OCD Stories: Perpendicular Pat (part one)

No one knew where Pat had come from or how he’d landed the driver’s job. A transfer from an outlying British Oversea Territory became the favoured theory, amongst work colleagues. As a tall and broad-shouldered man, no one cared to challenge or question Pat.
During the household waste collection rounds, neighbours noticed how he approached the job with his precision handling of a seven and a half tonne lorry. He avoided blocking roads, allowing the morning rush hour traffic to flow freely. This man, wearing his plaid patterned flat cap, possessed a unique sense of anticipation and spatial awareness. An observant, early morning dog-walker watching Pat’s progress on a stretch of his route, would easily discern these qualities. He regularly adjusted the large, off side wing mirror and rotated the steering wheel vigorously, first clockwise and then anti-clockwise. The grim look of concentration on his face revealed a man finely tuned to a task and a master of clutch control.
He kept everyone happy, timing the movement of the refuse truck at a pace which served the operatives perfectly. Walking distances for the men reduced, while reports circulated of coordination akin to a military operation. Looked on from above, the streets pulsated to a rhythm of efficiency.
The tips flowed in throughout the year, not only around Christmas time. During early May, mothers held children up in their arms to thread flowers into button holes and behind the ears of the bin men. They became used to receiving greetings, even short and pleasant conversations. As noted, everybody seemed happy.
Everyone, except Pat.
“Something is missing.” He’d told the crew, one Friday. “There’s something more we can do.” The men scratched their heads and chins, with no idea what this might be. A few humorous comments surfaced, which Pat ignored. “Go enjoy your weekend boys, rest assured I’ll work on this over the next couple of days.” They changed out of their workwear and left the depot in silence, wondering what Monday held in store.

The new week began without the expected revelation. No one suggested Pat looked dour, as the team worked diligently through their rounds. Contemplative fitted better and more accurately described his state of mind. Each time after they’d completed a section, he would climb out of the cab and stand in the centre of the road. Stood next to his white charger, large hands rolled into fists and perched on hips, this Roman General scrutinised each detail of what lay before him.
The same routine followed for the next three days. Mild disgruntlement formed amongst the ranks, as the length of the shifts extended to encompass the analysis. Overheard grumblings in the dressing room at the council depot on the Thursday morning, prompted Pat to address his men.
“I understand the frustration you boys have been feeling this week.” He said. His expression had softened from the intense concentration, apparent the day before. “Time is of the essence, I’m hearing you say. Well, it’s not and never has been on my watch. The essence we are dealing with here, is service.”
“Boss, we’re doing a great job,” piped up Jakub, a Polish man of muscular frame. “I heard from Sylvie at the reception desk, we are likely to win the Local Council Award for Excellence this year.”
“Now boys!” Pat raised his voice several decibels to be heard above the chatter breaking out between the men, at Jakub’s news. “Mark my words, it’s never been about gongs, it’s never been about how fast we work. The public pay for a service, the role falls to us and we are paid well enough by all accounts, to deliver that service.” Pat paused, waited for silence before continuing. “You remember what I said last Friday, you’ve seen me assessing our rounds. Well, tomorrow I am introducing a new element to the our responsibilities, it is simple and yet transformative.”
“Why can’t we start it today, Boss?” Asked Lando, an Italian originating from the whitewashed hill towns in the heel forming Italy’s boot.
“Tutto a tempo debito?” Replied Pat, quoting an Italian proverb. The men sitting around Lando avidly watched him to see how he would reply.
“Okay Boss, you know best, all in good time I guess, as you say.”
“That’s right son, all in good time. Next week boys,” Pat said, looking around at each one of the faces transfixed on him, “we are going to raise the bar for household waste collection. We’ll be putting our names down in the history books, nothing will be the same afterwards. Now let’s go out there today and tomorrow, looking after ourselves and each other, and get the job done.” A spontaneous shout of approval reverberated around the changing room as the men stood up and walked out, in line behind their leader.

(end of part one (part two to follow))

OCD Short Stories: The Waitress, Part II

 

The waitress hadn’t noticed him, sat in the corner at the back of the dining area. Knowing she had an interest in literature, Frankie mentioned him as he took the food order for a cooked breakfast, about how the man is a writer. She’d not heard of him before, the name didn’t ring a bell.
Mia felt he had a certain look about him, one which drew pity, sat alone by himself. “He rarely enters with a dining partner.” The cook said, “I’m certain he’s in here listening to the conversations of others, as material for his writing.”
Watching him, while waiting for the order to be prepared, she noticed his apparent discomfort. How he played around with the cutlery, constantly re-positioning the knife and fork, making minute adjustments to their placement on the table. By the time he had finished setting out the salt pot, pepper mill, coffee cup and a glass of water, the table resembled a chess board. How he thinks I am going to serve his plate to him without a mishap, I don’t know! Mia thought, I wish he would stop messing around. She found all his fussiness irritating.
Shortly, Frankie returned, whistling as he arrived from the kitchen carrying a plate of food. Handing it over, he nodded in the direction of the writer. “Look Mia,” he said, “it’s not so busy now, sit down and chat with him, he’s a regular, we want to keep our customers happy.” An encouraging smile spread across his handsome face. “Go show him he’s loved.”
“Okay Frankie, whatever you say.”
“And keep your thumb off the side of the plate and out of the beans,” Frankie whispered, “you see he’s particular about presentation.” Mia sank her chin into her neck and arched her eyebrows, balancing the plate elegantly atop her finger tips.
Sat at the table, the writer strokes his beard. He appears restless and proceeds to remove the round-framed spectacles from the bridge of his nose, folding and placing them onto the table. Immediately, he picks them back up and slides them into his shirt pocket. He senses the imminent arrival of breakfast. As is the tradition in the cafe, Mia calls out the order number and right on cue, the writer meekly raises his hand, as if excusing himself from a school classroom. She shows him a brief, half-smile in acknowledgement and walks over, deftly weaving around the chairs and tables. Why did he have to sit right at the back when there are several empty tables, located near the service counter? She wondered.
Mia had got used to men staring and mentally undressing her, while at work. She wouldn’t act upon it, but occasionally, she enjoyed the experience – if she fancied the guy. This man looked old enough to be her father and observed in a lustful way by him, made her feel uncomfortable. The young waitress felt a mild sense of disgust when she noticed his tongue slip out and run across the front of his lips, as she approached. She’d have preferred to wipe down tables, only Frankie had said for her to sit down and make conversation.

“Good morning!” she said, gingerly lowering the plate into place and sitting down in front of the writer. Surprised, the man spluttered something unintelligible and in the confusion knocked over the salt-cellar, spilling most of its contents across the table and onto Mia’s lap. “Oops! It’s alright sir, I’ll clear it up!” Again, she felt his intense stare as she cleaned up the spilt salt and wiped the grains from her hands down the front of her apron.
“I am dreadfully sorry Miss.” His cheeks flushed red. “I am so clumsy, please accept my apologies.” To Mia’s embarrassment, her tummy gave out loud a gurgle. Earlier this morning at home, she’d managed a coffee and a giant-sized maple syrup pancake. Having already completed the breakfast rush and countless circuits inside the cafe, pangs of hunger had started making their presence known.
While the writer’s normal colour had returned, Mia’s cheeks reddened as she took her turn to apologise. “Oh dear! I’m sorry about that.”
“Are you hungry?” He asked.fork_sausage
Yes I am, she thought. “Well, a little, I skipped breakfast today,” she lied, “never a good idea.”
“Look, please, have some of my food, here.” He pushed the plate a few millimetres across the table towards her.
“No, I couldn’t, that’s kind sir, but it’s your breakfast.”
“I insist, try some of my succulent sausage – and the hash browns. They are cooked to perfection and bound to satisfy a rumbling stomach.”
Tempted, Mia stared down the length of a Lincolnshire sausage, which the writer held aloft on a fork. Then, before she could take a bite, the sausage disappeared from view as he dipped it into a neat whirl of sauce, positioned on the side of the plate.
With sauce dripping from one end, the sausage returned level to her mouth. “Go on, eat it, you know you want to.” The writer’s smile twitched nervously, as if his facial expressions were not under his full control. Smiling, Mia decided to take up the offer and took a bite, followed by several more mouthfuls, until she’d eaten all of it.

Feeling guilt about having taken his whole sausage, she felt obliged to continue with some polite conversation. Wiping sauce from around her lips with a thumb, she said “Frankie mentioned you are a writer and a celebrity in this town. Is that right?”
“I’m not sure about the celebrity bit.” He replied, dabbing at a bead of sweat running down his forehead with a paper serviette. “But yes, I am a writer.”
“What sort of stories do you write?” She asked.
“My latest stories form part of a series, based upon obsessive compulsive behaviour.”
“That’s a coincidence,” she tells him, “I have my own story about an OCD episode in my life. Perhaps you’d like to hear it?” His eyes widened as he nodded his head enthusiastically.
“Yes, yes, please tell me.”
“Don’t let the rest of your breakfast go cold.” Mia says, pointing at his plate. “You eat, and I’ll speak.”
As the writer takes a noisy slurp of coffee, Mia begins. “It happened two years ago, not along after I’d arrived here from Sicily. The employment situation back home isn’t good, so having studied English the previous year, along with financial support from my family, I moved here. I found a modest one-bedroom flat to rent and set about looking for suitable employment. I soon discovered it’s not so great for work here either, is it?” Chewing on fried tomato and mushrooms, he held a hand up before his mouth and gave a muffled reply. With an uncertain smile, Mia continued. “Despite the generosity of my family, funds were running out and life had become stressful. My self-confidence drained away and I harboured doubts concerning my original decision to come here.” Swallowing, the writer made sympathetic gestures with his hands and nodded his head to express understanding.
Mia observed how difficult he found maintaining eye-contact. His eyes wandered and  she noticed his focus return several times to the area between her neck and the edge of the table separating them. “Finally, I got a job waitressing at a cafe on the north side of the city, run by a Danish man. He was a hard taskmaster, paying little above the minimum wage. All I achieved was to add more stress and exhaustion into my life. At this point, something changed.” Hearing her remark, the writer’s line of sight moved swiftly upwards to her eyes, giving her his full attention.
“One morning, walking to the bus stop, I couldn’t remember turning the bathroom tap off. I recall the sensation, best described as a wave of fear passing through me.” A shiver went through Mia as she hooked a loose strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. “Naturally, fearing the consequences of a tap left running, I felt compelled to return to the flat. Upon reaching the bathroom, I found both taps closed with nothing more than a drip hanging off one of the spouts.” Her hands opened up and she shrugged her shoulders. “Now this will sound stupid to you, but when I reached the end of the street a second time, I wondered if maybe it was the bath tap left running and not the sink. I returned to the flat, to find the bath taps and also the kitchen taps, all safely turned off. With a sense of relief, I set out for work once again.
“Throughout the day, I felt uncomfortable. I wished I had gone back through each of the rooms, checking all the taps one by one before leaving. By the time my shift ended anxiety had taken hold, as I willed the bus to hurry along on the homeward journey. I actually ran down the street in a panic, back to my flat. Inside, I only calmed down once I’d tried all the taps and made sure they were closed off properly, by tightening each one.”

“And this happened again, the following day?” The writer asked.
“And the day after that and throughout the whole week. It simply continued and got worse.” Mia stared across the table at the half empty salt-cellar, with a look of dejection across her face. “The number of times I had to return and check increased. Frequently, I’d just stepped outside the front door and then had to rush back inside. On other occasions I returned all the way back from work, making up an excuse to the boss.”
“It sounds like your day-to-day life had become very difficult.”
“Oh this was just the beginning. By the end of the same month, I believed I’d left the oven on, the gas rings, lights, heating, windows open, refrigerator door open and the frontdoor unlocked! I had to get up earlier and earlier in the mornings, to account for the time it would take to complete the multiple numbers of checks and return trips.”
taps (1)“I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you.” The writer said, pausing briefly before placing a forkful of hash browns and baked beans into his mouth.
“It became exhausting and ultimately, I avoided going out unless absolutely necessary.” Mia watched him as he chewed on his food, she had begun to warm to him a little. He’d sat there listening attentively and without judgement. She sensed a caring disposition in the him, which she hadn’t read earlier. First impressions, she thought, be wary, of first impressions. The man sat opposite her, who up to this point had been systematically working his way around the plate, looked directly into Mia’s eyes.
“You’re okay now?”
“Yes, I am.”
“How did you pull out of the nosedive?”
“Well, I’d become friends with another waitress at the cafe and she’d noticed how things were getting difficult for me. The truth is, the obsessive behaviour had crept into my work.” The cafe door opening for the fifth time in three minutes, momentarily distracted Mia’s attention. A number of customers had arrived, looking to get in and settled before the lunchtime rush. While mostly made up of individual stragglers, a group of several old men gathered around two tables lined up with each other. They chatted about local news, with one man critical of the new shopping centre project, now nearing completion.
“It’s been badly planned, badly designed and Oxford, doesn’t, need it!” He declared.
The writer brought Mia’s attention back to their conversation with a question. “How so?”
“Nothing too serious, re-checking customer’s food orders and change from the till, re-washing clean cutlery. In comparison to home-life, light relief I’d say!”
“How did the waitress help you?”
“She recommended a therapist who made home-visits, which suited my situation perfectly. A friend of hers, she’d told me, had seen him for just three months and from what she knew, he sounded pretty good.”
“So you called him up, how did he fix you?”
“Well, he arrived, a polite man in his forties, quietly confident, tall, bearded and stylishly dressed. We talked, he carefully listened. Both calm and relaxed in his presence, I felt an immediate connection. Unusual don’t you think, when meeting someone for the first time?”

Does she feel a connection with me? The writer wondered. He’d begun constructing a carefully worded question to ask her and find out, when Frankie shouted over. “Okay Topolina, cinque minuti!” Standing at the service counter where a small queue had formed, the cook smiled and raised his hand, fingers splayed wide.
“Sì, certo Frankie!” Mia replied, turning her head and smiling back at him. “For the first session, I did most of the talking, I told him everything I have told you. He listened attentively, rarely interrupting except when needing clarification. At the end of the hour, he said he understood life felt difficult and assured me we would work this through. When I look back, just him saying this made me feel a little better.”
“So he simply talked you out of the obsessiveness?” The writer asked, unable to conceal a sardonic tone, after ruminating over the earlier question of connection. “Did you talk all about your childhood and upbringing?”
“No, not at all. It surprised me, his approach was entirely practical. We could discuss my childhood for six months he’d said, that this may prove helpful and serve a purpose. Alternatively, we could strategise and act to resolve the immediate malady. Out of our discussions during sessions one and two, he devised and we agreed a plan to implement. Using my phone’s camera in the mornings before leaving for work, I photographed each set of taps, the gas rings, oven controls, windows, doors and light fixtures. Anything I’d ever fretted about. The photos showed everything turned off, or properly closed.” As she spoke, Mia had been pretending to take photographs with an imaginary phone in her hand. She finished by taking a close up photo of the writer’s face.
“How did taking photos help?
“Okay, the act of doing this helped put my mind at ease, the same as running around the flat carrying out a visual check. I noticed the difference shortly after I’d set off to catch a bus. On the first morning waiting at the bus stop, I felt a familiar flutter of uncertainty.” Involuntarily, the writer glanced at the waitress’ shapely chest, where her hand now rested. He could feel his cheeks begin to flush, as they were prone to do. Appearing not to notice, Mia continued with her explanation. “I took out my phone and scrolled through the pictures I’d taken and felt reassured. I continued to do this for the first week, looking at the photos a few times over the course of a day, whenever I needed to.”
“That’s still quite some routine isn’t it? Taking photos every morning all around your flat.”
“It is, you are right. But it bought me an extra hour in bed compared to before and over time, I began not needing to look at the photos during the day. Just knowing they were there on my phone, seemed sufficient. Soon, I felt more normal, like my old self. Calmness returned into my life, I slept better and adopted a healthier diet.”
“And were you keeping up with the counselling sessions?”
“Yes, I did. In the sessions we explored all these new experiences and the counsellor gave me encouragement and praised my progress. By our sixth and agreed final session, I had stopped taking photos each morning. I know this sounds silly, but if I ever felt a sense of anxiety rising, I just looked at the pictures I’d taken before.”
“Do you look at them now, nearly two years on?” The writer asked.
“No. I still have them on my phone. I haven’t seen them for over a year now. We agreed to one more appointment the counsellor and I, about three months after the last session. It served as a ‘catch-up’ session, to see how things were going.”
“Sounds sensible.”
“Yes, it was. He gave me one last strategy, which has proven to be of value. If I go away, visiting friends or back home to Sicily for a break, I defrost the refrigerator and turn off the gas and electricity at the mains supply. I take a photo of the inside of the meter cupboard, showing the switches in the off position. I do this as an insurance.”
“I see.” said the writer, placing his knife and fork together centrally on his plate. “So you wouldn’t say you are cured, so-to-speak? There remains a risk.”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that.” Mia replied, “You know, everyone has issues. I guess I have learnt how to manage my situation, which lets me lead a pretty normal life.”
“MI-A!”
They both looked around to see a line of customers queuing from the service counter, out through the front door of the cafe. Frankie standing with both arms held aloft in a desperate gesture.
The waitress shifted the chair backwards and rose from her seat. “I hope you liked my story Mr Writer, every word of it is true – don’t go putting it into one of your stories mind!” She said winking and wagging a finger, as she turned to leave.
“Frankie! Aspettami, arrivo!

An Arachnophobe Writes…

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.

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.