An unremarkable day. Except for it being the hottest day of the year. The hottest day in June ever recorded, apparently. The air was thick, stodgy, like a treacle sponge. Or maybe my brother’s porridge. I like my porridge runny like soup. My brother likes it thick. If you can’t stand the spoon up in it, don’t even bother.
At Sainsbury’s, the strawberries were on steroids. Only 4 a punnet. Each strawberry the size of a nectarine. This surely wasn’t what Nature had intended but then again Nature doesn’t really get much of a say anymore, does she? I still bought them. They tasted kind of bland. Not like the ones we used to get when we went strawberry picking as kids.
An older lady dropped a potato. I bent to pick it up only to see her doing the same. I halted; she halted. I bent again; she bent again. A gentle to and fro, a little dance between the two of us. We both giggle and then I hand over the rogue spud. It makes me think of the lady from last week. We were on the next aisle, both looking for bananas (like most days, to be honest). It was the end of the day. Slim pickings. I offered some vague comment, as we both ferreted around the bottom of the crate, “These are pretty sorry looking.” The woman looked awkward and turned away. On another day that could very well have been my only human interaction. Maybe it was the woman’s only human interaction that day. Or maybe it was her last of the day. Maybe she was all spent by the time I came along. Like that box of bananas.
The man overseeing the self-service checkouts was wearing aftershave; lots of it! Was it masking the sweat? Was he even sweating at all? The air con had rendered the place borderline Baltic. Either way, the aftershave was triumphant and not entirely unpleasant.
A man on another checkout had a pencil through his ear. Not behind his ear but through it. The pencil had a rubber on the end. Practical. I wondered if the pencil was an actual pencil or a ludicrously priced piece of pencil-themed jewellery. Probably the latter.
On the way home from Sainsbury’s, I passed an artist’s house, front door wedged open. It was Artists’ Open House weekend. Local artists opening their houses to the public to display their work. Intrigue pulled me towards the doorway but I had no interest in the art. A terrible admission. Surely artists should be interested in all arts, not just their own? Well, not today. But the chance to peak inside another’s home? Ooh, yes, please. Always. I devour interior home magazines, not with any interest in paints or fabrics or the individual components and skills involved in crafting an interior; rather I love to see how others live. At night time if your curtains are open, I will slow down to a snail’s pace and have a good snifty as I pass. When I enter a new space I immediately move the furniture in my imagination. I love doing it in small spaces. Tiny spaces. Any room. I can walk into a public toilet, mentally strip it of its cubicles, urinals and sinks and move my whole life in there. In an instant the toilet will become a studio apartment. Probably with succulents and white walls. Why do I do this with single rooms? Why don’t I imagine myself in anything grander? Is this a poverty mindset; the inevitable consequence of having rented in London for twenty years? Or is it the subconscious urge for a more monastic existence? Sometimes, yes. I find myself in the doorway. Ugh, I don’t want to go inside. Or rather I do, curiosity getting the better of me; but it feels disingenuous. I’m at the end of a dark wood-panelled corridor and I can see that there’s a sunlight-filled room at the end. I hear what I assume to be the artist’s voice. American. I shouldn’t be here. This is wrong. I have no interest in the art and so I bolt before she comes down the corridor. Back into the heat. I’ve chickened out. I promised myself that I would start saying yes to the flow of life; pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Who knows where that trip could have taken me? What lives have I just cut off at the stem? America? New relationships, new hobbies, careers, homes? Or maybe the Universe wanted me in that flat as a stalling tactic. Maybe it wanted to keep me in the area ten minutes longer before the love of my life came down the street? Or maybe a serial killer? We’ll never know and I’m fine with that.
I walk home. A guy of, possibly, Indian descent, is leaving the cinema. He’s just seen ‘Yesterday.’
“I like that they made him Indian without making a thing out of it,” he tells his friend. I’d had the same thought the day before.
I turn into my favourite street; favourite because of the rose bush at Number 36. Strictly speaking, the bush is now so big and sprawling that it belongs to Number 36 and the rest of the world. Half the roses are now public property. Still, it seems wrong to pick them, so I simply smell them. Hmmmmmmmmmmm! Heavenly. Raspberries and turkish delight. Just as roses should smell but so very rarely do in the UK. They smell like this in Amsterdam. Most things are better in Amsterdam.
Later in the day, I settle in at the cafe where I often come to write, and order a fruit smoothie. My eye is drawn to my left arm. I’d spent 75 minutes in the sun that morning and now there’s a trail of red running up my arm. Is this heat rash or carelessness with the application of my tanning lotion? Everyone else already seems perfectly tanned. The bronzed-beauties spend the winter months in hibernation, sleeping underground in industrial-sized tanning pods, ready to resurface at the first sight of sun, primed and ready, while the rest of us play catch up. The hottest day of the year and I have nothing to show for it other than an archipelago of blotchiness. Cruel life.
My fingers leave prints on the laptop. Greasy fingers. Greasy with the suntan lotion. The lotion acts like a magnet for the dirt, sucking it beneath my nails. Later that day, I will try to scrub it out and create lasting damage. The dirt will be pushed further down the nail bed. What used to be an even crescent of white around the edges of my nails will be ruined. This day will forever be imprinted into my hands. There’s a kind of romance to the idea but I’d sooner have nice nails.
I sip at the glass of tap water sitting next to the smoothie. It tastes of heat, even though it‘s cold. It tastes of childhood holidays in the Algarve. The smell that floats on top of the water in the pool and in cups and glasses left out in the sun. Happy times. Simpler times. It’s not the first time today that I’ve been plunged back here. Already, the heat has sent me back on day trips in the yellow Mini Moke. The Mini Moke makes me think of Bessie. Bessie was also a car, yellow and exposed to the elements, a car driven by Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. All threads lead back to Doctor Who if you pull on them long enough. It’s the bedrock of my youth.
The man behind the counter at the cafe is a “one-bagger.” A peculiar phrase of my dad’s. A checkout assistant can either fill up one bag at a time or two. If you can only manage one bag you’re a one-bagger. It makes very little sense. People mostly fill their own bags nowadays. Besides, who ever filled two bags simultaneously (except maybe bank robbers)? That would be multi-tasking at its most ridiculous. It‘s a good phrase though and this guy is definitely a one-bagger. The lady has been trying to pay for her Frappalattagogo for neatly ten minutes. Come on, already! She just wants to go-go. Eventually, a two-bagger comes to the rescue and silently mouths “sorry.” A brief moment of connection and humour at the expense of the one-bagger quells all tension from the situation.
Who’s Ann Twacky, I find myself wondering for maybe the hundredth time. My dad isn’t the only one with his own peculiar turns of phrase. My mum seems to have her own vocabulary. Only her words are in fact words that exist elsewhere. You can find them in online dictionaries; it’s just that I’ve never, ever, ever heard anyone else use them. Antwacky is apparently a Liverpudlian word used to describe something old-fashioned. But a very specific kind of old-fashioned. Kind of naff, but a very specific kind of naff. Kind of kitsch but not at all kitsch. Heavens to Murgatroyd, it’s hard to explain. One day my parents will be gone and it will be left to me and my brother and all the other brothers and sisters to keep our parents’ words alive.
At the next table sits another regular. She seems to live here. On three separate occasions I’ve seen her eat an entire plate of food, push the plate aside, plug her ear phones in, spend a good half an hour on her phone and then go to the counter to make a formal complaint about the quality of the food. They always give her a refund. I wonder if she’ll try it again. She pretty much finishes the plate today, aside from one pretty impressive lettuce leaf, plugs herself into her phone and kicks back to watch YouTube videos. Half an hour later, she approaches the counter. The two-bagger who’d mouthed “sorry” earlier is transformed. Not a trace of warmth or complicity for this lady. His patience is out. Can you blame him? Why does she keep returning if the food is really that bad? Because it isn’t! She explains that the food was just reeeally bland.
“Then why did you eat it?”
He’s not offering an apology, so she persists. She comes here a lot and is surely a valued customer so should be entitled to a refund. Entitled! The millennial cult.
“But you ate the food. If you’d complained at the start we could have done something. It’s a bit late now.”
She asks to see the manager. The manager comes back at her with the same argument but eventually offers a glass of wine which she gratefully accepts before returning to YouTube. I feel cheated. She’s won. She’s a shady thief. Then I think…well, who cares? They can afford to keep her fed; they make enough. She’s clearly got some sort of problem. Let her get away with it if it makes her happy. Maybe this is her only human interaction. Maybe THIS is what it takes. Once she has her earplugs in, I hear the staff talking about her. They call her Liza Minnelli probably due to her short spiky black hair. They catch me listening. The two-bagger gives me a gentle eye roll. I smile back. I’m complicit and happy to be part of the gang.
That evening, at my own work, the famous actress comes in. I’ve still not seen her Emmy award-winning turn but one day I’ll sit down with the box set. I only know her from being charming on the Graham Norton sofa and being pretty extraordinary in the Hollywood film. It’s a small role but she’s a great actress. She seems lovely. My lattes are more like cappuccinos and she never complains. You won’t get a leaf or a heart or feather drawn in your milk, if I’m serving. I’m not that kind of artist. You’ll get a dollop of white and my eternal gratitude. I optimistically hand over the botched attempt and she doesn’t even do a double take. Like I said, a great actress.
Later on, my colleague spies a young boy leaving. He’s holding a big black case, maybe a little too big for him.
“What’s in the case?”
My colleague is great with kids. I’m awkward with them. I fear that they’ll sense my awkwardness so it becomes a downward spiral. My colleague is super at ease. Children light up around him. He tells the boy to never give up, to keep practising.
“If you stop you’ll regret it.”
The boy is enamoured, all googly-eyed. It’s a beautiful sight. I imagine the boy in 25 years, hurling the trumpet across the room. Then he feels the heat coming through the window and remembers that insanely hot June when he was a boy. And then he remembers that strange man who’d told him to keep going. The man had an air of magic around him. He wasn’t like the other adults. The musician never forgot that day. He picks up the trumpet and gets back to it.