At a Creative Writing class just before Easter break, we were asked to write – in any style – one A4 page on the topic of “congeries”, a difficult word that has the appearance of being a plural but which is, in fact, very singular! Here is mine:
My brother used to cry when Mr Benn came on television. Or he’d peep out from behind the sofa and watch it, his little face aghast. Then, when the programme had finished, he would play Mr Benn in that way children do: “let’s pretend”. He would have me be the shopkeeper passing him an invisible outfit, go into the pantry and come out as a fireman, or a deep-sea diver, or whatever the disguise had been on that particular day and have an adventure… and then everything would be all right again, until the next time.
It’s only recently that I’ve made the connection. It’s dawned on me, that after ten years of marriage, I still don’t know who my husband is when he dons his suit and goes into the city. He becomes a stranger: distant, efficient and inflexible. Someone who, if I do have to phone him during his working hours, talks to me as though I’m a client, or an irritant, which might be the same thing. I’ve never seen him with a client so it’s hard to know how he behaves. If truth were told, I’m too afraid to see him with one. It might lead to divorce. Or worse: what if he’s happier than when he’s with me? What I do know is, had I met him in his professional setting, we would never have married.
I get the same feeling of “who the hell are you?” when he dons his cycling gear, or golfing gear, or one of the many guises he has for his numerous pursuits. He has to have an outfit – and the right outfit – for every occasion. When he walks into the closet in our bedroom, he always closes the door behind him. If it is earlier morning, I lie in bed drinking coffee, wondering which one he will choose among his congeries of characters. I listen to the suit bags rustling, the hangers swishing. And then he comes out as this someone else, just as Mr Benn did, just as my brother did, all those years ago. To me, it is more than an outward change; it is a total transformation, of body and soul, every time. He is someone I just don’t know.
When I add it up – even when he is dressed in casual, about-the-house clothing – there aren’t many hours in the week when he is simply himself. I see how kind he is with my mother, how polite he is with strangers, how he opens doors for women, how he always walks on the outside of the pavement when we’re shopping. But what does any of this mean? Is this the real him? Is there a real him? Or is he playing one continuous game of “let’s pretend”?
My husband knows least of all. Because when I try to explain, he wears a complete lack of comprehension on his face, and refuses to talk about it.
The only time he shows emotion is when he drinks too much wine. Then, he cries, sings and plays the piano, always in that order, before arguing with me and flouncing off to the spare room.
As for my brother, he became an actor.