At School The Following Day…

The sounding of the morning bell drew the schoolchildren inside, leaving Pembrooke School’s religious education teacher, Greta Astonberry, caught in the middle of the playground, deep in thought. “Hey,” Harry asked as he passed by, “are you okay?”
“Harry – Mr Buckley, good morning.” Greta replied, brought back with apparent suddenness to her surroundings by the enquiry. Harry Buckley came to a stop, his left leg bent at the knee lifted up in slow-motion, then supplied the momentum to spin his body around to be facing his colleague.
“Greta..? You look troubled, please don’t tell me you’re regretting what happened last night?” A lone child in an ill-fitting school uniform walked between the two teachers, dragging a sports bag along the path leading to the main entrance. “Jefferies, pick up your bag off the ground and carry it!” Harry shouted after him.
“Yes sir.” Came back a sombre reply.
No, no – of course not Harry.” Greta tried to order her thoughts entirely towards the man staring at her, seeking her reassurance. Or was he? She couldn’t be sure.
“Look Greta, we had some fun – didn’t we?”
“Oh, fun. I see.”
“I like you a lot and we both enjoyed ourselves last night and we can do it again.” Playfully, he nudged her elbow with his own. “But, with Miss Harris returning soon, I am only here for this week. Okay?”
“Just this week?” The sun moved clear of a cloud and poured out sunshine; Greta reflected upon how it had taken her six weeks to conjure up the courage to ask Harry out. By the end of the week, as a supply teacher he’d be gone, with no particular need on his part to stay in touch. Or so it seemed.
“If it’s not about last night, what is troubling you Greta?” He stopped before her, scanning her face carefully for clues. “I can tell something’s up.”
“Well…” Greta hesitated.
“Look – let’s talk at lunch break,” Harry interrupted, glancing at his wristwatch, “whatever it is you can get it off your chest with me then, okay?”
“Okay,” said Greta, “thanks Harry.” She forced a grateful smile as he turned away, then sighed quietly to herself and watched as he hurried through the double-doors and disappeared into the corridors of the school’s main building. “I’m not sure you’ll have the answer Harry Buckley, but it’ll be good to talk to someone about this.”

A dinner plate loaded with a salad; Greta pushed her tray along the canteen service counter and fetched a clean glass. As she filled it with water from a jug, she cast her gaze across the busy dining hall, beyond the tables filled with schoolchildren engaged in excited conversation. She spotted Harry sat alone at a table located in a corner, engrossed in a newspaper.
“Hiya.” She said, as she approached, wondering if he would remember their chat scheduled for this moment. “Am I disturbing you?” Harry looked up from the sport’s page; his eyes sparkled.
“Greta!” Jumping up enthusiastically from his seat, he pulled out a chair for her to sit on, alongside his own. “Do you know how beautiful you look today?”
“Oh – Harry…” Her difficulty in accepting a compliment temporarily took control of her response. “No, really? You’re very sweet to – um, suggest, well, what you said, thank you Harry, you’re very sweet – and handsome too Harry. Yes, you are very… handsome. You’re a handsome Harry!” Greta told herself to shut up, felt awkward, her cheeks flushed, but she didn’t listen to herself. “It’s very warm in here, isn’t it? I really don’t think there’s any need for the heating to be on. I mean, it’s nearly spring and there’s enough heat generated by the kitchens anyway. They should save money – the school Harry, the school should save… some… blasted money – they keep on complaining about how they haven’t got any.” Harry didn’t reply. Instead, he watched as she laid out a paper serviette onto her lap, flattening out the creases with the palms of both her hands. The exercise brought with it calmness, followed by a forkful of lettuce and cucumber.
“Okay Greta, what is it that’s troubling you?” Harry said, folding his newspaper and sliding it across to the far side of the dining table. It was as if, Greta thought, that by this action he had committed his full attention to her. A ‘Harry’ like this doesn’t come along very often – not as handsome and as wonderful as this one.
“Oh Harry…” she fought against the sensation of tears welling up, “There’s something really important I want to talk to you about.” Greta forked a cherry tomato into her mouth, munched on it, an unbroken stare fixed on Harry as she did so…

“You want to talk to me about religion?” Harry had not expected the revelation.
“Well, yes. You see, something’s happened. I have experienced a change of heart – or more to the point, a change of mind. Oh Harry… I have lost my faith.”
“Oo-wee…” Harry rocked back in his chair, “Wow Greta, why – I mean how? You’ve had an epiphany or something?”
“Well, no, no epiphany, so-to-speak. It’s been a gradual process, research spread out over time – research that made me realise a fault line in my faith.” A chorus of chair legs scraping the floor forced a pause in the conversation, as groups of children rose from their tables, gathering up plates and cutlery to stack on a nearby trolley.
Greta ate more salad; Harry switched into supervisory mode, calling across to the group. “Emily, stop pushing Marta! Leave, the dining hall, in an orderly manner, please!” Satisfied, he turned back to Greta. “What sort of fault line do you mean?”
“I had a religious upbringing, Harry, I grew up unquestioning, committed. My father was the local minister, my mother a doctor. Expectations were for me to follow a vocational career path, to become a nurse, work overseas for an NGO, or something in a similar vein.”
“Like teaching?.” Harry concluded.
“Well, my first love was for history, I excelled in the subject and read History at Cambridge. After university, and with a good degree under my belt, I really didn’t have a clue what to do. My parents encouraged me to begin teacher training and, long-story-short, I drifted into R.E. as a specialised subject.”
“I studied History at university too!” said Harry, smiling broadly. “Cardiff.”
“So you understand how an ‘enquiring mind’ goes with the discipline.”
“Yes I do.” Harry leaned forward in his chair, rested elbows on knees, chin in both hands. “Subjectivity, objectivity, scrutiny, appraisal, it is – as you say, a discipline.”
“Indeed.” Greta ate more greenery, dabbed at her lips with the serviette, inhaled deeply.

“You realise,” Greta continued, “There is little to no hard evidence that Jesus ever lived?”
“Well, I am aware it’s arguable, for sure.” Harry checked the clock in the dining hall, noticing the catering staff closing down the service counter and most tables now cleared of schoolchildren.
“We both understand how unreliable accounts of historical events can be – usually from the hands of historians themselves and very much dependent upon which side you’re on. The differing accounts surrounding Jesus’ life weren’t written during his lifetime – and were probably not written by the men referred to as the authors.”
“Eat some more of your lunch.” Harry told Greta, pointing at her plate. “Look, I understand where you’re coming from; the same can be said for the Buddha. There’s little-to-no evidence he existed, the traditions depicting his life implausible and yet, if you attend a Buddhist meditation session, you’ll hear quotes – where it’s the Buddha said this and the Buddha said that.”
“And,” said Greta, stacking the remaining vegetables onto her fork, “it’s much the same with many other faiths. All we have are stories.”
“Fables and folklore” Harry watched on, as a spring onion spun around on Greta’s plate, evading all efforts to be pronged. “Come on Greta eat, lunch is nearly over.”
“Religion is merely an instrument of power, exerted by a privileged, powerful few over the gullible instincts of the many.” Greta said, picking up the wayward vegetable and popping it into her mouth. “The stories don’t change in substance and are used to form a belief system offering salvation to its followers, in exchange for their blind devotion. Suffer now for a better afterlife later.”
“It’s why people generally are skeptical about science. Because our understanding of scientific ‘facts’ change over time – therefore what is there to grip hold of?” Harry reached across the table and retrieved his newspaper. “You really do need faith to hold steadfast and maintain a belief in something that keeps changing.”
The bell sounding the end of lunch rang out in three separate five second blasts. Greta stood up from her seat. Harry stood up, pushed both chairs under the table.
“Perhaps I should have been a science teacher.” Greta said as she gathered her plate, cutlery and glass tumbler together onto a tray. “Look, thanks for listening, I want you to know that I really appreciate it.”
“My pleasure.” Harry winked.
“By-the-way Harry, are you free tonight?”

mon chapeau préféré

“I didn’t want to become one of those legions of old men looked upon affectionately, who wear the same hat for the last twenty-five years of their lives, it becoming ever more grimy and ragged by the year.” This, the opening statement by a stylishly dressed gentleman sat opposite me on the train to London today. In actuality, this is a translation of what he’d said, as the conversation directed my way had been entirely spoken in French. With a fair-to-middling grasp of the language, I found myself able to understand most of what I was hearing. With my replies spoken in English during our short exchange, it appeared he understood me too.
“Forgive me,” he said, laying his hand flat across his chest, “I saw you admiring my hat earlier.” He happened to be right, I had been admiring his hat. For me, it displayed all the qualities of magnificence. “Would you believe me, if I told you I came across this in a simple high-street clothes shop? When I tried it on in front of a full length mirror, it had felt like a coronation.” Providing a re-enactment of the scene, both raised arms descended slowly from above his head in synchronisation, while his hands and outstretched fingers encircled an imaginary crown. “Do you know the feeling Monsieur, when something  fits so wonderfully? Such great fortuity.” I slowly nodded my head in agreement and smiled.
“The problem is…” he paused and leant forward over the table separating us, “having found the perfect hat, what happens in three or four years time when it becomes worn out and unfit for use?” A good question posed, I thought. Having experienced this myself, I understood exactly the predicament. Images flashed through my mind, as I recalled the endurance required for those long and fruitless searches, the obsession of trying out new hats, only to discard them as unsatisfactory shortly afterwards. “Well, I found a solution my dear friend, the answer is to buy several copies of the same hat.” With a look of deep satisfaction upon his face, he stiffly reclined back into his seat.
“Of course what I could not do, I could not buy several identical hats all at once from the very same store. Would not the sales assistant think me mad, what do you say?” I scratched the short growth of beard under my chin and adopted a thoughtful expression. As a few minutes of empty silence passed inside the train carriage, he turned his gaze to outside the window. I tried to come up with something to say, but nothing came forth. So, I looked out across the rain-sodden fields we were being carried past and waited.
“No, it is unacceptable, I cannot have myself thought of as insane!” He said finally. “Instead, on the very same day of this purchase, I promptly returned home and visited the shop’s website. After trawling through numerous pages of little interest to me, I located the hat in the same style and colour and ordered five. All, of their available online stock.”
“Ah!” I said, changing my seated position slightly while raising my hand swiftly to form a hand-sign symbolising ‘perfection’.
“Now, with six hats in my possession, each having a life expectancy of four years with good care, this makes twenty-four years. Six hats should see me through until I am eating dandelions from the root up.” Surreptitiously, I studied the lines of wrinkles across his face and made a quick estimation of his age. Then, I added 24 and after several revisions to my final figure, I nodded my head in agreement once more.
“However, what if I were to lose a hat? Such an outcome would surely result in a period of being hatless. This, would also be unacceptable!” My eyes widened a little, as the thought struck me. Yes, of course, he was right! And, what if he lost one of them ten or twenty years from now? Surely, there would be no way to locate an exact matching replacement.
“This is why,” he said, while extracting a tiny piece of lint from the knee of his trousers by use of his thumb nail, “you meet me today, travelling on this train. I intend to visit a store they have in London, located on Oxford Street and buy one more hat, as an insurance policy.”
“Will you enter the shop with your hat on your head?” I asked him. He quickly made the connection I’d been considering.
“Ah, but no! The embarrassment!” Drawing an inward deep breath of contemplation, followed shortly afterwards by a slow exhalation, the answer suddenly came to him. His hand raised and a straightened index finger pointed up into the air. “I will enter the shop without my hat, having previously entrusted its safe-keeping to a nearby street vendor of newspapers, for an agreed sum.”
At this and with a smile upon his face, he closed his eyes, leaned back into his seat and drifted off into sleep. The remainder of the journey could be described at best as uneventful. The countryside views gave way to suburbia, which in turn blended into the greyness of the city. By the time we’d arrived at Paddington station, he had been snoring loudly for half an hour. As the brakes of the train engaged bringing us to a final stop at the platform, his head rolled forward gently and the hat slipped onto the floor of the carriage’s central aisle.
Instinctively, I reached down and retrieved it. It was a fine hat indeed and in wonderful condition. I held it between my hands turning it around several times to admire the design and workmanship, inside and out. My eyes flicked over to the French gentleman, who remained engaged in a deep, dream-ridden sleep. Triggered by the sound of a triple-snort of a snore and movement to re-position himself more comfortably, I whipped off my beige and white coloured Alabama baseball cap and silently placed it sideways onto his head.
I stared at him for several seconds, concluding that what sat before me was indeed, an incongruous match. Undeterred and without ceremony,  I slipped his hat on, rose from my seat and swiftly alighted from the train carriage.

caught awkward

Sat in the cafe, after finishing a modest lunchtime breakfast of scrambled egg on fried bread, I rolled a cigarette, as is customary, to smoke on my way back to work. As I finished the task, an elderly white-haired man seated at the table next to mine leant forward, extending a shaking hand and placing considerable effort into straightening-out a stubbornly curled index finger to point in my direction. 
Earlier, I had observed him retrieve a folded newspaper, sliding it out from an aged and well-used plastic carrier bag, onto the table top in front of him. Unfolded, he’d proceeded to read, while eating a plain cheese sandwich, from which crumbs of bread dropped onto his knees.
“Young man,” he said in a voice as shaky as his hand, “here, in this country, it is unlawful to smoke inside a public space.” 

Having been mistaken as a visitor in a foreign land, unfamiliar with the smoking ban, I decided to playfully maintain his misimpression.
“Ah. Sankyou m’sieur, I am forgetting the rules, merci-beaucoup.” I replied, in a delicately understated accent. 
At this, the old man’s eyes sparkled. Caught in mid-action rising from the table, I felt his wobbly hand rest in the crook of my elbow, exerting a gentle – if uneven pressure, suggesting his desire for me to sit back down.
“Mon ami, asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît. Je suis désolé, je voulais pas être désagréable. J’essayais seulement de vous aider.” 

His fluency took me by surprise and realising I must reply, I drew upon the little grasp of school-boy french I had.
“Oui, merci beaucoup, vraiment.”
“Asseyez-vous,  asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît.” he repeated, and from there, he began talking to me in perfect, beautifully pronounced french. With a prickly feeling on the back of my neck, I nodded periodically and interjected at various intervals.
“Oui, c’est vrai”, “Bien sûr que non!”, “Je suis totalement d’accord” and “Quand les poules auront des dents!”.

I’d understood about 20% of what he was saying and yet somehow managed to pull it off. By carefully watching the expressions on his face, I found myself making judgements regarding which phrase to use. If a look of surprise arose, I quickly said something like “Je rigole, c’est tout.” 
Monitoring the cafe wall clock, I knew I’d sat through twelve minutes filled by a somewhat one-sided conversation. When the old man reached a pause and sat back in his chair smiling at me, I quickly fumbled with the sleeve of my pullover to examine my wristwatch. Exclaiming some abstract french phrases about time and lateness, begging his pardon, I excused myself.
Offering gracious thanks for the chat, he bid me farewell. With aplomb, I took my leave, privately amazed and relieved to have got through and out the other side of the situation. What if we were both ‘irregular’ patrons of the cafe I wondered, would I be forced to continue with the charade if our visits coincided in the future?

OCD (Short) Stories: Latex Gloves

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 shoppingoften 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.

405

“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.

automotive - ProTect - nitrile - double box-500x500Jen 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. Open palm of a male hand on white backgroundProtocol 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?”

IMG_4527“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.

OCD Stories: Toast

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.