'What were you doing there?' she said.
Well, I had been asked to make up a fourth member of an all-male party going over to Bantry Bay to do some pre-summer painting, patching, etc on a summer home on an island belonging to the family of one of the men; it seemed like a chance to see the wilds of western Ireland in congenial company. But in this age of sound bites, you can't offer long explanations. You have to keep it snappy.
'I was over there with three men,' I said.
'Oh,' she said, 'and did you go drumming in the woods a lot?'
I was lost. What did she mean? Then I suddenly realised that she was referring to one of the books about the 'new man' that have come out recently, written by someone tough and old whom I keep thinking of as Chay Bly but who may be called Robert Bly, and who wants us to re-establish male bonds by, um, drumming in the woods and mingling our blood and strangling rabbits with our bare hands and heaven knows what. But I have probably got this wrong, as I haven't read any of these books.
'No,' I said coldly. 'No, we didn't go drumming in the woods at all.'
Her response was, incidentally, an indicator of an interesting historical change. If you told someone 10 years ago that you were going off with three men for the weekend, they would have nudged you, made a camp gesture and said: 'Have a nice time, sweetie]' We're advancing beyond gay stereotypes. We've now reached 'new man' stereotypes.
'So what did you do?' she said.
'Well,' I said, 'most of the time we sat around saying, 'I wonder what our wives think we are doing at this very moment?' '
'Did you really?' she said.
'No,' I said, though in fact we had sometimes done so. I think, in retrospect, we had spent most of the time silently establishing our own roles within the group.
For instance, the other three men knew about electricity, tools, engines and ropes. I have a smattering of these things, but never enough to frighten real men. I used to feel bad about this. Then I realised that my ignorance had a purpose. It made other men feel good. So in Ireland I tended to use my ignorance to reflect the spotlight on Eric, Alan and Peter's
Once, this state of innocence did become briefly useful. Peter had brought over from England a wind generator that he had devised, to recharge the house's battery. He installed it, got it working, got it turning to the wind, and then wrote out some instructions for the next visitors to the island to follow if they wanted to activate the generator . . .
'Miles, would you mind reading these instructions and carrying them out?' he said. 'I reckon that if you can follow them, anyone can.'
See what I mean? He didn't ask Alan or Eric. They would have been useless at testing his instructions. They would probably have known what to do without reading the instructions] Quite useless. No, it was to me that Peter turned in his hour of need.
So I read the instructions. I am pleased to report that I carried them out accurately. Not only that, I also recommended a couple of changes.
'Look, Peter, this bit where you say: 'When you come to the island, the battery should be charged', that's a little ambiguous. It doesn't make it clear whether the battery is ALREADY charged or whether YOU should do it when you get here.'
He stared at me mildly, without responding.
'And this bit here is, strictly, ungrammatical,' I said. 'When you say, 'Make very sure the polarity of the connections are not mixed up . . .' well, that should really be 'IS not mixed up' . . . '
I looked at him and my voice trailed away. By my own lights I was doing the right thing. As a writer, I could introduce clarity into his document. But as a writer, I could also be a right pain in the neck. If Abraham Lincoln asked anyone to have a look at the Gettysburg Address, he sure as hell didn't want the man to say, 'I'm sorry, but I don't think much of your comma-placement, Abe . . .'
Tomorrow: how Peter emerged as the natural leader, and so did Eric and Alan.Reuse content