I’ve never seen squirming like it. There we were, going home from the circus at half-term to find the Lawyer’s gleaming, Germanic monster of a car parked next to the 200-year-old banger driven by one of his NHS clients.
“Get in,” hissed the Lawyer as the man approached with his family. He plonked his bottom over the brand name on the boot and shook hands, attempting to speed up our departure by saying the first thing that came into his head: “We must rush, someone’s coming to deliver a new television.”
“Oh God,” he said, head in hands as I drove away. “I’ve actually told him I don’t have a car. For the past three years I’ve parked half-a-mile down the road and walked up to his office.”
I don’t know whether to pat his hand sympathetically or tell him to get a life. It’s certainly not one they cover in the Sundays, where smug journalists chide us for our rampant, aspirational consumerism and the status anxiety we suffer. But what about its inverse, superstatus compensation syndrome?
There’s a whole group of school friends the Lawyer has let himself lose touch with because he doesn’t think he can sit through another story about having to put off this year’s holiday to pay for the leaking roof without pulling out his chequebook and shrieking “How much do you need?” in a pure frenzy of guilt.
He can’t bear to meet up with all his university chums who took the high road and now work with people who may not have washed that morning – not because he feels he’s out of their league, but because he can’t help himself telling them how worthwhile their job is and that he should really jack in the nonsense he’s doing and follow his conscience. He means it at the time.
And then there are the clients, whom he imagines will only swallow the hourly rate he’s charging if he’s embarrassed about every other fact of his being, including car, suit, education and knowledge. Our NHS friend knows about the car now, but he doesn’t know that the Lawyer keeps a grim old warhorse of a suit just to wear for his public sector clients, all shiny bum and ragged at the cuffs. Apparently, the client would fall over from shock if he ever saw the handmade beauties the Lawyer normally wears out the door.
How do you cope with status if the others around you haven’t got it? If you’re the Lawyer, it’s by squirming and feeling guilty, as if you’ve won the Lotto and that means you’ve got to buy everyone else’s drinks until the end of time.
I tell him he should live up to his hourly rate. “It doesn’t make them feel better that they’re paying you hundreds of pounds an hour,” I told him, “if you tell them they’re right to feel bad about it. You should be proud of it: he wants to buy the best possible legal advice for his business, and one way the market ensures that yours is the best is by placing a high value on it. Besides, by paying you hundreds of pounds an hour he’s buying into a little status of his own.”
The Lawyer took his head out of his hands. “You mean, just by seeing that I drive a nice car, it might cheer him up? I could brighten his day if he knows I wear an exquisite suit he’ll never be able to afford?”
He’s right. Good old British embarrassment is the only response of the reasonable man.