“I despise a person who puts themselves on TV, in newspapers, any kind of limelight, whatever the circumstances might be.” She said, before she swore me to secrecy.
This is a second story on a theme, which is beginning to look like it has the making of a series. In as much detail as I can remember, what follows is an actual account of what happened to me, earlier today.
One of my responsibilities at work, is to buy stock from a local wholesaler. Although devoid of the middle-class aspirations for glamour, this particular wholesaler resembles a supermarket in layout, except on a larger scale, akin to a warehouse. The peeling and worn through floor paint denotes aisles, which run between rudimentary metal framed racks stacked high with everything from large cans of cooking oil, tins of spices, boxes of fruit, children’s sweets, hotel hand-soap dispensers, mop heads, biscuits, beer and a lot more in between. Most of the products are sold in bulk quantities, this being another distinction between themselves and their upmarket, high street cousins.
I pull a trolley around with me, open on three sides, with a sprung base at one end. I’ve often wondered, why do these sorts of trolleys have a sprung base? I can’t see what function this serves. Anyway, I digress. There I am pulling this trolley around with me, slowly gathering items from my shopping list, manoeuvring around wooden pallets displaying products on special offer. As I turn around the end of an aisle, I am run into by a woman pushing her trolley.
It’s a technical detail, but I’ll include it here anyway. These trolleys, are designed for pulling along behind you. Standard, supermarket models, everyone knows, you push. But not wholesaler trolleys, no. It’s the other way around and any attempt to push them, results in a meandering trail resisting physical efforts to maintain a straight line of travel.
The collision is minor, causing only a few boxes to fall to the floor. The woman, with mid-length brown coloured hair and in her mid-thirties, is Jen. She is dressed in a vintage-style summer skirt, white blouse and red coloured neckerchief with matching colour kid gloves, lipstick and slingback, kitten heel shoes.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she says, “I think my trolley has a wonky wheel.” She looks genuinely apologetic and pulls a face, biting her bottom lip.
“It’s okay,” I tell her, holding back on explaining the push – pull rules for trolleys, “let me help you with those.” I crouch down and begin grabbing the boxes, placing them back onto her trolley. As I do this, I can’t help but notice every box as being identical, each containing fifty pairs of latex gloves.
Jen sees my curious glance and gives voice to the thoughts in my mind. “That’s a lot of latex gloves, I bet you’re thinking?”
On demand, my mental arithmetic is poor. Even so, I worked out that five layers of boxes, each layer four boxes wide by six boxes long… calculates as six thousand pairs of gloves. Which is a lot of gloves. “I guess you get through a lot during your working day?” I said, as I picked up the last box from the floor.
“You’re right there, what do you think I do for a job?” I hadn’t anticipated an extension of our conversation, but Jen possessed both charm and an engaging smile; I felt myself drawn in.
“Well,” as is my habit when thoughtful, I scratched at my stubbly chin, “are you a dentist?” She shook her head. “Are you a doctor?” I took up the next two minutes making my way through the list of obvious possibilities, “A vet? Or,” imagining this last suggestion might cast the net wider, “do you work with food?” But no, the expression on her face suggested not.
“Actually,” Jen said, in a confessional tone, “I use them in my day-to-day life. I suppose some people would call me a germaphobe. I wash my hands regularly during the day and avoid contact with dirty surfaces – by which I mean, any surface. Including and most especially, human skin.”
“Oh.” I said, trying my best to steer my delivery of the word away from sounding judgemental, curving the pronounciation towards empathy. “I see.” At this Jen smiled and we exchanged introductions.
“Brinkinfield? That’s a funny name.” Jen apparently cared less for tact than I. She went on to describe how her behaviour had developed into an obsession. The critical turning point was triggered when she relocated to a small village just outside the city, but beyond a river. Linking the village to the city, a privately funded bridge had been built. To recoup the construction costs, a toll was in place. At one end, a booth had been erected, in which one or two men worked shift patterns, collecting the money from users of the bridge.
I am aware of this bridge and I have travelled back and forth over it many times. Protocol demands that having reached the booth, a coin is dropped into the palm of a waiting hand. This seemingly straightforward process can become complex, if for example, change is required. On occasion, I’ve witnessed people getting into a fluster, searching their car dashboard for loose change and the situation becoming confused. There is a certain degree of care and timing required, to achieve a smooth transaction.
“Well, we all know what men do with their right hands!” Jen looked into my eyes, accusingly. As a card carrying member of the twenty percent club, a left-hander, I wasn’t altogether sure what she meant. “I’m not touching a dirty hand under any circumstances, knowing what they’ve been doing with it. There’s at least a ‘top-three’ of disgusting things men do with their right hands, which invariably remain unwashed. In your natural habitat, you are such unhygienic creatures, aren’t you Brinkinfield? Aren’t you?”
“Well, I suppose I understand what you’re saying.” Silence enveloped a ten second void. “If I think about it too much, I get a bit anxious about bacteria.” I said, and easy example came to mind, “I don’t like pushing shop doors open using my hands, I either deploy my elbow, shoulder, or a mixture of the both. Sometimes, I wait around to see if I can make use of someone being kind, holding the door open for me as they come out and I enter.” Jenny smiled, as I continued, “And those card machines, where you have to tap in your personal identification number, using those dirty, greasy buttons.”
“How do you get around that?” Jen asked, her curiosity piqued.
“In the ‘old-days’, I’d wrap a paper tissue around my finger, but this wasn’t a perfect solution. I found accuracy with pressing the correct buttons, difficult. Thankfully, ‘contactless’ payment with cards is becoming more common. Nowadays, where this isn’t an option, I’m prepared. I carry around chopsticks with me, and use those.” At hearing this, Jen’s eyes widened. I slipped my hand into the inside pocket of my jacket and withdrew a pack of four chopsticks. I held them up, flapped them gently in the air, like I’d registered a bid at an auction.
“Amazing! And I’d love to see you in action with those chopsticks, but why not just use latex gloves?”
“How much are they, per box of fifty?” I enquired, scratching the stubble on my chin, again.
It’s tough, at 1.83cms tall, 88kgs in weight and male, being an Arachnophobe. My reactions are quick, sight twenty-twenty, I have good-sized hands making great scoops for spider repatriation back to the wild. Yet the very thought, makes me shudder physically.
I am a closet-Arachnophobe; which makes the situation twice as bad. I’ve told no one before. No one but you.
On removal missions, sent in by fellow cowards, I ensure the door is closed up behind me. So it’s just me and ‘it’.
I wear a fearful face as my brain works through all the options, based upon all the possible variables.
“Have you got rid of it yet?!” I hear come through the walls, “I want a bath, make sure you clear the cobweb away too, I don’t want to sit in cobweb!”
Pressure. Always pressure. Never a few hours to think, sit in the garden, sip tea, sketch out ideas onto paper. Never.
No. Action is required by out-Arachnophobes, quickly.
Don’t spiders look evil? A close up photo is not required to show the hairs and fangs and eyes, its all there evident, when you find yourself face-to-face.
The most recent strategy I deployed involved a one-metre length of toilet tissue, dangled into the bath. This giant, burger of a spider, having initially ran, worked out – I believe, an opportunity to escape existed.
It hung on with three of its legs, as I craned my arm over towards the window. To my misfortune, I’d miscalculated the ratio between the metric length of the toilet tissue and imperial-measure of the window frame height.
Whilst trying to lift the dangling spider upwards in an attempt to clear the windowsill, my hand collided with the top of the window frame. The collision was enough to cause those three long legs to let go and now be faced with the creature glowering with anger – I imagined, standing there in front of the open window, considering its next move.
There was only one course of action left available and in the situation, I needed to react quickly. I blew hard, but it just jiggled around, caught in its own silk strands. I blew again, much harder this time and finally, the spider sailed out of the window to ride the air currents down to the ground.
Each encounter, has its own drama.
I don’t know how or why, but I seem to attract complete strangers in one-off meetings where they share interesting stories with me. Today, this happened while I was recovering from a two-circuit run in University Park. While catching my breath, leant over unfastening my trainers and loosening my knee support, I became aware of someone sitting down on the same bench. I looked across to see a young, brown-haired woman, wearing a pretty floral summer dress and sandals. We politely exchanged smiles.
“A lovely morning for a run.” She said.
“Yes,” I agreed, “I’ve not long re-started running after a break of about five years and I’m still finding it rather hard work.” We exchanged a few more pleasantries concerning the beauty of the park, the birds and abundance of squirrels. During which time I explained how I paced myself by running a while and then walking, with each change of pace targeted to a marker of some description. This might be a tree I’d explained, or a bridge (spanning the river adjoining the park), a dog-walker perhaps, and so on.
Believing the conversation to be at an end, I checked my watch then leaning forward again, I re-tyed my laces. As I did this, I heard her say something along the lines of “I have little habits I use in my life too.” Before I’d given it much thought, I heard myself asking what sorts of habits she kept to.
The following is an accurate summary of what, with candid simplicity, she went on to tell me. We parted company a short while after she’d finished talking, but not before simple introductions took place – an exchange of names, but nothing else.
Bethany is particular about how she has her toast. If shockingly undercooked toast is represented by the number 1 (meaning bread uncooked, being equal to zero) and toast burnt-to-a-cinder a 10, then perfection for her rates at 7.5 on the toasting scale. What is she looking for? It turns out the answer is an all-over, largely even brownness, with only minor evidence (relative to the entire mass) of blackening due to burning, along the crust edges. The overall effect is found pleasing to the eye, the bouquet of charring but a slightest hint to the nose.
Bethany adds two further ingredients, transforming the toast into a snack. Butter (soft, unrefrigerated) and a sticky, dark brown paste with a strong distinctive and salty flavour.
The butter is distributed and flattened out carefully over the toast while it is still hot, melting and thereby moistening the whole top-side. A buttery knife dipped straight into a pot of yeast extract is a nightmarish scenario for Bethany, and cannot be allowed to pass under any circumstances. Therefore and without fuss, the knife is taken to the sink, washed under a hot tap, cleaned off and dried.
Enough of the sticky spread is then manipulated onto the knife, judged right so as to avoid the need to re-introduce the utensil back into the pot, thus avoiding the transfer of crumbs. This is then applied around the edges and skilfully worked into the centre, ensuring an even distribution, taking great care not to ruck-up the surface of the toast.
A slice of toast requires cutting into smaller sections. To not do so results in a mess around the lips. This, despite whatever efforts are employed through the sophisticated manoeuvres possible within the swivel action of a wrist. Bored of four squares or the elementary alternative of four triangular shapes, Bethany adopts a variation she refers to as the triangular-thirds option. With a clean, sharpened knife, she cuts an equilateral triangle in the centre, producing two right-angled triangles on either side.
For presentation purposes, even if only for herself, said sections of toast are carefully transferred using a wooden spatula to a clean, gently pre-warmed side plate (electric oven 120°C/250°F, gas mark 1 for five minutes). Eaten seated, with a paper serviette provided to wipe hands on completion, the plate is then immediately washed and left to drip dry on the plate rack.
This is Bethany’s routine. The precision gives her pleasure, comfort and the sense that everything’s going to be alright.
Annie phones me in a froth, broken and emotional. “Annie!? Tell me what’s happened. Now listen to me, take some slo-w breathes in and out, and try to calm down.”
“I just can’t believe it. Just, can’t, believe it.” I hear the sound of rushing air mixed with telephonic white noise, while she fills and then empties her lungs. “I just, can’t believe it.” She repeats. I imagine her, head hung low, veiled in despondency, searching and unable to find new words to describe the same feelings.
“It’s okay, that’s better, take it e-asy,” I say, like I’m settling a twitchy horse spooked by a snake in the grass, “just calm right, on, down. It’s okay Annie.” It’s working, I hear the sound of a nose being blown hard into a paper tissue.
“He never noticed,” I just about make out, as Annie finishes dabbing at her nose, “in four and a half years, he never noticed.” Okay, this is about Jake, I conclude. Annie and Jake have not long broken up and Annie is finding it hard to come to terms with. Over the last eight and a half weeks I’ve received four or five calls from Annie in a similar vein.
“He never noticed what, Annie?”
“If I’d laid him on a sheet of paper and drawn around his whole body, twice – ”
“Twice? Why twice?” I’m asking, trying to fathom out where this is going.
“To represent both sides of his body, the outlines laid down next to each other.” Her tone tightens a little, “Beebie, could you just hear me out on this one?”
“Sure Annie, I just needed to get the image in my head right – you know?.”
“Okay, so I’ve got these two outlines, well you know what happens next?” I’m thinking this is a rhetorical question and remain silent. “Beebie! Are you listening to what I am saying?”
“Yes Annie, of course I am, please continue.”
“Well, it occurred to me recently, I could draw in each mole, every dark pigment, birth mark, blemish, contour and crease found in his skin. I could map out Jake’s body like the night sky and with the same degree of accuracy.” Although thinking it a weird idea, the words I chose said otherwise.
“Aww… that’s real sweet Annie.”
“Don’t ‘aww that’s real sweet Annie’ me, Beebie!” You see? This is a clear demonstration of why I’m no good with women and long term, remain single: I just don’t have the skills to read them. “Do you know what he said to me shortly before we split up?” I plump for this as a question requiring a response, but keep it simple.
“What did he say, Annie?”
“We were cuddling in bed together on a bright, sunny morning and Jake’s holding my hand. Moving his fingers through mine, he suddenly says ‘I’ve never noticed this scar on your hand before‘. He sounded genuinely surprised, peered at it up close, turning around my hand in the sunlight to get a better look.”
“Okay, that sounds sweet Annie, so what’s up?” Instead of a prize of yellow cheese filled with holes, I get the unforgiving cold steel snap across my back as the high tensile spring of the mouse-trap is released.
“What’s up with that?! What’s up?!” To ease the strain, Annie pushes up into fifth gear finding cruise-control, her voice takes on a calm-but-serious tone. “The scar is on the stop of my hand, it is white, two inches long and the original incision was held together by eight stitches, each having left their own, distinct perpendicular marks. And in four and a half years, he’d never noticed!”
“I’m sorry Annie, I don’t know what to say.” I genuinely didn’t.
‘THE WETTEST AUGUST SINCE RECORDS BEGAN’ declared the banner,
Held aloft by the crazy man,
Walking the centre of the road,
In his plastic anorak, wellies, and nothing much else.
Sitting northwards of the jet-stream,
Great Britain took the rainfall,
Normally divided up between all of Europe’s lands.
Instead, the continent baked,
While the UK became sodden.
For prolonged periods,
In August, 2017.
A tourist in town, quickly swiveled around. An arm extended upwards, pointing.
Before I could move, a finger went up my nose and my head tilted onto a 45 degree axis.
I reached onto tippy-toes to disengage, but slipped back down onto the soles of my feet.
The fit of the digit was snug, way better than any one of my own.
My arms swayed gently, while I waited for the expected withdrawal.
I hoped her finger was clean, it seemed to smell okay to me.
A look of shock had crossed her face, perplexed, she froze.
I remained impaled, until passersby assisted, lifting me free.
And I walked,
In between running.
It seemed a sensible thing.
I did not absorb the natural surroundings.
I tried, but couldn’t fix my attention on sights or sounds.
My thoughts were focused on the present, when I’d next walk,
When I’d next run, looking for markers, that bench there,
A tree here, when this person walks past.
A mix of runners, walkers, lovers & friends.
Couples seated on benches, in quiet conversation.
Older, married couples, strolling in the morning sun.
Not so much conversation with them, I noted.
Enough has been said, over all the years.
Some muscles pulled gently,
I eased off in response.
Quickly felt tired,
When I’ll try again,
Maybe only 30 minutes.
Slowly, but surely build up.
It came as a shock,
A sensationalist presenter of a tabloid talk show,
Dead, killed, live on TV.
He had been crouched low,
In front of the set.
Goading an increasingly agitated-looking guest.
Waving typed-out notes in one hand,
Pointing his microphone accusingly in the other.
The murmuring of the audience increased in volume as he spat out formulaic provocations.
Where were the security staff,
As the burly youth rose from his chair?
All at once running and swinging his leg backwards,
Before bringing his boot into contact
With the underside of his inquisitor’s chin.
In less than two seconds.
It was shown and re-shown, endlessly on the news.
Stopping just before the critical moment,
To spare viewers of an unpleasant scene,
As a body lifted up and a head snapped backwards.
For all concerned
And for all people everywhere,
Including ancestors and descendants.