Alice Thomas Ellis
Mysteries, mysteries. Why, wonders the fifth son, does walloping a bottle on the edge of the table enable one to remove its lid, and why does spit make his army boots shine? Why is there never a policeman around when you want one, and why are there always two on the spot as you draw up on a double yellow line?
Alfie and I had a very bewildering time yesterday. He came round to do the cleaning and then he didn't feel like it so he came shopping with me instead. It took us two hours to doddle up and down the High Street — about 200 yards of it — while I systematically forgot what I wanted. A rich mix of eccentrics roam Camden High Street at the weekend, some of them distinctly disconcerting. Why, I wondered, did that man have a dog in his pocket? Had that girl looked in the mirror before she came out and, if so, why had she not swiftly changed her clothes? How had that man persuaded his hair into the condition of hempen rope, and why had it struck him as a good idea? Who is the Red Indian in the cowboy hat with a meerschaum pipe stuck in his face? What does he have for break- fast? And why has the Post Office carpeted its floor when drunks are not infrequently sick in there and the street outside is already carpeted with dog mess?
We passed a small lady tripping tripping is the only word for it — along, with her head held at a winsome angle and her little finger coquettishly cocked. Alfie said she'd spoken to him once and told him she was the bird of the world. Really? he'd said. Yes, she'd said — she was a bird princess. Then we passed the drop-in centre for the homeless. Alfie said it was amazing in there. They had Roman col- umns of coffee tins, and piles and piles of enormous boxes of condoms. The home- less could pop in in the morning and have bacon and egg for breakfast with fried slices and tomatoes while watching a film on a video screen, and then if they felt like a spot of the other on the way out they could have a free condom as a going-away present.
We forgot to buy butter and cheese in Marks and Spencer; then the lady at the greengrocers said they did a jolly good Canadian Cheddar in Gateway, so we went there. I hadn't got any money and I had to keep signing cheques, so I said we could buy the wine there too and do it all on one cheque, only we were stuck in a queue and I couldn't get at the drinks counter. I told Alfie to leap the barriers and collar a couple of bottles of Bulgarian, but he said he'd gone all limp and he couldn't. We roared at each other a bit and then staggered to the off-licence. On the way we passed a restaurant with a tree outside stuck in a rather nice earthenware pot. The owners clearly valued this pot because they'd chained the tree to the wall. The sight was .too much for Alfie, who went almost terminally limp. All a thief would need to do, he said, was nick the pot from underneath and leave the tree dangling.
When we got home I wondered why I'd bought a huge lump of celeriac, because it's a bastard to peel — lots of convolutions at the top — and I was much too tired to wrestle with it. You do it, Alfie, I sug- gested, but he said he was now too exhausted to do the cleaning, let alone peel the celeriac, so we sat down at the kitchen table and drank the wine we'd bought for dinner while Alfie told us stories about his chequered past. Someone said, `Alfie, put the kettle on.' And Alfie said, No, he didn't think it would suit him.
I feel pretty limp myself now, and I wonder why that couple felt it necessary to stand talking bang in the middle of the narrowest point of Parkway between the flower stall and the electrical shop so no one could get by. As Alfie says, they could have asked each other to one another's houses and discussed all that over lunch. Why do I leave the shopping until Saturday when I could easily do it on Monday morning? Perhaps because it would be boring.