'One more thing..." said my friend on the phone – let's call him A – after he'd told me a spectacular piece of news. "Don't tell anyone, will you?"
I turned my back on my husband, who was theatrically miming the phrase "What is it?" in response to my previous cries of amazement, and the excited little jig that had accompanied them.
"Oh, OK. Of course I won't. Do you mean... literally no one?"
"Better not," said my friend. "Not until I know for sure."
"Right. That's fine. Just... how long do you think that might be?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"Oh, shouldn't be more than a couple of months."
Let me make one thing clear in case anyone who knows me is reading this. I hate secrets. Not for me the subtle thrill of being in the know, the silent smile of superior knowledge. All I get out of knowing your secrets is a slightly sick sense of anxiety as I have to guard every single word that passes my lips during every single conversation with every single acquaintance... for a couple of months.
My daughter has a very sweet children's story by Kes Gray, about a little girl called Daisy who tells her friend she knows a secret, in order to gain a certain kudos, but then refuses to say what it is. After all, a secret becomes somewhat devalued if you go and tell it to everybody. Daisy's friend begins a determined campaign of bribery to get the secret out of her, and finally, with the irresistible offer of some chewing gum, Daisy is persuaded to tell her friend the secret, which, it transpires, came from that friend in the first place.
I will never break a confidence. I do love chewing gum, though, but... no, not even for that. I am, and I think it's to my credit, completely dependable. And that, of course, is why people tell me stuff. But if they only knew how miserable it makes me, they might do the charitable thing and keep it to themselves. The problem is that I have an honest face. I remember being told, by a particularly scary teacher at drama school, that although many people erroneously consider lying to be a central part of acting, in fact the opposite is true. Acting, my terrifying mentor drummed into us, "is all about Truth". My honest face has come in very handy over the years in my professional career, but it does me no favours at all in the real world, which, it seems to me, "is all about Lying". My truthful demeanour makes people want to confide in me, but it also gives me no protection against those who want to find out what I know.
Now that person A had told me his secret, I knew that if person B asked me anything about A, I would have to lie and pretend I hadn't spoken to him. And B would know I was lying, because I'm so rubbish at it. I'd go red in the face, stammer, look distractedly out of the window, rub my nose, feign deafness. And she'd know I was hiding something, and would ring him up and ask what was wrong, and he'd never trust me again... which maybe wouldn't be such a bad outcome. I didn't want to let A down, though, so I began avoiding B's calls, ignoring her emails. But avoiding a friend seemed almost as bad as betraying one. I was, as Jeeves would doubtless have said, on the horns of a dilemma. So eventually I rang A and asked him if it would be all right for me to tell just one person. He sounded a little perplexed, but he could obviously detect the note of anguish in my voice and reassured me that it wouldn't be a problem. At last, I could return B's calls. We arranged to meet. I told her A's secret.
There is an additional level of anxiety in keeping a secret, which is that when you do finally reveal it, it may be a terrible anticlimax. But not in this case. B was, as I had been, aghast, amazed, impressed and excited all in one go. I told her everything I knew, and with each fresh detail she was more delighted, and I more liberated. It felt marvellous to be unburdened, and to know that I'd broken no rule of friendship in achieving that. But just to be on the safe side, as we paid the bill, I said to B:
"By the way, you will keep it to yourself, won't you?"
"Of course," she laughed, airily. But I could tell there was a note of tension in her voice. "For how long?"
"Just a couple of months," I replied.
"A couple of months?!" she shouted back.