…being the title of the Flamin Groovies record to which I am presently rocking, alone here in Chateau de la Ileostomé. I’ve currently got an infested face and gravelly sore throat and I ache and stuff keeps going blurry when I look at it for too long, so to cheer meself up I’ve just booked a week in Prague for the end of March, at a lovely four star place just a little stroll outside the cobbled old town area where we usually like to stay. In Petrska Ctvrt*, in the space between Stare Mesto and Florenc, is where we’ll spend five days in Spring. It’s in a mainly residential but generously restauranted area, so I shall be happy. That’s my Christmas present to myself, so come on March, hurry along now.
Abbie came into the shop today to show me her lip. Ooh, but the swelling has gone down and the bruising has faded but it’s still quite tumescent and her face has acquired a new subtle look, something almost like but not quite a sneer.
“That, my girl, will teach you to value your natural beauty and not to go around getting hairdressers to inject your face with who knows what. Won’t it?”
“No, but I’ll just be a bit more careful who I go to in future,” she almost but not quite sneered. Then she gave me a little kiss on the cheek and said good bye. It would have been nice if it had been a full on snog, but as a by-product of my general state of pathetic run-downness, I’ve got a beauty of a cold sore on my lower lip. And I sound all throaty and hoarse. Not pretty at all. So for so many reasons, the snog was best avoided. And so it came to pass.
As Abbie left Mathew came in. He was worrying, visibly. He spoke.
“Sorry I was going to abandon you today, I’d gone in the place down the road for lunch, but some people came in who claimed to know me and they were very loud and it quite put me off so I left my lunch and thought I’d come up to you, you might know them, they said they know me from here, but although I think I may have seen them around, I’m sure I’ve never seen them here, he’s a loud man, bald and rather large, she’s rather blousey with a large head of what looks like dyed yellow hair although she might be blonde and I’m being unkind to her, they said they knew me from in here”, he said sweeping his arm in the general direction of the pavement outside.
I looked at him. Solicitously. I indicated a nearby table.
“Breathe, Mathew. Be seated, Mathew. You are safe. You and that couple are travelling in opposite directions around the nexus in time and space that I currently occupy. They left here not fifteen minutes ago, after feasting on lattes and Danish pastries. I shall bring you tea and a home made roast vegetable soup accompanied by a buttered, poppy seeded roll, freshly baked this morning. Cool your boots, man. You have met Mick’n’Annie. Again. You have not been medicined. They are often in here. When you have been in here. You have conversed with them. Many times. It’s just that you’ve met them in a different environment. You’re fine. They’re fine. He’s large, bald and loud, but not quite as much of a comedian as he thinks he is, despite the fact that he laughs at himself all the time. And Annie was blond not so long ago, she simply keeps it topped up a bit too dramatically nowadays. So. You awright now?”
Mathew nodded and smiled, mournfully.
“You know, that reminds me of a joke that my old Mathematics Master was fond of saying. I don’t know if I can remember it properly.” He rummaged around in the dusty cupboards of his memory, disturbing clouds of late summer chalk dust and withered dog-hairs which rose into the slanting beams of light piercing the gloom of his mind, suspending in pale updraughts and disappearing down underfoot once again, forgotten and now invisible. It probably even smelled of stale boiled greens and inadequately laundered adolescents and their clothing.
“Oh yes. I have it. He used to ask us, ‘what’s the difference between half of nothing and something that’s been spent?’ Yes, that was it. Have you heard it Graham?” His gaze was piercing. I wished it was Abbie with her tender swollen lip sitting there, sixty or so centimeters from my groin, looking up beseechingly at me. But it wasn’t. It was a slightly insane seventy year old man living off his late father’s still sizeable but to me, utterly unattractive fortune. It must carry a terrible amount of burdensome baggage.
“No, Mathew. That’s not one I’ve heard. I’m wracking my brain, trying to see where it’s heading though…nope. You’ll have to give me a bit of relief here. Go on, tell me, what’s the answer?”
He looked up from his soup.
“Answer? To what?” I was tempted to fetch the largest of my knives and maim him, horribly. Or at the least to put out one of his eyes. But no. I’d end up in chokey and miss out on my Prague city break next year, if the magistrate should turn out to be particularly stern. So I asked him,
“The joke Mathew, the one that your old Mathematics Master would tell you, back in the day. The difference between half of nothing and something that’s been spent?” You were telling me about it? I’m not making this stuff up Mathew? It was you! What’s the joke? Where’s the punchline? Where did the damage occur? IS THIS THE FAULTLINE?” I asked him, in a state beginning to get worryingly like desperation. The day had started so well, so ordinarily. And now this.
“I don’t know, Graham. As far as I can remember, the answer is, there’s no difference, one is half of nothing and the other is something that’s been spent. It’s all in the question.” He chuckled.
“Somehow, Mathew, I don’t really believe that your schooldays were the happiest of your life. Were they?” I asked him.
He didn’t answer me. I don’t blame him.
* Peter’s Quarter, for those of us who use languages which aren’t shy of vowels.