Family and the ring pull

The house is quiet. Unusually so. My wife is at work and my son, my regular companion and sparring partner, is visiting his grandparents.

I use the free time to catch up with work, moving at pace to squeeze tasks which have been hanging over me for days into a few spare hours. I keep going, automatically, until the long to-do list has been thinned out to a state which is manageable, not too daunting.

I sit back and realise that I’m hungry. It’s afternoon and I haven’t eaten yet today. I move into the kitchen and check the cupboards, without enthusiasm or vigour. There’s not much there. The acrid smell of yesterday’s burnt toast hangs around the room like an uninvited guest who just doesn’t take the hint that you want to go to bed. I decide to go for a walk.

The day is grey and blustery, with the occasional short burst of sunshine – just long enough for a seed of optimism to plant in my stomach, before it disappears. I walk along the country road, studying the splats of dried chewing gum and the flies crawling over a hardened dog turd on the dark asphalt of the footpath.

Then I spot a metallic glint on the ground. I move towards it and lean over. It’s an old-fashioned ring pull. A glimpse back into my youth when the small circles and detachable strips of metal from the top of aluminium cans were as ubiquitous as the dog poo and the chewing gum. I have a fuzzy recollection of an anti-litter campaign when I was at primary school which involved all of the pupils picking up as many ring pulls from the ground as we could manage. I remember going into class carrying a plastic bag which was bulging with the items.

I bend over to take a photograph of the ring pull on the footpath. I’m not sure why, perhaps it has stirred some juvenile memory or an emotion from another time. The ring pull is surprisingly clean and has not sunk into the tarmac. It can be easily moved with the end of my shoe, which suggests it has come to rest on this spot only recently.

One of my neighbours walks past just as I’m crouched, capturing the image of the ground. She casts a quizzical look and I hurriedly stand upright. I search desperately for a good conversation opener and Look, I’ve found an old ring pull just seems weird.

In the end I mumble something about it being a Quare drying day. My neighbour nods and hurries on as I feel my cheeks begin to redden.

I continue to walk but, annoyingly, my mind is not quite ready to leave the ring pull behind just yet. I estimate that detachable ring pulls were phased out from cans of fizzy drinks and beers in the mid 1980s in favour of a more environmentally friendly design. This means that the most likely scenario is that this ring pull has been lying around as waste somewhere for the best part of three decades. Perhaps swept into the dark corners for years before a curious dog or magpie dislodged then discarded it on the footpath for me to discover. I’m fascinated by the persistence of the object, how it can casually re-emerge after such a stretch of time. Countries, civilisations and economic systems have tottered and collapsed in those decades but the tenacious ring pull is still here.

Eventually I realise that I’ve walked for several miles, much further than I had planned. My feet are sore and I’m still hungry, the ache in my stomach weakening my limbs and suffocating fresh thought from my mind. I head towards the village.

There’s another physical force at work as well. I need the bathroom. I walk up the steep hill and soon begin to regret that I choose to wear jeans rather than shorts. There’s a thin film of sweat on my back and stomach and it feels like rolls of sticky tape have been tightly wound around my legs. There is dampness in the spaces between my toes.

Eventually I find a public toilet. Usually I try to avoid facilities such as this but my need, on this occasion, is urgent. I keep my mouth tight closed as I enter the dank, stale room. The toilet bowl reminds me of the scene where Ewan McGregor goes for a swim at the start of Trainspotting. I roll toilet paper around my hand and move forward tentatively to raise the seat.

But I have forgotten the pair of sunglasses that are hanging from the neck of my shirt. Sunglasses which I left there earlier when I was still optimistic for a sunny day. As I lean forward the glasses slip off the front of my shirt and drop, with an almost soundless splash, into the toilet bowl.

I stand there staring. I have an urge to leave the glasses and flee, but this seems like a socially irresponsible action, the sort of thing I would scowl others for. Eventually I bite down on my own pride and thrust my right hand into the bowl, snatching the glasses quickly like a bear grabbing a salmon and then hastily retreating.

I discard the sunglasses into the bin and then spend several minutes scrubbing my right hand while simultaneously making a mental note that it can never again be used for any useful task for the rest of my life.

Soon I’m away from the toilet and I find a cafe. I order and eat a sandwich (with my left hand), and the food begins to make me feel more comfortable.

I relax in my chair, sipping coffee and pondering that I spend way too much of my time and money eating out. All at once I realise that I miss my wife and son.

It’s not that I’m lonely or even bored. It’s fine being on your own but it all just seems so much more fun when you have someone to share your stories with.

My son is having a sleepover tonight but I’m already looking forward to the big hug I’ll get when I pick him up tomorrow. Then I’ll put him in the car seat beside me and tell him all about the sunglasses and the toilet. I know he’ll laugh helplessly and his little cheeks will turn red with delight. Then as soon as I finish he’ll bark Daddy, tell me again and I’ll have to go over the same story, again and again until he is satisfied. He will laugh on each occasion, as if hearing it for the first time, and listen intently to each word, pulling me up if I change the smallest detail between versions or tell it slightly differently.

I finish my coffee and pay my bill. As I’m leaving the cafe I decide to book a table in a restaurant for my wife and I tonight. There’s no particular occasion, just the opportunity to sit down together and have a proper conversation.

We’ll face each other across the table, open a bottle of wine and hold hands. Our eyes will meet….and then I’ll begin to tell her all about the ring pull.

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