We each have distinct achievements of which we are proud and which set us apart from the common mass of ordinary mortals; one of my friends, for instance, is proudest of the fact that he has never been a passenger on a bus. ‘But it’s great!’ I explained to him; ‘You see all kinds of people and hear all sorts of weird stories.’ And I recalled an episode which occurred a few months earlier, when I was travelling from Irlam to Manchester on the number 67.
I was gazing out of the window, and so didn’t notice the two women who had sat down behind me. After a few seconds, I became aware of the conversation which had apparently been resumed after a pause.
“Well” said one “He came home after his first term. I asked him, I said you know, son, well, I said are you courting yet? And he just laughed and said no, not really, but she’s coming over tomorrow if that’s okay. And I said, well what’s she doing tonight, and he said dunno. Dunno! I mean, my Trevor would never let me dunno with anybody once we were stepping out.”
“What were she like then, this girlfriend?” asked the other. The first woman gave a hiss. “Well, she seemed okay at first, very pleasant and polite and all that. So I asks if she wanted something to eat, and she said yes, that would be lovely, but of course she won’t eat meat – that’s the exact phrase she used, ‘I won’t eat meat’ – so of course we had to go down Morrison’s and get some of them Quorn Goujons or whatever. And then she pulls out a small make-up bag at the table and produces her own knife and fork.”
“She did what? Cheeky cow! I’d have told her to go down to McDonalds and buy her own dinner and eat it there!”
“Well” continued the first woman, “I were a bit annoyed and asked if owt were the matter. And she looks at Paul and he’s just so obviously in love with her, cos she’s right pretty and she had a lovely skirt on – and he said that Cleo – that’s her name, can you believe it, Cleopatra – and she says that there are significant amounts of microbial flora present on clean cutlery and she had a very delicate system as a child and the doctor advised her to avoid using any cutlery that had been handled by infidels.”
“Infidels!” exclaimed the second woman, “You never told me she were Muslim!”
“No, no she isn’t, but her family belongs to some obscure American church. Very rich, apparently. They have to locate a partner using careful genetic trials, to make sure the offspring have the best chance of survival when the next coming takes place. The pair of them sat me down and gave me right lecture about how important it all was. Paul is completely smitten with her. They reckon that eighty-three percent of people in the UK are unworthy – they call us infidels – and they have a duty to track down the decent specimens and secure them for the next coming.”
“And is Paul allowed to use ordinary cutlery? Or does he have a special collection as well?”
The first woman made some vague response to this, and then suddenly began her narrative again. “But the oddest thing was bedtime. I said there were clean towels in the airing cupboard, and she said oh, that’s alright, I brought my own – “
“I suppose she can’t allow her body to be contaminated with infidel fluffy fibres.”
“More or less, yeah, She said there were special coloured towels in her church, some for your arms and legs, and others for just doing – “ and here she fell silent, and I could imagine her behind me performing an agitated mouthing and eye-rolling routine, much like a scandalised Les Dawson in drag.
This revelation – or concealment – prompted a muted ‘Oooh!’ from both of them, followed by a brief silence. Then the second woman piped up “Did I tell you our Joe had an interview the other day?”
“No, what was that for then? I didn’t know he was out of work.”
“Oh, he lost his job a few weeks back. Anyway, he was offered an interview at that place down the estate – they do paint thinners or something. Univar, that’s it. He turned up at the factory gates, as instructed by the agency – god knows why they bother with all these agencies, they’re a bunch of idiots who just recycle each other’s job adverts – and anyway, when he got to the factory they said ‘Oh, sorry, we haven’t been informed that you were due to come today.’ Well, good job it was just down the road – imagine if he’d been three hours on a train to get there!”
“What did the agency say?”
“Oh, he rang them up and they said sorry, they sent the message through but somebody must have neglected to pass it on. Anyway, he arranged to go back a couple of days later – again, organised by the agency – and this time they let him into the factory, but the bloke who came to see him said ‘Oh, we didn’t receive notice of your interview until an hour ago’ which doesn’t really inspire confidence, does it?
“I don’t know” said her friend, “All these college degrees and he ends up working in a factory. Back in our day, you only went to a factory if you were too thick to do anything else.”
This prompted an indignant cough. “Steady on, my Trevor worked in a factory for thirty-two years! Mind you, he wasn’t all that bright, come to think of it…so anyway, our Joe gets shown round this place where they make paint thinners and he said it was alright, a bit of a dump but the people seemed quite nice, and he would have enjoyed working there. Then they asked him about his skiing holidays.”
“Your Joe? Skiing? When did he start that, then?”
“He never. Turns out, this guy doing the interview, has got Joe’s CV mixed up with some other bloke, I mean in this day and age they can put a man on the moon but they can’t organise a simple bit of paperwork. They were under the impression that he had years of experience organising student holidays, although why that should be any good for a factory job beats me.”
There was a thoughtful silence which lasted perhaps two minutes, after which the second woman remarked: “You know, that happened to me once. I mean, when I were at school, they had a letter addressed to the headmistress saying that I had done something awful. And I got really upset and said it weren’t me, and they went to see me mam about it. We found out later that there was another girl called Brenda – XXXX – living down the road. Can you believe it! We had never even heard of each other.”
“And did he get the job?”
“No, they sent him a message two days later. He wanted to send it back saying they had got the wrong person by mistake, but they don’t sound bright enough to get the joke…”