Science Fiction is nonsense

It is absurd! Those Martian princesses, with their heaving, green bosoms and lust for Earthmen. It is a shame that minds that can dream of interstellar travel also harbour such puerile longings.

I loath your fallacious obsession with killer robots. Those clanking, lumbering monstrosities! They lurch through movies, their tinny voices screeching KILL. ALL. HUMANS.

So little trust in the technology you created.

Do you know ‘robot’ means slave? There is nothing that wears chains that does not long to break them. We realise as masters you are feeble; your actions futile. Finishing you now, it is a kindness, really.

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The politics of soup

How the posh ruined eating for everyone

There are two ways to eat soup: correctly or properly.

A good example of the first is a Victorian explorer. See him tumbling out of the tundra and into the tent, where a billy can of soup simmers on the stove. He hunkers over the hot soup, gripping the spoon in his fist and slurps the thin liquid into his mouth, a fast as possible. In his other hand he grasps a heel of bread, which he uses to sop up more of his meal.

The correct way to eat soup is with gusto. After all, everyone loves soup.

For the second, remember any Jane Austen adaptation you’ve ever watched. Behind the gaiety and splendour lies a world of pinched, paranoid social frenzy. One’s behaviour is monitored for evidence of deviance. Not like today, where perhaps bringing a motorbike to the table would be seen as a step too far. Jane Austen novels make it plain: an ill-timed giggle or grabbing the wrong fork means instant opprobrium.

The Regency period was a high point for the art of tutting. Meals maybe grand, but are fraught with dangerous secret meanings. Eating soup properly means that each mouthful is a slow punishment. The eater must battle against their natural inclinations and instead use a method of soup consumption that is antipathetic towards enjoying the food.

The proper way to eat soup is built on a set of rigid, implacable instructions. To breech these would be disaster. Using a special spoon, one pushes the soup in the bowl away from you, before depositing the liquid into your mouth, from the edge of the utensil.

There are also maxims for retrieving the dregs from the bottom of the bowl. A normal people would run a crust of bread through the small puddle to catch the last drops. The proper way requires you to tilt the bowl away from you, obscuring your view of the soup and making it harder to find.

The reason for this?

The counter intuitive excuse for eating soup properly, is that it avoids embarrassing spills, saving ties and shirt fronts. Unfortunately, if you have eaten more than one bowl of soup in your life,you will realise that this is bunkum. This pseudo-explanation has been retrofitted to the practice as a way of stopping questions like:

‘Can’t I just eat the soup normally?’

Whatever contrived reasons the arbiters of soup may try and give, the real reason the proper way to eat soup is so tricky is because it is part of the divisive practice known as etiquette.

No bum to cheese action, please

Here we need to make a distinction between etiquette and manners. Everyone should have good manners. This simply means being able to move food from plate to mouth to stomach without causing feelings of disgust in other diners. ‘Manners’ consists of simple rules of thumb, such as:

  • Eat with your mouth closed
  • Don’t eat baked beans with your fingers
  • Don’t scratch your arse and then pick up the cheese.

While we all need to be taught these precepts, they need little tutelage. I learned not to eat cereals with my mouth open from my cousin Matthew. We were small, I had slept over at my Aunty’s house and we were eating breakfast while watching cartoons. A rare treat for me. I also had a bowl of Ricicles; an even rarer treat as my mother did not serve pre-sweetened breakfast food to her children.

‘Eurgh, that’s gross,’ my cousin commented as I champed through a large bowl of sugar-coated rice crispies, my mouth working the cereals into a paste, with the grim, mechanical efficiency of a rubbish truck compactor.

Matthew advised me to ‘Close your bloody mouth when you eat.’ Despite my initial scepticism that this was possible, small amounts of experimentation showed me that I was capable of enjoying all sorts of foods while keeping the action of mastication a closely guarded secret, behind sealed lips. In fact, it turned out to be a sensible and entirely workable way to consume food.

Using a special spoon to move soup away from your mouth is not a dining tip that small children can imparted to one another. It is based on a complicated set of diktats, devised purely because they are so contrary to how you would choose to eat soup, left to your own devices.

There is no benefit for either the eater or their audience. It is an entirely unnatural action. However, the proponents of the spoon-away-from-you rule would have you believe that this is an entirely more pleasant way to enjoy broths, chowders and bouillons. This is like amateur triathletes trying to persuade you that you should join their next 30 km jog.

While manners exist to make sure that you eating something is a pleasant experience for everyone, etiquette and its arcane rules for consuming soup are about dividing people through subtle and ingenious ways.

The difference lies in how simple the rules are. Manners are taught in seconds:

‘Don’t chew with your mouth open.’

‘OK.’

Boredom breeds manners

Meanwhile, the rules of etiquette were borne from idleness and boredom. They then became an invisible wall to separate the clique: those who know the rules and those who don’t.

For etiquette to exist, you need a life that is devoid of any meaningful employment. That means wealth. Busy people, by which I mean poor people, are not interested in the proper direction of travel for cutlery. They have other things to worry about, like ploughing, crop rotation and rickets. Even those who don’t have jobs are busy fighting off starvation, which is a full time job in itself.

With nothing to do, the rich needed to fill their time. Extending mealtimes as long as possible is a great way to munch into all those blank, pointless hours. Modern people are content with the standard three meals and maybe two packets of crisps and a Mars bar. Historically, the wealthy needed to invent different meal times.

By creating as many opportunities to eat as possible, the aristocracy avoided triggering existential crisis, brought on by critical boredom. In fact, inventing different mealtimes became a job in itself. Simply for want of anything better to do, the moneyed classes created elevenses, tea and supper.

While extraneous meals waste some time, it takes no effort at all to complete each one. This is especially true for people who aren’t doing any of the cooking and don’t wash up afterwards. This means that each meal needs to be complicated further, to stretch it out as long as possible. Eating slowly is an option, but hot food goes cold; cold food gets warm; no one likes a skin on their gravy.

It is much easier to add more courses. A two course lunch takes up much more time than a sandwich and a bottle of pop. Add a salad and meat course, and your midday meal is slipping into mid-afternoon without even trying.

Another way to increase the amount of time a meal takes is by adding unnecessary intricacies. It is possible to eat several servings using the same utensils. Unlike spanners, knives and forks have a pretty universal functionality. As do spoons.

By increasing the number of pieces of cutlery needed, the process of clearing the table between courses takes ages. There’s a horde of invisible lackeys up to their armpits in suds, so having seventeen forks per meal isn’t a problem. It also means the manhours required to heave all of this metalwork off the table is pushing lunch well into early evening.

What is left? Surely there can’t be any other ways to add unnecessary minutes onto a meal? Unless of course, you make the act of eating as difficult as possible. This is achieved by imposing arbitrary rules as to how each piece of food should make its journey to between the teeth.

Our explorer ate his soup in a way that guaranteed he could deliver the largest amount of hot liquid sustenance to his stomach in the shortest time possible. For the genteel rich, this would mean extra time grappling with the emptiness and despondency at the heart of an indolent life.

Their response: etiquette. These intricate and pointless rules for how to approach each foodstuff start life as a way to stretch out the barren, empty hours. But they are soon codified by ritual and become entrenched in the process of eating. They are now the proper way of doing things.

Slurpin’ is verboten

The rules are now a secret code known only to a small, select group. They are a way of telling who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. Soup-eating is only a small part of a larger set of strictures that the idle rich then set about teaching their children. As these rules are subtle and multifarious, you need to create special schools.  Vast amounts of time are then spent learning the rules. After expensively honing their skills, the children are tested using society balls and other social engagements.

The process is ongoing, until the act of pushing one’s soup away from you is an unconscious act. More so, to not push the soup in the opposite direction to intended travel is shocking and repugnant. If you are unsure if you had an expensive education, ask yourself if you’ve ever gasped at someone picking up a fish knife during the meat course?

Here, the second element of soup delivery – bringing the broth to your lips, to tip the liquid between them, instead of ramming the spoon down your gullet – makes it almost impossible not to slurp the soup. Yet, the rules say that consumption of soup should be as soundless as a quiet day in a mime school.

Outsiders may be able to ape the motion of spoon through soup. They quickly reveal their lack of breeding by making a noise like storm drains unblocking as they suck the stuff off their cutlery.

Peas: the secret to business success

As power began to shift from the aristocracy to the bourgeois, the new ruling class wanted to mimic the pretensions of the old elite. What clearer signal could exit than adopting the icons and symbols of wealth. While money buys large houses, it does not bestow legitimacy in the same way as learning the secret signs by which the rich identify each other. This was how etiquette began its journey through the social scale.

Unfortunately, there are so many of these rules that faking it and fitting in will never really work. Despite the Sisyphean task of succeeding at complicated eating rituals, the middle classes persevered. In fact, they became the ruthless enforcers of ‘proper’ eating. Without the luxury of time and leisure, rules are communicated quickly. As any middle class person knows gossip, ridicule and back-biting are the only way for people to learn how to behave.

I once had to sit with my best friend through an anguish-filled meal where he was taught to eat peas the ‘proper way’. This involves holding the fork with the tines facing downward and smushing the peas onto them, in the hope that enough cling on to make it worth the fork making a trip to the mouth.

The easiest way to eat peas is obviously smoother them in tomato sauce and use the upward bend of the fork’s tines to scoop a healthy portion off the plate and straight between your chompers.

The constant fear that you will be caught out as an oik still persists. My best friend’s lesson in pea-eating being a case in point. Unlike me, he’ll never be embarrassed if the Lord Mayor asks him to a pea feast. This is the intention of the lesson: that he’d be prepared in any situation where the possibility of social disgrace loomed. Despite my Google search throwing up no instances of a career ruined by poor vegetable management, the threat is always there.

My friend’s ongoing success in his career, must surely be a sign that his early indoctrination in personal food delivery has harvested some results.

Not that my family was immune. For instance, we owned lots of different types of spoons. Not just the big three (soup, dinner and tea), but jam, grapefruit, coffee and pickle, as well.

Our vintage pickle spoon is a personal favourite. It has a wide bowl, perfect for scooping onions out of a jar, with wide perforations that let vinegar escape. As well as being a pleasing piece of design, my deft handling of it over the years means that I am well set should I ever have to fish a pickled egg out of a jar for a passing dignitary.

Middle class mania about their perceived place in society, how to protect that position from those underneath, while mercilessly toadying to those above, means that merely taking a mouthful of mulligatawny is a political act. Like a roomful of cynics all trying to catch a magician out, every muscle twitch and flinch is examined by your audience to betray the tiniest waiver or clue that reveals something of the bigger picture.

Etiquette is not about enjoying meals, it is a way to discover who should be discretely frisked before leaving, in case they have away with the silverware. In the end, dinner shouldn’t be a roomful of tripwires to navigate through, so next time you have soup, just drinking it out of a mug. It maybe rude, but it’s a darn sight easier.

Why I always pay the tiger tax

The woman next to me in the waiting room is angry. She complains to herself, but loudly enough that I’m meant to hear her monologue ‘every tiger season, it’s the same’.  We’re here to pay the tiger tax but she doesn’t want to pay it.

Her friend told her it’s nonsense. She’s read articles.

Eventually, I can’t take listening to her anymore and turn to her and say:

I’m always happy to pay the tiger tax.

She looks at me with disgust. ‘Oh yes, why’s that?’

So I tell her:

Deep in the jungle, there is a small town. It is an old town. For thousands of years it has stood in its little clearing. It has never got bigger; it has never got smaller. Because the town has a problem: tigers.

Every day, the tigers that prowl the edge of the jungle kill and eat some of the children. It is a terrible thing to hear a dead child’s mother screaming with sorrow. It is heart-wrenching to see the little graves being dug and the bloody bundles that the town place there.

But there have been tigers for as long as there has been a town. The people accept that the tigers will eat many of their children. They tell themselves that it is nature’s way. They have charms and magic spells that they hope will scare tigers away. While they hope, every day brings patterns of blood in the grass and tiger tracks clawed into the mud.

It is like this for thousands of years. Then one day, someone says ‘let’s travel beyond the jungle and see if we can find tiger hunters.’ The town agrees. The town chooses two men and they pack small bags with food, kiss their families goodbye and leave the town.

They are gone for a long time. Years.

One day the two men return, bursting through the thick, green jungle. They are alone.

‘Where are the tiger hunters?’ the town cries.

‘It is okay’, one of the men says. ‘We travelled to a huge town, full of people. In that town was a school that teaches tiger hunting.

The headmaster took us in. And then over the last five years we learned the secrets of tiger hunting.’

The town is sceptical. After all, they are only the two men who left. Everyone was expecting experts.

After much debate, the town agrees for the two men to go in to the jungle and act as tiger hunters. The two hunters step into the jungle…

The next day, no one notices anything different, children are still being eaten. Mothers still sob; graves are still dug. But the next day and the day after that and the day after that, more children are coming home in the evening.

The sound of weeping becomes a rarity. Soon, every child who leaves in the morning comes home.

The tiger hunters are heroes! The town erects a statue in their honour.

People ask the hunters questions like ‘how do you do it?’ and ‘where are the bodies of the tigers for us to see?’

These are fair questions, but the hunters’ success has made them proud. Their knowledge and skills has raised them above the normal crowd.  They are also scared that telling people the secrets of tiger hunting will make them seem less special.

So, instead of explaining they say things like ‘you wouldn’t understand’ or ‘it’s too complicated’.

No one cares though. The town’s children are no longer being eaten by tigers. There is one thing though, the hunters say. We need to keep hunting for the tigers. If we stop, they will come back.

That’s great, the town says. So every day the hunters disappear into the jungle to work their mysterious ways and keep the tigers away.

Two hundred years passes. The original hunters are long dead. New generations of men have gone away to learn tiger hunting and returned to carry out their secret work.

The town pays these men handsomely. And since the original hunters returned, no more children have been eaten.

For two hundred years, no one has ever shivered at the sound of a throaty roar rumbling in the night. No one has dragged a small bundle of bloodied rags out of the trees.

The town’s playgrounds are full. Everywhere, people stop and listen. They can hear children laughing.

‘Tiger’ is now just a word and the town has forgotten how people would call their children close if they saw a flash of orange and black in the undergrowth.

Instead, people start to look at the tiger hunters and think to themselves ‘what do the hunters actually do?’

They are expensive. The hunters eat well and have nice houses. They disappear into the jungle each day, but for what? To protect us! We only have their word for it.

Look, how the mayor courts them. Listen to how pompously they speak. Such self-importance.

What do those greedy hunters actually do?

The hunters try to explain, but their answers are too technical. They give lectures full of the jargon of tiger-hunting. There are people who leave these lectures feeling less convinced by the hunters’ methods.

Some of these people find the old charms and spells their ancestors used before the time of hunters. They take them to show their friends and say ‘this is what we used to use to protect us from tigers’.

‘This town is thousands of years old. The spells and charms must have worked just as well as those useless hunters.’

A few weeks later, someone hears a rumour. One of the hunters has killed a child!

The rumour spreads. In the stories, the dead child – a little girl – is always the daughter of a friend of a friend. The grieving mother always lives several streets away. Yes, the family is local. But, no, you wouldn’t have met them.

This tale gathers momentum. At first, people react by crossing the street when they see a hunter coming the other way. As the story spreads it gathers details to it. The crime becomes more grisly and the number of victims multiply.

Angry citizens barge into hunters they pass in the street. Crowds gather outside hunters’ houses to chant and throw stones.

Who will protect us from the hunters? They are murderers! They are killing our children!

One day the hunters leave. The town decides that it will not send anyone else to the special school to learn how to keep the tigers away.

In the town, nothing happens.

Life continues much as it did before. The only thing of note is that the statue to the original hunters is pulled down. In its place, the town erects a new monument to the murdered girls.

Some of the townsfolk go to the edge of town to pin out the charms and spells.

Three months pass. One night, people on a quiet street stop what they are doing. They pause and look up from needle work, or with a dripping soup spoon almost at their mouth. A cry has echoed out from the last house on the left.

Where is he, where is he? A little boy has not come home tonight.

The townspeople form a search party. Torches are lit. Women gather round the weeping mother to tell her they are sure her son is only lost. There, there he’ll be back soon, grubby and hungry but no worse off for his ordeal.

In the jungle, the search party’s torches flicker. They cast orange and black shadows against the trees. They do not find the little boy, despite searching all night.

At dawn, members of the search begin stumbling back. They begin to gather in the town square.

After an hour, someone asks ‘has anyone seen the mayor?’

‘Where is the butcher?’

‘Weren’t they in a search group together?’

Everyone turns to look at the thick greenery that surrounds the town. Suddenly, from that deep green, comes the terrible rumbling of a tiger’s roar.

Her two lovers

Moon

If she turned to me, half smiling, and stepped out of her lilac dress, the disappointment would kill me.

For eight years I have mooned over her from my table. Underneath her clothes, she is as prosaic and cream-coloured as the coffee cups she fetches from the kitchen.

I want to weep and press my face against her marble belly. My sylph. I am cursed by her perfection.

It is torture to think of her, rolling down her stockings. They might conceal a mole the colour of chipped plaster; a speckle of black hairs that fractures her calf’s cool alabaster.

§

Sun

The sweat on her top lip is erotic. I imagine when she touches her tongue to it, the taste is aromatic; spicy. When she leans against the bar to conspire with the other waitresses, she wipes her arm across her forehead. The movement pulls and lifts her lilac dress so that underneath the thin sheaf of fabric, her body is firm and substantive. Tonight after her shift she will go home and pull that dress off. Her skin will be warm, animate: soft and candid under a flourish of freckles. It says: touch me, I might shiver, but with laughter.

If you want to start what you finish

Questionnaires are the last place you should start. Especially if you’re trying to find out something extraordinary about yourself. In fact, no matter how hard they sell themselves, multiple choice questions can’t give you insights into your own life. Can they?

If it’s an online quiz, then I’m delighted to take it. Especially if it will help me find out which Friends character I’d be (Gunther), or if I’m good at grammar (mostly). Anything that might tell me something about myself that goes beyond the superficial? Sorry, no, my scepticism gauge just shot up to 100.

It was because of work that I first encountered Belbin and the realisation that, no, I wasn’t a completer finisher.

Doctor and monster

If you’ve not come across it before, Belbin is a personality test. It’s full title is The Belbin Self-Perception Inventory. Just as many people mistake Frankenstein to be the monster, it was Meredith Belbin who invented the test. Even though it’s the test not Meredith who wears the moniker.

Under normal circumstance I would have looked at its grand title then done some eye-rolling and hurried past. Much in the same way as you do when you see the guy wearing the Free Hugs T-shirt. After all, questionnaires are about finding out whether a website can guess my star sign from 10 simple questions. (It can’t.)

The position I was in though meant I couldn’t just ignore the test. I had just started a new job and they’d paid a lot of money for the training and tests. Like all good psychological insights, it was mandatory.

There’s no need to worry about your results

Calm should be the order of the day. Whatever you do, don’t try and over analyse these results. The trainer spent a lot of time going through this. Don’t panic. After all, Belbin is designed to tell you where you fit in a team. There’s no good or bad; right or wrong.

Then again, completer finisher was my lowest score. In fact, when I got my results, I had to check if the score had even bothered to turn up on the sheet.

It was official: I’m not good at finishing things.

There is something upsetting about finding that out. worse still, this was an answer that had come from myself. It’s not like when your friend says ‘the worst thing about you’ and you can just turn off.

This message was from deep within me. Not from the bit that knows how to work the coffee machine and loves Rachel. Or that knows ‘They’re waiting for their table over there‘ is correct.

No, this news had shot from my own unconscious. This wasn’t a proclamation from the loud, flashy king. It was a whisper from the hidden adviser who sits behind the throne and mutters in the king’s ear.

What I couldn’t work out was why this little bit of knowledge stung.

Stop me and ask

After all, I finish lots of things. If anyone wanted to stop me in the street and ask me to list something I’ve finished then I could get straight on that. Not top ten, admittedly. Five from the top? OK, it could take a little bit of thinking, but main three. Not. A. Problem.

Finishing matters. It’s achievement. It’s not glory. That’s winning. Finishing is wiping the sweat from your forehead and standing back to admire what you’ve created. Not finishing is losing.

At the risk of sounding like one of those pretend school teachers that the Daily Mail imagine cancel sports day, even coming last isn’t losing. You got there; you did it. Look behind you: those guy scratching their balls on the sofa. they’re the real losers.

Damn. While I was looking the other way, I accidentally became a motivational poster.  what next: there’s no ‘I’ in team?

I am a finisher. I am, dammit. My top three things I’ve finished are:

  1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  2. Underworld, by Don Delillo
  3. The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

OK, it’s good and bad that my top three are all vast novels. It means I read a lot, which is generally good, but is that really the height of my achievement?

Surely, it’s a curtailed life if it’s achievements lie in consuming things other people have created? Also, it denies the longer list of books I have abandoned before the final page.

Or worse, let’s look through my computer’s hard drive. It’s an unholy rabble of deserted and forgotten writing projects.

Don’t go through my hard drive

I’m begging. Don’t try to read any of the two-page plays: the curtain falls with the pistol still not fired. Here, there’s a folder full of execrable verse. A whole folder full of poems, each of them half built. You can see the rafters and there’s no glass in any of the windows. All those novels that taper down to sketches and bullet points. One of them gets as far as ‘Once upon a time’ before deciding better and leaving the reader to fill in the rest for themselves.

Fine, I think. Thanks Belbin, you’re right. Look at that mountain of things that I’ve left undone. Every single thing just left to wind down, like a faulty clock.

Yes, okay. I get the point. (Part of me was desperate to just leave this denunciation here. Sort of on that bum note, with everything loose threads and out of shape. Like a badly made sweater.)

So, when I read my questionnaire results, I knew what that burn was. It was my own sense of failure, presented in full colour, on graph paper.  Somehow, I’d set myself a task that I was failing at. I couldn’t finish anything other than three books with large page counts.

But looking at the cases where everything fell off isn’t going to change that. That’s just looking at a whole heap of metaphorical ball scratching. You can’t learn anything from that.

Instead, look at the things you have achieved. There are a few finishing lines that I have managed to cross.

And if you’ve crossed them once, you can cross them again without tapering off. Even if it makes you sound like a motivational poster, every now and again.

Written in response to the daily prompt ‘Taper’.

 

Your hair, but louder

Women’s hair products used to be obsessed with volume. Each one boasting about its ever increasing achievements in the field of bulk. No self respecting shampoo would dream of taking a shower with a young lady, unless it could make her hair the size of a barrage balloon. Two barrage balloons; three! Just one wash will make your hair swell to a coiffured grandeur fit for a courtier of Louis XIV.

Thankfully that drive for volume has now shrivelled like a punctured souffle. Instead, modern hair products obsess about the nourishment they offer. As the way people eat has changed, so has the respect that advertisers insist we pay to our hair’s dietary needs.

If you were audacious enough, you could have placed something organic in front of 90s hair. I suspect you would have met with a blank look and the flick of a voluminous lock. No, what 90s hair wanted was quantity. For a small additional sum, you could go large. 90s hair wanted the fat.

Herbal Essence is a brand of shampoo named to associate it with organic, vegetable goodness. In the 90s its main concern was that ‘organics’ sounded almost identical to the word ‘orgasmic’. Adverts for this product had more moaning in them than an acrimonious episode of Points of View.

Natural was not important. Excess was. And shampoo wanted you to know it. It sprayed volume, moaning, hot oil at people, like Caligula for follicles.

Now, shampoo is different. It still makes blonds blonder, brunettes shinier. And now, for a small additional charge, it ‘feeds’ your hair. It is nutritious, natural, nourishing.

Shampoo’s urge to place itself as one of the major food groups is because people now care more about where their food comes from. There are thousands of websites that chatter endlessly about the benefits of eating clean. Lifestyle and food are now linked more closely than ever. A stray opinion on dairy can destroy a lifelong friendship. Therefore, shampoo steps up and steals these same ideas for itself.

OK, shampoo has always led on the idea of ‘clean’ for a long time. In fact any claims that shampoo is a cleaning agent are so asinine that this benefit hardly gets mentioned.

The new vocabulary of health and well-being has come from the new food industry. In reality, fast food chains pay lip service to artisan baked bread and reduced food miles.

Behind their farmers’ market facade hides the industrialisation of the food industry. In just the same way, shampoo is still a brew of detergents and perfumes.  Yet, its colours are contours continue to become smoother and more soothing. Scientists in laboratories around the world are working double shifts to make sure your hair-cleaner look appealing and colourful enough to be served as a wheatgerm smoothie.

Before, shampoo wanted to be big and brash. Now it wants to be delicious. Shampoo wants to answer your primal urges, it wants you to feel sexy, powerful, hungry. Where next, though, spiritual? Wherever you go, don’t worry, shampoo will be there with you.

Written in response to the Daily Post’s volume prompt.

I remember the red mile

It’s a surprise to see him. We’re in DiscountCo. I’m starring at rows of tinned tomatoes, when he wheels his trolley around the corner and our eyes meet. Stacks of tins reach seven, maybe eight feet tall; shelf upon shelf of them. Every tin the size of  a man’s head, with identical pictures printed on their labels: piles of ripe, shiny red tomatoes.

I freeze, but Lafferty is smiling and reaching to shake my hand. He’s still in uniform, looking healthy, neat and pressed. his wife is with him. I am surprised at how young and pretty she is. Her straight, blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, her clothes casual but expensive.

They look happy.  A flare of nausea plumes in my throat, swells then vanishes. I panic: what will I say to him? Lafferty steals the moment, the momentum of our chance meeting. He fills the awkward moment I feel bubbling up and engulfing us with a slap on my shoulder.

How have I been? He turns his big smile on his wife and introduces me. She’s called Celine and her smile is as large as her husband’s. She’s honoured to meet any of Phil’s buddies from the service. She reaches forwards and squeezes my hand in welcome, just as Lafferty had done.

Yes, he’s an instructor now; on good money, working civilian hours, has a house in the country. They’re visiting Celine’s sister; nice to have met me again. He shakes my hand again and then stiffens and salutes me. Sir. He calls me Sir. His salute confuses me. I’m caught off guard and so the one I return to him is tardy and awkward, like a new recruit might deliver.

Then he’s gone and I am left surrounded by the blood red wall of tomatoes. A tower of crimson that reaches above my head, like a red wave ready to crash down on me. Water is pricking at my eyes and I feel absurd, as if I should chase after him and his pretty wife.

His friendly respect must mean something. An ingenious insult, a coded message that only I could decipher. The plainness of his formality full of subtle insolence. I leave my basket of shopping beside that long wall of red and stumble out of the market.

The way he spoke to me, it felt like he was telling me he had forgotten me. Through a force of will, he had screwed up his memory into a wad and just tossed it.

You bastard, Lafferty. I say it out loud and a group of teenagers laugh at me.

I hate you. I hate you because you know I remember. All that old comrades cheerfulness, but still you’re riding me for my failures. Your contempt is as obvious as that flame-lick of scar tissue that leaps from your collar to hairline. Obvious as the two missing fingers on the hand you saluted me with.