You’ve probably heard about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon — you know, when you hear a word or a name for the first time, and then it suddenly seems to be everywhere. Indeed, if you hadn’t heard of it before now, it’s a fairly safe bet that by this time tomorrow, you’ll have seen or heard a reference to it again. It is, of course, an illusion. You’ve probably heard the word (or whatever) countless times without it penetrating your consciousness; but once it has, you become sensitized to it, and are — unbeknownst to you — on the alert for its recurrence.
Yesterday, for example, one friend told me that building work on a property in which she has an interest would have to be suspended because it was suspected that there was asbestos in the plaster, and another told me he’d just come back from a Health & Safety course, in which they’d learnt, amongst other things, what to do if they suspected asbestos in an area where they were required to work. Had I not been surprised to learn that plaster sometimes contains asbestos (OK, this may be common knowledge but it was news to me), I would probably have concentrated more on the delay in the renovation plans, rather than on its cause, and the subsequent reference to that silicate mineral would have been equally unremarkable. But instead, I thought ‘Wow! Asbestos in ordinary domestic plaster — blimey!’ and it was thus foremost in my mind when later mentioned.
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, much as I love it (everyone should have a few little moments of ‘Ooh! Freaky!’ in their lives), is just an ignis fatuus. The Ubiquitous Ex Phenomenon is not.
What, you ask, is the UEP when it’s at home?
I shall explain. It has various manifestations, probably more than even I know about and I came up with the concept, but in its purest form, it’s this:
You are in a relationship with someone out of whose nether regions you believe the sun shines. This person is so utterly wonderful that you cannot believe your luck. You worship the ground your idol walks upon. Life is good. But then the lying cheating no-good wretch proves that not only are his (or, indeed, her) feet made of clay, he’s pretty much made of mud through and through, and even his gold Rolex is a fake. You feel betrayed. Your emotions vary from despair through resentment to anger. If you never see this individual ever again, it won’t be a moment too soon.
So you go your separate ways. You eliminate any trace of the bastard from your life, even redecorating your house if the wallpaper somehow contrives to remind you of him. And there will, indeed, be a phase you have to pass through where everything does make you think of him — you think you see him just about everywhere you go, only to realize it’s not him, it’s just a bloke who bears a passing resemblance to your erstwhile beloved. But you take yourself in hand and work through this. Eventually, the purge is complete and you begin to get on with your life again. No longer does he cast a shadow over your every action. You rashly allow yourself to become carefree and to live a normal life once more.
And what’s more normal than popping into the supermarket to do a bit of shopping? There you are, squidging the mangoes for ripeness, when you look up, and find him (real him, not figment-of-your-imagination him) next to you, minutely examining the papayas. He doesn’t even like papaya, for heaven’s sake! Or fruit! Or supermarkets! Next week, in celebration of his having gone and taken his allergies with him, you get a cat, which you take to the vet for vaccinations. Inevitably, there in the waiting room, you’ll find your evil ex, who — to celebrate being free of you and your arachnophobia — has treated himself to huge hairy tarantula. And it’s the same when you go to the dentist, the library, the gym… Even though either he never went to these places or you’ve been careful to select ones he never used, you’ll find him there. Or you go out for dinner with your new squeeze — whom do you find at the next table? You even take a fortnight’s holiday in Corfu — and who’s on the same flight? You go for a job interview — and guess who else has applied for the position (despite your fields being so very disparate)? You cannot possibly avoid your Ubiquitous Ex. It is, in fact, utterly pointless even to try.
Whilst not quite the same as the UEP, much the same thing happens when you’re misbehaving — when, for example, you skive off work or school in order to paint the living room, or go to a gig, or get over your hangover. You can guarantee that your boss or teacher or that annoying bloody tattle-tale will, taking advantage of his lunch break or free period, manage to be in B&Q when you go to get another pot of paint because your now vaccinated cat has knocked the first one off the step ladder, or will be casually walking past the venue when the gig is over, or even — goodness knows how — will turn out to be the brother of your housemate’s best friend and you’ll find him there in your kitchen when you stagger in, still bleary-eyed at lunchtime, saying ‘Thank god I pulled a sickie today — remind me never to touch rum and vodka ever again.’
There is, of course, the flipside to the Ubiquitous Ex Phenomenon — which is the Elusive Crush Phenomenon. The ECP is that strange twist of fate that means that, even though you know that the object of your heart’s desire always goes swimming at the local leisure centre at 7 o’clock on a Thursday evening, or regularly participates in the Sunday pub quiz at the Coach & Horses, or invariably walks his dog round the canal basin before work, your efforts to coincide with him will be futile. You can bet your bottom dollar (whatever that is) that no matter how wrinkly you get by staying in the pool all Thursday afternoon and evening, no matter how much trivia you gen up on so as not to make a fool of yourself when you have to compete in the quiz all alone because you can’t find anyone else to be in your team, no matter how many miles you trek around those tow paths with your borrowed dog, he will simply not be there. (He’ll be too busy flying to Corfu or squeezing tropical fruit or tickling his tarantula, to the immense chagrin of his ex, to be where you want him to be.)