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Friday, 24 January 2014

Swimming in a fish bowl

Things went downhill frighteningly fast last week, after I wrote a piece confessing to being slightly estranged from reality.  

Me and reality came to the end of the road. We parted and it wasn't amicable. There is no chance of reconciliation. We're through.

You don't want the details. You'll need to wait for the film, if you do. Suffice it to say that a paperwork cock-up left me, on the way to an important meeting, standing at the roadside among the former contents of my car, namely two computers, a travel bag, three shirts, a paperback copy of Middlemarch and my shattered dreams of ever being a grown-up.

Standing beside me, looking as shell-shocked as I feel, Rachel shakes her head, opens her mouth a couple of times, like a goldfish at feeding time, and utters a few broken words.  

"Only an idiot ... ," she says. "Why on earth didn't you...." She punches my arm gently. "Words fail me," she says. 

"That's good," I tell her. "I'd hate to see your usual chatty, cheery self at a time like this. It would be insensitive."

"Can I hit you harder?" she says.

"You should," I say. But she doesn't. Never hit anyone in her life, the soft southern nancy.

Later that day, having been rescued and sent on our way by a sympathetic Susan, I get chatting to my son inside his flat, among the creative ferment of a sculptor at work. 

It is somehow soothing. Chaos inside and out. The last thing I need, with my brain in turmoil, is neat and tidy surroundings. 

"Don't worry about it," he tells me. "It's genetic. Your dad was smart but dopey. I'm the same. Get over it."

"I'm worse than either of you," I say.

"You're not," he says. "What's the dopiest thing you ever did?"

"Where do I start?" I say, trawling the memory banks. "I went to Paris once. Took a woman but not the address of the hotel we were booked into. Or its name. Beat that."

"Easy," he says. "My mind wandered in chemistry class once and my body set itself on fire."

"Jeez," I say, in sudden alarm. It's 15 years since he was at school and he's clearly fine, but a dad's instincts don't die. "What happened?"

"We were using these wee meths burners," he says. "I spilled some on my hands and it caught fire. Funny stuff, meths. It flows easily and burns kinda cool at first. 

"So I wave my hands around, not too bothered. But that doesn't help. So then I try to smother the flames."

"Does that help?" I say.

"Sets my armpits on fire." 

"Bloody hell."

"It's getting toasty by this time. And I'm not sure what to do next. So I scratch my head and guess what?"

"You set your head on fire?"

"Correct," he says. "My lab partner Cathy Small is running around now, screaming like a banshee. So the chemistry teacher, a big bugger we called Moby - can't remember his real name now - he strolls over with a basin of water, hurls it at me, which puts the flames out, then sends me to the nurse. 

"She rubs cool stuff on my hands and head and says I'm fine. I go back to class and the guys give me a big cheer. Moby, the bastard, gives me detention."

He scratches his chin and grins. "The day I set my head on fire. I think I win," he says.

"I think you do," I tell him.

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