I was outside a friend’s house. She was running late and I was getting impatient. When she finally emerged, I pushed opened the passenger door of the car and beckoned her to get in, which she did. But instead of pulling the door closed behind her and fastening the seatbelt, she began talking in an agitated fashion:
Something terrible has happened!
When I heard those words, my mind immediately started to wonder what possible disasters could have occurred. My friend certainly looked OK and she was clearly still intending to go wherever it was we planned to go that day. So she was safe and plainly none of her family or close friends were in any danger. But nevertheless something terrible had apparently happened and I wanted to know what it was. Would I need to offer help? Was I going to be able to help? I was immediately anxious. Who isn’t when hearing that something “terrible” has happened, especially when one doesn’t yet know what the terrible thing is that has happened?
You know Andy. He’s from Manchester. He has been staying with my housemates. They all went out for a pizza last night and then they were going on to the cinema. My housemates went on their bikes and Andy took the Number 22 bus. Andy never arrived at the cinema. They haven’t seen him since.
Once my friend had finished speaking, I knew that another of her friends, Andy, was missing. Bearing in mind that this was 1984, six months before the first mobile phone call was ever made in the UK and several more years before the Andys of this world (or I) would routinely carry a mobile phone about our person, this was a problem. On a summer evening in 1984, if you didn’t actually know where someone was at a particular point in time, it wasn’t possible to make contact with them. Andy was genuinely missing.
But whilst my friend was speaking, she took me on something of an odyssey. She told me that the “something terrible” was to do with Andy … that he lives in Manchester, but is visiting London … he went out for a pizza the previous night … he went on to the cinema … which he travelled to by bike … or rather, he went by bus (the Number 22) … some other friends went by bike … and they made it to the cinema. Then, and only then, did I learn that Andy didn’t make it to the cinema and hadn’t been seen, or heard from, since.
The vital news that Andy was missing was the last thing my friend told me. Couldn’t it have been the first? My friend had reported the story to me in the order in which it had happened. It’s probably how her friends had recounted the news to her. It’s the easiest way to remember the information and it usually requires the least amount of thought or pre-planning when we recount the story in that way – especially in times of anxiety.
But, once the news came through – later that day – that Andy was safe and well, I reflected on the fact that people often impart information in the order in which it has happened to them. It’s not just family and friends who do that when conversing. Businesses do it all the time. Even highly trained experts – lawyers, for example – will recite lots of detail before revealing their advice. It’s the exact opposite of what the recipient wants. There must be an alternative way of doing it … and there is. Figuring out how to do it was the first big step as I learned to write.