THERE is no doubt that I was wearing my checked, wool-mix hat when I closed our front door, shuddering its genteel topping of stained glass flowers – before ambling into a flurry of curled leaves on the road, where my shoulder was brushed by a middle-aged lady in stout shoes, who had a portable phone clamped to a generously sculpted ear, into the depths of which many spicy secrets had slipped down the years.
“Well, to cut a long story short,” her mouth said to the ear that was receiving her thoughts on this occasion. Then she gasped with excitement, as her pace quickened. I pulled down the trusty hat, then perched on the naked uplands of my head and continued to walk to the railway station.
Now, many utterances are so familiar that they can chill the soul all through life, from our introductory yelp in the dazzle of the delivery room to the first drip of the embalmer’s fluid.
Among them is, “Hold on a mo’, I’ll just see if we have some in the back”. These are the words of the traditional shopkeeper, who believes that anything you want not displayed on his shelves will be stored “in the back”.
He then vanishes into the labyrinthine cavern behind him, as your watch suffers a seizure. Time and time again the bell over the door rings. Customers pile in, but he does not reappear, though bangs, crashes and curses can be heard from the mysterious gloom of the “back”. God was faster sculpting Mount Everest, fuelling Vesuvius and manicuring the bowling greens of Birkenhead. Finally, our man in the fawn tunic steps into the light, wheezing and wiping his brow. “Sorry,” he says. “I thought we had some, but there’s not a sardine to be had.”
Hairy legged walkers in anoraks, who are starting to lose their way on an expedition to the wide open spaces, will recall the dread that gripped them when a ruddy companion consulted his map, and then proclaimed, “I know a short-cut”. All short cuts in the country lead through malarial swamps, Natterjack toad reserves, bacterial research stations, bramble thickets, trial sites for chemical weapons and sinking sands.
But these are mere trifles compared to the miseries that can be inflicted on us by that volley of words, “To cut a long story short”. Those, who find the expression, effortlessly springing from their tongues, regard as puny the efforts of that amateur Tolstoy with his War and Peace. They could have spoken longer about a neighbour’s washing line or the skinning of a carrot.
I have never owned a portable phone. There are two reasons for this, both true. The first is that I am mechanically inept and fear that I would be unable to work the damned contraption. The second is that they are symbols of our subservience to others, allowing people, particularly those in authority, to contact us at any time – on the loo, in the bath, or in the midst or a daydream. But I have noticed that the thrilling young ’uns never stop gabbing on them. When these phones were first unleashed, I thought that their use would be confined to brief messages of the utmost importance. Now I know that their main purpose is to spread gossip, hence the lady on the road.
I was reminded of my late mother sitting in the café, where she would draw friends around her, before sucking on a filter-tipped Nelson cigarette to begin. Her talk sizzled with gossip and often contained the words, “To cut a long story short, my dears”, warning me that I would be there for an eternity.
On returning home that night, I found the old hat was not on my head. “Where is it?” my wife asked. I told her I had been thinking so much about this story that I must have left it on the train. Instantly, the lovely turquoise shone in her eyes – and she reached for her phone. “He’s lost that dreadful hat,” she said to her friend, gleefully. Many more words followed. Among them were, “To cut a long story short”.
LISTEN to David Charters on his picture podcasts at www.liverpooldailypost.co.uk