Everyone knew when Roland was awake because he would be talking. Not just occasionally but a never-ending, mind-numbing ragbag of trivia, balderdash and self-directed praise. His interest in anyone in his orbit was zero. It was as if people only existed to provide the appearance that he was not talking to himself, which of course he was.
I first met Roland when he appeared as a student in art and design in the small college where I was studying a radically new undergraduate social work course. Along with us earnest would-be world-changers were engineers and physical education students and the pretentious tossers that were going to change the world of art, one pastiche at a time. Enter Roland.
Middle-aged, shaven-headed bald, and tubby, he dressed in what might have been the bohemian manner of the 60’s, including wearing that ultimate in affectation, a beret, set at what he must have imagined was a rakish angle. He was softly spoken but in a manner that resembled the most persistent of earworms.
Within weeks of entering this red-brick edifice to learning on the periphery of the city, he’d exhausted his supply of other art students to stupefy, especially given that most of them rarely attended, knowing that the college was more interested in them passing than they were themselves. After all, what is art?
So he went hunting any student or member of staff seated alone in the cafeteria, a desultory ‘mind if I join you?’ delivered as he plonked himself into the seat opposite his newest victim. Today I was his latest victim and completely unaware of the slow water-colour torture I was about to undergo.
After introducing himself and showing no interest in any form of reciprocation, he unfolded his tale of following his boyhood dream of becoming an artist, at the urging of his wife, children and friends. (I would later realise the latter category was entirely imaginary.)
He then draw from his voluminous portfolio a badly-daubed re-creation of the famous photo of the burning young Vietnamese girl running naked from the napalm drop in her village. He said his children had asked him to paint it, as sure a sign as any that anything else that emerged from his shiny, wet, red lips was probably almost certainly a lie or a wrongly remembered ‘fact’ gleaned from his vast knowledge of the world. He feigned modesty at the quality of his work, absent any opinion from me.
The next few minutes were eaten up by a monologue on the history of mushrooms and his unique knowledge of which ones were poisonous, knowledge which university professors drew on extensively in their research (he confided this sotto voce). I was saved by a fellow student wandering by reminding me of our next class and I quietly resolved to buy him a pint that very evening. I didn’t go through the motions of saying I’d enjoyed our conversation because I already sensed that inviting another one would border on self-flagellation.
By various ploys I managed to dodge Roland for the rest of the year and I decided there was a God when I heard that he’d made history as the very first art and design student to not achieve a pass mark, thus would not be returning. A year later I lost my Faith when Roland joined my local branch of the Labor Party.
Now it has to be said that local political party branch meetings, in all Parties, represent the gold standard in sapping the will to live of any vaguely rational being. Thus Roland fitted like a glove and he had found his home. He collared me on his first night and intimated that he had withdrawn from his art course because he could no longer accept being surrounded by Philistines. The next 10 minutes disappeared in a haze of didactics on the role of art in a capitalist society, until I told him the Branch was always looking for someone to organise the annual art auction fundraiser. His feet barely touched the ground as he sped off in search of the Secretary.
Eventually the wheel of democracy turned and Labor was returned to Government. I had already decided to move on to pursue other interests (i.e. to get a life) but the election night victory party remained obligatory (not to mention it’s highly desirable, to a student, free food and grog). As the night wore on the numbers started to thin to the True Believers and the drunks, so I began my exit round of farewells.
It was then that I noticed the circle that had formed amongst a group of die-hards. In the middle of the circle, Roland and another drunkard were on all fours, arguing over who was most accurately representing the pointing pose of some obscure breed of hunting dog and the exact intonation of its howl. Dante’s Vestibule of Hell had nothing on this performance.
I have spent the rest of my life alert for the oxygen-thieving Rolands of this world, in order to be able to breathe.