I guess the first time it really struck Arthur Ramsden was on the morning of the 28th June. If not that date exactly then somewhere around that time. See, Arthur had never been too hot on specifics, and this not being some kind of courtroom testimony under oath and all that jazz, specifics don’t really enter into the mix. Besides, all you really need to know for sure was that it was a Saturday morning around seven thirty local time.
I say local time in order to underline the fact that, although the time was local, Arthur Ramsden most certainly was not. Indeed, he was anything but, having journeyed by train from his home to London and, via Eurostar, slipped through the tunnel into Paris where, after the briefest of Metro hops between Nord and Lyon, had climbed on board a high speed TGV which had whisked him into Barcelona where, owing to the lateness of the hour and the abnormalities of local time which had necessitated in the advancing of his wristwatch a whole sixty minutes, Arthur had barely time for a spiced tuna sandwich swimming in black pepper and mayonnaise dressing washed down with a litre bottle of the local beer, a lager whose name he’d instantly forgotten but with a taste he’d never forget, before washing off the travel sweat and climbing between the thin white sheets of his single bed. Surprisingly, for one who generally regarded himself as something of a light sleeper, Arthur plunged headfirst into a deep, dreamless slumber, awakening somewhat groggily but suitably refreshed, at seven thirty the following morning. Local time. Pardon me for seeming to continually repeat myself, but I just love that expression.
There. I’ve just gone and said it again. And I’ll keep on saying it, because it’s an expression that fascinates me in the same sort of way as people who always believe that, regardless of the fact that there are thousands to choose from, their religion is the only true path to heaven, wherever that might be. That, and the way lots of folks believe that, come election time, politicians actually mean what they say. I mean, surely all time is local. I know that if it’s the middle of the night in England then it’s almost lunchtime in Australia, but really. the only time that actually matters is whatever time it is in the place you’re currently residing in. I mean, it’s nice to know what time it currently is in Timbuktu, but it’s not much use to me if I’m stuck in traffic on the M6 just outside of Cannock. So all of you who are seduced by those iPhone adverts where the gadget in your hand tells you what time it is in some place you’re not even in, put this story down now. I mean, seriously. What kind of mug asks a phone the time for a place they’re not even in? After all, the only time that matters is the time it is in the place you’re at.
Anyway, I digress. It’s a trait of mine that I need to get out of, although no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to kick the habit. Like a junkie one empty promise away from that last date with the silver needle, I’m always one sentence away from the straight and narrow. I mean – there I go again. Digressing when I should be telling you about Arthur’s moment of stark reality at seven thirty one on that fateful Saturday morning. But in order to do that I’m going to have to do the one thing that, apart from those licentious thoughts regarding other men’s wives, I truly hate myself for.
Back home Arthur Ramsden was nothing if not a creature of steadfast and meticulous habit. Each weekday morning he rose at five o’clock, made his way quietly downstairs so as not to disturb Doris, his somewhat fragile and needy wife, taking particular care to avoid stepping on Eusabio, the large collie cross who, in his role as faithful family pet, had a habit of positioning himself at awkward angles in unexpected places throughout the house. Many’s the time when Arthur, who never turned on the landing light for fear of stirring Doris from her shallow slumbers, had stepped on an outstretched paw or poorly positioned tail, eliciting a high pitched yelp of pain from the hapless mutt and demands for a cup of tea from his nearest and not so dearest who, once awoken, had an instant craving for a mug of Earl Grey, no sugar but loads of milk, served in one of those flask style travel beakers which allowed her to consume a few gulps before replacing the lid and dozing back off again.
Arthur always had a glass of supermarket brand orange juice which he used to wash down the three vitamin supplements he took each day in the steadfast belief that they would contribute significantly to his overall sense of well being, followed by a cup of strong Arabic coffee, no sugar and just a dash of milk. When I say Arabic, I don’t mean to imply that Arthur had the stuff imported from some exotic locale in the Middle East, but rather that it was a well-known brand that traded on its Frenchness and, through Gallic links, the obvious associations with North Africa. For all Arthur knew the stuff was probably bottled in some factory just off the M1 in Luton, but that was of no consequence for, as far as Arthur was concerned, all that truly mattered was the illusion and the fact that with each sip, Arthur saw images of camel trains, Bedouin tribesmen and exotic belly dancers. Not bad for two pound fifty a jar.
Now Arthur had never been what you might call a ladies man, although he liked to spend his time sitting in public places admiring them. And here he was truly democratic. In the pub after a few guest beers he could get all love-struck over some gobby piece with a bad dye job, roll ups, a pint of Carling, home made tattoos and a dress code that screamed Chav Mum, while in the art gallery or theatre he could come across all suave and sophisticated as he eyed up those elegant ladies in their designer dresses showing off their California tans while they sipped Bloody Mary’s with an air of cool sophistication you just can’t buy wholesale. Indeed, Arthur liked to think of himself as a true man of the people; someone that can fit with ease into any situation. A regular dilettante. And when he squinted in the mirror each morning he couldn’t help thinking that he didn’t look too bad for his age. A bit of grey here and there and the odd line or two on the forehead, but not much to fret about. Unlike his father when he was his age, Arthur still had all his hair and teeth and, apart from the odd aching in his right knee, he exuberated health and vitality.
Which is why, at seven thirty one local time, Arthur was mortified by what he saw. He’d climbed out of bed after what he considered to be an excellent nights rest and, tugging up his pyjamas, strolled into the bathroom. As he flicked the light switch he noticed one of those large circular shaving mirrors fixed to the wall next to the shower. Excellent, he thought, having always fancied getting one at home, despite Doris’s objections that he was no DIY expert and would probably end up cracking the tiles, I’ll be able to get a really close shave and not miss bits like I do at home, which was really annoying when you got to work and ran your tongue across your upper lip only to discover a cluster of stubble in the corner where the razor had glided over a little too elegantly. It spoilt your day and you were forever thinking about it, avoiding the close proximity of fellow workers for fear they would notice your indiscretion and comment on it when your back was turned. It was the kind of thing that would keep Arthur awake at nights, which made him all the more grateful that, although the Hotel Mediocre hadn’t provided him with a kettle and coffee or included breakfast in the price of his room, they had seen fit to give him a bathroom with one of those wonderful shaving mirrors that enlarged your face to about three times its size. Just like Thomas Newton’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
It’s at this point, as Arthur ran the hot tap and reached for the shaving foam, that his tiny little world collapsed in on itself, like a supernova, creating a black hole in the middle of the bathroom floor through which Arthur could feel himself being slowly sucked into.
Okay, so that last bit was slipping into the realms of sci-fi and fantasy, and I for one, having seen the kind of freaks who read that sort of stuff, don’t ever want to go there, but I use it as a means of attempting to somehow convey the sheer enormity of the reaction Arthur Ramsden had to what confronted him in the magnified shaving mirror at seven thirty-one, local time. It’s hard to convey with any degree of accuracy the true level of disappointment and despair that washed over him like that well known brand of power shower he’d always fancied having fitted at home, but suffice to say, he would never be the same again.
All as a result of magnification.
See, although we drift merrily through life imagining that we’re big thinkers with large horizons and lofty ideals, in fact we’re a lot smaller than we think. Small in our outlooks, our narrow religious beliefs, the stifling conformity of our everyday relationships and the way we plod through our workday world, continually wishing the clock forward but failing to realise that all we’re really doing is burning up precious time, until it’s too late and we look through that bay window in the nursing home and wonder where on earth the years went.
Down the plughole is where it went, thought Arthur as his reflection stared back at him, mocking his illusions and forcing him to confront head on the bitter reality of his very existence. For those few lines on the forehead were actually deep trenches cut like dry riverbeds through ancient rock, while those few grey hairs were a forest growing ever outwards through his once fair hair which, he couldn’t help noticing, was thinning faster than a polar icecap. He looked at his ears and was horrified to see tufts of fluffy grey hair growing like tumbleweed, which somehow matched the grey follicles which spouted from inside his nose. And those eyes, once described by a female workmate as almond, were now a seasick green, splattered with bloodshot red like two identical Jackson Pollock paintings. He gazed at the stubble on his chin, a grey now turning to white, and realised that for the last twenty years he’d been looking at himself through his own bathroom mirror and seeing only what he wanted to see, seduced by the image reflected back from the tiny mirror Doris used in order to apply her make up. My God, he thought, as a light bulb lit up inside his brain. Did he not continually mock his wife, commenting somewhat sarcastically and with a degree of irony which he now acknowledged was nothing short of downright malice, that what she painted each day in no way resembled the truth, and that she should surrender to the passing of time and cease fighting what could only be described as a losing battle.
Oh the sheer irony! For here was Arthur, standing before the mirror like a modern day Dorian Gray, horrified as the image reflected back at him mocked his very existence while laughing at the puny little man who dreamt big but lived small.
I have to report that, despite beautiful sunshine and a wealth of cultural and spiritual attractions, Arthur did not enjoy his stay in the capital of Catalonia. Each morning, despite the fact that he set no alarm, he would rise at seven thirty, crawl out of bed, hitch up his pyjamas and shuffle into the bathroom where, after turning on the harsh overhead light, he would stare at his reflection in the shaving mirror. After ten minutes of seemingly deep contemplation, he would climb into the shower, wash himself, and then dress for the day. But that’s as far as he got. He never left his room, except for ten minutes each morning around eleven when the maid came to change the towels and make the bed. Each day he would sit forlornly on the bed, gazing through the open door into the bathroom and the shaving mirror fixed to the wall by the shower.
After six days Arthur checked out, caught the train back to Paris, the Eurostar to London and the local service back to his hometown, where he was met by Doris.
“Did you have a nice time, dear?” she enquired, more for something to say than out of any genuine interest.
“Yes thanks”, Arthur replied, although he too didn’t really mean it.
For Arthur Ramsden, by travelling to Barcelona, had experienced something in a city literally overflowing with churches that no religion could ever have provided. He had seen himself as never before.
The next day, despite Doris’s protestations, he went down to his local DIY outlet and purchased a large circular shaving mirror, which he fixed on the wall next to the shower.
Each morning at 5am, rather than creeping gingerly downstairs, stepping over Eusabio, washing his supplements down with a glass of orange while waiting for the kettle to boil, he would retire to the bathroom and gaze at his reflection.
Perhaps we all need a mirror like Arthur’s.