Hanky no Panky

A woman of my acquaintance declared herself ready to acquire a boyfriend. Having emerged from an emotional crash site, having brushed herself down, cheered herself up, adopted mindfulness and become a yogi, the woman confided, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a boyfriend.’ She meant me to understand ‘boy’ as a person in her own, non-juvenile age bracket. She comes, as she often reminds me, to a different – younger – generation.
 

 
The woman selected a promising candidate – fellow yogi, terrifically mindful, neither bankrupt nor lumbered with children, not a Trump supporter nor addicted. After the first date she favoured me with a report: ‘Charming fellow, good company.’ Yes, she’d see him again.
 
 
Following the second encounter I found her beaming. ‘He’s funny!  And considerate. I like him.’
 
 
The woman saw him on a third occasion. Following this
I heard no report. In due course the woman and I bumped into each other. ‘Well?’ I asked.
 
‘Well what?’
 
‘How are things with Mister Right?’
 
‘What are you talking about?’ A bit frosty. Irritated.
 
‘You know, Mister Funny, Mister Considerate, Mister…’
 
‘Him!  We’re not seeing each other. I’m over him.’
(That’s how she talks. That’s how Generation Alphabet talks.)
 
 
Nonplussed, I asked, was the matter settled, final? It was, utterly. Finally. Beyond redemption.
 
 
‘What happened?’
 
‘Nothing happened. He’s repulsive.’
 
‘Why?‘ I asked: ‘Bad breath?’
 
‘No. Something he did.’
 
‘What?’
 
‘Blew his nose.’
 
‘What’s do you prefer? Nosepicking?’
 
‘It’s not just that. He uses a hankerchief.’
 
‘What?’
 
‘He reached into his pocket, pulled out this square of folded fabric, buried his nose in it and blew.’
 
‘That’s all?’
 
‘No. After he finished, he folded up that precious bit of rag – some heirloom from his grandfather – and put it into his pocket!’
 
‘What’s the problem. His technique seems sound. Copy book, in fact. What would you suggest?’
 
 ‘A tissue.’ 'Since when did snot become so important that you need to carry a piece of material around just in case you need to blow your nose? Do you carry toilet paper in your pocket just in case you need to shit? And if you did, would you use it and then put it back in your pocket?'
 
 
This woman is not a doctor. She does not interest herself in the absorbing topic of how macrophages make their way to pathogens, how they engulf, destroy and wash them away. For her, it is not immune competence that matters, but style. Aesthetics. As a result the woman has no time for snot. I offered to enlighten her about the secret life of the albumen-born macrophage. ‘It’s not glamorous, but it is marvelous,’ I begin. She turned her face to me, sneering. From a person of her non-judging, all-accepting, mindful, universe-loving, recently renovated nature, that expression was alarming. And enlightening.
 
 
I persisted: ‘You know, we all make mucus. The membranes that line our hollow organs are named after it. That’s why they’re called ‘‘mucous membranes.’’ Their cells secrete a smoothing film of pearly fluid to keep things moving. Your nose does it, your sinuses, your eustachian tubes, your lungs, your bowel. And if you’ll forgive the expression, so too does your vagina. Snot makes the world go round.’
 
‘Not my world.’
 
“You’d be shot without snot.’
 
 ‘If you say so. I say, if you’ve got it, blow it and stow it, don’t store it.’
 
‘So, blowing your nose on a tissue is more elegant? Every tissue user knows the moist warm feeling of snot overflow drowning the tissue. Is that glamorous enough for you? Hygienic enough?’
 
‘Look, don’t give me your science. I just don’t want to be close to a man who keeps a clothful of old germs, and cold slime and green crusts in his pocket.’
 
The voice had climbed a few octaves and grown emphatic. Sober discourse and factual analysis were not what my friend was after. Aesthetics were the thing. And, as in all matters of taste, consistency is not the prize. It’s the vibe. I did not invite my friend to consider the content of the nation’s gussets, where innocent slime thickens and dries, its macrophages dying content with a job well done.
 
 
Troubled by thoughts of the man’s unfair dismissal, I appealed to proportionality, an element of justice; ‘So you deprive a person – a good person by your own description – of the sunshine of your company simply for possession of flannel and mucus?’
 
‘Certainly. I could respect him, but inwardly I’d shudder. I could never be intimate with someone like that.’

'It's also a symbol of his mindset. Who of my generation carries a hanky? Deep down he is obviously conservative, boring and predictable. The hanky says a lot about him as a person. If lunch hadn't been spicy I may not have found out about the hanky until it was too late.'
 
‘What if he treated you with tenderness and respect?’
 
‘Tenderness and respect? That’s exactly how he treats his snot. Reaches into his pocket, pulls out his damask, which he’s folded and refolded into a fussy little square, unfolds it, takes a big breath and blows. You look away, trying not to vomit. You hear the flow. He sneaks a little sideways peek at his ejaculate, tries to hide his satisfaction, folds up the hanky and pops it into his pocket.’
 
‘So?’
 
‘So, if he carries a hanky – no hanky panky!’
 

How Many Camels?

I
How many camels will you take for your daughter?
Not such an unusual question in the Gulf perhaps, but on the deck of a
large passenger ship bound from Genoa for Fremantle, it takes Herbert
unprepared.
I will give you ten camels. What do you say – ten camels for your daughter here?
The man indicates the elder of the two girls.
Herbert looks at his girls. He looks and sees Helenka, his firstborn,
an elf flitting and dipping at will as she plays with Masha, who is
not yet ten. They are playing with their dolls.
At this lull in adult conversation, Helenka looks up. She sees no sign
that she is the subject of the stalled conversation – nor an object.
She takes Masha’s hand and pulls her across the deck to play
hopscotch.
The stranger is watching too. His appraising eye follows the movement
of the elf as she leaps and glides at hopscotch. He sees slim legs
flashing, a hint of fulness at the hips. He looks at the child – a
question still unasked, sees womanhood – a trader’s answer.
The stranger takes Herbert’s silence as rejection of an insufficient
offer. He speaks again: Twenty camels then. What do you say to twenty?

II
In his little dress shop, Herbert is in the clothing trade. Fort
Street, Fremantle is not a chic address, but his clientele is worldly
enough – they come from all corners of the world: in the course of
their escape to Australia, to Fremantle, they have seen the worst of
the world.
Worldly – and fussy too. Never mind the quality, is it cheap? Never
mind style, what’s the price?
But Herbert is worldly too. He understands that his heavy accent is
not a marketing advantage, but that a pretty face and a winning manner
might be.
His older daughter is worth twenty camels: this is Helenka whose face
might have launched so many ships of the desert. So, every day, after
school finishes and on Saturdays, Helenka works as a marketing
advantage in the clothing trade.

III
A couple comes into the shop. The lady has little English, has brought
her man as interpreter. They converse in a Slavic language, which the
marketing advantage happens to comprehend. Helenka shows a seemingly
intuitive understanding of the lady’s needs and her budget. She
selects and shows the lady dresses which cost no more than she is able
to pay. No more, but scarcely a penny less. The lady makes her
purchase and is content. Her bored interpreter notices the imminent
woman inside the child’s school uniform, and loses his languid air.
The child is the only person in attendance and his hungry eyes take it
all in.
A week later, the couple returns to the shop, this time as last time,
well after school closes. The lady needs her new dress altered, which
is quickly arranged. Hungry Eyes is not quickly ready to leave,
however. He chooses dresses, brings them to the young shopgirl, makes
slow enquiries, appears very interested but makes no purchases. He
says he will think about it.
I come again back, he says.

IV
Here in Australia, people are slow and casual. Herbert and Alida are
intense and restless. After a short time, they open a second shop,
this one in Station Street, Fremantle. They still live above the Fort
Street shop. Alida has newly-arrived cousins, fresh from Europe. They
have no home and no income. Alida and Herbert install them above the
second shop, where there is sufficient space for the cousins to live,
and to sew dresses for the shops. Now the newcomers have both a home
and a business.
Freda runs the Station Street shop and it consumes her.
Herbert is an early riser. Each morning he practises yoga, standing on
his head for up to an hour at a time. During this time, his scrotum is
suspended upside down, practically weightless. At all other times, he
feels its full weight and urgency. As soon as Helenka returns from
school, she takes over in the shop from Herbert and he is free to go
elsewhere and attend to his urgency.
And above the shop, Helenka’s mother, back from Station Street,
mothers Masha, washes and cleans, and cooks for two households. Soon,
more cousins arrive in Fremantle, then more, washed ashore, wave upon
wave, generated by the after shocks of Europe. Alida helps them all,
feeding as many as will come and eat.
At such times, Helenka is alone in the shop. She is alone when – true
to his word – Hungry Eyes comes again back.
He asks for an item of apparel which cannot be found on the racks in
the showroom. Helen says she’ll go and look for the item in the
stockroom. She is taken by surprise when Hungry Eyes follows her
there. She turns to explain that he can wait in the shop – she will
bring it, but he moves forward, keeps on moving until he has backed
her against the back wall. She discovers then, as his body rubs
against hers, upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards, that he is
just like her violin teacher back in Hamburg: he is a rubber. At least
he is not like her French teacher, not a feeler.
She is not surprised when the rubbing abruptly stops, nor by his
moments of gasping, nor by his rapid retreat with that funny gait.
And she is not surprised when he comes again back, again.
For his part, Hungry Eyes is most surprised by the large Alsatian in
the stockroom, which Helen has borrowed from the Greek boy next door.
And when the Alsatian snarls and bares large fangs at him, Hungry Eyes
runs, with very efficient gait, from the shop and does not return. Continue reading