I was gratified by the volume of feedback received after the recent post titled ‘Plate‘. I had not realised that my account of the serendipitous purchase of a green towel in as-new condition would strike a chord with so many readers of ‘Strength Weekly’, an online entity. It is true that towels are comforting and also of great use. Were they sentient, they would know us intimately and be repositories of our secrets.
I was sitting in a café reading A Certain Tendency in Hollywood Cinema 1930-80 by Robert Ray and from time to time I would glance up to think. It was a sunny afternoon and the café was open to the street. Immediately in front of me sat two women and a little boy. The women were talking to the boy and he would say things to them. I realised after a while that the boy was deaf and that the women were mouthing their speech to him without speaking out loud. I continued reading. When Ray said that most American films followed themes first established in westerns I looked up to think again. A man at a table next to the women and child had been greeted by another man. The man standing in the street talked animatedly to his seated friend. Despite being perhaps six feet away from them I realised I could not hear what they were saying. Clearly these two were also deaf. I wondered what it was about the café that attracted members of the deaf community. Ray said that the classic objective of the western, and many western-like films, was to demonstrate how the individual could preserve his individualism at the same time as acting for the good of the community. But as I raised my head again I was seized by the irrational thought that I had myself become deaf and I swung my head round to scan the clientele inside the café. Their hubbub was exactly what would be expected moreover none of the patrons appeared to be deaf. I turned back to the deaf people ranged before me. Then I noticed a certain play of the light in the sky. It was an effect of the very clean plate glass window fitted between my table and the tables in the street. Very very clean.
At the party later the hosts had a beautiful swimming pool in their garden. As it was a warm evening they had pulled open the big glass doors of the sitting room, effectively removing one wall of the space. One could walk across the flagstones onto the patio, which was similarly paved. Carrying a glass of prosecco, I made my way to the buffet laid out beside the pool. As I pressed past some of the guests I became aware that my right foot was wet. Within a moment my left foot was wet. Now things were happening at great speed, particularly within my nervous system. I was standing in the pool and there was not a moment to be lost. And then, on the tail of that moment, I found myself on dry land, still clutching my prosecco. My shoes and socks were soaked but the darkness only reached an inch up my trouser legs. I didn’t really mind. The warmth of my feet would dry everything out. My host asked if I was all right. I reassured him. I realised I had contacted my inner Christ. This, for an atheist fundamentalist such as myself, is no small beer. I had walked on water. My body, loath to become sodden, had, if only for a trice, overcome conventional physics. In my mind, hopefully not in a patronising way, I complimented my body.
A few minutes later, by which time the poolside had become crowded with guests loading plates, a woman in high heels, carrying a plate of various salads, cried out. She was sinking quite fast into the pool. Lacking, I supposed, my own fortunate if unlikely inner supernatural resources and not helped by her heels, she was already calf deep. A man leaned over and extended his arm. As she leaned over and extended her arm, they made contact, the effect of which was to tip the woman onto her side, after which she sank, if only momentarily, completely beneath the surface. The man at the poolside somehow had her salad but he also had her arm. My hostess took the woman, whose mood was gamely upbeat, upstairs where they discovered that they had sizes in common, including shoes, both pairs of which, the doused and the dry, it happily transpired, were in the style called nude. The woman towelled herself down and returned to the patio looking perfectly smart.
In a documentary film the other night about the war time codebreakers of Bletchley a woman takes a strip of paper and licks it in order to stick it in a logbook of some sort. I was surprised to note that I was shocked by this image. In my time I have licked a quantity of envelopes, many stamps and, in the years before adhesive tape, length after length of brown gummed paper, known to we children of Austerity 1.0 as brown sticky paper. The white heat of subsequent adhesives technology has, of course, taken us all beyond the need to use our tongues to facilitate the adhesion of, say, paper and package. So common was such licking in my youth that I would often consider and sometimes practise the licking of unsuitable materials. I licked metals and woods, the latter sometimes still attached to trees or shrubbery. Often the tastes would make me smile in a way that was quite unconnected to pleasure, rather it was what my face muscles did in reaction to the chemical assault.
I had a cousin, cousin Gareth, from the Welsh side. He wasn’t actually my cousin but some relation or other. Gareth told me not to eat soap. He was staying with us for a day or two and came into the bathroom as I was conducting a curious experiment. This involved licking a bar of soap in order to see whether I could bear the taste, which I could not bear. I had been carrying out tests for a number of days: just one lick followed by noisy gagging. Gareth’s words were “David, you know you shouldn’t do that.” I can’t remember if I thought he thought I was mad. Is it possible for someone to be that imperturbable? Perhaps Gareth had licked soap in his youth and knew that it was just a phase.
At the time I couldn’t not lick the soap. I wanted to not lick it and I also wanted to not feel that I must lick it. If I didn’t know what licking it would be like – which is an unlikelihood – then after the first lick I very much knew. But I went on licking. I think I may have been testing the limits of my manhood. This suggests that my idea of a man was one who can regularly survive the introduction to his body of vileness. Given the manhood models available even back then, my gagging was entirely inappropriate. Kirk Douglas, for example, would slide the bar into his mouth and routinely bite the end off. He would then munch the chunk and swallow the slippery surfactant without the trace of a grimace, let alone a convulsion. A few years later, Clint Eastwood would do much the same – Clint would not be copying Kirk, he would simply punish personal feeblenesses as they arose on the trail by passing his tongue across a red bar crudely hewn from a larger slab kept in a cool place in the shadows of the ranch house. So thorough was his application of the unbalm that weakness would flicker only briefly at the periphery of his consciousness before guttering then expiring.
But when the woman from Bletchley licked the paper strip I thought not of manhood but infection. And not even in a sensible way, where because you don’t know where it’s been the paper gives you germs. Everything gives you germs, of course, but they are usually harmless. I thought ‘She will give germs to the paper.’ This is clearly nuts. But I understand it. In my mind, for which I take only partial responsibility, we have all become infectious because we do not lick enough inappropriate surfaces. This starts to sound less nuts when one considers the importance of reinforcing the immune system – in our infancy, at least – by exposing ourselves – usually inadvertently – to a wide range of pathogens. I must confess, however, that in a part of my mind that is, let’s face it, primitive, we have all become toxic. To a point where paper should give us a wide berth. It would be odd to suggest that we should get back to more catholic licking styles but it wouldn’t hurt, I think, if they showed, for example, more stamp licking on television. The under 20s would have to have the practice explained to them but it would serve to compensate for the only partially conscious realisation that in an unrelentingly consumerist society our mouths have become obsolete insofar as the goods now consume us. We should cultivate passivity in order that we do not contaminate those goods.
In another Oxfam I was poking about when it occurred to me that if I was ever to obtain a non-Swedish language edition of Stephen King’s ‘11.22.63’ (see ‘Plate‘) it would help to be confident of the category under which it might be shelved. My snobbisme told me that it wouldn’t be under ‘Fiction’ because that means Not Genre. (Many critics feel that Non-Genre Fiction cannot be held to be a genre. How could it be? they say.) As for Genre, it could not be Horror, the writer’s most widely employed category, nor was it Fantasy because that usually denotes a casual attitude to the laws of physics. As a time travel and alternative universe story it would count as Science Fiction, the only other genre category besides Thrillers to earn shelf space in this particular Oxfam. As I mused on these rather uninvigorating matters I spotted some fat books lying on their sides. ‘I wonder…” I wondered. Yes. There it was. These things only happen when you’re ready for them. Rubbish.
The jovial man with glasses who runs the till was pulling a big box on a trolley towards the back. I said ‘Nice box.’ He said ‘I bet you say that to everyone’. Yes, I know. But he did say it.
On a stool a woman gazed out of the window in the café further down the road. They had opened the window because it was warm. You could hear the traffic outside. She was just gazing and I was just looking.
She leaned forward and took the leaf of the pot plant between her finger and thumb and rubbed it. Then she grasped the stem and brusquely bent it towards her. When she released it it sprang away from her. It was too good to be true or not true enough to be any good. That this was clear to her was clear, even across a crowded room.
Next door was the shop which, it seems, will often be there and in it the box in which was the lovely blue towel that I seized and purchased. Now I had two, not including the ones I already had anyway, from other occasions.
I took it home and felt that I should raise it to my face in order to report on it for Strength Weekly, an enduring journal and platform. As if having washed I lifted it to my face and pressed it so that the light dimmed. In that darkness my eyes were closed anyway but did not, I suppose, have to be. I waited for sensations to do with the loop, softness and absorbency but instead there came pieces of thought and flashes of pictures, racing feelings as if glimpsed from a train window, voices some of which sounded like me others not