Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 13 June 2009

Unkindness to strangers

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.

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