By Ann Murphy.
Once upon a time there was a man who had to do everything just right. He walked down the street, carefully and with courtesy, saluting everyone he passed and saying ‘good morning’ to all. He was never rude or discourteous but always smiled and nodded, and generally went about his day in a good frame of mind.
He never crossed the street without looking both ways first, as he didn’t want to be the cause of any accidents. He always pressed the button at traffic lights and waited patiently for the green man to start flashing before he took his first step on the street.
When standing in a queue in a shop or supermarket, he waited patiently, moving along as the next person was served. He was in no hurry and he often found that he met the most interesting people while he was waiting, people he wouldn’t have otherwise spoken to, as they would have been in too much of a rush to have a conversation.
People around him would often wonder how he got to be so kind and courteous. How it was that he never had a cross word to speak or never raised his voice in anger? They thought that he must be the most polite man that existed on the earth, as certainly they had never come across anyone quite like him before.
At the end of the day, he would come in from a day of polite conversation, and niceness; he would stick on the kettle and feed his cats, watching them as they ate. Then he would fill up their little bowls of milk and stroke the tops of their heads, until the kettle had boiled and he had made his tea.
When he had his tea made and had taken out a couple of biscuits and placed them on the saucer next to the cup he would make his way to his little living room and place his tea and biscuits on the table beside his couch. Then he would sit down and take his tea, allowing it to rest on his rather large belly, and then dip his biscuit into the warm liquid, eating it quickly before it fell back in. He would sit like this until the biscuits were finished, often a entire pack, and he had sipped the last drop of tea. He would think back on the day and think of all the interesting people he had met.
You see he lived all on his own, with only his cats for company, as there was no-one else around for him to talk to. He didn’t have a television, as he found it made too much unnecessary noise, filling up the silence with loudness. He hated loudness. He loved being in the quiet, with his own thoughts. It took him back to his childhood where his parents had often sat long hours reading or knitting in total silence. To keep himself occupied he had learned how to make model aeroplanes, sitting for hours in his room, poring over the instructions, the smell of glue filling the tiny cottage where they lived. But his parents were used to smells of all sorts as his father worked on farms and there were always interesting smells wafting about in the air.
His parents were happy that that their son was not bored living out in the country with no friends or other brothers and sisters. He often tried to make friends with the children of the farmers whom his father worked for but he was not one of them and they didn’t stay too long in one place for him to make any lasting friendships.
In reality his had been a lonely childhood and so he had sought refuge in his model aeroplanes, and his parents quiet life.
His childhood was not only lonely; it was also full of strife. His father had been a strange man, filled with unfulfilled longings of a life of adventure. But never having the strength to accomplish them he wasted his life on worthless pursuits and business adventures, dragging his poor wife and son all over the country, in a vain attempt to reach success. He never thought about his wife and child and how his search for fulfilment created in them a huge insecurity. Settling into one house after another, then having to leave it, because your husband and father had lost the job again, left them never trusting that they would be safe anywhere.
His father, a labourer, was the black sheep of the family and his own childhood life was now reflected in the life he created for his wife and child. A life of insecurity and of never knowing if the bills would be paid this week, or not. Never knowing if they would be thrown out of yet another farm labourer’s cottage and find themselves on the move again, having to leave everything behind them once more.
But the boy had been unaware of how he had felt as he was growing up. Part of him knew it, but the outer part of him forgot. He had grown used to a life of movement, even though he craved stability. He got used to having no friends and learned to amuse himself, or he spent long hours with his mother in the kitchen and in their little garden. The older his father became however, the longer they stayed in one place until eventually they bought the last little house they lived in and settled down, his father now being too old to work, and he became the breadwinner himself. He started working when he was fourteen, trying his hand at a telephone exchange and then an iron foundry, but nothing lasted. He had been a wiry, strong boy but jobs never seemed to suit him. Eventually he got a job in a tobacco factory and worked there for many years, bringing home his wage packet at the end of the week and handing it over to his mother for safekeeping. He was allowed a little of it for his own uses, but the rest went on feeding the family and paying the rent.
On Sundays, he and his mother went out for drives in the country and then home to cook the Sunday dinner. He had never married because his mother had never approved of any of the young women he had taken home and although times were changing, his mothers grip on him never did. He stayed her little boy until the day she died.
His father had died only a few short years after his wife’s death and so now he was on his own with only his cats for company, still leading a lonely life. But his need for friendship never abated, although he never mastered the art of how to get to know someone, because he had never learned how.
He spent everyday in the same way. He went to work early in the morning and came home late, fed his cats, made his simple dinner and prepared his lunch for the following day. If it was the weekend he would relax in his garden, cutting the grass, if the weather permitted, and trimming the hedges. He would make conversation with his neighbours over the garden fence, talking for so long that they eventually became bored. He had never learned how to have a normal , two-way conversation with someone, having always listened to his mother and her troubles. Now that he didn’t have to be quiet, he didn’t know how to stop talking, as though he were making up for years of not being listened to.
People who knew him thought of him as a rather strange old man because they did not know about his difficult childhood. They only saw how he appeared to them, small and strange and needing too much of their attention. What they found most annoying about him was his habit of ‘hanging on’ to someone when they were trying desperately to move away. The conversation would come to a natural conclusion, to the relief of the other person, but then he would find another topic of conversation and the person he was talking to was committed to staying and listening, whilst at the same time trying desperately to find an excuse to get away from him. People eventually began to avoid having conversations with him feigning ill health or making excuses about visiting granddaughters. But he remained blissfully unaware of their discomfort and didn’t for one minute imagine that they didn’t want to talk to him.
One day, while he was out in the garden cutting back the hedge which had become quite overgrown, he spotted a man he had known in his younger days. Without even thinking he yelled out ‘OI, John, how are you mate?’
“Dick,” he exclaimed. “How are you? Keeping well I hope?”
“I’m good thanks, John. Just got back from Italy. I spent some time with some old friends there and only just got back last night. This hedge has sure grown up whilst I have been away,” he laughed.
John thought it odd that Dick was so white. Surely he would have a tan if he has spent a few weeks in Italy. But as soon as he had that thought it he dismissed it. Maybe Dick has changed over the years, he thought. Maybe he really has just come back from Italy. Who knows?
“Italy eh? That must have been interesting,” he said and then he added, looking at his watch, “I’ve never been myself.”
“Oh it’s a beautiful country,” Dick gushed, “A beautiful country. You’d love it.”
“Yes I’m sure I would.” agreed John. “Well I must be off now, I have an interview for a new job.”
“Oh, you don’t work in the old place anymore, then? That was a great place to work, wasn’t it Mate? Do you remember how Richards used to chase the girls all around the office? I was glad the union got rid of him, aren’t you? I mean, its not good for a company’s reputation to have managers like that harassing the female staff. I remember one incident when…” and he began a long story about how the Japanese had come over to view the factory and all the dirty calendars had to be taken down so as not to offend them. Richards had replaced them as soon as they left, but the women complained and won, but he never forgave them and punished them any chance he got.
John listened politely, at first, but really did have an interview to go to and time was moving on. He would have to rush if he wasn’t to be late.
“Look mate,” he said as kindly as possible to Dick, who was still rambling on about the old days, “I really do have to rush.”
But Dick didn’t hear him. Busy as he was with his own trip down memory lane, he kept on talking and John became more and more irate. Eventually he could hold it in no longer.
“Look Dick, its been great chewing the cud with you, Mate, but I really have to go now. This interview really is important.”
And he began to move away. But Dick didn’t stop. He began to talk about his first interview with the company and how scared he’d been as a young lad attending it. John couldn’t believe it. He stopped feeling the need for politeness as Dick was completely oblivious to John’s urgent need to leave. It was as if Dick was having this conversation with himself!
“Dick,” John said, angrily, “I have to go now. I am going to be late.”
But Dick failed to register both John’s anger and his words, and continued filling the space between them with useless information.
John had had enough. Red-faced, he walked through Dick’s little garden gate, and straight up to where Dick was trimming the hedge, still talking. He shook the ladder furiously.
“Are you fucking deaf or what?” he shouted. “I have an interview to go to? DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? You’re still the same Dick you were when we worked in the factory. Too up your own fucking arse to know when to shut up.” And he let go of the ladder and stormed back out the gate.
Dick, hanging on for dear life, was stunned into silence.
What’s gotten into him?’ he wondered, shaking as he climbed down the ladder, carefully carrying the hedge trimmer with him. He was just like that at work too. Always shouting and getting angry. Think I need a cup of tea. To calm my nerves! And, still shaking, he put the trimmer carefully away in the garden shed, and went inside to put on the kettle, his heart still pounding with fright.