It all started with an in-growing toenail, and a very painful one at that. At least that’s what my dear wife, Lara, told me and she should know as it was her nail that was doing the in-growing. The doctor had done his bit, the out-patients department at the local hospital had done theirs, and I had done all the house work while Madam had barked out orders from a reclining chair.
‘Don’t forget,’ she declared one morning, just after breakfast, ‘I’ve got an appointment with the chiropodist later.’
‘Yes dear,’ I replied fighting a losing battle with a pile of dust on the mantelpiece. ‘Half ten’. I said and hoped she would be done before the Test match coverage started on television at eleven.
‘You won’t miss the football,’ she said. She called any game with a ball in it ‘football’, and even some that didn’t come to think of it.
‘No dear’, I sighed and blew the offending dust onto the top of a bookcase.
We pulled up outside the clinic,’ I’ll wait in the car,’ I said, tuning the radio into the pre cricket commentary.
Lara gave me one of her looks, not exactly one of loving helplessness, more sort of, ‘You better be here when I’ve finished with the bloodshed mate!’ Not wishing to appear in a hurry, I got out and opened the back passenger door, removed her crutches and manhandled her out of the car, through the front doors of the clinic and into the waiting room.
It was when I wandered over to the magazine rack that I first saw him.
Why I hadn’t noticed him before, and he was breathtakingly noticeable, was entirely due, looking back on it, to my thoughts on whether I could safely nip down the road to the White lion, embrace a swift half of bitter and watch the first few overs of the test match on their television while the memsahib was under the knife, therefore in no fit state to debate.
It might have been the best example of an imploding face, that I have ever seen which caught my attention. The single brown, stump of a tooth, like a solitary decrepit turret in the middle of two bright red gums, sat comfortably below a purple cratered overhanging buttress, which once passed as a nose. The eyes; I couldn’t see the eyes, they were there I’m pretty sure, but the eyebrows that covered them would have been highly commended at Crufts, if they were attached to an Old English Sheep dog. However, they weren’t, they were attached to a shock of bright red hair that spouted out of a skull in all directions. Exactly the sort of effect experienced if he had plugged himself into the nearest wall socket and had two hundred and twenty volts of electricity coursing through every strand. Then again it might have been the trousers. They looked like old maize sacks, roughly stitched together, with scant regard to the art of fine needlework and fell to ground level completely covering any footwear. But the gusset, for that is where the eyes were inextricably drawn, was made from, wait for it… a strip from an old rubber tyre with holes burnt in it to accommodate the twine that attached them to the aforementioned maize sacks.
Now I didn’t actually make a close inspection of this fabrication, but as I said to Lara afterwards this fashion, if that is what, it was may be alright in the wilds of West Cornwall, but I couldn’t see it becoming snazzy enough for a Buckingham House garden party!
Anyway, I was still pondering upon the haute couture aspect when the Chiropodist wafted in holding a cup of coffee, bade ‘a cherry good morning to all and bade my better half to join her in the torture chamber. This was accomplished in record time, aided by a method of ejecting Lara from her seat that I had perfected during the course of her incapacitation. It involved me hooking my foot under her knee and hoicking her to her feet. Not pretty, I grant you, but effective!
‘Only be ten minutes,’ said the pretty chiropodist, as she led the way down a corridor. I felt quite sorry for my beloved as she hobbled after her and decided there and then that love and duty must overcome any selfish thoughts of beer and wickets.
Have you ever tried to avoid eye contact with someone when the need to scrutinize them becomes an overwhelming desire? Well I tried and failed miserably on this occasion. Our fellow patient, for that is whom I presumed him to be, after all I surmised he couldn’t be the husband, or any relation come to that of the delectable young thing that at this very moment was digging away at Lara’s big toe…or could he? I wouldn’t be surprised at anything in this ‘neck of the woods’.
I started to roll a cigarette. The days of correctness, political or whatever hadn’t reached this outpost of the Empire yet and every waiting room was liberally supplied with ash trays. Deeply engrossed as I was in this act, I saw our friend shamble to his feet and set forth in my direction.
‘‘Spect you’ll be lightin’ up dreckly,’ he said.
I looked up. It was not a pretty sight. He was rummaging through the haystack on his skull with fingers shaped like telegraph poles. After what seemed an eternity he produced the stub end of a fag from somewhere behind his left ear which looked as if it had last seen a flame at about the time the last King died.
‘Mothers paid the ratting money this week,’ he went on,’ ‘er says buyin’ matches ‘ave to wait ’till ‘er gets ‘er pension.’
‘Ratting bill! …ratting bill’, I thought. ‘Is he a rat catcher? Well at least it would explain his mode of dress and especially the Michelin X covering his, er…more sensitive parts. ‘Council sent us one ‘o they red letters. Mother said first class post.’
‘Red?’ I said, mystified.
‘Said if we didn’t pay we’d be cut off’.
The mist slowly cleared. Rates, that’s what he was talking about. His rates demand.’Oh dear,’ I said, and passed him a box of matches. He looked too old to have a mother, in fact, it was hard to put an age on him; somewhere between fifty and ninety would be a rough guess, so I presumed he was talking about his wife. But you never know! I decided to clarify the situation. ‘Has your er, wife gone to the council offices?’
‘‘Ers up there now.’ He pointed out of the window, in the general direction of town.
‘That’s all right then,’ I said, ‘you won’t be cut off.’
The concave face with just the lone brown stump standing as a lonely sentinel, split into two, it was split from ear to ear like a fried tomato skin. I grinned back, just as idiotically. But what was he doing here,’ I thought. Perhaps his wife while passing here had a quick look in and thought it was the very place to deposit him, while she went and did battle up at the council offices. I picked up an old edition of ‘Punch’ and idly turned the pages.
‘They books got good pictures,’ he continued, ‘I seen ‘em all.’
‘Proper job,’ I said, relaxing into the vernacular.
‘Every time I comes ‘ere.’
‘Do you come here very often then?’ I asked, intrigued.
‘Every time doctor send me ‘ere.’
I put the magazine down.
‘Won’t do the job ‘eself.’
‘What job is that?’
He bent forward, I thought for a minute he was going to attempt a hand stand, but it was just to pull one of the maize sacks up, uncovering a Wellington boot. ‘Cutting these ‘ere buggers off.’
The mind boggled.
‘Sends me ‘ere, to the foot woman ‘e does, and ‘er does the job…proper.’ He looked around the waiting room. ‘Don’t mind, though. ‘He pointed to a fluorescent light on the ceiling and then lent forward towards me as though a revelation from on high had suddenly hit him. ‘They got ‘lectric in them tubes.’
‘Hell,’ I thought not wanting to get involved in technicalities, let alone try and follow this thought process. If I did it might well be catching, I could be as batty as him by the time Lara came back.
‘Why?’ I inquired, ‘have you got to come here to have your boots cut off.’
His face screwed up into a fair imitation of an orange that had been left on the shelf for three months.’ ‘Cos Mother says they mess the blankets up!’
‘‘Er don’t take to me goin’ to bed with ‘em on.’
‘ Well,’ I said, the mind doing somersaults,’ I can’t say I blame her.’
‘Well, I can’t take ‘em off due to my ‘artherities’ and Mother can’t due to ‘er not ‘avin’ the pullin’ power ‘er used to’.
‘So that’s why she sends you to the doctor,’ I said, having a stab in the dark.
‘‘An he give me a piece of paper ‘an I brings it down ‘ere and then the foot woman…’er cuts the buggers off for me.’
‘I see.’ I said, not seeing at all, but trying to grasp the concept of what seemed to be a significantly new area of foot fetishism.
”Bout every three month,’ he did a bit of mental arithmetic on his telegraph poles.’ I comes ‘ere.’ He threw his chest out,’ ‘spect I be ‘er best customer.’
I watched him walk over to the wall. It was covered with notices extolling the virtues of reinforced toe caps and the need to keep an eye open for athlete’s foot. He stood and scrutinized these for a few seconds and then moved to peer intently at a print that someone had stuck on the wall between the opening times and a dire warning about pricking chilblains.
‘See this ‘ere,’ He said, prodding the picture with an index telegraph pole.
I got up and walked over. The print was one of those reproductions depicting farming life in the last century. It showed a handful of farm workers standing around a high sided cart with a Shire horse standing forlornly between the shafts. The men were holding pitchforks and to a man staring, with inane grins on their ruddy faces, into the camera.
‘ That’n be Grandfather,’ my companion pointed to a young man. ‘An that’n be ‘is father.’ He pointed to another.’ ‘An this one ‘ere be his father.’
‘Good lord,’ I exclaimed, ‘how d’you know?’
‘‘Cause I got ‘riginal at ‘ome.’
It was then that the penny dropped. All the men were dressed like my friend. They all had maize sack trousers with formidable gussets, and they were standing in a broccoli field. They were broccoli picking! And the fact that my friend was in town for his quarterly visit to the ‘footwoman’, in the middle of the picking season, didn’t mean he was going to alter his mode of dress!
‘Where do you farm?’ I asked this son of the soil.
‘I farm for any bugger who want’s me…worked for most of ‘em.’ He scratched his head and I rolled a cigarette and handed him the pouch.
‘I expect you’ve got your favorites though?’
‘Well,’ he said licking the paper and rolling the tobacco up into a fair sized imitation of a squashed daddy longlegs,’ I ‘ave an’ I ‘avn’t. Most ‘o the buggers got these ‘ere tractors now…an’ me an’ tractors don’t get on spectacular together.’
I was saved having to think about technicalities again because I heard Lara shuffling up the corridor. ‘Finished?’ I said, stating the completely obvious, as I watched her swinging her way into the waiting room.
‘ For the time being,’ she said,’ Got to come back in a week’s time, just for a checkup.’
‘Good,’ I thought and then remembered my new found friend and was about to introduce them, but he was already half way into the surgery.
‘Who on earth was that?’ said Lara as we reached the car.
‘You wouldn’t believe me,’ I said,’ He’s a dying breed. They don’t make them like him anymore.’ Then I thought about it. How do I know they don’t? Out in the wild reaches of west Cornwall, out Sancreed way, the countryside’s full of them. It’s just that they don’t come into town very often; why should they; It’s a different world, a world full of cars and noise and tourists, of strangers and officialdom. Why, I bet some of them have never been into Penzance in their lives, why should they?
It was about two weeks later and I was passing the same clinic on my way to the library. I had thought of the old boy quite often and wondered how he was getting on. This time I found out.
He was walking towards me on the same side of the road with a lady. Well he was sort of waddling actually and she was a good ten yards in front of him. The fact that she was his lady was unmistakable – they just went together. His attire was the same eye catching ensemble and although she wasn’t wearing a pair of maize sacks, the pair of trousers that hung down, gusset wise, were large enough to accommodate half a broccoli field.
‘Hello,’ I said as we drew level.’ How’s the boots?’
He looked up from the cracks in the pavement he seemed to be studying and screwed his face up into the familiar dehydrated orange.’ ‘Ello my bird,’ he replied after kicking the memory banks into gear. ‘Don’t talk ’bout they buggers!’ Lifting the maize sacks up, he showed me a pair of Wellingtons that looked pretty decent, at first sight.
His wife, a small fiery woman with darting gray eyes marched up. Not a woman to be trifled with I realized.
‘Mothers takin’ me to see the ‘foot woman’, he said.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘ Five poun’ an’ some funny stuff,’ she shrilled.’ That’s what’s wrong!’
I presumed she was talking about decimal coinage which had only been in circulation for fifteen years or so.
‘An the silly sod,’ she went on, ‘gone ‘an put ‘em on the wrong bloody feet!’
I took a closer look at the offending articles. Sure enough, they were. He looked like Charlie Chaplin on a bad day.
‘‘Ed bin wearin’ ‘em for a bloody week ‘for I found out why ‘e were walking funny!’
‘You bought the bloody things’ he countered, as though it was all her fault.
‘ You shut up,’ she shouted,’ Go on,’ she pointed across the road towards the clinic.’ you go ‘an tell the ‘foot woman what you done.’
He waddled off across the road, feet stuck out at right angles and disappeared through the front door,.
‘ Well,’ she said, as we watched him go.’ can’t stand ‘ere gossopin’ all day, got ‘lectric light bill to pay.’
‘Goodbye’, I said and stood and watched our wonderful heritage trundle along the pavement and round the corner.