On Castles and Towers and Dungeons and Pretty Gardens

I’m off to Toulouse today. Well, I’m flying there. I land at 9pm, ish, and when I walk out of the airport Seth will be standing there, just like he was last year in Avignon, just like he was in Tasmania. Then we’ll climb up into his van – the one he converted into a mobile home three years ago – and drive to his new apartment, in a town called Albi. It has a very nice brick cathedral, apparently. Seth tells me about it every time we speak on the phone.

Seth’s going to be a dad soon. His partner, Blanche, is due at the end of April. Seth is relaxed about it; he doesn’t believe their life will change too much once the baby arrives. But of course it will. I think he knows this, secretly, but is avoiding thinking about it as one avoids looking at the sun. That’s why I decided to visit now: to see him one last time before everything changes. I don’t imagine our adventures will be completely done when the baby arrives – but I might have to wait twenty years. 

I don’t want to do anything particularly riotous this weekend. It’s enough simply to hang out with my friends and sit in squares (although probably not for too long, as it’s only 12 degrees in Albi), and talk about Toku Iwi and Australia, and discuss my own comings and goings and listen to Seth’s latest weird hyperfixation and his stories of all the bizarre people he meets in his life.

Seth meets a much higher frequency of bizarre people than I do: to hear him talk about the world, you’d think everyone in it was an eccentric. Every time we have our monthly phone catch-up, I come away wondering how this can be. There are several options:

  1. He asks people better questions than I do, leading him to more flowery and curious answers.
  2. He lives a more interesting and bohemian life than I do, meaning he comes into contact with fabulous weirdos a lot more often.
  3. He only remembers the freakiest details and lets everything else tumble away out of his mind, enshrining the oddballs in my own via survivorship bias.
  4. He himself is an oddity, and filtered through the warped lens of his mind, everything becomes weird.

It’s probably all of them.

Except number 1, actually. I ask really good questions.

I had this conversation yesterday, in fact, with a student of mine. This student is a particularly artistic soul, and our conversations always veer towards self-understanding and whatnot, which of course I enjoy a lot. We were talking about smalltalk, and the student explained that she used to struggle with it, feeling more comfortable with deeper, more meaningful conversations. She’s gotten better as she’s gotten older, she said, at chatting to people idly – about the weather, about their day, about nothing in particular.

I agree there’s an art to it. I do it all day now: anywhere between two and nine times a day, my face pops up on a screen in someone’s home, thousands of miles away, and we say hi and we chat. I believe that anybody can befriend almost anybody; all you need is a little common ground and shared understanding. And even if you have none of those, simple curiosity works wonders.

Now: permit me a metaphor – the most elaborate of my life.

It’s good, I promise. I stumbled into it by accident yesterday, speaking with my student. And then afterwards I called Annie in San Francisco and told her about it, and she agreed that it was a very good metaphor and I decided I would write it down. Here you go.

(Annie’s doing well by the way, we spoke for an hour, she’s recently moved in with her girlfriend and they are very happy, and they almost went on an infamous reality TV show last month because they got scouted as a hot trendy couple via Instagram, and they wanted to do it because they thought it would be good for their careers – thrust into the public eye etc – and they got so far as to actually sign the contract, but in the end they backed out because all their friends and family thought it was a terrible idea, including me, because I take a dim view of the public en masse and consider Annie to be far, far too good for those oiks.)

Every person has within them a castle.

Every castle is different. Some are fairytale castles, some are chunky no-frills forts, some are more like temples, some are spindly Gothic constructions. Everybody has a castle inside them, and they’re all aesthetically different but they’re all the same in one key way: they have many rooms.

When we meet a stranger and talk to them, our castles loom before one another – and we begin to compare. We invite each other to have a look. Some people, if they’re in a very bad mood or are just inclined that way, don’t even have their drawbridge lowered: all you can do is stand on the other side of the moat and wonder at their battlements. For most of us, however, the drawbridge is down; we permit people inside, to take a look around.

The grand foyer: that’s what everybody sees. This is where a lot of the good stuff is placed, agreeably decorated and nicely laid out. We’re familiar with foyers, with grand halls – and it is within these halls that smalltalk takes place. When we are invited into the foyer we sip from our goblets, look at nice tapestries, and compliment the cutlery. And often it ends there: we nod, say thank you for inviting us in, and leave.

Asking the right questions, however (see? I didn’t lose my train of thought – you thought this was meandering nonsense but it’s not, I’m making an extraordinarily elaborate point) is the key to unlocking the many corridors that lead away from the great hall, away into the depths of the castle. I don’t mean questions like ‘what do you do for a living’, because most people (unless they’re a spy and/or gigolo) keep this information on display in the foyer. You have to go a level deeper to unlock your first corridor. You have to ask ‘do you enjoy it?’

‘Do you enjoy it?’ is a very good question, and one that I ask all my new students upon first meeting them. I ask it as a secondary question after almost everything: where do you live, what do you do for a living, where do you go on holiday, what’s the weather like, and so on. It takes you away from the straight facts and brings you somewhere altogether more gripping: opinion. You’d be surprised how often this question opens people up, instantly. The doors leading off their foyer fling open.

“I’m an architect.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Hell no! I always wanted to be an artist, but I got stuck doing this because…”

(I’ve never had that conversation, just FYI. Architects love being architects.)

More than that, asking ‘do you enjoy it’ shows care – concern. On some level, however small, you are showing the stranger standing in front of you that you give a damn about them and their enjoyment of life, at least enough to ask about it in passing. And people relax around you when they sense you give a damn.

(Note: you have to mean it though. Don’t be reading this and then heading out to manipulate people. Never say anything you don’t mean – that’s my rule.)

Another very good question is ‘why’. Nice and easy – just a polite and curious ‘why’. It’s amazing how deep it can take you.

You never know which doors will open up: when one does, it’s rarely the one you were expecting. That’s part of the fun. Exploring their castle, wondering what might be in the next room and whether you’ll be permitted inside. That’s the thrill of getting to know someone.

Sometimes you can know somebody for a long time and get used to the layout of their castle: you know your way around, you know which hallways you’re allowed to wander down. You stop noticing the locked doors; they become part of the furniture. But people can surprise you, always: one day, you might visit their castle and find a long-locked door has been removed. And you peer inside, timidly, and suddenly you realise they’ve been keeping an entire great wing under wraps.

“I never knew you liked cooking,” you gasp.

This is when people fall in love.

The sudden revelation of a new wing or tower or minaret is powerful; we feel honoured, esteemed, grateful, and in return we often open up a new door of our own as thanks. Maybe we open all of them, one by one, until nobody on Earth knows our castle more than them. 

But love can be bad too: unfounded. Sometimes, when we enter a castle with many locked doors, we can’t help but begin to imagine what’s behind them. And, if we’re particularly imaginative, naïve, or lonely, in our mind’s eye we fill the unseen spaces behind these doors with everything we ever hoped for. Mystery is alluring, and so we fall in love. But we’re not really in love with the person, or their castle. We don’t know what’s in their castle. We fall in love with our own hopes and projections.

Sometimes we walk down a familiar corridor and we find it under construction; it’s being rearranged, altered, expanded. We all work on ourselves from time to time. There are a lot of corridors under construction in my castle these days.

Occasionally, if we’ve not checked in with a friend for a long time, we visit their castle and discover it’s fallen into disrepair. There’s dust on the tapestries and the candles have burned low; the chandelier is hanging lopsided and many doors are boarded up or hanging off their hinges. People are squatting in the foyer, coming in and out, leaving a mess.

We can help by being present: by visiting their castle each day and giving it a little dust, rehanging the paintings, polishing the cutlery. That’s what good friends do.

Some castles – like mine, I like to think – are pretty much entirely unlocked from the start. You can go almost anywhere; all you need to do is knock before you come in, to ensure you don’t walk in on me prancing around nude, bellowing along to War Pigs by Black Sabbath. Still, everybody has their locked doors. Mine, I suppose, is a library: a lot of little memories I keep just for me and visit often. I spend a lot of time in there, and sometimes I take books out to show people, if I trust them – but nobody is allowed in.

Annie said that her locked room would be a dungeon, hidden below.

“Not everybody needs to know my freaky shit,” she said on the phone. I’m inclined to agree.

If you meet someone with a very protected castle, you can help them relax by inviting them into your own.

“Look,” you can say. “Everything is unlocked. Walk around, take a look. There’s nothing to fear.”

And then, sometimes, they’ll open their own similar doors in response. This is what happens when two people discover a mutual love of nerdy video games, a guilty penchant for mind-altering substances, or a common regret.

Of course, occasionally they don’t open up at all, and you’re left feeling a little bit annoyed at this person who’s now sauntering gaily through the corridors of your castle, fingering your tapestries and getting them all oily, while keeping their own drawbridge tightly shut. But this is rare. People who do this usually find a great many doors closed to them the next time they visit.

What would my own castle look like? If I could choose, it’d be sandy-coloured; not slate-grey or imposing, but warm and broad, with little grassy courtyards for hanging out in if you got tired during your explorations. A chateau, with apple trees in the grounds and vines climbing the walls. The gardens would be lovingly tended but not manicured; lively and slapdash with lots of bees and butterflies. Sash windows, open, with crimson curtains ruffled by summer breeze. Balconies for sitting and enjoying the fresh air.

Yeah. That’d be pretty nice. Pop by next time you’re in town, yeah?

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