I WAS in the village shop musing on the merits of the purple headed broccoli, which I had been told to buy, against those of a sherbet dip, which I wanted to buy – when from the far side a voice punched the blissful silence with all the finesse of a ripe belch from a sausage-knotter in a chapel of repose.
“Where are you? What are you doing over there? Come back here … AT ONCE.”
I padded gingerly from cover to present myself for a scolding like a guilty spaniel. Was my wife stalking me, I wondered, or had my late mother spurted back from the juices of memory?
This was the familiar voice of the female calling down the ages to the male. It was first heard in the Garden of Eden, just beyond Lower Bebington, when Eve found that Adam had burnt the apple crumble. Trees tremble, the earth shivers, rocks melt, grass grows inwards, worms retreat, lakes drain, birds migrate.
“Not you!” said the voice’s owner to me, as she seized the hand of her son and dragged him back to his push-chair, before he could free a lollypop from its jar. The counter assistant, who has studied psychology, anthropology and ju-jitsu, was chortling merrily beneath the fumes from a humbug.
“It’s an instinct lost in the fog of time,” she said. “The male hears the voice of authority and he obeys it automatically.”
Put another way, life teaches our wretched sex that there is no hiding place. Our women will sniff us down to the darkest den.
“By Jove, you are so right,” I added. “I must hasten home with the broccoli. My wife says it’s good for my bowel movements.”
“Too much information,” said the assistant to the mother. “Do you let your man out? Of course, they’re all children really.”
They were right about this. We remain children. Men grow old without knowing adulthood. My ideas have in minor ways matured down the years, but they remain essentially the same. In dreams, our knees are always grazed, our pockets always bulge, our shoes are scuffed and our socks are never straight.
In the late 1960s, I reported for a news agency serving the national papers in the south. One day I was asked to write the story of a retired general who had a huge collection of toy soldiers, many passed down the generations. The theme of the piece was obvious and, indeed, the old chap looked every inch the English soldier from colonial times – pork-chop sideburns, a rubicund face, a generous girth mellowed on the leather chairs of a gentleman’s club, a hint of whisky on his breath, a steady stare and a firm handshake. In those days, I was a hippie with long hair and denim clothes. So I feared that he would take against me, suspecting pacifist tendencies lurked in my casual bearing. On the contrary, he seemed to like me on sight and soon we fell into happy conversation. We spoke of songs and wine, films and popcorn, Dundee cake and humour. And we agreed on the importance of all these things. Then came the photos, so we laid out his men as though it was Waterloo.
“Shall I be Napoleon?” I asked. “Oh would you,” he said, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You see, my wife has to be Wellington in our games. I must be the only old English soldier who never wins the Battle of Waterloo.”
How can boys grow up when our heads are filled with cowboys and Indians, conkers, comics, catapults, football and pet mice? Yes, there is a stage in life when we put on a show for the girls, dressing sensibly, earning money and bowing to the rules of what is absurdly called “the real world”, but we soon revert to form. Look what happens when you give us our pocket money.
“Did you remember the broccoli?” my wife asked on my return home, the lovely turquoise glowing in her eyes. “Good Lord! Is that a sherbet dip I spot, peeping from your pocket? Surely not!”