Sample chapter

We all have a journey to make through this world – given the good fortune and the perseverance to stay alive – and at some point in this journey, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, we may find that living the unexamined life is not working out for us. In order to progress in a manner that we at least find acceptable, we need to know who we really are.

For Arthur Loveday, this point arrived on September 31st 2010 in the North London offices of Carruthers Sloan estate agents where he had worked, with moderate success, for the previous ten years. Lately, however, there had been a hiatus in the business of property dealing – a state of affairs that was generally attributed to the current government and the prevailing banking system. But Carruthers Sloan felt the need to attribute it more specifically than that, and so they laid it at the door of two or three of their more moderate employees. Three days after his thirtieth birthday, Arthur Loveday was ‘let go’.

For a small orphan kitten, the unexamined life came to an end slightly later than this (ten days) and somewhat farther down the high street (seven doors) in the window of Happy Paws pet shop, where it found itself miaowing desperately through the plate glass with absolutely no idea of how it had got there or what its purpose in this bewildering world was supposed to be.

So the truth is that, far from one being a redundant estate agent and the other being just a kitten, the pair of them had a lot in common from the very start.

*****

But, whilst the owner of Happy Paws would not even hear the kitten’s cries, Carruthers Sloan were not entirely deaf to the lamentations of those they had just jettisoned into the job market and so, in accordance with the latest in ‘caring business’ models, they provided, for each one, a full forty minutes of emotional compensation from a very experienced and succinct counsellor.

This counsellor was distinguished by a doctorate in psychology which had been largely acquired by putting unsuspecting volunteers into bogus situations, observing their reactions and statistically analysing the resulting behaviour. With complex experiments such as these, he had proved that men like beautiful women, that women like brave men and that the unconscious mind, given quiet unencumbered space in which to operate, will produce more successful and creative solutions than the conscious mind. He was thus in a perfect position to show wretched people, who have been flung by circumstance from the frying pan into the fire, how to get out of it. And in just forty minutes.

It was, of necessity, counsel without coffee. Counsel, in fact, without anything you’d hope for – such as sympathy, reassurance and a contact list for alternative employment.

There was, however, an inkblot test. Shown pieces of card with decorative splodges in the middle, Arthur Loveday saw ducks, a buffalo, an upside down lobster and two people kissing. This had dire consequences. It went on to reveal not so much what he was, as what he wasn’t. And he wasn’t, apparently, a great many things – exigent, resolute, aspiring, centred, high octane or focused. He was, in fact, seemingly devoid of what you could call drive. But then, a few years of trying to shift ‘desirable bijou residences’ against an adverse economic tide could knock the wind out of any but the most terrier-like of salesmen. And ‘terrier-like’ was another of those things that Arthur Loveday patently wasn’t. Nor was he a smooth talker, a nod-and a-wink man or a spinner of yarns, so unfortunately …

“From these results, Mr. Loveday,” said the counsellor slowly – using ‘Mister’ was a piece of distancing terminology that made it easier for him to tell people of brief acquaintance things they didn’t want to hear – “From these results,” he repeated, “I would deduce that you are not cut out for selling things. Or acquiring things. Or sniffing out deals which are intended to sell things. Or acquire things. Or bringing such hypothetical deals, were they to materialise for you out of the goodness of their hearts, to a successful conclusion. In fact,” he sat back in his chair and surveyed the heavily corniced ceiling and wide six-panelled door with its elegant brass furniture (and this just a branch office of Carruthers Sloan) “I would say that this is not your world at all. Nor anything like it .”

Arthur could think of no adequate response to this regrettable chronicle of his insufficiencies. Concluding his consultation with the décor, the counsellor shuffled through his notes. “This test, Mr. Loveday, was a psychological projection test which I went on to use in a broadly Socratic manner.”

Arthur had no idea what he meant .

“In a psychological projection test, Mr. Loveday, you are presented with a field of ignorance into which you endeavour to project your own psychic activity. This gives me a speculative access to the contents of your head. And then we talk about them. Or we try to. Unfortunately,” the counsellor looked up, “there is scant indication in any of this as to where your talents actually lie. I find myself unable to make one solid recommendation pertaining to suitable future employment for you. Whatever your bent is, Mr. Loveday, it has stubbornly refused to declare itself.” He ruminated silently on this for long, disappointed moments.

This was an experienced counsellor so he had to know that there was a rabbit loose somewhere. An elusive rabbit that forty minutes wasn’t going to be near enough time to snare. For though Arthur Loveday was certainly no testosterone-driven alpha male, neither on paper nor manifest in pumped-up action hero flesh, there were things about him that began to catch at you the longer he sat there. He had, for instance, a particularly attractive gaze – one of those bluey grey, far horizon gazes that was … yes … heavily clouded just now, but surely capable of doing great execution should the moment and the mood come together. In fact, he was in possession of some pretty good looks that, unusually for good looks, had apparently failed to stimulate in him any inclination to capitalise on them. Or any appreciable measure of self-regard. His preponderant response to adverse comment was a weary and reasonable courtesy. But that alone meant that he had to have more good qualities that could be considered and catalogued to his advantage. So why was he failing so comprehensively to bring them forth for scrutiny and suggestion?

The counsellor sighed. “A personality,” he explained, “has to be suited to the job you are asking it to perform. And this, I feel, is the challenge that this redundancy poses for you. You need to find out who you really are.”

Arthur was not convinced that another disappointing perusal of his inner self was what he needed just now. He had not been raised to undertake painstaking examinations of personal distress. “So quite straightforward then,” he said. “That’s something at least.”

“Irony,” observed the counsellor with some satisfaction. “Not necessarily a bad trait. No use in business, of course. Businessmen have to say what they mean. Though not necessarily mean what they say.” He gave a chuckle. “The Mad Hatter, I believe.”

“He could well be here,” thought Arthur.

As his chuckles faded away, the counsellor lapsed into silence, arranging his fingers in a poised tent and studying a point on the far wall. Maybe he was actively ransacking the farthest reaches of his brain for something that could be of help. Or maybe, he was just sitting there wondering what he was going to have for supper, letting the unconscious do the work, waiting for lightning to strike. Either way, he suddenly said: “Are you acquainted at all with the theories of Jung?”

Arthur shook his head. Jung was not a name he had ever conjured with and he was still much exercised with wondering how, exactly, seeing buffaloes and lobsters and ducks and a perfectly innocuous kiss, had brought him to this pass. But, the counsellor had put the buffaloes to one side. “Carl Gustav Jung,” he said, “has a strong claim to being the father of psychoanalysis. He really honed the process. He coined the words introvert and extrovert and so on and so forth. All the better to analyse you with, you see. But, over and above that, he came to believe that the goal of psychological development, indeed the goal of life, was individuation. The finding of self with a capital S. Unfortunately, it’s not the work of a moment. Nor the work of forty minutes. Plus, Jung was … well, to be frank, he’s not entirely my cabbage patch. But I married a Jungian …” he paused, as if this were the first time he’d been seriously struck by the notion. “Unusual people ..disturbing even.” He stared reflectively out of the window. “This morning, for instance, I cooked eggs while my wife speculated aloud on why it could be that she had devoted a considerable portion of her dreams to the killing and dissection of the dog. Most people tend to keep quiet about that sort of thing, you know. Have you ever cut up the family dog during the night, Mr. Loveday?”

“We never had a dog,” said Arthur.

The counsellor nodded, smiling faintly. “It’s a funny thing, but I really think that Jung could serve you well.” He went silent again then, as if to allow this idea to take root in Arthur’s head, and then suddenly he was all business – leaping to his feet, straightening his jacket, pushing his chair back with an air of finality. “And now, Mr. Loveday,” he held out his hand, “I believe our time is up.”

“Thank you,” said Arthur. It was one of the most confusing and dispiriting forty minutes that he had ever spent.

As he passed, for the last time, through the reception area of the premises, the young woman manning the desk said, “Goodbye, Arthur. Come back and see us sometime, won’t you? Let us know how you get on.” Understanding, of course, that he never would. She was, in truth, more distressed to see him go than she cared to admit, even to herself. She stood over six feet in her precipitous fashionable footwear but Arthur stood a satisfying two inches taller. It gave her a disturbing pleasure to stand next to him but she had never looked too closely at this pleasure because she could see that Arthur’s heart beat for someone else.

Equally conscientiously, she had suppressed the desire to observe some of the looks that he directed towards this enviable someone else because now and then she’d caught in them something that was as brief, but as dazzling, as the flash of sun on glass. A love that made her heart turn over. And some other parts of her as well because Arthur Loveday, caught in the right light as it were, seemed to have the potential to be … well … something he was apparently unaware of. And yet, over and above that – and a certain wayward preoccupation with minor details like breadth of shoulder and strong-looking hands, and hair that was dark but not too dark and curling in a rather satisfying way at the nape of his neck – even above all of that, what touched her most were the repeated flickers of desolation in his face. She shook her head. Why this love of his was neither thoroughly revealed nor clearly rebuffed was a mystery because it looked prepared enough for either eventuality. In the meantime, it was obviously running such an interminable gamut of agonised possibility that it was painful to even watch. Why didn’t one of them do something? And why wasn’t there a third woman in the office with whom this could be thoroughly discussed? The secretary suddenly decided that she ought to be relieved that Arthur Loveday was leaving, because having to be the sole, frustrated juggler of thoughts like these had started to get between her and the endless smiles and irreproachable civility she was paid to produce. Smiling now, she held out a farewell hand.

Arthur was still capable of managing a smile himself. Just. He had a smile that could have been a heartbreaker – even now it was something more than a gesture – but at this moment Arthur Loveday’s big smile, like that of the Cheshire cat, was pretty much all that remained of him. Still courteous, he shook the secretary’s proffered hand. “It’s been nice … “he tailed off.

“It could have been,” she said.

Arthur met her eyes briefly. If he understood what she was implying he gave no sign of it. When he stepped out into the wet, wintry high street he felt peculiarly empty as if the redundancy, followed by the ink blot test, had jerked the cork from the bottle and let everything drain away. But the truth was, that Arthur had been leaking for a long time – losing life force, drip by drip, under the welter of workaday annoyances and frustrations that was his daily fare. Lately, it had become harder and harder not to recognise the fading of the dream and to weather, without acknowledging the wear and tear, his portion of defeat and failure.

Now, he walked a pre-programmed automaton’s walk to the tube station. But the programme had evidently developed a glitch because somewhere, in this most familiar of routes, Arthur took a wrong turn. He felt a brief frustration and glanced at his watch. Why? There was no hurry. He had nowhere to be. He looked down at his pinstriped legs and shiny Oxfords. He felt colourless. Indistinct. Nothing more than a generic Fritz Lang figure, dark suited and tidily barbered, mere background for Routemaster buses, Household Cavalry troopers and Trafalgar Square lions. And now, with no job and no place to be, he wasn’t even authentic background.

He came to an uncertain halt and looked around him. A sudden autumn gust whipped his trousers against his legs. He shivered. Where was he? What shop was this? He looked up. Krishna’s Second-hand Book Emporium.

“Many titles. Many, many titles.”

An Indian-looking gentleman, presumably Mr. Krishna, was occupying the doorway in a proprietorial fashion, eating a doughnut and dropping jam down the front of a fine, maroon, velvet smoking jacket with frog fastenings.

“Thank you,” said Arthur. “But I’m not really in need of a book.”

“I think you are,” said Mr. Krishna, putting his head on one side in an ostentatiously thoughtful pose. “You have the look of a man who needs to be transported to other lands, under other skies.”

“Not really. But thank you.”

“I have coffee. You at least need coffee.”

The alluring smell of freshly ground coffee suddenly wended its way into Arthur’s nostrils. It was unusually compelling.

“Maybe I do,” Arthur said. “Thank you.” And he followed Mr. Krishna into the gloom of the shop. The interior smelt musty and the floorboards creaked, and an enormous tortoiseshell cat sat on the counter next to an old-fashioned cash register and watched him through half- shut eyes. As powerful coffee pummelled him into life, Arthur began to take in the astonishing size of the place. Stretching away from him was such a length of bookshelves that their serried ranks actually had a vanishing point. So many thousands of volumes yet, curiously enough, he found himself seated in an armchair that put him eye to eye with a line of works by Carl Gustav Jung.

“You are familiar with Dr. Jung?” asked Mr. Krishna, filling up Arthur’s mug with yet more syrupy, black liquid.

“Not familiar.” Arthur looked into his mug. This stuff was good but he was starting to feel a little odd. He felt as if things were opening up inside his chest. Vortices.“Vortices,” he said aloud and somewhat to his surprise.

“They’ll pass,” said Mr. Krishna dismissively. “But Jung?”

“Somebody just recommended him to me,” said Arthur. “That’s all.”

“Just? As in just now?”

“Yes.”

“I am a man of words,” said Mr. Krishna, “and some small erudition so let me quote to you from Samuel Butler: ‘Do not hunt for subjects. Let them choose you, not you them. Only do that which insists upon being done and runs right up against you, hitting you in the eye. This calls to you and you had better attend to it and do it as well as you can.’”

Arthur didn’t respond. The vortices had set up quite a distracting thrumming.

Mr. Krishna prodded him. “So, you know who Dr. Jung was?”

“Psychologist? Psychiatrist? One or the other.”

“He was a doctor!” exclaimed Mr. Krishna inscandalised tones, as if Arthur had somehow impugned Jung’s credentials.

So he was a psychiatrist then. And a onetime colleague of Freud’s. Except Jung. And younger. Though also dead. Arthur had to work hard to maintain concentration. He took another look in his coffee cup.

“But Freud is sticking in the mind more,” Mr. Krishna pointed out with some indignation,” because everything was a phallus to Freud. Modern thinking, you know. Everyone is very much on side with the phallus.”

Arthur nodded. That seemed predictable. “Facile!” Mr. Krishna shouted in his ear. “Facile!”

Arthur jumped. Mr. Krishna pressed him back down into the chair. He seemed determined to make Arthur understand that Jung, in spite of deconstructing the human personality into its various working parts with typical Swiss precision, had not been just a superior type of watchmaker. “That was only his start because we are not being watches, are we?”

Arthur felt able to offer confident agreement. He was experiencing some extremely odd feelings but he was pretty sure that he was not turning into a watch. And Jung, apparently, had also come to the conclusion that people were not watches. And the upshot of not being watches?

“Well, for beginnings, the watchmaker was never blind,” said Mr. Krishna. “Absolutely, never blind.”

“That’s nice,” said Arthur. “For the watchmaker. Must have been a big relief.” He suspected that there was a reference in there somewhere but he just couldn’t get it. “Now, what’s happening here exactly?” He looked down. Mr. Krishna had started selecting works of Jung and piling them up beside him. Out of politeness only, Arthur opened a couple and scanned the writings. “This is very…” he searched for a word “… dense.”

“Good for the brain to take on something new,” said Mr. Krishna briskly. “Staves off the old timers’ disease.” He wiped a leather-covered volume with his sleeve and then began distributing the books he had selected between two stout paper carrier bags with string handles. “A balanced load,” he pronounced with satisfaction.

“Looks an expensive load,” said Arthur, renewedly aware of his jobless status.

“Ten pound the lot,” said Mr. Krishna. “Really? That seems excessively cheap.”

“Dr. Jung is not selling well. Everybody here in the U.K. wants to be better with a pill before breakfast, two stretching exercises and a minute in front of the mirror saying: ‘I love myself.’” He shook his head sadly. “But it’s not working like that.”

“How does it work?” asked Arthur, since this seemed to be of some relevance to him.

Mr. Krishna shook his head again. “No good asking me such questions. I am just the wayside inn that supplies for each his roadmap. Here is the knowledge …” He gestured into the crepuscular gloom of his shop. “And also here …” He tapped lightly on Arthur’s head and then on his heart.

“And here?” Arthur looked into the two carrier bags.

“Very much so. Very much so.” Mr. Krishna nodded vigorously and then he stopped. “Although, even the great Dr. Jung referred to himself as ‘just a spoon in the kitchen’. He recognised the unfathomable. Even the cleverest of us, and that’s not you and me, sir, far from it, could just be sitting in Plato’s cave.”

Arthur made a conscious decision not to ask about Mr. Plato and his cave. A man can only cope with the onslaught of one messiah at once.

“Ten pound to you, Arthur.” Mr. Krishna was back with the carrier bags. “And that’s a good price, even for fire-lighting material.”

Arthur took ten pounds out of his wallet and handed it over. It was the line of least resistance – the path he was most familiar with. He did not even register that, during his sojourn in the shop, he had not once divulged his name. Mr Krishna patted him contentedly on the shoulder. “Finish your coffee now. No hurry.”

Presently, Arthur set off with his books. At the end of the street he paused. Mr. Krishna, watching from his Emporium doorway, shook his head. There goes a young man who has seriously lost himself. “Left, for goodness sake,” he shouted, waving his arms.