The things people do

The things people do


Alan West finds himself in a parallel universe

It was the day after the day after Christmas, one of those nowhere in particular days when you feel you ought to be doing something but can’t. So we decided to walk to our nearby shops to stock up on eggs, indigestion remedies and other essentials. On the way back, threading our way between the puddles and the debris of leaves and small branches left behind after another severe winter storm, we were stopped by a young woman.

Which way is the retail park? she asked.

Carry on down here for about 400 meters, I said, and it’s there on the left. You can’t miss it.

Did you notice she had bare legs, said my wife as we walked on. I hadn’t actually noticed that particular detail but had taken in her legs, which were unseasonably tanned. That’s right, I said, she’s an airline flight attendant, whose Dubai flight yesterday was grounded by the weather. She stayed with a friend last night after partying late into the night. Now she’s off to M&S to buy new underwear.

This trick of fitting strangers to suitable occupations – with accompanying life stories – is a habit developed over years of travelling on the underground and eating alone in restaurants in unfamiliar cities. But, a week earlier, there had been a strange twist.

It was the end of term of my Italian conversation class and, it being lunchtime, my classmates adjourned to the Sun Inn across the street for a glass of mulled wine and slice of panettone.  I arrived a few minutes late and found the pub full of cowboys and indians, of both sexes, not fighting, but mingling happily – having some kind of powwow, I supposed.

I had that disconnected feeling of having entered a parallel universe. I turned back and looked out of the door. Outside it was a normal dreary winter’s day, with drizzle threatening. Inside, the pub was still noisily full of cowboys and indians, so I entered anyway, but with caution. Their outfits (if they were such) were impressive, expensive and authentic. A fine array of Stetson hats was on view, cheek by jowl with magnificent feathered headdresses. I approached a young Native American woman who was queuing patiently at the bar. She was tall, willowy and beautiful and spoke not Shawnee but perfectly articulated Hampshire English, like Miranda Hart.

Some kind of office party? I asked tentatively.

Yes we all work together, she explained. In Lambeth.

You are a bit far from home then.

Yes, we like to play away, she said, with a delightful smile.  In the dining room I could see that the tables were all laid out for chow; Christmas lunch in the Wild West of London, complete with red napkins and Christmas crackers.

I found my classmates in a side bar. “Howdy. Did some cowboys and indians just pass this way?”

They are zip makers, said Ricardo. Ricardo had already headed them off at the pass and interrogated the head honcho.

Rosa, a classmate who knows about such things, scoffed at this revelation.  They are pulling your leg, she said. All the zips in the world are made in Japan or China these days.  Rosa even named the manufacturer, YKK, so she had to be right. They are probably a load of bankers or accountants just trying to make themselves seem interesting.

The barman, for whom having a house full of zip makers dressed as cowpokes or native Americans, and a group of older people speaking GCSE-level Italian together was clearly an everyday occurrence, looked on with detachment.

Back home, I googled ‘zip makers in lambeth’ and drew a complete blank. The idea of a bunch of part time cowboys being zip makers in real life is far more interesting than whatever the truth might be.  That’s fine by me, so I prefer to stick with the fantasy.

Even retired people define themselves by what they used to do and there is always a temptation to play down or inflate one’s vocation, depending on the circumstances and company.  Many years ago, after University, in between being a door-to-door egg salesman in Bromley and getting a proper job in a City IT firm, I was a Chinese water clock manufacturer. Though I soon grew tired of repeating Prof. Needham’s treatise on the rationale for, and the construction of, Su Sung’s water clock it gave me something to talk about at parties and made me seem interesting. When the water clock business failed to tick and I had to resort to a paid job in computers, the normal reaction to my reply to the ‘what do you do then?’  question was a completely glazed look (it was the mid 1970s) which soon led to no further conversation. I had to try to be interesting despite what I did for a living.

Other people’s universes, glimpsed through that door that opens for just a moment, can sometimes look infinitely more interesting than our own and, in the end, we can just make it up anyway. Nobody will really know and actually, why should anyone care?

7 comments on “The things people do
  1. David Brown says:

    Alan, for the record, you may want to know that your classmate Rosa does not appear to be right. It is correct that YKK is a major zipper manufacturer, but I believe the zippers are made here in the USA in Macon, Georgia. In fact by a curious coincidence my wife and I were taken to dinner, several years ago, by the manager of the Macon plant and his wife, who had relocated to their home in Tokyo after several years managing the plant in Macon. And, another curious fact, they took us to a very fancy French restaurant, and we were presented with a framed art contraction as a gift. it is still a favorite of mine. Happy New Year, David

  2. Arnold says:

    Alan, I think the zip maker ‘cover’ must be authentic. Why bother with the disguise? Nobody would be that surprised to find a bunch of bankers acting like complete cowboys – no outfits required at all!


  3. Ian Bruce says:

    Hi Alan – So what did you tell people when you joined the computer world? I found I enjoyed my made up stories more than my audience. When first in London and going to Sloane ranger parties I used to work in to the conversation that my father was an engine driver (not true) – and then try and provoke a debate on the lines of “Is there anything wrong with having an engine driver for a father?” Never worked.

    • Alan West says:

      Ian, I can see how that kind of provocation wouldn’t get you very far in those circles. You might as well have said you were an Angry Young Man researching your next novel. In the end, I used to say as little as possible (the music was usually too loud anyway) and try just to look enigmatic. And the computer job was well paid, which helped to ease the pain a little.

  4. Elena says:

    What exactly are door to door eggs?

    • Alan West says:

      Well they were brown – back then most eggs were white and stamped with a lion mark of the Egg Marketing Board – and they moved from door to door in a wicker hand-basket lined with straw. The eggs were unstamped and fitted the “farm fresh” image created by the basket, etc. The main benefit to me (apart from a paid job of sorts) was that I got out of hours use of the company van – a small light blue Bedford van with the company name, Lamina Farm Produce, embellished on the side. It had no passenger seat so my girlfriend of the time had to sit on a pile of cushions and egg boxes.

      I should have been a bit suspicious of the owner’s intent. He was a kind of upmarket Dell Boy character, complete with sheepskin coat and panatella cigar, and greeted me back at base (a lock up garage in South Croydon) every evening. He divvied up the day’s takings and then repaired to the pub for a gin and tonic. I later discovered that he imported the eggs from Poland, and, several months into the job, a customer far more observant than me pointed out that Lamina is in fact Animal backwards. Animal Farm – of course! It all fitted together. Four legs good, two legs bad… Nothing is ever quite what it seems, is it?

  5. Richard JW Dupre says:

    A very fascinating and well thought out piece. R

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