodling superheroes at children’s parties. Of course he was proud of the journey he’d been on, the success he’d had, the lives he felt he had changed through his modern, compassionate leadership. He just couldn’t remember when he had last picked up a pencil, and smiled. The factory floor, with machines spitting out thousands of stickers a minute, seemed a million miles away from what he used to think of as his “art.” He’d always felt that through doodling, drawing and painting he was searching for something, something bigger than life’s daily inconsequentialities. Wealth, property, cars and a certain level of fame didn’t feel like the answer. The search felt further from a successful resolution than ever.

It occurred to him that, given he was currently in the Boardroom discussing a potential multi-million pound venture, his thought should probably somewhere other than inappropriate shoe polish and childhood hobbies, and he forced himself back – back to the present, back through thirty years of hard work, failures, and successes, and said “we can’t go that high. Not a chance. We’ve got other offers, other distributors in the wings. It’s the original deal or nothing.” He said this with a stern confidence that anybody else in the room would feel was genuine. It wasn’t – it never had been. His whole act was affected, although he had become so used to acting that way that he wondered where the act began and he ended. Surely if you can act a certain way for so long, it ceases to be an act? He knew, though, that he never felt like the person he acted. Maybe that’s it, he thought. Maybe you are only being yourself when the internal and external meet, like a personality Venn diagram.

Anton, his driver and some-time sounding board, picked him up at 5.30pm as usual. He had always been a stickler about his hours. He believed no good decisions were ever made after 2pm and insisted on all meetings being in the morning. “You don’t run a PB after four hours of running” was his motto. Better to exercise, rest, and be back at it at 6am sharp. He hated people whinging they didn’t have time when they stayed in bed hours after the day had started. There, there’s your time. You chose to sleep. At the same time, he did sometimes wonder if he was just jealous of their ability to relax and recharge. He had never been capable of that. Too anxious.

“How was your day, Mr Hemlock?” shouted Anton. Anton always shouted, possibly as a result of a lifetime spent conversing with people over his shoulder, or more likely a result of his upbringing. Raised in a house of nine kids, and just down the road from Vin, he’d found that those who shouted loudest did often win out. Vin and Anton had been childhood friends, and when the business had taken off they were still regular drinking partners. Vin had told Anton about the forest, although Anton had taken this as a childhood make-believe. Anton always referred to Vin as Mr Hemlock with his tongue firmly in his cheek – this level of genuine formality is impossible when you’ve seen the individual using his scrotum on stage as a makeshift electric guitar.

It seemed obvious to Vin to offer something to Anton, who was struggling at the time and needed a boost. That was fifteen years ago. Anton, it is fair to say, was not a natural chauffeur. He was frequently late or waiting in the wrong place. He had outbursts of road rage at the smallest provocation, and seemed to believe that red lights were either an advisory warning or an aesthetically pleasing roadside accessory. Friendship is a powerful force. It seemed easy to employ Anton. It was almost impossible to fire him.

At his request, Anton dropped him at the end of the drive, just after the gates. Wishing his driver and only friend he now had a good night, Vin walked the ten minutes up the drive to the front steps. He told himself this was for his mental health, some fresh air before going inside to a host of screens that all tell him, essentially, to work more, to work harder, to be better. In reality, he did this to remind himself how much money working more, working harder, being better, had got him. But the garden – he couldn’t bring himself to say grounds, but that is what they are– lacked something. It’s beautiful, tended by a team of gardeners headed up by Lucy, who is both incredibly good with horticulture and incredibly attractive. He had once harboured ideas about a steamy affair with her, which was cut rather short when one day she turned up with a companion – her wife. Oh well – at least the petunias always looked perfectly aligned with the rose bushes. Nor was it lacking for features – a beautiful fountain, a statue of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and an art installation by a local up and coming artist, that although he had commissioned and approved, he had no idea what it was or what it was meant to symbolise.

No, what it was lacking was life. Human life. Noise. Mess. The inhales and exhales of the family. His mind drifted back to his childhood, and the park he used to play in. Covered in litter and animal droppings, he’d spent countless happy hours there with his friends. Nearly grassless, pockmarked with holes that seemed more like craters, at night it was the place for teenagers to hang around and experiment. Some of his most formative moments had happened in that park, and as with all memories drenched in melancholy, they occurred against the perfect backdrop of endless summers and warm sunsets. In his mind right now, that made it far more beautiful than the perfectly tended graveyard of the soul that surrounded his current home.

He couldn’t help but picture the forest and felt a yearning to return.

As he gets through the door his cat, Beatrice, greets him with a nonplussed stare and disappears up the grand staircase. Beatrice is a rare breed and seems very aware of it. She is a Russian Blue that cost him £2,500. “Pet” Russian Blues are less expensive than those bred to compete in shows. His, however, was originally a show cat, and had all the airs and graces of a Milan catwalk supermodel. She was also unfriendly, unsociable, and hissed at him if ever he came too close. With her thick coat and triangular head, she looked like a fluffy goblin. She was highly strung and seemed to take pleasure in showing her disdain to her human. He remembered the cat his family had growing up, Siouxsie, named by his Dad in his gothic post-punk stage. She was a rescue cat, having been found on the streets of the small South Wales town he had grown up in, and had immediately endeared herself to the entire family with her combination of adorable and absolutely daft. Once, when Vin was a teenager, he had watched as Siouxsie tried to drag an entire cat bed out of a cat flap. This was like trying to squeeze a duvet through a letterbox, but the cat really seemed to believe it was simply a matter of a combination of logistics and brute force. Looking at Beatrice now, he would be less surprised to see her being served up caviar by a smartly dressed waiter-cat than to see her undertake this kind of physically demanding exercise. She was, it seemed to him, a private school cat, entitled, lazy and arrogant. It occurred to Vin that money really can’t buy you happiness, but it can to some degree guard you from the poverty and vulnerability which can cause misery. It will also leave you ignorant, unaware, uncaring. Out of touch with reality – whatever that was.
As he picked up his new iPhone to order a sushi delivery, he caught sight of his school football trophies and maths challenge awards from school. It’s amazing how quickly a simple object can transport us through time and space. All of a sudden he’s fifteen, and it’s the school cup final. He’s just missed a penalty in the final shootout, and watched the star player on the other team convert his to win the cup. He is holding his runner-up medal – the one in the cabinet thirty years in the future that sent him back here – and he is crying. He is aware of the future as well as being present here, as though in this instant life exists in two eras at once, him living in both through some kind of mental and physical splitscreen. All at once he is devastated by his failing, and joyous that the most important thing in his life is the simple game of football. To care so much about something so unimportant, he realised now, far too late, is the most beautiful thing in the world.
He looked in his diary. Tonight night was his date with Anita. They’d met through an online dating app and although he was sure she didn’t find him very interesting, this was their fourth date. They were going to an extremely pretentious and expensive restaurant, in the area of the city that everybody wants to be seen in but nobody actually wants to be. He’d been there before, but his heart wasn’t in the idea of trying to find another similarly soulless and expensive place to eat. Seventy quid for a steak, and they had overcooked it. Mediocre wine at 100 pounds a bottle. Whenever he held a menu like this in his hands, he was filled with guilt and shame. He would look at the menu, but he would see the rows and rows of donated food at the food bank his mum and volunteered at when he was a child. He’d had nowhere to go and wasn’t old enough to stay home alone, so he had to go with her. He had seen the sadness, the indignity, that people – often parents with children – had shuffled in holding a small voucher – their ticket to a diet of donated tinned beans and dubious looking fruit. He had resolved then never to take anything for granted – yet here he was making sure he had his American Express ready to spend hundreds of pounds on a meal he wouldn’t enjoy, simply in the hope that it might lead to some inevitably nervous and mediocre sex.

The problem with these types of dates is that you suspect the other person is trying as hard to hide their true self as you are, but the uncertainty you carry on this makes it impossible for you to address this. Thus, each participant is aware of their own duplicity and is more than halfway suspicious of their companion’s. This leads to the most inauthentic of experiences from all perspectives – hardly the starting point for a healthy relationship to take root.

Anita loved yachting. Vin wasn’t really sure that “yacht” was a verb but he listened and nodded at what he thought were the right places. He even threw in “that’s lovely” and “how exciting” – nothing over the top, just the minimum required to maintain his side of the charade.

To be fair to Anita, she was an excellent conversationalist, with far more interesting experiences and opinions than he could ever muster. They talked about our childhoods. Anita came from a wealthy background. Not upper class – proper wealth. Her mother had grown up in one of the biggest and most wealthy families in Saudi Arabia – he presumed oil money. Her father had been a journalist who had met her mother while writing a story on the family. Relations had become strained – Anita had little to no contact with any of her mother’s side – but had been looked after financially. She’d been raised mostly, it seemed, by a nanny and was comfortable talking about, spending and flaunting her money. He, meanwhile, had always been uncomfortable with money discussions. He had grown up in what he suppose would be considered poverty. His family certainly relied on benefits to keep the lights on and him and his sisters fed. As he told Anita about caravan holidays, tinned meat and second hand clothes – the day his mum came home with a sleek, new-looking pair of Adidas Samba training he nearly cried with excitement – she looked increasingly horrified. When he told her their monthly treat was a trip to McDonald’s she looked genuinely saddened, and he suddenly felt a very protective need to defend his mum, his upbringing, and his life. “We were happy, though” he added. “Oh, I’m sure you thought you were sweetie, but that’s the saddest bit of poverty isn’t it – the not knowing what you could have.” There was nothing to say. She believed this with all her being and nothing he could say or do would persuade her otherwise. All she could see – all she’d ever been shown -was a direct linear proportionality between wealth, security and happiness. He didn’t blame her. It’s not true though. He had been poor and happy. They were poor and happy. He was now wealthy, secure and indulged himself all the time. He’d be hard pushed to say he was happy.

Later that evening, during the sex, (better than expected, possibly due to the three extra strong Belgian lagers he had in the bar afterwards, anything to take the taste of over-cooked, over-price cow flesh), his mind drifted to childhood holidays on the north coast of Somerset. Windy, leaky caravans, a cliff breeze so cold it made your face hurt, ice creams on a pebble beach. The highlight of these trips was taking a plastic bucket and trying to find crabs. He thought back through his holidays in the past few years – admittedly no yachts, but five star hotels, first class flights, champagne on tap, rooftop swimming pools, VIP areas in nightclubs. He tried to ignore the feeling – the knowledge – that he was much happier running on the cliff and looking for crabs. For a moment he wanted to suggest a trip to Somerset with Anita, but he couldn’t find a way to work “have you ever gone crabbing?” into the post-coital conversation.

After Anita left the next day he was still thinking about this. He sat in his Jacuzzi (7 different bubble settings, none of which do anything other than occasionally blow a bubble somewhere uncomfortable). He was specifically thinking of the swimming pool on the caravan park. Small, mouldy, and smelly, it was the scene of his greatest achievement and fondest memory – the day he landed a jump right through the middle of an inflatable doughnut. His dad had been moving it progressively further away from the side and taunting him about his inability to jump that far. In his memory, he gave his dad a confident smile and launched himself in to a graceful arc, hardly touching the inner sides of the inflatable while barely breaking the surface of the water, slipping in like an elegant eel.

After drying off he found himself reading an article he’d written for a left- wing magazine. He wrote anonymously under the name The Champagne Socialist. Predictable but fair. This article was a treatise to “people like me to make sure that they are active bystanders.” He wondered if he even knew what that meant.

More concerningly, sitting in his luxury home and remembering the thoughts that went through his mind with Anita – he questions himself. Could he have those thoughts and be a feminist? Sure we all have fantasies and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous, but are they always this reductive or was he, in fact, far from being a feminist and gender equality ally, really a closet misogynist?

Three days later he is in a meeting with the accountancy team. Business is as good as ever – the new range of gender neutral superheroes is going particularly well, and the social media video marketing stream is twice what it was last year – but he was feeling increasingly uncomfortable. The meeting itself is no different from any other – graphs, spreadsheet, profit, loss, capital, investment, tax liabilities, risks. Workforce costs. Any other business.

He was often very quiet in these meetings. Although it’s his company, the meeting is chaired by the Chief Accountant. Major shareholders are present, as are trade unions. He let the people around the table do their jobs. He was aware of the power he had, and his very presence was enough to keep them on their toes. Not today though. As the Chief Accountant – Marcus (recently divorced, trying to force an image with long hair and a ridiculous stud in his nose – is introducing the tax liability item, he could feel himself wanting to interject. “This is new,” he thought – this is usually the point at which he will drift away with his thoughts. “What is this feeling?” he asked himself, to no satisfactory answer.

On the way home he stopped by his mother’s grave. She’d died quite young – lung cancer, despite never having smoked – and while he was working when it happened, she had never seen the success that he’d achieved. He’d never managed to share it with her. No mortgage-free living, no Caribbean holidays, no exploring the Italian lakes. No trips to see the Louvre as she so desperately wanted to do. No Mona Lisa. No sipping coffee at a Parisian café watching the world go by. He felt bad about that – but really he was feeling bad for himself. He never got to show his mother what he had achieved, how much money he was capable of making.. It was his loss, not hers. He’d never got the chance to show off, to gain her validation and approval for his achievements. As he contemplated this a wave of sadness hit him. It hit him so hard he felt it physically. Taking a step back to regain his balance as you do when you’re in the sea and momentarily lose balance, he found himself revelling in the comfort of the sadness. He was happy being sad. It felt familiar, and real, and much more comfortable than hate, guilt or the existential confusion he seemed to face every morning. Sadness was safety.

He sat there silently for an hour, tears rolling slowly down his cheek, as he thought of what might have been. He pondered how our “what might have been” lives are so much more simple than our lived ones. Linear and happy, with no difficult bits. No mess ups. No pain or anger. Its no wonder so many of us spend as much time there as we can. It’s a happier, simpler place, if only for the fact that it can never exist.

Half an hour later, as he walked through the door, he faced a difficult question. Would she be proud? Earlier that day he’d had a meeting which he had been very happy with. With his financial whizz and Chief Accountant, Marcus, they had found a way to reduce the tax liability of the company by 35%. This was, essentially, millions of pounds back in the pockets of the shareholders and his staff, saved from the greasy mittens of the slimeball currently occupying 11 Downing Street. Is that how his mum would have seen it though? Or would she see him as a tax dodging Tory donor who had sold out as soon as he got some money? And was it really true that people really moved to the right as they get older? He was fairly sure she wouldn’t have done, but he couldn’t be sure. So either she’d have sold out herself and been proud, or stuck to her principals and been appalled by him. Suddenly, the “what if” world lost a bit of its sheen. It’s non-existence had crept in to his real life, shining a spotlight on to himself – and he hated what he saw. He sat down at his laptop and started to write.

The phone rang. 4am. His first thought was “who’s dead?” as is so often the case with unexpected phone calls at unusual hours. A quick mental inventory told him that there aren’t many people left in his life to worry about. Quite a sobering first thought of the day. He looked at the screen – Shirley. Shirley was a fantastically attractive woman in her forties. She was smart, funny, and as successful as him. She was his partner in the business, the one who had done all the hard bits while he was the creative brain. The Stephen Wozniak to his Steve Jobs. The Christine McVie to his “the rest of Fleetwood Mac.”

“Vin? You awake?”

“What do you think, Temple?” He always called her this.

“I think you’re having me on with this quitting stuff. Where do you get off? We’re partners. That’s the deal.” She unleashes a barrage of expletives while he gathers his thoughts.

“I prefer the wake up call at the Ritz. They knock gently and lay on coffee. You know what I’m doing, how I feel. It’s all in the email.”

“The email is a load of crap and you know it.” She was shouting down the phone, but he could still hear her in the background putting a coffee on. Shirley got up earlier than he did. In the earlier days of their partnership he’d always imagined them having intimate moments in the office before anybody else arrived. Then she’d come out, married that crazy cow with the great legs and ridiculous mohawk and lived happily ever after. It annoyed him to this day that they’d never acted on what he was sure were reciprocal feelings.

“Shirley, I’m tired. I don’t mean today, now. I mean this year. These past few years. I’m only happy when I’m sad. I hate the success. The meetings. The wearing suits. It’s not me. All the signs of success – the cars, the house, the shiny shoes, the bling, the first class treatment. It’s all fake. I want out. I don’t want to be poor. I wouldn’t insult people living in poverty by glamourising it. Having money is great. Having enough money to be comfortable is a great luxury. But actual luxury – the high life – is lonely and miserable. I hate it. I hate me. I can’t go on being this full of hate – I get out now, or one way or the other, I’ll be dead.” He heard Shirley swear and put the phone down. He had known she wouldn’t understand. She loved it all. She was happy. He didn’t resent her at all – mostly he was extremely jealous of her ability to take pride in and enjoy her achievements. His life would be much simpler if he could do that.

He never spoke to Shirley again.

Two years and 9 months later and he is giving the opening address at the Art is Life is Art Foundation. The foundation has been set up to deliver free to attend, outside art sessions for children and families. Funded through significant corporate donations the programme travelled the country parks of Britain, providing creative workshops for children of all ages and backgrounds. From painting to acting to dance to music, kids turned up, laughed, created and engaged with nature. It was wonderful.

Vin, though, still felt empty. He felt false in this world. He knew he had options. He could simply walk away, never do anything again. He wanted to feel invested, to feel that he belonged. He didn’t. He still didn’t understand the world he had chosen to live in. Since he’d left the forest, he’d immersed himself in what the civilised humans called the “real world,” and by their own measures he’d been rather successful. He understood the mechanics of that world, how it worked, and how to get the best out of it. But, in a fundamental way – deep down, in his being, he didn’t understand it. He’d set up the foundation in order to “give back,” to find meaning and use in all that he had achieved. He’d felt like a fraud all his corporate life. Now, knowing he was helping to make a real difference to the lives of children, he felt just as much a fraud as before. Worse perhaps, because people kept telling him what a great guy he was now. He knew better. He knew the kick his ego got from all of this. Despite his best efforts (or perhaps not? Perhaps he was kidding himself here too) the foundation had become all about him in the same way the business had. His ego, his fame (or infamy) was a high speed train with him no longer at the wheel. Whatever he did was about him.

He stared for what felt like thousandth time in to the mirror and came to the same conclusion. The eyes never changed. The frown never turned. And those black lines never faded. The permanence was terrifying. He had tried adjusting the mirror, moving backwards and forwards, even squinting. The mirror man never changed. Hypocrisy is inevitable. It’s part of the human condition. So why do we feel so awful about it? Why is it considered such a failing? If he had any ambition left, the pills in his hand would be making their way back into the bottle, into the cupboard, and away for another time. Instead, they were making their way through his body now, restricting his breathing and slowly taking him away. He could feel his breathing slowing. He could feel the anxiety, the stress, the guilt falling from his soul. He closed his eyes for the final time. In his mind he could see the forest. He was going home.

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