Alan West finds himself in a parallel universe
It was the day after the day after Christmas, one of those nowhere in particular days when you feel you ought to be doing something but can’t. So we decided to walk to our nearby shops to stock up on eggs, indigestion remedies and other essentials. On the way back, threading our way between the puddles and the debris of leaves and small branches left behind after another severe winter storm, we were stopped by a young woman.
Which way is the retail park? she asked.
Carry on down here for about 400 meters, I said, and it’s there on the left. You can’t miss it.
Did you notice she had bare legs, said my wife as we walked on. I hadn’t actually noticed that particular detail but had taken in her legs, which were unseasonably tanned. That’s right, I said, she’s an airline flight attendant, whose Dubai flight yesterday was grounded by the weather. She stayed with a friend last night after partying late into the night. Now she’s off to M&S to buy new underwear.
This trick of fitting strangers to suitable occupations – with accompanying life stories – is a habit developed over years of travelling on the underground and eating alone in restaurants in unfamiliar cities. But, a week earlier, there had been a strange twist.
It was the end of term of my Italian conversation class and, it being lunchtime, my classmates adjourned to the Sun Inn across the street for a glass of mulled wine and slice of panettone. I arrived a few minutes late and found the pub full of cowboys and indians, of both sexes, not fighting, but mingling happily – having some kind of powwow, I supposed.
I had that disconnected feeling of having entered a parallel universe. I turned back and looked out of the door. Outside it was a normal dreary winter’s day, with drizzle threatening. Inside, the pub was still noisily full of cowboys and indians, so I entered anyway, but with caution. Their outfits (if they were such) were impressive, expensive and authentic. A fine array of Stetson hats was on view, cheek by jowl with magnificent feathered headdresses. I approached a young Native American woman who was queuing patiently at the bar. She was tall, willowy and beautiful and spoke not Shawnee but perfectly articulated Hampshire English, like Miranda Hart.
Some kind of office party? I asked tentatively.
Yes we all work together, she explained. In Lambeth.
You are a bit far from home then.
Yes, we like to play away, she said, with a delightful smile. In the dining room I could see that the tables were all laid out for chow; Christmas lunch in the Wild West of London, complete with red napkins and Christmas crackers.
I found my classmates in a side bar. “Howdy. Did some cowboys and indians just pass this way?”
They are zip makers, said Ricardo. Ricardo had already headed them off at the pass and interrogated the head honcho.
Rosa, a classmate who knows about such things, scoffed at this revelation. They are pulling your leg, she said. All the zips in the world are made in Japan or China these days. Rosa even named the manufacturer, YKK, so she had to be right. They are probably a load of bankers or accountants just trying to make themselves seem interesting.
The barman, for whom having a house full of zip makers dressed as cowpokes or native Americans, and a group of older people speaking GCSE-level Italian together was clearly an everyday occurrence, looked on with detachment.
Back home, I googled ‘zip makers in lambeth’ and drew a complete blank. The idea of a bunch of part time cowboys being zip makers in real life is far more interesting than whatever the truth might be. That’s fine by me, so I prefer to stick with the fantasy.
Even retired people define themselves by what they used to do and there is always a temptation to play down or inflate one’s vocation, depending on the circumstances and company. Many years ago, after University, in between being a door-to-door egg salesman in Bromley and getting a proper job in a City IT firm, I was a Chinese water clock manufacturer. Though I soon grew tired of repeating Prof. Needham’s treatise on the rationale for, and the construction of, Su Sung’s water clock it gave me something to talk about at parties and made me seem interesting. When the water clock business failed to tick and I had to resort to a paid job in computers, the normal reaction to my reply to the ‘what do you do then?’ question was a completely glazed look (it was the mid 1970s) which soon led to no further conversation. I had to try to be interesting despite what I did for a living.
Other people’s universes, glimpsed through that door that opens for just a moment, can sometimes look infinitely more interesting than our own and, in the end, we can just make it up anyway. Nobody will really know and actually, why should anyone care?