Dilemmas: How can I call this man my friend?

For 25 years Zelda's bachelor friend has been affectionate company. But he never visited her in hospital, and when she fell ill on holiday he was unsupportive. Finally, when drunk he said nasty things about her, though he did apologise later. She feels she's found the `real him' and doesn't like it. Has she been `had' all these years?
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VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

Zelda's problem stems from one false premiss only - that there is such a thing as a "real person" in us all who lives underneath some kind of facade. We ourselves usually believe that beneath our shyness, insecurity, anxiety, depression, anger or whatever (usually known as "stuff" forced on us by our wicked parents) there is a delightful "inner child" who wants to dance, love everyone and be free and spontaneous. As for other people, we often believe that under their charm, kindness, amusingness and life-and-soul-of-the-partyness lies a vile, selfish, psychotic, cowardly, mean monster, the "real them", that we see only occasionally when they let their guard down.

I've often been tempted to believe this model myself and it's only recently that I've realised it's total bunkum. We are all enormously complicated mixes of good and bad, and every single bit is as real as any other. Whether we're buttering up an old uncle in the hopes he'll leave us something in his will, or whether we're bravely intervening in a fight between two strangers in the street; whether we're saying unforgivable things to a partner, having snooped in their diary, or whether we're visiting a bereaved friend with caviare and champagne - all these things make up the "real us".

Take the Krays - were they the "real Krays" when they were threatening to murder people, or were they the "real Krays" when they were giving masses of money to charity? Both were the "real Krays".

So when Zelda's friend doesn't visit her in hospital, it means absolutely nothing. Being in hospital never tells you "who your real friends are". All it does is tell you which of your friends enjoy visiting people in hospital and which ones can't stand it. Her friend is probably terrified of illness - which would account also for his being so unsympathetic when they were on holiday and she got a funny tummy. He most likely has a phobia about people being ill - can't stand them. Yes, this horror and apparent selfish lack of sympathy are certainly the "real him" but his amusing and affectionate character when they're on holiday and she's well is also the "real him".

As for his saying nasty things about her when he was drunk, again Zelda's working on the basis of a barmy cliche, that "in vino, veritas". In vino, veritas certainly ain't. In vino, anger, in vino, mawkish sentimentality, in vino, argumentative and aggressive attitude, in vino, total slurry goofiness or, in vino, fancying some ghastly person and ending up in bed with them, much to your dismay; and so on. But surely Zelda only has to think of things she's said and done when drunk and afterwards held her head in horror and shame, to be a bit more charitable? At least her friend had the decency to ring up and apologise. Lest this sounds as though I'm falling into my own trap and saying that what Zelda's friend said when drunk was not the "real him", yes it was, but the truth is more that when her friend gets pissed he turns nasty, rather than what he said was true or even meant, when sober.

I used to worry because when I looked in a mirror I could never say "That is me." But the truth as I know see it is that the real me is like a cloud of hovering midges, thousands of goodies and baddies. On the whole Zelda finds her long-standing friend good company and, except when she's ill or he's drunk, a delightful companion. She should hang on in there. He sounds OK to me.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Maybe he's attracted to you

They do say that sex always gets in the way of friendships between men and women. I encountered this with a male friend. It became obvious that his feelings towards me weren't purely platonic but, instead of being straight with me, he turned nasty to conceal his true emotions. Maybe your friend is feeling the same. Talk to him about it, when you're both sober. Maybe he rented When Harry Met Sally out on video and his thoughts began to wander...

HELEN VASILIOU

Newbury Park, Essex

Talk to him and sort it out

I nearly fell out with a close childhood friend after an argument last year. Numerous things had been building up over the years. I was upset with the way she had been treating me and her attitude generally. After a period of not speaking, I realised that I should confront her, as it was stupid to lose a friend I had been close to for so long. It was the best thing to do. She hadn't realised that she was behaving badly and upsetting me. Now we are good friends again and the situation has improved. I would suggest that you confront this man; maybe he hasn't even realised that there is a problem.

ROSIE SALE

Oxford

Maybe he's just getting old

It's taken you an awful long time to find out that this friend has a negative side, so your reaction to a few ill-chosen remarks sounds a bit knee-jerk. I can't imagine that you haven't thought a few bad things about him in 25 years.

Perhaps he sees you as a bit self-pitying. People change as they get older, and he may just be getting a bit crabby.

ALAN J GREEN

London SE10

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm 40 and have just returned to England after 20 years in the Middle East with a very lucrative job. I went out with my wife immediately after we were married. We had a live-in cook, a handyman, a chauffeur and two cars, and neither of us had to lift a finger. This may sound rather selfish, but it was the way of life there. Now I'm back I'm so depressed about England - public transport, supermarkets, people drinking in the streets, the lack of safety. Life is very, very hard - and my salary won't go anywhere here. My wife has never learnt to cook, and used to spend her time shopping or doing charity work. Now she feels lonely and isolated. Our old friends in the UK seem quite different. Has anyone else experienced this feeling? How did they cope, and did it get better with time?

Yours sincerely, Alan

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