in the shop, another week further away from the explosively moist instant of creation, and another week closer to returning to dust, to be blown away on the reanimating breezes of other people’s experience and memories. As existence can be broken down so easily into these easily manageable chunks, it sometimes leads me to wonder why the business of what we laughingly call life can sometimes be so strenuously exhausting on the nerves and the patience? There’s probably no answer, but it’s a worthwhile use of your time to think about these things. Sometimes, like now, it can save you, even if only temporarily, from the distasteful business of having to do some work.
On Monday afternoon I was standing by the smaller of my two food display cabinets, watching blonde Haylie’s bum as she made her way back to the beauty parlour across the road, where she occasionally works and sometimes looks out and waves to me if she sees me drooling there in the window, in the general direction of her. She’s sweet. My slightly pervy reverie was interrupted, as so many of them have been, by my favourite customer who was gazing past his chin into his cup of tea. Anywhere that’s down and low. To match his mood and his self esteem respectively.
“Do you know, Graham, my boiler’s been broken since Saturday night. The house is quite cold now. I do have fireplaces, but I have no coal.” Yes, Mathew, and your garden is more heavily wooded than the New Fucking Forest. Burn that.
“Ah now that’s a great shame Mathew,” is what came out of my mouth. “Have you thought of calling out somebody who may be able to fix it?” Like a fucking engineer? Haylie’s bum has now disappeared into the parlour, but she’s sat at her station by the window and I’m quite sure she’s looking at me with lasciviousness and thoughts of eagerly shared piping hot bodily fluids on her mind. “Mathew, I’ve very recently been exploring a theory that if you think about something hard enough, like envisage it in your mind’s eye, conjure up a realistic portrait of what you’d like to see happen, it may actually happen in real life. It hasn’t quite worked for me yet, but perhaps you could try it, maybe your boiler will fix itself?”
“No, I’ve called the maintenance company. A man’s coming out tomorrow morning, hopefully. But I’ll get the taxi to take me to the garage and collect some coal on the way home, just in case he can’t fix it.” said Mathew.
“Knowing your house and all that it contains, do you think the engineer is likely to have access to a time machine in order to get his hands on any replacement parts that may be needed? Do you Mathew?” He’s a queer cove, is Mathew. Sometimes you’ll say something light hearted and jovial, just to keep the conversation from grinding to a painful, embarrassing halt, when he’ll simply go blank on you as though he’s jumped back ten minutes into the past and nothing has passed between you.
“Could I have another cup of tea Graham, or are you going to tell me that you’ve turned the water machine off again?” he asked, without adding the bit about “even though I haven’t heard the steam hissing out and the pressure needle quite clearly indicates that the machine is still in fact on and not only that, it’s full to the brim with boiling pressurised water…” We sometimes have days like this.
So they were Monday’s events vis-a-vis this sorry little tale. Tuesday afternoon came, Haylie’s not working in town any more this week so she leaves the story, still blonde and with her bum intact, totally unaware that she has played any part in it at all. Mathew’s still about though. Since Monday he has been tormenting himself with doubts about whether he should get some coal. It really is that easy to agonise yourself into a social coma, if you are Mathew.
I won’t subject you to the full conversation, it’s enough for you to know that for a full three quarters of an hour I was engulfed in a stream of consciousness in full flood where every “what if”, “perhaps I should have…”, “my mother would have…” and “what if I…” were explored, repeated and crushed yet again in a landslide of self-doubt and indecision. It’s bloody painful sometimes, being the affable and approachable proprietor of a small town high street retail bakery slash coffee shop, I can tell you.
The day ended with Mathew leaving the shop, fretful and worrying, saying “maybe I should get some coal…” with a rictus grin which was presumably meant to convey a sense of “decision has been made”, but suggested that an intracranial venous infarction was imminent Then he stopped dead in his tracks. Which weren’t very noticeable as it happens; we do keep a nice clean floor. His entire demeanour changed. Once again, the self-doubt wracked him from head to toes. “Ah. The chimney hasn’t been swept since 1987. Do you think I….”
Inwardly I was clutching his slightly frayed lapels, shrieking “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY?? WHAT DO WANT OF ME?? DON’T YOU THINK I’VE SUFFERED ENOUGH IN MY LIFE??” in a stream of spittle spraying desperation directly into his quivering eyeballs. I said ”Thanks then Mathew, I’m off tomorrow but I’ll see you on Thursday. Good night.” There is an almost bottomless, trackless and ocean dark abyss between the waking world and the one within. Sometimes I fall. Sometimes there’s a hand hold.
Thursday arrived. Wednesday was a pleasant day off, spent with the two youngest grandsons as the second oldest daughter has now returned to work dispensing medications, dressings and stuff, following her maternity leave. And last night I booked a weekend away for three in Amsterdam for February, as we’re taking our granddaughter there for her Christmas present. On Christmas day she’s going to get a Berlitz Amsterdam city guide and a cd with that song about a little mouse with clogs on, there on the stair, where on the stair? right there! recorded on it. And maybe Max Bygraves singing about Tulips. But Thursday.
Mathew had bought two bags of coal at the garage. But then took one back because he felt guilty, he told me.
“Why guilty Mathew?” I asked.
“Because I didn’t really know what I’d bought” he mumbled.
I chose not to pursue that branch of the conversation any further. Who knows where it may have led us to in the land of derangement and confusion which we have this week entered?
“So you lit a fire? Has the engineer come out to your house to fix the oil fired burner?” I assume you still don’t have mains gas, a bicycle manufactured since 1957 or a good reason not to one day recompense me for the suffering you inflict on me so regularly?” Yes, you’re right. The last two dozen words were silent. But then so much is.
Mathew laughed, bitterly.
“Yes, I lit a fire. The grate collapsed. My house could have burned down. But the coal hadn’t really caught.” I tried not to laugh too hysterically.
“Oh Mathew. I am sorry. The boiler?”
“Yes the man came. He was waiting there when I got home from here on Tuesday. It was the pump. He had to order one, it came yesterday and it’s all working now.”
“All is well then Mathew, yes?” I said, sensing that possibly, just possibly, there might be a light, however feeble, however guttering, at the end of the long dark tunnel in which we found ourselves now benighted. I looked at him. That light, dear reader, went out.
“It’s just…I just can’t help wishing that I’d asked him if I could keep the broken pump, if only to find out how it worked…” Despair, you are my own.
“But you couldn’t Mathew. Because it wasn’t working in the first place. That’s why he replaced it. It was broken, remember? It could have possibly have misled you if you’d taken it apart to see how it worked and you saw a part of a part that you assumed was a whole part but wasn’t, it could lead you astray, confuse you. Sort of?” I was rapidly running out of the will to exist. Mathew wasn’t going to give up so easily though. In some ways he is made of stern stuff.
“Or maybe I could have kept it as a sort of souvenir of his visit, to remind me that he has mended it?”
“You simply have to sit in the warm, toasty and snug, for that to happen Mathew. You don’t need oily, broken bits of metal cluttering up the place to know that you’re warm, do you?”
But the look haunting Mathew’s broken yet curiously unlined face told me that he does. Indeed he does.
On an average day in my shop we see three hundred or so people come through our doors. Two hundred buy at the counter and leave, maybe a quarter or a third of those having a brief chat first with myself or one of the girls. Of the hundred or so who sit in, probably half will be alone or in a couple, and will keep their own company. Then there are those who will interact with us, the hard core regulars for whom conversation and sometimes physical contact come easy. There are a few people who cause hearts to sink and vital chores to be suddenly found elsewhere, but who do get served, all the while being held at emotional and social arms length.
And at the very top of the pyramid is Mathew. A man out on his own in so very many ways. One day I shall miss him deeply, and wish he could walk in through the door just one more time. But not today.