I am often wishing – sometimes only in my head, but other times out loud – that we would all experience more moments of simple human connection in our daily round. Wishing is a kind of complaining, and it’s easy to complain, trickier to catch yourself in the act of being the problem.
I have recently started a new long creative project, and when that happens I become more sullen and silent than usual. I rise early to work and brood and fret, and at 10 am I take a walk just to be outside and to see people and shoo the seagulls. I walk up Main Road and look at the cupcakes in the window of Denise’s Delights and wistfully eye the gents drinking Black Label in the Corner Bar and keep an eye out for the guy I met on the train to Newlands last year, who now has a job delivering takeaway coffees and sandwiches in the neighborhood. I walk up to the charity bookstore and poke around the paperbacks then sometimes I walk back home beside the sea but if it’s too hot I stick to Main Road and drop into the non-charity bookstore.
I never buy anything there because I’m annoyed with them for ordering too few copies of my book and then taking too long to order more when those sold out and also for not building them their own special display stand and giving them a dedicated sales rep with a megaphone, but still I like to nose around and flip through pages. I find it encouraging to be around books, even other people’s books.
But as I sighed and shook my head in front of the Humour section (has any genuinely funny book ever been found in a Humour section?) I suddenly noticed that I was wearing my shirt inside-out. It was an uncomfortable moment of reassessment. Is that who I am? Not the peripatetic literary fellow at all but the weird old guy shambling the sidewalks with his pockets full of peanuts and his trousers back-to-front? I don’t know what made me notice my shirt at just that moment, and whether it was my noticing it that somehow attracted her attention, or whether it had been the invisible pressure of her attention that caused me to notice it, but a few moments later the store assistant followed me nervously down the row of Biographies.
“Excuse me …” she said, and glanced around furtively.
I was pleased. Had she recognized me from my author photo? Was she about to apologise for the conspicuous lack of my book and undertake to hurry up the re-order? She lowered her voice and leaned in close.
“Your shirt is inside-out,” she murmured.
Perhaps it was because I was still startled from realising that myself, perhaps it was just too sharp-angled a blow to my pleasant authorial self-regard, but I did not receive this warmly. I smiled, but it wasn’t a smile to sell any encyclopedias door-to-door. It was a smile I wasn’t even sure I possessed until that moment, the concentrated genetic inheritance of several generations of tight-assed, passive-aggressive, socially icy WASP malefactors. It was the smile my grandmother gave her son-in-law when he arrived at her dinner table without wearing a tie, the kind of smile I would imagine Maggie Smith practices in the mirror before going on set at Downton Abbey, then thinks, “Ooh, maybe I should tone it down a little.”
“Thank you,” I said, in a voice made of liquid nitrogen.
“Oh!” she said, her pre-existing fluster becoming more so. “Do you know it’s inside-out?”
“Yes,” I said, with a voice that could be used to fillet a salmon. “I do.” I turned impassively back to the bookshelf. The cheek of the woman, I thought indignantly. The brass!
Only once she’d withdrawn in embarrassment did I manage to think about it from her perspective. This wasn’t someone trying to make me feel bad or confound me, this was someone screwing up the nerve to be helpful to a stranger. She was trying to be kind and took a risk to do so and I responded like a heel, over something so small and for the cheapest of reasons: the defensiveness of the bruised ego.
I flushed with shame. I waited for her to finish with a customer, then approached the till. “Thank you for telling me,” I said.
She blinked at me through her spectacles, uncertain. “You can use the stock room to change it around, if you like,” she said.
“It’s all right. I don’t live far away. But it was very nice of you to let me know.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m sure you’d tell me if it was the other way round.”
I thought about that. I hoped I would too.
The Times, 12 March 2015