Shea

Shea works in my local Sainsbury Local, and I don’t know him at all. I like him enormously. He is tall, lanky, probably in his mid-twenties, and he has the confidence of an old hand. He calls all his male customers ‘mate’ and all his female customers ‘darling’, and he takes excellent care while packing the bags to stack the stuff I buy in them sensibly. The first time I witness him in action I don’t talk to him beyond the ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ that get you through checking out, but I’m fascinated by his quiet concentration and diligence that he combines with an unalloyed pride in, and joy for, what he is doing. His long-armed gestures are almost those of a conductor who here does not conjure notes from a band of musicians, but directs these goods from their basket where they need to go in my bag, precisely.

On my next visit to the store, he’s wearing a name badge on which it says ‘Khalid’. This is the first and so far only time that I talk to him. I say: ‘Last time I saw you, you were called “Shea.”’ He laughs. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I’ve lost my name badge. The other day I was “Matt,” but really I’m Shea.’ This makes me like him even more. Shea is Shea, whether the label says Matt, Khalid or Shea, it really doesn’t matter to him. It doesn’t matter to me.

There’s also a very beautiful and very polite young woman at the same little store who asks me how the writing is going each time she sees me. The exchanges over the few minutes it takes to process a basket of groceries are never profound, but they are profoundly meaningful nonetheless, at that simple, non-directional, subtly subconscious and superficially purposeless level where someone with a utilitarian mindset and an eye on efficiency would argue the interaction isn’t even necessary: ‘It’s functionally superfluous, a machine can do what these people do, why do we pay them a wage?’

Next to the tills there’s a small bank of self-service checkout machines that talk at you. I loathe them. I am no technophobe, in fact the opposite: I embrace technology and think much of it marvellous, and I practically live online. Self-service checkouts with their rigid, robotic, soulless adherence to a stubborn protocol, their loud, unmodulated, miscalibrated tone, and their inability to conclude more than one in three procedures without the intervention of one of their human helpers infuriate and offend me. Occasionally, when there’s a long queue for the tills and I have only a few items, I use them, reluctantly, grudgingly, they way you succumb to the Borg. They may be practical and save you a few minutes, if all goes well, but in civilisatory terms they are an abomination.

A while ago there was a woman called Rose, at the same store. She told me she loved travel, and it transpired she used to be a doctor. She was in her sixties, maybe; well-spoken and dignified. She’d taken the job to get out of the house, to have some human contact, she didn’t really need the money, she just wanted to do something rather than sit at home and read. As I watch Shea take a bottle of Pinot Grigio from my basket, handle it like an object of personal value, remove its security contraption as you would take the hat off a child, and carefully place the bottle in a carrier bag, just in the right position so it won’t crush the apples or tilt over the falafel, having put aside the eggs and the salad, of course, because they obviously need to go on top of the yoghurts, I feel me a great glow of love for him. And for Rose. And for the young woman whose name I still haven’t learnt, though she remembers that I’m a writer. And for the middle-aged lady at my local Waitrose, who greets me like a long lost friend when, having been away for a while, I return to her till. And the young man there too who had to tape up his earlobe with a ridiculous blue bandaid because the store manager made him take out his stretch ring, which rendered his ear so much more conspicuous than if he’d just been allowed to wear the ring, but who carried himself, and carried on with his job, in the finest of spirits, because that’s just the kind of pettiness you have to put up with when you’re a little extraordinary, now and then; and the young woman who greets me with an indulgent smile to this day when she sees me, because one early morning, several years ago, having partied rather too hard through the night, I came to her till a little the worse for wear trying to buy a bunch of ‘personal items’ only to realise I didn’t even have my wallet on me… I’m not friends with any of them. I don’t feel that I need to be either. I just need them to be there and to remind me, every so often, how beautiful humans are, even when they perform the apparently simplest of tasks. You can rationalise away the transaction, but you’re a long way from making me love the machine.

I salute you, Shea, and all your wondrous colleagues: you make this world a little more worth living in, indeed.


< {Irk}       {Coda} >

 

Alignment

Here is how the universe aligned itself for it to happen that my young Science Communicator Friend and I could have a wonderful night, with Morcheeba:

I’d had every intention of going to the Highlands for a few days in the last week of November, firstly because I love the Highlands and like to go there sometimes in the autumn when there are not many people about, and there’s a good chance of rain, and the walks are solitary and long, but also, secondly, I had an offer of a free first class ticket from King’s Cross to Edinburgh courtesy of East Coast Rail, which was about to expire in early December: a gift of ‘goodwill’ from the train operator by way of compensation for some long service delays the year before.

I was pretty much sold on the idea of doing this because I craved the craggy hillsides, and I thought on the way back I could drop in on an old friend in Berwick-upon-Tweed and go for one or two more walks with him before Christmas, and for once I was not strapped for cash. So, so far so good.

The First Thing that went wrong, as in right, as in different to all expectations and most precedent, was that my old friend in Berwick was going to be ‘on duty’ that particular weekend—the last one in November—because his wife was going to take herself off somewhere with the oldest, leaving him home alone with the two smaller children. This put a clanking big spanner into all kinds of works, since it meant that far from being able to go on extensive country walks followed by many pints in the pub, we would have to spend time mainly at home, looking after said small children. Now, they are lovely children, but that was not what I’d had in mind.

The Second Thing that offered itself up as a variation on the ‘plan’ was that a dinner that had been suggested a while ago by the Swiss Ambassador and His Wife for a small group of people including me was now scheduled for Thursday 27th, and although I had very mixed feelings about the circumstances in which this invitation came about—for reasons that would be inappropriate for me to enter into in anything resembling detail—I actually rather liked the Ambassador and His Wife and thought that it would be churlish or at the very least ill mannered to miss their dinner, in the absence of any good excuse for doing so (other than my lingering unease about what had precipitated the occasion in the first place, of which more I am honour-bound not to divulge).

My enthusiasm for the prospect of spending the end of a Highland week at my friend’s in Berwick already dampened, I thus now also had an almost perfectly good reason to stay in London that week and accept this invitation, signalling to the Ambassador and His Wife that, certainly on my part (I couldn’t speak for the other people concerned) there were no ‘hard feelings’, and so all was, comparatively speaking, well…

Now newly in a position of having this whole week mostly to myself in London, I started filling in some other nights in my diary. Though not the way they turned out at all, because the Third Thing that happened was that I was having coffee with TomTom at the Troubadour. There was no reason or purpose to this, he just happened to be in London with a break near the end of his tour and suggested we go for coffee, which I, being a creature of habit and feeling at home at the Troubadour, suggested we do there.

At some point Anders, the lovely lanky waiter of Scandinavian origin whom I have never not had a bit of a soft spot for (bearing in mind though that I tend to have a bit of a soft spot for waiters generally, especially tall ones), came over and handed me a blank envelope. This had never happened before. It was, he said, an invitation to a private view of a local artist, Melinda, who had asked him to give some of these to some Troubadour regulars, of which clearly I’m one. Pleased and a little flattered, I thanked him, slid the envelope in my pocket and proceeded to more or less forget about it in an instant.

When I got home after saying goodbye to Tom, I found the envelope in my jacket and put it down together with my unopened mail of the last few days, possibly weeks, there to forget about it for a second time. (There was no noteworthy reason why I had at least several days’— possibly several weeks’—worth of unopened mail: I just don’t like opening my mail. Nobody these days writes me poetic epistles or missives of undying love: what comes through the letterbox are mainly bills, unsavoury bank and credit card statements, and ‘special offers’ that have nothing special about them from companies I have little or no interested in.)

Meanwhile, around about the same time, on the 18th November, to be precise, so actually a couple of days before having coffee with TomTom, I was trying to organise a night out with Diego, who is not only adorable as well as Italian, but also difficult to pin down socially, because while he’s extremely loyal and helpful, he’s also unfeasibly busy. It’s a typically ‘London’ challenge, this, which we’re all used to.

I had proposed two films to him (as an alternative to the theatre, simply because he hadn’t yet responded to my other suggestion, which had been Electra at the Old Vic), and while he was keen to see the film on Turing, he had in fact already arranged to see Interstellar, my other option, with some other friends in the very near future. Reasoning that as an Italian he wouldn’t mind, I blithely invited myself along, asking him specifics about the date and time he had booked, which turned out to be Friday night 28th at seven forty-five. I went online straight away and found one of very few seats—mainly singletons left to the side and very front or extreme rear of the IMAX auditorium—and booked it, triumphantly announcing to Diego that I was going to crash his night out at the cinema with his friends.

Also on the 18th November, I start a conversation with a man on Grindr. He describes himself as ‘masculine looking for the same, but love a good chat regardless’ and looks like a handsome, slightly rugged early thirty-something to me. He is on his way home, past my house, it appears, after a failed encounter with a ‘weird’ Italian—no connection to my Italian friend—who has spooked him a bit; and while we’re both online he reaches his flat, which happens to be eight doors precisely along from mine, on the same side of the street. We chat a while longer, find out that we share several interests and are both night owls, until finally I sign off because ‘I’m starting to fall off my perch,’ as I tell him, some time after three in the morning.

The next day we chat again, briefly, then we skip a day, and then over the next two days (we’re now up to 22nd November) we again have just a few brief exchanges on the app, except I tell him that curiosity has got the better of me and I’ve entered his name in the search field on Facebook, and the first person to come up was him. I offer to send him a friend request, which he suggests I do, and we banter a bit about possibly finding out too much about each other and ‘the joys of online stalking.’

So from the 22nd November he and I are friends on Facebook. This is the Saturday before the week I was going to go to Scotland, but now won’t be. Nothing else noteworthy happens over the weekend.

On Monday 24th—and we’re now into the week in question—JayJay, more or less out of the blue, and also perhaps a tad surprisingly since we had only just seen each other a couple of times in a row when often we go without catching up for months, suggests I join him and some friends at a tiny North London fringe theatre to see a piece either by or adapted from Gogol. I have no pronounced interest in either the piece or the venue, but I’ll go and see anything more or less any time, and I am again pleased and a little flattered to have been asked, and so of course I say yes.

The night at the theatre is Wednesday, which tangentially reminds me that I have an invitation also to a private viewing at the Troubadour on that evening, but naturally JayJay and the theatre take precedence over a local artist whom I don’t know, nor have ever heard of, and so as I confirm with JayJay, I prepare to forget about the invitation I received through Anders at the Troubadour for a third time.

Tuesday all is quiet and nothing unusual occurs.

Then, on Wednesday 26th, the Fourth Thing flicks a new switch, retroactively: my friend David reposts an item of his girlfriend Alex’s on Facebook, in which she offers two tickets to see Morcheeba this coming Friday. The reason the tickets have become available is that she had bought them mistaking the date of the gig for the previous Friday, so she had rolled up at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire then, only to be told that she was a week early. This coming Friday she can’t do. (Whether she was going to see Morcheeba with my friend who is her boyfriend, David, or somebody else, I don’t know.)

I respond to David’s forwarded post, saying that I have use for one ticket, so if any of his other friends also has use for one, then we could have ourselves a night out with Morcheeba ‘tomorrow’. This is a slip of the mind, as the tickets are actually for the day after tomorrow, but I don’t notice that. I do, however, look up my diary correctly for Friday, because in the diary for Thursday is the Ambassador and His Wife’s dinner, and on Friday there is nothing.

This is the Fifth Thing, and it’s decidedly odd: I have three Apple devices, which are all using the latest, up-to-date operating systems, and which ordinarily synch all my diary entries across devices via iCloud, so I pretty much trust my diary. Since my diary is blank on Friday, I think I can go and see Morcheeba then – the fact that I talk in my reply to David’s forwarded post about ‘tomorrow’, when tomorrow would be Thursday, turns out to be a red herring.

But my diary isn’t free on Friday. I have a ticket booked, crashing Diego’s cinema-going party at the IMAX. Yet this doesn’t show on the laptop I’m using. Later I find out that the diary entry exists, perfectly accurate, on my other laptop. When I notice this and run several tests to see whether my diary isn’t synching properly, I find that there is no such issue, my diary synchs wonderfully, within seconds; and if a device happens to be offline (I test this too), the entry gets pushed through at the earliest possible moment, no problem. So why, of all my diary entries, this particular one did not come up on my laptop at this time, is and remains an unsolved mystery.

At almost exactly the same time, the Sixth Thing that happens is that JayJay texts me to say that he’s feeling poorly and won’t be making it to the theatre tonight. I read this as a cancellation of the outing as a whole, since I don’t know his colleagues or friends and had left it to him to book the tickets. So I think: no worries, I will go to this art viewing instead. Also at the same time approximately, my new friend from Grindr gets in touch again for the first time since the weekend, this time on Facebook, with the opening gambit: “so we’re facebook friends now.”

Having previously mentioned the Troubadour and the possibility of a coffee there in our earlier chats on Grindr, I take the opportunity, offered by the Sixth Thing, to tell him that I’ll be heading down there later today and that there’ll be free vodka cocktails, a fact which Anders had alerted me to from the start, and which had stuck in my mind as a particularly attractive incentive, because how can you say no to a vodka cocktail when it’s on offer. To my absolute delight, my new friend says he could do with a free drink and agrees to come down and see me there, exactly as I’d hoped, because that would give us a chance to meet really informally in a relaxed setting, and it would only have to last half an hour if it didn’t go well. He has promised his flatmates he would cook some chicken soup for them beforehand, so we agree to meet down there at seven, which gives me a chance to also have some chicken soup beforehand, though I didn’t make mine from scratch, I poured mine out of a Waitrose tub.

The art at the viewing is decorative and nice with quite a bit of character, and as I’m there before my friend arrives, I chat a short while to the artist, who thinks she knows me, but when I tell her that we don’t know each other, although she may have seen me at the Troubadour, she seems to lose interest and becomes almost a bit weary, though not impolite, notwithstanding the fact that I also tell her, of course, that I had been invited by Anders.

The vodka cocktails on offer are Sea Breezes, generously poured by Hugo (I think – I’m never entirely sure if  his name is Oscar or Hugo or something else entirely), and I find two elderly ladies who are locals and friends of the artist’s to chat to while holding out for my friend who’s since messaged to say he’s running a tad late.

By half past I tell him that I’m more or less done with the art now, but he says he’s just on his way, so I take advantage of my two elderly ladies hanging around near the entrance talking to an attractive and artistic looking woman whom I estimate to be around halfway between my age and theirs, and I effectively crash their conversation, which leads to me and that very attractive and somewhat artistic woman talking to each other—me facing the open door—as my friend bounds up the stairs. I recognise him instantly from his picture, and we greet each other like we’ve always known each other, which in a way I feel we have.

I introduce him to the attractive woman, whose name I can’t now remember though it may have been Yvonne, and he, realising that I’m mid-conversation and aware that he’s very late, proposes to find himself a drink; I ask him to bring me one too and continue talking to ‘Yvonne’ until she reckons it’s time to look in on her sixteen year old at home, and since my friend has not got back yet with or without drinks, I go looking for him to see if he’s all right.

I am massively pleased to find him talking to another random gallery-goer, though for reasons that don’t strike me as obvious, but not important enough to enquire about either, he hasn’t got me a drink, he’s only picked up one for himself, so I get me my second one too, and I join them.

For the second time, I feel like I’m here with him, of course, who else: although we only now really speak our first few sentences to each other, we may as well, for the level of familiarity I feel, have been together for years. And I say ‘together’ here, even though we’re not even friends yet, and it is absolutely clear to me even now that we we may never, in that sense, or any other, be ‘together’.

The woman he has been talking to eventually makes her way off too, and we’re finally left to speak to each other, which doesn’t change anything; we have one more drink each, and although I feel tempted to eke out another, he is attuned to the fact that the place is emptying out and suggests we make our way home as well. As we get to his front door, we embrace and nearly give each other a peck on the cheek but not quite, and I go home thinking, well that was just entirely perfect.

I’m home shortly after nine, where I find David has replied to my post in response to his post on Facebook with: “You must have a friend seb or just crack a grinder one out! Haha.”

Now, as I’m about to explain to my brand new friend in a new message on Facebook, I’ve never been one not to “take a random gag as a proper suggestion,” and so I offer the Morcheeba night out to him. It’s a long shot in every sense: it’s at just two days’ notice, we’ve only ever had a couple of drinks together and hardly actually spoken to each other, and it’s Morcheeba, who create a wonderful sound but who are something of a throwback to the nineties. But once again he surprises me in the best possible way and says, yes, he loves Morcheeba, he’s up for it. I tell David, David promises he’ll email the tickets. Everything is hunky, except…

The next morning—Thursday—I wake up with a mildly suspicious feeling that I may have messed up a bit. I check my diary and that’s when I find out about the synching issue. I resolve, of course, to stick with the new arrangement and blow out Diego, simply because he’s already got several people to be going to the cinema with, whereas I’ve now promised to take David’s girlfriend Alex’s Morcheeba tickets off her, and of course I can get to see that film any time.

In the evening, I go to the dinner the Ambassador and His Wife are hosting at their residence, and it is very civil, even friendly. Of the small group who had been invited, two or three had decided they were busy elsewhere, so it feels even more intimate than it would have done if everyone had attended, and as the evening draws to its close, the Ambassador’s Wife again thanks us all for all we have done for the Swiss Embassy over the last few years and hands us each a bottle of champagne as a final gesture of conciliation and appreciation.

Friday comes, and there’s a Seventh Thing. Having effectively written off my booked ticket for Interstellar at the BFI IMAX, I do feel it’s a shame that that should just go to waste, especially as it’s a sold out screening. So I look up my email confirmation, on which of course it says “no refunds and no ticket exchange,” but I phone up the cinema anyway and say to the charming man who answers the phone, ‘I realise this is not your policy, but seeing that you have a full house I wonder is there any chance you can resell my ticket?’ Without dropping a beat he says: ‘You can’t make it tonight?’ I confirm, no, I can’t. ‘I’ll refund your ticket for you straight away, would that help you enormously?’ – ‘Yes, that would help me enormously, thanks!’

I’m wondering is it a coincidence, or have I manipulated my memory, or is it just the beauty of the universe that it has aligned Seven Things so my new friend, who I’m about to learn is a science communicator, and I could have a wonderful time with Morcheeba. After the gig we go for another drink, and after that we pass by my door now, coming from this direction, and I don’t even have to really ask, we both just go up together, and because it was partly the Ambassador’s Wife who was to blame for the fact that I didn’t go up to Scotland, I pop the bottle of fizz she gave me at the dinner the night before.

It tastes all the more lovely for everything that has brought us to this moment right here and right now.


< Ponderage       {Vignette} >