the rules of engagement*

Daisy doesn’t like the telephone. I am not sure if this was always so, whether she associates it only with work or bad news but she prefers the email and she is one of several people whose needs dictated that I learn to use the screen. The rules of engagement – as the degree of involvement – vary.

Avi only uses the screen once a day. She opens it up in the morning, deals with what is there and by midmorning, it is closed down till the following day.   She doesn’t like the electronic presence and prefers the telephone.

Nearly 20 years ago, BBC Radio 4 brought together a man who had written a book about Bette Davis with a woman who had written a monograph on Joan Crawford. Which is how a tall aquiline greying man came to stand over me in the lobby and said “Hello, Joan” to which I replied “Oh hi, Bette” . We did well on air, went out for coffee and stayed friends.   One way and another, I see him every couple of months and we email variously.

Six weeks ago, a man who said he was 33 wrote me a note about my professional presence favourably mentioning my face. (One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows two dogs conferring, screen on the desk, one saying to the other “Nobody knows if you’re a dog on the internet!”) I replied to acknowledge his remarks. He emailed occasionally. Mindful of not knowing who he was, I replied carefully until he wrote “Do you have a partner?” to which I replied “Not since the second marriage to someone I loved broke up 18 years ago. Another life.” I have never heard another word.

Daisy is a dear friend and her husband is ill. I’d like to ring but I know that it might easily be as wrong as tugging her sleeve when she is pouring hot coffee ie it might do the opposite of help. The rules of engagement are governed by estimating when to accept and when to push.

When Ginny turned up on my doorstep, laughing and happy with Jo, I thought I was looking at a marriage made in heaven but x years on, it has become denial, disappointment and unacknowledged power games. Emerging from a relationship of investment takes courage and time but once she had broached it, I stood square behind Ginny. All too often, “we’re staying friends with both of them” means we can’t be friends with either of them. And she made the transit out acquiring painful personal knowledge. So it has been wonderful to see her sense of humour flourish, her friends rally and her ability to say “it was a bad day” followed by “but at least I didn’t have to pretend about it!”

Because sometimes you can’t accept.   My first husband was always a man in pain, very bright and insightful about all sorts of things but not himself. In his mind, women fitted in with the stove and the bed. So, when we met again after 30 years and more, and I thought we could be friends, it was not what he had in mind.   I called up my courage and told him “You are one of the people I care for and there isn’t much I wouldn’t do for you but if you think the road from the kitchen leads to the bedroom, forget it.”   To which he tellingly replied “You are a sexual being, you will always be a sexual being. You can’t just switch it off.”   “Ever heard of acts of will ?” I asked.   But he pushed and side swiped until I withdrew completely.   I couldn’t accept his way and he couldn’t accept mine.

Whether we are talking about friendship or its extension, there are places to go and places not to go. The great challenge is judging when to go there. There are places you feel you must go, the relationship can’t go on until this is discussed but the other fellow won’t have it. And there are people for whom the very word “discuss” means hitting the table and shouting, though you planned to be nothing if not reasonable. It is the issue that shouts.

*The rules of engagement are the internal rules or directives among military forces (including individuals) that define the instructions, conditions, degree and manner in which the use of force (or actions which might be construed as provocative) may be applied.

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