I was in the queue at Pret the other day, when I managed, for once to perform with grace one of those little pieces of life choreography. It was just a matter of neatly and deftly letting a woman into the queue. It created one of those moments of pleasant near intimacy, accompanied by that Malinowskian phatic communion – inchoate subvocalizations, intended to convey nothing but a desire to communicate. Anyway, we shuffled along after that, not speaking, but bathing in that sense of a life-task well performed. And these little things should not be underestimated, as the obverse – moments of the ballet when you fall on your arse, your tutu askew, your tights ripped, can cast a pall that lasts weeks.
So we reached the head of the queue, and then the woman – neither young nor old, but with rather a lovely face, like an attractive nun in a Hollywood blockbuster of the 1950s – half turned and said, ‘Do you mind if I …?” and then reached over and pulled at something that was stuck to my jumper, roughly in the collarbone region. Whatever it was resisted for a moment, and then came away, with a satisfying ‘tock’.
I was rather taken aback by this, and I have to confess that my first assumption was that it was a pass of some kind. I waited for the second move, constructing various excuses in my head. She was so nice that I wanted to rebuff her in as kind a way as possible. Even the truth – ‘I’m sorry, but I’m very happily married …’ might have seemed too brusque. ‘What, so I’m so awful you wouldn’t even consider me for a bit of on the side, risk-free hanky-panky…?’ So then I thought I could say that I was gay, otherwise of course I’d love to… Or perhaps that I was mid-transition, and didn’t currently have any adequately performing genitalia of any sort. Or that I was recently widowed, and it was still far too early for me to …
But phase 2 never came. The woman bought a banana and a wrap and walked away without another word.
Afterwards, what has remained with me is not the misunderstood nature of our intercourse – my assumption that it was a prelude to something more intimate – but the nature of whatever it was she pulled from my jumper. Nothing too gross, I hope, or she would surely not have touched it. A food particle, then. Something that had been moist and then dried, causing the moment of resistance before she pried it loose.
And the odd thing is that she didn’t flick it away, at least not in my sight. She still seemed to have it, when she left. Could she be some kind of fetishist? Or was she stalking me, gradually removing small particles of my being until she could reconstruct a full-sized simulacrum? And what would she do then with this inert version of me, made from fluff and food crumbs? One day will she replace the real me with the counterfeit? Would my family notice? Has it happened already?