Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 13 June 2009

Unkindness to strangers

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There’s an obscure corner of me that relishes pain and physical injury. It doesn’t want permanent pain. But an occasional sharp reminder of the reality of pain exhilarates it. So when I foolishly unscrewed the cap on my car radiator and a fountain of boiling water erupted, scalding the underside of my forearm, this masochistic side of me was quite chuffed.

The rest of me was immmediately concerned with refilling the radiator and reservoir. From the midden in the rear footwells I dug out two empty plastic water bottles and carried them up the drive of the nearest house and rang the bell beside the front door. It was a well-to-do sort of a road: a strip of grass separated the pavement from the road. The house was detached mock Tudor with roof gables.

After a second ring I heard shuffling in the hall. Then the door opened about four inches — the extent allowed by a brass chain — and the face of an elderly woman pressed into the gap. ‘What is it?’ she hissed. ‘My radiator has overheated and I’d like some water, please,’ I said. I showed the empty plastic bottles. A wrinkled hand appeared and the fingers beckoned impatiently, vulgarly at them. I felt like Hansel negotiating with the witch at the door of her gingerbread house. I passed in the bottles and they quickly reappeared, now partially filled with water. My expression of gratitude was cut short by the door slamming.

The skin on my arm was now either coming away from the flesh or blistering. The blisters were filling with fluid. I tipped the water from the bottles into the radiator, shut the bonnet and considered whether I ought to have the arm looked at by a medical person.

‘Excuse me!’ I said to a woman walking by on the other side of the road. She looked terrified. Was everyone in Bournemouth so unnerved by strangers? ‘Is there by any chance a hospital around here?’ I said, lifting my forearm to show that my enquiry was genuine and that I was in no condition to rob or rape anybody. ‘Oo! Nasty!’ she said. Crouching like a pointer in a field trial, she indicated a doctor’s surgery just in view at the end of the road.

The surgery was closing. ‘I’ve scalded my arm and I was wondering if I could see a doctor,’ I said to the receptionist when she finally came off the phone. She looked doubtfully at me. I showed my arm. Instead of looking at it, she looked furtively off to the side. Through an open door on her right I glimpsed a human shadow, of a doctor, I guessed, standing just out of sight, listening carefully, anxious that she get rid of me. Basil Fawlty jumping up and down making lunatic shooing gestures came to mind.

An apologetic look in his direction from the receptionist brought him out to join her behind the barricade of the counter. Oddly enough he was tall and thin like Basil, though half his age. ‘How long ago did it happen?’ he said, making a point of not looking at my arm. ‘Twenty minutes,’ I said. ‘Then the best thing to do is go home and put it under the cold tap for half an hour.’ ‘But I live 150 miles away,’ I said. ‘Can’t I come in and use your tap?’

Doctor and receptionist looked anxiously at one another. ‘I’m sorry but the cleaner will be in soon, you see,’ said the receptionist, ‘and she won’t be very happy to find someone in her way.’ I looked at the doctor. His expression told of his helplessness and impotence in the face of this tartar.

‘Then what do you suggest I do?’ I said. (Now I could feel the weight of the water sloshing about in the blisters.) ‘What I suggest you do,’ said the doctor, as though happily struck by an inspiration, ‘is that you go down to one of the pubs at the end of the road and go into the gents. Put your arm under the cold tap and leave it there for half an hour.’

I looked at him.

‘Try the Crooked Billet,’ added the receptionist helpfully. ‘The toilets are nicer in there than in the other one.’

‘Let me get this right,’ I said. ‘Your advice is to find a pub and stick my arm under the tap in the gents.’ The doctor shut his mouth and nodded. The receptionist looked steadily at me. ‘It’s a wind-up, right?’ I said. They shook their heads. It wasn’t a wind-up. They were that scared of the cleaner.

I thanked them for their time, consoling myself that at least maybe I’d learnt something today about the state of my nation, noting at the same time that the small part of me which relishes pain and injury was now frantically signalling that it was having second thoughts.