TUESDAY 28th SEPTEMBER

 

It is Tuesday afternoon and I have just returned from The Cornerstop Café where, as usual, I had lunch.  Unlike the place to which I go for breakfast, this café is situated on the brow of one of the steepest hills in North London, and on a clear day you can see as far as the West End.  I take the trouble to climb this hill during the week in order to secure a wholesome midday meal, and I mean wholesome.  The food is relatively inexpensive, you get a large helping, the tables are uncluttered (if not always very clean), the service is quick, and you don't have to pay for any luxurious superfluities or superfluous luxuries: facts which, when added together, are sufficiently encouraging to keep me a regular customer.  However, since this place is closed at the weekend, I am obliged to go to the more local café for lunch as well as breakfast two days a week.

     Anyway when, somewhat out-of-breath, I eventually arrived at The Cornerstop Café at about one-thirty today, the place was jam-packed.  Indeed, I had never seen it so full.  At first I considered turning around, taking an extended walk or, preferably, visiting the nearby public library in order to kill time while most of the customers gradually paid up and left.  Just as I was about to opt for the latter solution, however, I caught sight of an empty chair in front of a table at which an old man was laboriously churning some nondescript stuff over and over in his mouth, as though he were a cement mixer.  I could plainly discern some of it sliding around between his teeth.  Nevertheless, without wishing to disturb his ruminations, and scarcely bothering to reflect on the obvious inconvenience of the situation from my point of view, I hastily sat down opposite him and took hold of the menu, as though to balance myself.  I could tell by the peeved expression on the old bastard's haggard face that he wasn't particularly pleased at the prospect of having a young stranger seated opposite him, but I couldn't help that.  After all, one has to sit somewhere and, besides, the sight of his thoroughly masticated food being churned around in his big mouth wasn't the best thing that could have happened to me, either.  Quite the contrary!

     Well, I duly ordered a tea and some shepherds pie with chips from the plump waitress, and then sat there pretending not to notice him; though I must have looked fairly apologetic or self-conscious from his point of view.  However, my attention was soon diverted by a young man at a table to my left who probably entered the café not long before me, since he had just finished his soup and was now speaking in a rather loud and passably middle-class voice which sounded at loggerheads with the generally informal tone of the place.  He was dressed like an office worker, possibly an insurance clerk or estate agent, and his manner of speaking suggested someone both effeminate and moronic.  It apparently didn't occur to him that his loud and ponderous manner of speech was attracting attention from virtually all corners of the café.  Evidently, he was oblivious of everything save his determination to get some message across.  Indeed, the fluffy haired girl, to whom his words appeared to be addressed, was staring incredulously at him whilst he spoke, her mouth hanging open like she hadn't in the least expected his words to be directed at her, even though she was the only other person at his table.  It must have been all she could do to refrain from laughing in his face, the way she was now looking at him.  However, the waitress appeared outwardly calmer as she approached him, bill-pad in hand, with intent to taking his order - a thing to which he didn't initially respond in view of his verbal preoccupations.

     "Er, I think I'll have a steak-and-kidney pie, if you don't mind," he eventually decided.

     "I'm sorry, sir, but we're only doing shepherds pie today - unless you'd prefer fish or a roast?"

     "Oh, I see.  In that case, I'll have shepherds pie, then."

     "With boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, or chips?"

     "Er, boiled potatoes, if you please."

     "Peas or carrots?"  By now it was beginning to sound like an interrogation.

     "Er, peas, I think.  Thank you so much."

     "Tea or coffee?"

     "Oh, yes."

     "Which?"

     "Just a tea, please.  But make it weak."

     "Thank you, sir."

     I am trying my hardest to remain coolly detached and to mind my own business, but he speaks so loudly and slowly that it's virtually impossible.  Noticing the attention of the girl opposite upon him, he suddenly launches into renewed conversation with: "I say, it's just as well that we've had so much rain recently, what with all that horrible drought, isn't it?  I was beginning to lose hope, you know."

     Somewhat to my surprise the fluffy haired female replies: "Yes, it was a bit worrying."

     "Still, we mustn't allow ourselves to become overly complacent about it," he remarks.  "According to the latest weather reports, there's still a serious water shortage throughout the country."

     "Is that a fact?" the girl exclaims with apparent unconcern.

     "Oh yes.  It'll be some time before the normal facilities are completely restored.  In point of fact, the water authorities will have to process all this recent rainwater so that it'll be fit for consumption, won't they?  Otherwise it would taste ghastly and might even do some mischief.... I say, you aren't waiting for the menu by any chance, are you?"

     "No, not at all."

     "Oh good.  I just thought you might be.  I didn't mean to hold on to it like that."

     The girl seems on the point of giggling or blushing, but remains silent.

     "I say, it is busy in here today, isn't it?" he resumes.  "D'you know, I've never seen so many customers in here at the same time before.  Let me see now ... Why, there must be all of thirty people, you know!"

     The waitress suddenly serves me my dinner and tea.  The old man opposite has just finished eating and is now picking his false teeth - for that is what they plainly are - with the grubby index finger of his right hand.  There is a little pile of spat-out gristle on the side of his plate.  Every few seconds, despite the general noise in this far from quiet place, I can hear his guts rumbling, and he belches quite vehemently - evidently in response to the post-prandial exigencies of his digestive system!  Now the old devil is going to roll himself a cigarette.

     I turn back to my dinner but, as can be imagined, I don't really feel too enthusiastic about eating anything.  Besides, I have a painful suspicion that the old devil's eyes are following the progress of my loaded fork out of idle curiosity.  I intensely dislike this suspicion because it usually makes me feel uncomfortably self-conscious, and I can also feel my nerves beginning to shake a bit.  The chances are pretty high that some of the peas will roll off the edge of my fork when next I endeavour to lift it towards my mouth.  I ought to reassure myself by re-entering the whirl of events.  Then I shall at least have the consolation of being an accomplice instead of simply a hapless victim of some potentially cynical appraisal.

     Sure enough, he was watching me!  For his reflexes were predictably slow, his eyes remaining fixed on my fork for a second or two.

     "Excuse me, d'you think I might borrow your saltcellar for a moment?  There doesn't happen to be one on my table."

     "Sure, go ahead," I respond, scarcely bothering to look-up from my dinner.

     The young man reaches across the table and, as a bony hand clasps the saltcellar, I can distinctly smell some sweetish aftershave lotion from his face and neck.

     "Thank you so much.  I won't be a minute!"

     Good God, what's he getting all apologetic about?  Anyone would think I was doing him an immense favour!

     The fluffy haired girl opposite him throws me a conspiratorial glance, the implication of which is clearly derogatory, but I don't commit myself to a response of any kind, primarily because I am too busy thinking about my generosity.  Also I can see out of the corner of my left eye that he is virtually swamping his dinner with salt.  He shakes the saltcellar much too vigorously, it seems to me, though its hole might well have become partially blocked.  Now he is coming back again.

     "There you are."  He repositions the saltcellar with the utmost care, as though afraid it might break or that something might get knocked over in the process, and then, noticing the pepper pot, says: "Sorry to be such a nuisance again, but d'you think I might borrow the pepper as well?"

     This time I say nothing, since it seems unnecessary to answer such a question, particularly in view of the fact that the pepper pot doesn't belong to me personally and I am hardly in a position to refuse him,  even if he wasn't already in a position to take it.  Once more I get a whiff of aftershave lotion from him which mingles violently with the savoury smell of my shepherds pie and the acrid aroma of the old man's tobacco.  Looking up, I notice that the young man, on reaching his table, gives the pepper pot almost as vigorous a shaking as the saltcellar, but for what reason I can't fathom, since there appears to be no obstacle in the way of the pepper as it cascades down upon his shepherds pie in cloud-like prodigality, a prodigality which has the not-entirely-unpredictable effect of causing him to sneeze, and to sneeze so vehemently that a large globule of snot shoots out from one of his nostrils and lands smack in the middle of his dinner.  I abruptly look away in disgust.  This really is the limit!

     But I'm not saved from my disgust, however, because the old man has just started coughing, probably on account of his evil-smelling cigarette, and without having the decency or presence of mind to cover his mouth, so that I can plainly see his false teeth joggling about.

     "There's your pepper back.  I shan't be needing anything else.  Thank you so much."

     The girl throws me another conspiratorial glance, the sort of glance I had been half-fearing she might throw, but this time its derogatory implication is so brazenly unequivocal that it completely ignites me and I burst-out laughing to myself without the least compunction.  I laugh so loud, long, and convulsively that I am more afraid of choking and possibly throwing-up my dinner than of disturbing anybody else.  I get the impression that everybody is now staring at me, in any case, but it doesn't bother me in the slightest; in fact, it only serves to rekindle my amusement.  For all they knew, I might be about to do a dance on the table or to verbally insult them all.  Indeed, my amusement changes up a gear, with this further consideration, into a wonderful gutsy laughter that completely obliterates everything, the sort of humorously cathartic experience I haven't had in years, which seems to release all my pent-up emotion, all the repressed humour of my lonely existence.  Then, all of a sudden, without my in the least willing it, the convulsions cease and I quickly calm down again, remorsefully recollective of the fact that I was only laughing at some trivial incident sparked off by a half-wit to my left.

     For a moment I feel almost penitential; I should like to apologize to someone - possibly the target of my outburst.  But, strangely enough, there doesn't appear to be anyone I could directly apologize to, since all the nearest customers, with the notable exception of the old man, have resumed their eating or talking as though nothing had happened.  Even the pompous poofter to my left is now shovelling what I can only presume to be snot-coated shepherd’s pie into his big wide mouth without the slightest sign of embarrassment.  Being the kind of prat he is, he probably hasn't realized why I was laughing.  Unlike the fluffy haired bitch opposite him who, despite the slightly flushed look on her face, has returned to something approximating civility.  The old man has stopped coughing and is now observing me with a resentfully stubborn expression.  He probably imagines I was laughing at him, the old bugger!  Well, what of it?  Isn't that a good enough reason to laugh?

     I stop eating for a moment and observe him with a sort of detached amazement.  There is some damp tobacco on his protruding lower lip and also on his double chin.  His face is a mass of lines, of deep wrinkles which run in every direction, reminiscent in a way of my Grateful Dead brochure, whilst his hairy nostrils project upwards in an unabashedly retroussé nose.  There isn't much hair on top of his head, but what little he still possesses is of a distinctly greasy texture, streaked with bits of off-yellow that blend-in with the preponderating greyness in a way strongly suggestive of a compost heap.  His ears are big and lumpy, as is his nose.  His eyes, diminished by two incredibly thick lenses which must weigh a ton, appear dull and lifeless - virtually dead.  In fact, they look more like the eyes of a fish than of a man and are also slightly bloodshot, with an appearance of instability in their sockets; one gets the impression that he blinks to keep them in place or perhaps even to stop them from tumbling out.

     Since I don't wish to continue my observation of his ugly features, nor to run the risk of having to enter into conversation with him, I look away in some disgust and address the puddle of tea which has slowly formed in my saucer.  I have more or less finished eating without really having enjoyed anything.  It was a wonder to me that I didn't throw up.  But this ugly old fart who now wears a vacant expression on his face, as though he had withdrawn from the world into a private chamber of the mind which is closer to death than to life, has started me thinking along other lines, and I am wondering whether I wasn't correct in my assessment of old people the other day, after all. 

     As far as I can now recall, it began when I visited the local grocer's and noticed a hideous-looking old crone seated near the till and talking to the man behind it.  I had noticed her there on several previous occasions, always seated in the same place and either talking to the grocer or to herself if he was busy, but I hadn't paid her much attention, probably because she seemed so perfectly ordinary and unassuming.  On the occasion I'm thinking of, however, I could tell that the grocer - ordinarily an extremely polite man - was at some pains to remain patient with her, that her presence and continuous chatter had become an oppressive burden on him, and that he would have preferred to be left in peace to serve his other customers, including me.  So when, in a pretence of listening to what she was saying, I took a good look at her, I perceived that she wasn't as innocuous-looking as I had previously imagined.  On the contrary, she seemed positively wicked, in fact so conspicuously wicked that, had she been wearing a high conical hat and holding a broomstick instead of a walking stick, you would have had no difficulty in taking her for a witch.

     Well, that was what started me thinking more seriously about old people in general and, if I'm not sadly mistaken, this enfeebled specimen of organic degeneration in front of me has corroborated my suspicions.  Admittedly, what can be seen on the outside isn't nearly enough; there is much more to him than meets the eye!  But I know for a fact that this man is decadence personified.  He has fallen so low that it would be virtually impossible for a young person like me to ascertain the true extent of his decadence.  In order to get anywhere near a realistic assessment of his condition, it would be necessary to examine the workings and/or not-workings of his mind as well as his body, to plumb the depths of his subconscious in search of buried material - for instance, remnants of former selves.  Needless to say, we are unlikely to achieve very much in that regard.  But we can at least hazard an intelligent guess as to the efficacy of his cunning and perseverance in dealing with the many problems, frustrations, shortcomings, etc., which life has hitherto afflicted upon him, a guess which might indicate that his lengthy existence on earth has taught him as many dodges as he needs to know in order to survive, and that his experience in dealing with people has often obliged him to be shamelessly wicked, ruthless, immoral, treacherous, cantankerous, callous, deceitful, and a hundred-and-one other disagreeable things to boot, so that, through force of habit, he has become quite an adept in dealing with the manifold demands of life.

     Indeed, the older one becomes the further into sin one plunges, ever deeper and deeper, as Hermann Hesse puts it, into life until, as an enfeebled old sod, one is compelled to pay one's dues, as it were, and one's ultimate moral and physical dissolution is wholly justified.  From a tot reared on Jack and Jill to a sot besotted with Ulysses or Tropic of Cancer to a dot who doesn't read at all ... is just a matter of time.  As the personification of innocence, a baby is generally worshipped by its parents, especially its mother, whereas an elderly person, say, a grandparent, receives no worship at all.  In fact, he/she is hardly even noticed!

     Of course, if you were to put a fresh young sunflower beside a wilted old sunflower, one approaching its demise, you would see clearly enough that the former was superior to the latter, since it was healthy rather than sick, decadent, or an eyesore.  There could be absolutely no doubt in your mind concerning the relative merits of the two sunflowers - not, that is, unless you were stupid or blind or, worse still, possessed by a mad belief in the existence of a sunflower afterlife.  For, whatever the analogue you choose to adopt in this context, you come back to the same conclusion every time: once one has passed one's prime, one effectively becomes a second-class citizen.  One takes a back seat in life, and whether or not he likes it, whether or not he realizes it, this old creature chewing strands of stale tobacco and staring fixedly at the blatantly unattractive legs of the chubby waitress, is inferior to me in almost every respect.  He is wrinkled, short-sighted, thick-eared, double-chinned, stunted, hunchbacked, pot-bellied, bronchial, grey-haired, bald-headed, flabby-skinned, smelly, uncouth, toothless (despite or perhaps because of his false teeth), feebleminded, forgetful, vulgar, and a lot of other unfortunate things which I can't ascertain simply from being seated at the same table.  But, in the event of an argument on this matter, he will doubtless turn accusative, maintain that old age is wiser than youth, disagree with me on as many issues as he can, condemn my attitude to old people, remind me of 'the good old days', and, to cap it all, intimate that his experiences in life have earned him considerable influence, in consequence of which he has a right to be consulted on matters of importance, to have the final word on things - even to be venerated for his wisdom.  To wit, he will even go so far as to inform me that a wilted sunflower is inherently superior to a fresh one!  He will conjure up every conceivable ruse that he can think of to daunt me, to dissuade me from exposing him and putting my finger on the painfully unchristian truth.  Maybe at this very moment his mind is full of memories, erotic or otherwise, and the older he gets the more important these memories become, the more they remind him of what he used to be, of what he could do about forty years ago, before the torments of a decaying body affected his mind and persecuted his soul.  At times he is little more than a walking dream, and those are comparatively fortunate times!

     I stoically and perhaps even rudely undertake another penetrating observation of him, but I don't encounter anything new.  One would think he was wearing a death mask, to judge by the lifeless expression on his face at present.  There is hardly anything about it which would fail to suggest that the seeds of death aren't already sprouting from his pores and slowly draining the life out of him.  Admittedly, it's not really his fault if he looks so abominably cadaverous; that was bound to happen eventually.  But, all the same, he is a fact, a walking fact, and the least society can do for such people is to treat them with a certain amount of civility, to ensure, as far as possible, that they're not suffering overmuch, and to guarantee the majority of them that when they die, other routes to salvation being blocked, their corpses will be destroyed in a time-saving, money-saving, space-saving, work-saving, health-saving, and superstition-saving manner, freed from the traditional obligation of organically continuing the vicious life-cycle by indirectly breeding millions of superfluous, pestilential vermin, as what passes for heaven degenerates into hell!

     No, I don't hate this old man.  But I am nowhere near admiring him, either.  He simply leaves me cold.  Time is steadily rotting him away; he will soon cease to exist.  If, by any chance, he happens to be buried, he will eventually be metamorphosed into a seething mass of worms and maggots.  The worms will burrow into his entrails, his molecular structure will slowly disintegrate, and the air above his grave will become permeated with the sickly odour of death and decay.  Once the life has gone from his body, it will be too late for him to consider moral reparations.  He will be completely submerged in a bath of icy darkness from which there is no escape.  He won't even have time to regret that he had often been duped by certain things or people whilst alive.  Regret, like remorse, is a privilege of the living!

     But let us just suppose, for the sake of argument, that a priest has blessed him and sped him on his way to Heaven, encouraging him to have faith in God when, after a life of unmitigated profligacy, profanity, indifference, and ignorance, he had just received the Last Sacraments and thereupon made his peace with the Church.  Our old man is granted a good conscience through having been absolved from his earthly iniquities and formally prepared for the inevitable meeting with his Maker.  At the very worst he need only fear a short stay in Purgatory, while St Peter's angels deal with his moral particulars.  For when he's finally admitted to Heaven, he will wallow in everlasting peace and be permitted, so the priest benignly informs him, to converse with as many former great men as he pleases or, if he prefers (since to judge by the old man's blank expression there is no way that intellectual conversation could possibly appeal to someone of his type), follow any number of beautiful maidens to their resting places, where they will subsequently please him to his heart's content, etc.

     To be sure, the priest may soon divine, after a short sermon of this seductive import, that, in his impatience to cross into a better world, the old man can't die quickly enough.  Perhaps, who knows?  But all his hopes will be to no avail when he eventually stops breathing and is absolutely powerless to determine whether he is in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory simply because there will be no consciousness of anything.

     Now if, by some remote chance, he were to return from the dead just as he was being buried, before the first spadeful of earth had thumped against the coffin lid, before the mourners (assuming there were any) had finished mourning or pretending to mourn, and immediately began pounding on the coffin, to be quickly hauled back to the surface and rescued from suffocation, he would probably wonder what-the-devil was going on, why-on-earth they had buried him when his heart was still functioning normally and he had only a short while before received divine absolution.  Yet if, to crown it all, the godly flock of mourners then proceeded to question him about life after death, he would more than likely stare at them incredulously, as though they were idiots or lunatics to expect him to know anything about such a thing when he hadn't gone anywhere.  What was time when you were dead?  Could he seriously be expected to even know that he had died?  He certainly hadn't been asleep, at any rate.  For when you sleep the mind is still alive, blood is being pumped around the body, you almost invariably dream of something and retain, in consequence, a vague notion of time or, more specifically, of the sequence of events within the dream.  But he couldn't remember anything.  There had been no dreams because, assuming he had in fact died, no blood was being pumped around the body to keep the mind alive.  You can't dream with a dead mind.  Therefore, as far as he was concerned, nothing had happened.  One moment he was whispering penitentially in the priest's ear, the next moment he was pounding on the coffin lid from the wrong side of the grave.  There had been no transition.

     "What?" the priest cries out, in horrified amazement.  "You weren't taken to meet our Heavenly Father by one of His angels?"

     "No," the old man replies, dumbfounded.  "I didn't go anywhere."

     For a moment the priest is nonplussed.  "Oh, my God!" he groans and, speedily recovering some composure, turns to the flabbergasted mourners by the grave and screams: "This man has been dead almost a week and his soul hasn't gone anywhere!"  There is an ominous pause before he continues conclusively: "That can only mean one thing.  This man is a child of Satan!"  And immediately, before the old man can say anything, before he can even attempt to climb out of his coffin and defend himself, the priest grabs the spade and begins furiously beating him over the head in an attempt to return him to the everlasting sleep from which he had so unexpectedly awoken, as though from a nightmare.

     Suddenly I come-to with a shuddering start!  I haven't gone anywhere, either.  The old man is still opposite me and the loudmouthed moron is still to my left.  The waitress is staring at me with suspicious eyes, as though to reprove me for having withdrawn into myself at her expense.  There is quite a hubbub throughout the rest of the café.  Indeed, you would never think, listening to it, that people could possibly be communicating with and understanding one another.  It is much too uproarious to be intelligible.  Anyway, for the time being, I have no further business here.  I need only pay the bill.

     Just as I get up from my chair I become unpleasantly conscious of the fact that someone, presumably the old man, has farted.  A rising quantity of rectal gas lodges in my nostrils and sharply disgusts me.  It must have been a very soft fart because, irrespective of the general hubbub, I didn't hear anything.  But whilst I am pushing my chair in, I can distinctly hear a loud one followed, almost immediately afterwards, by a barrage of softer ones which explode in quick succession.  A mature woman seated behind him has turned around and is now regarding him with unmitigated disdain.  She has evidently found him guilty of a serious breech of propriety!  He should have done his best to hold on to his post-prandial flatulence until he got outside, the dirty brute, or at least have allowed her to finish her meal!  Not knowing of the woman's proximity, however, the old man appears completely unconcerned about this minor metaphysical indiscretion, which he probably didn't hear or smell in any case, and continues chewing his tobacco as though nothing had happened.  A privilege of the senile, after all!

     While the plump waitress reads my bill, I take a final look at the over-polite moron with the loud voice.  He has finished his shepherd’s pie, presumably snot and all, and is now scrutinizing the menu with intent, I suppose, to selecting a dessert.  The girl nearby still appears to be staring at him, though from where I stand I can't see the expression on her face.  For all I know she is probably laughing at him under her breath - either that or holding her nose because of the old man.  As they say, one good meal a day is quite enough!

 

 

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