We don’t know when or how the tale below was submitted to us. The original bears no date, address or signature, and was found in a plain envelope. Editor
How Are You?
I imagine many of your readers share my view that queries about one’s wellbeing are usually rhetorical. People ask how one is faring, but most of them don’t really want to know. My old RAF mate Colin and I settled this point long ago by agreeing to contact one another at the same times of the same days each week, so we never bother with introductory banalities. Our conversations start with the recipient picking up the receiver and saying something like ‘Do you want to buy an ostrich?’ or ‘Look, nobody gives away fitted kitchens.’
This doesn’t work with other callers, who are usually discomfited by such overtures. There are exceptions, these including salespeople, who seem to have a prepared spiel from which they can be deflected only by drastic measures, and sometimes not even then. Almost invariably, they ring me between midday and one-thirty p.m., or at any time from five to seven-thirty in the evening. Nowadays, I ignore the phone in those periods, but there was a time when I enjoyed myself with the near-daily chats, usually explaining that the timing was inconvenient, as I was (a) hurrying to a funeral, (b) expecting news from the hospice where my father was confined – he died thirty-odd years ago – or (c) waiting for a fire engine to dowse the conflagration in my flat. Perhaps the high spot was when I announced myself as the sales manager for Maserati Fork-lift Trucks. My offer of our new Megalifta – with one twitch of its mighty prongs, it could handle four thousand house bricks – failed to derail the stout fellow at the other end.
Anyway, I’m getting off the point, or not getting onto it. The theme is acquaintances, in this case David, a former office colleague who has the mistaken impression that I am a fount of general knowledge. He is extraordinarily self-obsessed and calls only when he needs advice. For this reason I had decided to turn the table on him at some juncture. The opportunity arose when he rang two months ago. “How are you, Jack?” he bawled.
“Not so good,” I groaned. “I’ve just fallen onto a circular saw. Damned thing sliced through my right bicep. I’m bleeding like a stuck pig.”
“Hard luck,” he said. “Listen, I was wondering if you have any idea how to get engine oil out of asphalt. I’ve a great patch of gunge on my drive.”
Damn, he’d hit the Achilles heel. He was speaking to one of the very few people able to solve his problem. I was torn between brushing him off and telling him what to do. Decency prevailed, albeit briefly. “There’s a way,” I said. “Get some sand and tread it into the area for ten minutes, leave it for half an hour, sweep the residue away, then do the same again six or seven times and you’ll be okay.”
“What a man,” he replied. “I was sure you’d know. I’ll get right on – “
“Wait a minute,” I broke in, cunning having displaced the wish to help. “There might be another possibility. I need to check something. Ring again in half an hour.”
I was motivated solely by the idea of giving him a dose of his own medicine, but wasn’t sure how to do that. I’m not proud of this confession, which tends to confirm my daughter’s view that I am a miserable git. I’ll consider her sentiments if I still have anything worth leaving next time I review the disposal of my estate. We old-stagers are crafty that way.
When David phoned again, I was still intent on paying him in his own coin, but no clearer about the method. Temporisation seemed appropriate. To ensure that I wasn’t about to deal with a telepest, I allowed eight rings before covering my mouth with a tissue and picking up. “General Sir Celery Fillock’s office,” I boomed.
“What’s that?” David answered, an octave or so above his usual tone. “Who’s speaking?”
“I am aide-de-camp to the general,” I said. “Can I do something for you?”
“Never mind. I’ve got the wrong number. Sorry.”
“It’s all right, Dave,” I said, then hung up.
Half a minute later, the phone rang again. I answered in normal mode.
“What the hell’s going on,” yelped David.
“Nice start,” I said. “Is there a problem?”
“It’s you, isn’t it?” he snapped.
“Of course it is. Who else would it be?”
He was breathing heavily. “I rang a minute ago. Got a firm called General Capillary Hillocks or some such. Chap who called himself Ada. Queer business. I assumed I’d got a crossed line, but then this bloke called me Dave. How did he know my name?”
“Probably just a lucky guess,” I chuckled, not bothering to feign amazement. “If he’d said John, you’d hardly have noticed, but there must be nearly as many Daves as Johns around. Maybe you’re overwrought, old boy. Anyway, I had a brainwave but it came to nothing. Just stick with the sand. Believe me, it will work. Now, what’s the score at your end? I really would like to know.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Can’t say the same for the wife. She’s in a pretty bad state. The doctors give her three months at most.”
That was my real chance. “Hard luck,” I said, echoing his earlier words to me. “Speaking of bad states, I’d be grateful if you’d return that tin of saddle soap I lent you a while ago. My shoes look terrible. Look, I must go now and get a bandage on my arm. See you.” Without giving him a chance to say anything, I hung up, satisfied that I’d finally paid him in his own coin.
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