COLUMN: September 28, 2017

One of those hamburgers they have these days

LAST week I had some annual leave because otherwise it would have just built up and then I’d have to have taken it all at once and when I returned there would be somebody sitting at my desk and my editor would say: “We all thought you’d left. We’ve taken on an absolute moron to do your job. And he’s twice as good as you.”

During my week off I visited a couple of bars in a different city with a man who had cut himself shaving his head and, until we noticed, had been going about the place as if he had a head injury, and I failed to win a pub quiz. It was a vintage week of not going to work.

On my last day off, I decided to have a treat to ease myself back in. I was going to have one of those posh hamburgers, because nothing says “luxury” like some mince on a bap.

I went to a branch of that “no frills” burger chain. You know the one, it’s all red and white, and corporately designed right down to the last detail to look as if it hasn’t been designed.

It’s so austere it’s just about on the right side of “You’ll eat what you’re given, peasants.” At any moment you expect a man in a white coat to come in and sluice the floor.

After rubbing my eyes a few times when reading the prices over the counter, I paid for a bacon cheeseburger with medium fries and a Coke, and looked for the smallest possible table that a single person could occupy while still being in some comfort. I did not want to sit on a high stool in case I had to move in a hurry.

I watched the crack hamburger operatives in the kitchen assembling various meals. They clearly knew exactly what they were doing, and I congratulated myself on my choice of restaurant. This was going to be an excellent incredibly overpriced beef roll and chips.

They called my number – of course I had a number – and handed me a brown paper bag, trays being the sort of hoity-toity frippery with which this aggressively “no frills” restaurant has no truck.

Inside the bag there were a burger wrapped in foil, some napkins, a white plastic cup filled with fries, and some extra bonus fries scattered around the inside of the bag. And as I extracted the white plastic cup, more of the fries made a bid for freedom.

You see, the very worst thing in which you can hold fries is a white plastic cup, because they are prone to fall out spontaneously, or if you disturb the pack by removing one yourself. And they do not absorb oil, so your hand, as it gets further into the cup, becomes coated in grease.

It was a shame as the chips themselves were delicious. They had skin on – peeling spuds presumably being an affectation – which made them taste of potato. If only I could have emptied them onto a plate, but plates were considered another frill.

And so I unwrapped the burger. It seemed surprisingly heavy. As it turned out, this was because they had given me a double cheeseburger instead of the advertised and ordered bacon cheeseburger. I decided not to push my luck and tucked in.

It fell apart immediately. The bun had no structural integrity. You know how if you make a cheese toastie and leave it on your plate for a minute it develops “toast sweat”, making the bottom slice soggy, because the water vapour can’t escape?

Imagine what happens when you wrap a burger in “no frills” foil. All the moisture gets trapped inside, making the bun damp. And a damp bun is never going to be up to the task of keeping the component elements of an admittedly tasty burger in position. You might as well use candy floss.

So every time I took a bite, I lost a pickle or some onion onto the table. Because, of course, I had no plate. And my face was covered in burger debris. Halfway through the burger I looked as if I had been starved for a month, then forced to eat stew with my hands tied behind my back.

It was all incredibly stressful, and exactly what I needed. Because it made being back at work seem like a piece of cake. Eaten off a plate, with a fork.

COLUMN: September 21, 2017

Some pasta, with an absolutely ruined packet of Parmesan cheese
LYING is what separates us from the animals – that and horrifying hygiene regimes. Hamsters don’t lie. Dogs don’t fib. Cats… well, let’s gloss over that one.

When was the last time you heard a goldfish tell a porky pie? They don’t, unless they’re fibbing when they say: “I don’t remember.”

And dissembling is not necessarily a bad thing. “No, no, you look lovely in that.” “Mustn’t grumble.” “Fine, thank you. How are you?” They are all lies, told in order to grease the mechanism of human intercourse.

If you do not believe me that lying is not necessarily a bad thing, bear in mind that the biggest indicator that somebody is a Grade A pillock, to be avoided at parties and in pubs, is that he “calls a spade a spade” and “tells it as it is”.

But some lies are awful. And there is one lie that is the worst of all. We are not talking about piffling lies like “Brexit won’t cause any pain at all” or “We’re gonna build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it” or “Really, it’s no trouble at all”.

And the worst thing about this lie is that we all fall for it, every time we hear it. It is a flaw in human nature.

I fell for it twice in five minutes this week.

I came home last Wednesday to find that the light had gone off in my fridge. Further inspection uncovered that a circuit had been tripped. I switched it back on. The light came on in the fridge. It made the usual fridgey humming sound. And everything was still cold.

“Phew!” I thought. “No harm done. It is just one of those inexplicable things and everything is going to be fine.”

Sometimes we lie to ourselves. On Friday morning, it was warmer inside my fridge than outside my fridge, and my freezer could have been used to prove bread dough. My milk was becoming cheese, and my cheese was on its way to becoming blue cheese.

A man told me my fridge-freezer was not working, and that he would replace it the following Monday. I had to throw out the food in my fridge-freezer, and by the time Monday came I was tired of eating food that had come out of tins or had been chosen from a list behind a counter.

I had my new fridge-freezer and decided I was going to buy some food to put in it. That night I would dine like a king, if a king of a small and insignificant nation who travels on buses to keep in contact with his subjects. I would have my favourite pasta dish – a mixture of bacon and cabbage and chilli, with a dusting of Parmesan. I bought the items, stocked up my wonderfully cold fridge, and began to cook my tea.

I took the packet of bacon, and that was when I first fell for the lie. “Easy Open”, it said on the packet, near a tiny unattached corner.

I knew what was supposed to happen. I would pull back the corner, and the top of the packet would cleanly come away, enabling me to access the appropriate amount of bacon. Then I would replace the top of the packet, protecting the rest of the bacon from the elements.

What actually happened is what always happens. I pulled back the corner. It reached the bit of adhesive attaching the top to the packet, decided it was far too forbidding an obstacle, and came off in my hand, because the glue used in this packaging is the strongest adhesive known to humanity, stronger even than the glue used to attach the first sheet of kitchen paper to the roll.

Then I had to stab the packaging with a knife, and tear it back, take out the bacon, then put the plastic wrapping back. Except the wrapping didn’t go back. It just curled up, as it always does.

Five minutes later, I fell for it again. “Easy Open”, it said on the packet of Parmesan. It was not. The packet ripped in two, and it was only my weirdly good reflexes regarding cheese that prevented it from flying into my mop bucket.

The fact is, there is no such thing as an “Easy Open” package. Exert not enough force, and knives are required. Exert too much force, and the package destructs like a Bond villain’s volcano lair.

And that is no lie.

COLUMN: September 14, 2017

A man wearing a lanyard

MY normal resting facial expression is one of confusion or worry. It does occasionally prompt colleagues to ask if I am all right or reassure me that “it might never happen”.

What I really want to cultivate is Resting Grumpy Face. It would be ideal for travel on public transport to deter people from sitting next to me with their pickled onion-flavour Monster Munch or extended mobile telephone conversations.

“I’m not sitting next to him. He looks as if he would bite my head off,” I want them to think. “I’d be better off sitting next to that woman in the floral dress and Viking helmet who is singing.”

But I am stuck with Resting Vaguely Worried Face, which is all very well – my face has to be arranged in some way while it is not in use – but it does not intimidate people in any way.

I was walking to work, trying to learn a foreign language on a phone app through my earphones, so that, when I am thrown out of the country following the Big Brexit Revolution, for Remoaner offences like whistling Beethoven or being nice to people with dark skin, I will be able to obtain food and shelter overseas.

That was when a young woman with dark skin appeared in my path. “Help me, please”, she said. “Oh, no,” I thought. “I hope she doesn’t want me to assemble a bed.”

But she was young enough to be my daughter, and I switched into Dad Mode. “What do you need?” I asked, hoping that it would be quick and painless.

She swung a lanyard badge from the local FE college in my face. “Where is college?” she said.

“Oh, right,” I said. “Erm, which campus?” She looked at me as if I had asked her which frying pan Hylda Baker would have used to fly to Mars. “What is campus?” she asked.

I tried a couple of my newly-acquired languages on her, but she was unmoved, so I resorted to English, enunciated clearly and very slowly. “Are. You. Learning. At. The. College?” I mouthed, miming the word “learning” by pointing at my head.

“Yes,” she said.

“What. Are. You. Learning?”

“English”, she said.

“Of course”, I said. I whipped out my phone, and Googled the college. Up came a page with the details of the English as a foreign language course. Did it say where the course was? No, of course not.

I decided to phone the college myself, and find out. Was the college telephone number on the mobile website? No, of course not. Because websites are all about spiffy animation and not about unfussily telling you the stuff you need.

Then the woman bustled past me, presumably tired of my uselessness. But it turned out she had spotted four other young women, with lanyards like her own. “Where is college?” she asked them.

I walked over. “Which campus?” they asked. She looked at me. “She doesn’t speak English,” I said. “Do you know which campus does English as a foreign language?”

They did. They told me. It was about a mile away. I thanked them with the heaviest of hearts. I knew where this was going. Worse, I knew where I was going…

“The college is that way,” I said, pointing hopefully in the approximate direction of the institution.

“Now, you need to take the…” I stopped. Her incomprehension was as clear to me as my instructions were unclear to her.

“Please take me,” the young woman said. I was still in Dad Mode. I imagined my own daughters in her position, in a foreign land, completely lost, trying to learn the language. What would I want a local to do?

I would want him to be late for work. “Come on,” I said. “I’m Gary. Follow me.” She scurried after me, and I wondered how I would be able to fill up the silence of a mile’s walk with somebody who didn’t get my jokes.

But then, after a mere 10 metres of walking, she squealed excitedly. “I know this! It’s there! I know this place! College is there!”

And off she went, a cloud of dust behind her. “Thank you,” she called. “I haven’t really done anything,” I said, to nobody in particular. I was almost disappointed.

I resumed my journey, hoping that she would make it to college. At least for once my Resting Vaguely Worried Face was appropriate.


COLUMN: September 7, 2017

An Ottoman bed. You don’t sleep on it like this. That would be ridiculous and difficult

I THINK if one thing would improve the quality of my life, it would be to develop the ability to assess accurately how good I will be at a particular task.

“Oh, yes,” I find myself saying far too often. “I am a grown man. I shouldn’t find that bulky object too difficult to carry.” Or I say, “Hmm, I walk fairly quickly, and I am well acquainted with the timetables of local public transportation. It will probably only take me half an hour to get to this place.”

And then I end up late, covered in sweat and soil, staggering under a bulky object, incapable of chewing the amount of stuff I have bitten off.

“Know your limits, Bainbridge,” I forever tell myself, while also seriously overestimating my limits. Which is how I found myself limping through the city centre.

An old friend had complained about her inability to assemble a flat pack bed, which had rendered her sofa-bound. And I volunteered to help. It is not for me to call myself a hero and/or saint. Indeed, if you did call me that – and you should – I would dismiss the suggestion.

I am a competent flat pack furniture assembler. This always comes as a surprise to people. It is as if Kenneth Clarke MP had disclosed that he was a dab hand at pole dancing. But it should not. I am a plodder who needs instructions to do anything correctly. And flat pack furniture comes with instructions.

I put together an entire wardrobe in two and a half hours. The last time I assembled a bed it took me two hours. This bed seemed slightly more complicated, so I estimated it would take me another hour. But seriously, how difficult could it be? It was a bed. Beds aren’t tricky. They have four corners and a mattress. They don’t have engines or wi-fi or opinions.

I arrived at my friend’s flat with a screwdriver set and hammer, and my phone pointing at the series of texts with my friend outlining my intent to assemble a bed in case a police officer arrested me for “going equipped”. I do not think I carry myself like an opportunistic burglar, but you never know.

It became quickly apparent that my three-hour assessment was miserably off target. It took me 25 minutes to open and dispose of the first box. It was an hour before I had put in the first screw. And the instruction booklet was longer than some novellas.

It was an Ottoman bed, named after the bloodthirsty empire, presumably, which involved springs and hinges and – according to a calculation I have just done using the assembly instructions available online – 90 individual screws.

That’s 90 screws to be fixed with my terrible Phillips screwdriver and one of three Allen keys. And roughly 60 of those screws had to be affixed at floor level, which involved me crouching like Gollum, only a Gollum who, instead of punctuating sentences with “my preciousss”, constantly swore at slipping Allen keys.

But on I pressed, like the hero/saint I refuse to let you call me, until, finally, we came to attach what I am going to call the insanely complicated mattress-holder thingy (ICMHT) to the spring-loaded hinges. There were no holes through which I was supposed to push the screws.

I realised at that point that my limits also include the inability to distinguish left from right. For some cruel reason, the ICMHT could be convincingly constructed the wrong way round.

I wept and undid the 45 minutes it had taken me to construct the ICMHT and rebuilt it correctly, so the holes would be at the right end. Then we attached it to the hinges.

Then we pushed it down into place, and it sprang back up. We did this a few more times until I realised that my limits also include the inability to distinguish up from down. For some cruel reason, the ICMHT could be constructed the wrong way round AND upside down.

I wept and undid, etc, etc, until finally the ICMHT was in place, fully slatted, with a mattress resting upon it, SIX hours after I had ripped open the first box.

And five hours of affixing screws in a crouching position have left me unable to stand or sit without complaint, and walking like an elderly nun, dragging a ball and chain, who is in no hurry. It has not improved the quality of my life one bit.