Garlic Bread

Fri, 22/09/2006 - 9:39pm
I was chuntering on about something the other day; and Mrs Red was humouring me as usual. She is used to listening to my regular list of rants. Loan adverts, loud music in shops and restaurants, junk mail, un-openable food wrapping, Doctor’s receptionists, ‘new’ jeans that are more expensive because they are already almost worn out, etc, etc.

“You know,” she said, “somehow, you’ve gone from angry young man to grumpy old man, I wonder when that happened?”

This got me thinking. The truth is, I never really was an angry young man. Sure, like most adolescents I used to put on an act. I would walk down the street with what I thought was a menacing ‘Don’t mess with me’ swagger, occasionally bumping into lamp posts or falling into shrubbery as I watched myself in shop windows.

I practiced my best Clint Eastwood moody stare in the wardrobe mirror; sometimes I would even utter a curt monosyllabic reply to an imaginary question from some nubile, non-existent beauty. I gave this up after my dad, whom I hadn’t noticed standing behind me, asked me why I was calling myself ‘sweetheart’.
I hung around street corners with others of my age, slouching, kicking my toe against the pavement and sighing, sneering at conventional wisdom, and vowing to put the world to rights.

Although I worked hard at my ‘angry young man’ image, in reality I was much too interested in the world around me to be angry about anything.

I would never have admitted it to my friends, but people, even old people, secretly fascinated me. Take the milkman for instance. He was so old and so slow that it took him almost a whole morning to deliver the milk for one short street. He pushed an ancient wooden barrow with iron wheels, and whatever the weather, in blazing sun or icy rain, he was there, always dressed the same, Wellingtons with the tops rolled down, and a long tatty overcoat. He shuffled from house to house, each one taking about 10 minutes. He spent so much time on that street, that no one even noticed him anymore, but I did, and I had a burning desire to know more about him.

Eventually I did hear his story. I was walking through the market one day and I saw him sitting at a table in one of those small snack bars that markets have in the indoor part. He was propped in a corner, wellington’ed feet tucked under his chair, and although it was quite warm, his overcoat was pulled tight about him.

He was drinking tea from a paper cup that he gripped with a claw-like, leathery hand. He sat, totally motionless, save for his tiny, bright blue eyes, which darted around constantly.

I went inside and bought myself a cup of tea. Although there were empty tables, I went and sat at his, as we drank, we regarded each other in silence.

He finished his tea and got up to leave. “I’m going to have another,” I said quickly, “would you like one?”
He hesitated for a moment, and then he sat back down. “You’re the milk man aren’t you?” I asked, “Aye,” he replied.

It turned out that he had delivered milk to the houses in that street all his life. He had accompanied his father almost before he could walk, sitting on a blanket with the milk churns on a horse-drawn dray, watching his dad fill assorted containers held by penny wielding housewives. During his schooldays, he had risen before dawn to harness the horse while waiting for the freshly drawn milk to emerge from the cooler.  He even delivered the milk on the morning of his father’s funeral.

At some point, a major dairy had set up in competition. Slowly but surely, they took over his round with their sleeker, faster, cheaper service.
One small street however, refused the advances of the big company. Every last housewife stood fast. His eyes glittered an even brighter blue as he told me what his customers had said. “E’s bin bringin t’ milk since afore we was born, we’ll stick wi’ im, an that’s that!” And they did!

In return for their loyalty, he continued to deliver the milk long long after he should have retired. Spending half a day doing a job that a younger man could have done in half an hour. Many would say he was foolish, that he could live out the rest of his days in his easy chair in front of the fire. But this was his life, and had been for as long as he could remember. He wasn’t ready to give in yet, and sitting there across from him, I understood, what’s more, I admired him for it.

I recalled this story while I was sitting in the café in Hinckley market the other day, and I thought to myself, ‘Perhaps if being an angry young man was all an act, maybe being a grumpy old man is just an act too’. I ruminated about this as I ate my fish and peas while trying to decide whether the girl who had just walked in wearing a knitted dress was naked underneath. She looked like she was, the dress consisted of a collection of holes, held together by bits of string, but infuriatingly, my eyes were not quite good enough to see through it in the dim light.

Was I really a grumpy old man? I had pretended to be grumpy when the girl who served my fish and peas asked me, “Do you want a small fish, or a large fish?”  “I’ll have a large fish please.” “You will have to wait 10 minutes,” she said. “In that case, I’ll have an ordinary sized fish,” I told her. “You mean small?” she asked. “Yes,” I sighed, “I mean small”

On the outside, I must have looked like a grumpy old man, but on the inside, I was laughing my socks off.

When the girl with the dress left, I left too, moving close behind her as she stepped out into the bright sunlight. I looked at that dress from every possible angle. Peering closely at it from behind and from both sides. I even hurried ahead and pretended to look in a shop window so that I could look from the front; eventually I gave up, still undecided.

I made my way back to where I had parked my bike, and sat on a bench for a few moments wondering if one day, someone would become curious enough about my life to buy me a cup of tea, and listen to my story.

Just then, someone standing behind me whispered something in my ear. It was a female voice, sexy and sultry, the kind that makes a vicar want to kick a hole in a stained glass window. I spun around, and saw the girl in the dress walking slowly away. She must have rumbled my little effort at detective work. She had whispered, “Pink underwear”.

(Ok, so I made the bit about the whispering up, but it could have happened)

I didn’t make a very good job of being an angry young man, and I’m failing miserably at being a grumpy old man. Although she shakes her head and tut tuts in all the right places, I suspect Mrs Red can see right through me. She listens to me with a solemn expression, but when she turns away, I can see from her reflection in the window that she is laughing at me.

Being a grumpy old man is a tough gig, too many little things in life amuse me, I am determined to keep on practicing though, I’ll get it right sooner or later.