03 August 2007

Of pirates, jam doughnuts and defeat

A lot of my anecdotes concern children; some of them make their way into here (see, for example, these), and this is one of them. Children are endlessly fascinating. They are amoral; they have not yet learnt social dissimulation; they are raw little egos; they are, in other words, ourselves without camouflage. And we are genetically programmed to protect them.

I sometimes wear an patch over my right eye for a few hours, perhaps a day. There's nothing dramatically wrong; just a residual weakness from mild chemical damage thirty years ago, making that eye occasionally vulnerable to histamine reactions and requiring a short rest. So, today I was wearing a patch as I dawdled my trolley around Tesco.

Once past the checkout till, I sat down on one of three metal seats to sort my shopping into the sundry crumpled plastic carrier bags which I had brought with me for the purpose. As it happened, I sat on the leftmost seat and so felt but didn't see somebody plonk down on the vacant seat immediately to my right.

"Hello," said a perky little voice, "are you a pirate?"

I screwed my head around, bringing my good left eye to bear on the speaker: a small girl, maybe six year sold or so, wearing pebble thick glasses. Over the years I've heard all the parrot, wooden leg, yo ho ho and a barrel of rum, Treasure Island, arr Jim lad, Long John Silver jokes many times over ... but I've never before been asked straight out whether I'm a pirate. I thought for a moment, then decided this was a game and I should play along.

"Yes," I said "that's right - I'm a pirate".

"I hate pirates" was the reply, which rather took the wind out of my sails and left me at a loss.

"Oh dear" I said, unimpressively. Then, rallying a little, "I'm a very nice pirate. I'm a vegetarian pirate. I like animals, and I help old ladies across roads."

"Well, I had a pirate at home, and he tried to cut off my head with his sword, so I had to take it off him and kill him."

"Oh dear" I repeated. "Perhaps I'm not a pirate after all."

"Why did you say you were, then?"

Before I could think of a convincing answer to that, she pointed at an item just disappearing into one of my carrier bags (I was still stashing my shopping as we conducted this surreal conversation) and asked "What's that?"

"A jam doughnut."

"Do you like jam doughnuts?"

"No; but my partner does, so thought I'd get her one to go with her afternoon cup of tea."

"So. You're going to come in the front door and say 'Yo Ho Ho, I'm home, and I've got a doughnut', are you?"

"Um..." I looked around with my unpatched eye and located her parents, putting their own shopping through the checkout and laughing as they watched and listened to us. No immediate hope of rescue from that quarter, then. "...yes, something like that I suppose."

I picked up the now filled carrier bags and stood up.

"Where are you going?"

"Back to my ship" I joked, unwisely.

"Is it a pirate ship?"

"Yes, it's a pirate ship."

"Well, I hope it sinks then."

"Thank you" I said, and retreated in defeat, thinking too late of all the witty rejoinders I ought to have made if only they had occurred to me in time. The French call this feeling «l'esprit d'escalier».

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