Cold comfort

3 August 2006

On the hottest day of the recent heat wave, I was talking on the phone to a woman who was impassioned about my ‘upgrading’ to a better one. I was looking out of the window, waiting for her to pause for long enough for me to say no thanks, when I saw a lorry pull up in the road outside. Two chaps — one fat, one thin —clambered down from the cab, went round the back, pulled down the tailgate and unloaded what looked like the new fridge-freezer we’d ordered. At last — it had come! 

The thin one did all the heavy lifting; the fat one merely stood and pressed the button that sent the hydraulic tailgate up and down. Then the doorbell rang and I went to answer it with the phone still clamped to my ear. It was the thin one checking that they had the right house.

On learning that it was, he turned round and gave the fat one the thumbs up. The fat one made no move towards the fridge-freezer parked on the sack truck beside him. He just stood there perspiring and looking unhappy. The thin one then returned to the lorry, tipped the sack truck back on its wheels and steered the fridge-freezer across the road, through the conservatory and hall and into the kitchen. The fat one followed him in, wiping his head with a handkerchief.

Close up, the fat one was so big it was alarming. He had a shaved head and piggy eyes and great fat face. A massive beer gut was straining the material of his England shirt and the calves showing from under his three-quarter-length shorts were as big as my thighs. His forehead and the space above his upper lip were beaded with sweat and with each laboured breath  catarrh bubbled audibly in his lungs. 

The thin bloke asked me whether I wanted the bubble wrap taking off. The woman on the other end of the phone said, ‘Mr Clarke, I have it in front of me. And I am telling you, Mr Clarke, that this Nokia is without a shadow of a doubt the most beautiful phone I have ever seen.’ Then my mum, fully rigged, all sails billowing, breezed in to take charge of the delivery. 

She’s been looking forward to this day ever since she ordered it a week ago. But the sheer size of this delivery man took the wind right out of her sails. ‘My goodness!’ she gasped. ‘You’re a big chap!’ But the whole of his body, soul and mind was concentrated on getting his breath back and recovering his equilibrium and he didn’t even look at her, let alone respond.

The thin one sliced the bubble wrap away. As he did so, a substantial dent to the fridge door was revealed and my mum went into shock. But the thin one was unmoved. It was absolutely nothing to worry about, he assured her. Happens all the time. Ring this number, he said, and the company will have a man out to us with a new door in a couple of days. They won’t bat an eyelid, he said. They’d probably be more surprised if it wasn’t damaged, he said.

We looked at the fat one. Would his body language corroborate his colleague’s assertions? But he was still too discomposed to contribute, even tangentially. ‘Are you all right?’ said my Mum, suddenly anxious. The thin one said, ‘Don’t worry about him. He’s in love. You’re a lovelorn luby, aren’t you, Tom?’

‘In love!’ scoffed my mum, who, as a Christian with fundamentalist leanings, doesn’t always treat other people with the automatic reverence society insists is their due simply because they are human beings. ‘Off his grub and everything,’ said the thin one. ‘You are actually looking at a man who is wasting away. And look at him — pregnant already!’

We all three of us stood there looking at him as if we were a trio of vets standing round a distressed cow that had been bitten by an adder. What a horrible thing to have happened. It happened to me once. I followed Cupid’s Jack-a-lantern and found myself in the quagmire. My mind went completely. It was like enduring a crippling psychotic illness and it took years of tentative advances and unexpected relapses before I found myself strong enough and well enough to pronounce myself whole again. 

‘So what do you think, Mr Clarke?’ said the woman trying to sell me the phone.  She’d done her spiel and now she was punching the collect button. ‘What do I think?’ I said. ‘I think it’s a crying shame.’ And I ended the call and made the boys a drink.

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