I am shopping for instant cappuccinos in Home Bargains (don’t judge me – my tastebuds are aspirational middle class but my wallet cannot back them up) when a woman in her early-60s cries out:
“Alan – it’s you!”
She greets me with utter certainty and gives me a hug. She smells of mints, nicotine and Brexit.
I’m blind-sided but – against my own will – instantly snap into autopilot.
Smiling in a frankly disturbing manner, I offer a piss-weak watery gambit:
“Oh hiya – how’s the family?”
While she chunters away about getting a new ring and more hours at her cleaning job, I try desperately to place her.
- Work? (possible)
- Distant relative? (also possible)
- Ex-girlfriend? (not possible – unless mind-damaging chemicals were in operation on both sides)
She says she almost didn’t recognise me in a suit. I laugh and even – sweet Jehovah – grasp her arm briefly to suggest that her quip is so hilarious it has robbed me of speech.
Who – in the name of Christ and Bernard Cribbins – is this woman?
How does she know me?
Does she know me?
More importantly – why am I asking questions inside my head?
Who do I expect to answer?
I am torn between a desperate urge to end the prattle and the crushing fear of making a mistake and hurting someone’s feelings – even if it’s a potential stranger’s feelings.
She continues to reminisce – like a grey, permed Terminator she simply won’t be stopped – regaling me with locations, life events and people which seem distantly, maddeningly familiar but not enough to be sure.
- “Remember, when we all met at Uncle Jim’s caravan and you did a jobby in your pyjamas?”
(Do I? I had a couple of uncle Jims – we all did. The jobby I don’t recall, but it can’t be ruled out. It was a different time. Again, don’t judge me.)
- “They have three kids now – last one was born boss-eyed by caesarean three weeks early and is technically English, but they don’t treat her any different.”
(Standard Scottish behaviour – low-level racism and too much detail – again, entirely plausible.)
- “What are you doing for Christmas? I remember when your dad could tan a bottle of whisky on his own.”
(Once again, frustratingly realistic – everyone’s dad could booze for Scotland. The only livers that survived the 60s and 70s were industrial-strength or belonged to decrepit nuns.)
It’s like trying to identify someone through opaque glass – I can tell that it’s human, but beyond that she’s just a shape:
Could be Kate Middleton, could be Mrs Brown.
I focus on her face – an aunt? Possibly – I’ve been soused at every family wedding since I turned 20 – and a few of the funerals – so there are no recent memories to sharpen her image.
I rifle through mugshots of relatives, parental friends and distant associates as she talks about going to ASDA with Billy.
“You remember Billy, don’t you?”
I offer a look parked somewhere between grin and grimace.
Then I think with triumphant certainty – I am related to this woman – absurdly returning to her repeated use of my name and her cast-iron confidence as proof.
Thank Mithra for that – we ARE related.
All of this has not been in vain.
Dementia has not yet switched my brain onto shuffle mode.
Then she asks:
We both stand very still – staring at each other in a cloud of embarrassment so pungent it’s very nearly pornographic.
“You’re not him.”
Me (apologetically): “No, no I’m not.”
Her: “I was wondering why you were wearing a suit.”
Me (appropos of nothing): “Aha ha ha ha.”
Her (utterly defeated): “It’s been a long day – I’m tired.”
We trudge slowly to the check-out and queue up to be served in shame as she continues to apologise – her sorrys gradually decreasing in volume, like air leaking from a sad balloon.
Eventually the apologies peter out into an awkward void.
For some reason I then shout:
“Must be handsome – this Alan guy.”
Another embarrassing silence that draws out like Last of the Summer Wine on Mogadons.
Without even turning round she says:
We then wait an insanely long time to be served – at the end of which her card is declined and I try desperately to fold my body into itself to escape.
Outside I hear her bellow “I’m not going to ASDA anymore, Billy” and she flees into the gathering gloom.
If this is humanity, where’s the fucking escape hatch?
I buy my instant cappuccinos and drift off into the night.
Song of the blog – Charlie Brown by Gavin Osborn