Honesty is the best policy, but only by default. It is the least worst option. This applies not only to politics, historical inquiry, business deals and game shows, but also, agonizingly enough, to matters of the heart. Walter Pendrick learnt this the hard way. If, on one very fateful occasion, he’d honestly expressed his feelings, the dreary morass of his later life may have been very different.
I Detest You. Three little words—in Walter’s case barely making up three syllables—which, with the possible exception of the second word, trip so easily from the tongue. He had certainly planned to say them. Had practiced in front of a mirror. The build up had been long, the moment propitious. Yet, when his immediate superior, at an end-of-year office party, clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Not a bad little soiree, eh Walt?”—Walter only smiled wanly, may even have murmured, “Yeah, not bad, Dave,” before taking a sip of his bitter drink and sighing softly, dishonestly. It’s probably not going too far to say it broke him.
David “Dave” Glover, an acting area supervisor in admin support at the Department of Outreach, had been one of the three officers to interview Walter for a job. Upon shaking Dave’s hand, Walter had experienced a curious shock. Something about the hand seemed to rub him the wrong way, a certain smug plumpness in the palm, particularly around the thenar eminence or mound of Venus, something self-satisfied, mindless, bulky and pressing, like a pig happily scratching its rump on a rock. But it was over in an instant, and Walter thought no more of it. In fact, the interview had gone well. Dave’s occasional light-hearted interjections—it wasn’t, for instance, compulsory to be mad to work here, but apparently it helped—these comments relieved some of the inevitable tension. Walter wasn’t lying when he said the second-floor division of admin support sounded like a work environment he would very much enjoy.
And he did, for three or four days. It was during morning tea on Thursday that Walter realized he might have stronger feelings for Dave than he’d hitherto suspected. Dave was making an impromptu, jocular little speech congratulating Gail on her recent promotion. Gail was smiling (and she wasn’t alone) and it seemed genuine. Walter, though, had to grab a filing cabinet so as not to stagger at the sudden tumult in his breast, an upwelling of black hate and ill-will he’d never experienced before, nor ever suspected could exist. Such a depth of wild, untamed passion in such a mild young clerk grade-one seemed preposterous, even to him. But there he was.
“Know thyself” is also good. Walter had read books and took self-knowledge seriously. So that night, horizontal on his couch, glass of water on a little table beside him, he tried to grapple honestly with himself. He went over and over the morning tea. And it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the moment his hate had first issued like molten rock from a live vent on the ocean floor. It had started the moment, mid-speech, Dave had rested his hand on his portly tum. Gently, caressingly, unconsciously yet obviously meant to proudly hint at the horn of plenty. We were all chums here, full of common foibles and hearty chuckles, because, in the final analysis, weren’t we all human? Dear God. If hate couldn’t find a way, Walter was lost.
How to comport himself at work became, for Walter, a torment. Breathe, he often had to tell himself. Obviously a nine-to-five office was not the place to tell a fellow-man you hated him more than all the sulphur in the deepest mines of hell. Words probably weren’t up to the job, anyway. Keeping himself in a rough, trembling sort of order, Walter did try to throw out hints. He’d wander into Dave’s office—all were welcome in Dave’s office, anytime, Dave leaning back in his chair, hand on tum—Walter would wander in with a newspaper to highlight stories about catastrophes with shocking death tolls. Or he’d recommend books and films that glorified serial killers and destroyers of childhood innocence. Dave was often interested, always had a look-see, but he never made the connection. He seemed to have no clue of Walter’s true feelings.
Walter would observe Dave closely—something not hard to do in an office—always listening out for any words or phases or ideas that seemed to make his boss unhappy. For one exciting week, Walter was convinced Dave was seriously disturbed by glycolysis. But it was a temporary blip in the man’s impenetrable glad-handing self-satisfaction. Walter kept watching and waiting, his hate a pure flame, but increasingly without hope. The heart, sadly, really is a lonely hunter.
Walter may well have gone mad if not for his good friend Gloria Calibresi. She had spunk, a wicked laugh, and knew how to chuck Walter where it hurt.
“Such a mighty passion for this dobbin,” she said. “Maybe, deep down, you actually love him.”
This irritated Walter. “Why is it, when a person falls head-over-heels in love with someone, no one ever says, ‘Aha! Underneath you must really hate them’?”
“Ha!—true—they don’t!” Gloria cried with a delighted laugh. “But then, it’s always easier to speak truth to power than to greeting cards.”
“No,” Walter concluded glumly, “I hate him more than life itself. It’s really the only thing I know in this world.”
Gloria was unusually gentle. “Well then, pencil-dick, you’ll have to tell him.”
Although Walter initially dismissed this out of hand, it kept returning, till it stuck. Tell Dave his true feelings? The thought started to make him giddy. His imagination lit up. He had colorful visions of the big moment. At morning tea, Dave, hand on tum, wrapping up with “Now, is there any other business?” Walter saying, yes, in fact there was something he’d like to say. Murmurings of surprise, a turning of heads. He left his wording vague—the three little words needed context, a preamble of some sort—but the reaction of his co-workers was stunning to behold. The scales falling from their eyes. Dave naked before them, scaly tum drooping hideously, done in for all time. Walter standing on a plinth, holding Dave’s freshly severed red right hand up to the light. Tears for the Free! Blood for the Reborn! Dave, dead in his soul, simply awaiting the micro-sloughing of his worthless hide. “This way!” Walter always concluded, stepping manfully down from the plinth as morning tea broke up for the last time…
This renewed surge of hate overflowed Walter's soul and began to color all his life. He no longer waited in cues, rather he snapped and snarled and was let through. He told waitresses to hurry the hell up. He wrote scathing letters to leading public figures, laying bare their smallness. He submitted a book review to a respected journal where the editor, a jaded man, found it so thrillingly vicious, its Sadean cruelties so irresistibly bloody, he ran it on page three. Walter cheated and grifted and threatened his way to pulling together an off-Broadway production, the maniacally satirical Davy Poppins. After a violent row with his landlady—rent was for pussies—he penned the controversial best-seller Dave and Punishment. His proudest achievement in this period, though, was the titanic, obsessive, largely unread novel, Davy Dick.
Just as Walter was sketching the outline of a projected revenge play, Davlet, Prince of Tum, a memo was sent out at work. It was mid-November, so time to start planning the end-of-year office party. It gripped him like a fever. This would be his masterpiece, the culmination of everything. And all it would take was three little words. David Glover would be left broken, totally without speech or hope. Not an atom of the paunchy glad-hander would be left unexposed. All would see and gasp and assent. Truth would be enthroned. Dave would resign. Walter would rise.
But, as we have seen, the big night was a bust. Walter suspected he’d probably over-thought it. His three little words, I Detest You, were perfect, but, in the real world, does the opportunity for perfection ever naturally arise? Walter thought he had every contingency covered. But Dave’s hand on his shoulder, his egregious use of the word “soiree”, had ruined everything. So Walter went home, leaving the world pretty much as it was.
* * *
Walter Pendrick continued to work at the Department of Outreach, and Dave continued as area manager. But it wasn’t the same. Sure, Walter didn’t like Dave, avoided him as much as possible, but he felt no true hatred for him. Dave was just a dolt, and dolts were a dime a dozen in this dreary world. Walter stopped seeing Gloria, too—he suspected she’d never really got it, and her acid tongue was tiresome.
At home, lying on his couch, watching telly or the wall, Walter would sometimes try to imagine what his life might have been like, if he’d said those three little words. But nothing suggested itself, and even the effort bored him.
Three decades later, at Walter’s retirement party, someone mentioned David Glover’s name. What had happened to him? Apparently, fifteen years previous, he’d left to work at a bank. Huh, Walter thought. How had he missed that?
A few years later, at home, lying on the couch, Walter felt a shooting pain in his left arm, then a dizziness in his head, then a tight gripping pain in his chest. This was it. Just before he died, his face lobster-red, lips blue, he snarled angrily, “I detest you!”