The Global Odd Sock Enigma

The bony man edged forward purposefully in his seat. During the train’s snaking journey from Rugby to Coventry, she had caught his eye several times more than she felt comfortable with. True, there wasn’t much to gawp at in the drech gloaming outside the rattling carriages, sluiced by unrelenting sheets of January rain. But he seemed inordinately interested in her. Why couldn’t he just avert his gaze, hang suspended in the tedious stasis of solo train travel, like everyone else?

Leaning on elbows that could slice bread, he smiled greasily and nodded as if to say “you’ll like this”.

“You’ll like this” he squeeked in a fay, faintly lascivious cockney whine.

She looked up and smiled unconvincingly, as if to say “no, thank you, I’m too ensconced in my book”. Her eyes returned to the page, but as she tried to read on, she felt his rheumy little peepers crawling over her face.

Spiv

The bony man took a battered tin from his waistcoat pocket. There was something jarring about him. Something awry. Like a rotund, big-breasted women running down the street. Something unlikely, incongruous, precarious about him.

This inkling of oddness bothered her. He should seem more reputable, she mused, clad as he was in a three piece suit and topped with a trilby. Yet despite his obvious sartorial pride, he looked scruffy and crumpled as severely thin men always do. Like a child doing dress-up in father’s clothes. The red tin said Licorice Wafers – for COUGHS due to COLDS. Spindly, simian fingers popped it open to reveal tobacco and cigarette papers.

As he rolled, he spoke.

“You might not think so to look at me, but I’m something of a genius”. She froze. He was apparently addressing the air, but he knew she – as the only soul within touching distance – would feel obliged to respond.

“Pardon?”

tin

As he sealed his oily rag in one fluid movement across his tongue, he settled back – ominously, she thought –  as though he were settling in for a long chat with a good, familiar friend.

“I have made a series of groundbreaking discoveries. Solved age-old and hitherto perplexing mysteries that have furrowed millions of brows and confounded millions of minds. I think you’d like to hear, wouldn’t you”. An assertion playing dress-up as a question. There was something jarring about it.

“I’ll give you an example. Just one. I have solved the Global Odd Sock Enigma”. He spoke these words as if they were capitalised and of tremendous import. “I – and I alone – know what happens to socks that disappear during the laundry cycle”.

“Oh” was all she could muster. As much as she resented him and his presumption, there was something sadly ridiculous about the man. Which was almost endearing. Almost.

He continued. “I mean, we all know the problem. It’s a familiar one. We submit pairs of socks to the laundry cycle. Into the washing machine they go, then out into the garden on the washing line, or clothes’ horse if the weather’s inclement, or tumble dryer if we have the luxury of owning one of those shining white knights of labour-saving amelioration”.

It is a problem, she thought to herself. I mean, this man is an unbearable arse, but it is a problem. Her body began to untense as her interest was piqued and the initial wave of rattled indignation dissipated.

Sock“But when we come to sort, fold and put away our clothes, what do we find? We find hitherto partnered socks in a sudden state of sorry solitude. Their twin vanished without trace. The Global Odd Sock Enigma. And over time, we put these bereaved single socks to one side, perhaps on top of the chest of drawers, or back in the sock drawer, in the eternally-springing hope that they will be returned to a state of duality come the next laundry cycle”.

She wrestled to contain a smile as he repeated the words ‘laundry cycle’, as though he were an expert speaking the argot of some rarefied and recondite academic discipline. His pompous air and self-important speech were inherently ridiculous, and they served to soften his alarming oddness into something approaching an endearing eccentricity. She began to feel a cosying warmth build in the pit of her stomach. Her nods and smiles were now encouraging, inviting and bidding him to continue.

“Until I made my discovery, this remained one of the last great mysteries of our age. Up there with ‘where do we go when we die?’, ‘are we alone in the universe?’ and ‘why is belly button fluff always grey?’. But as to these poor missing socks, where do they go? Are they lost somehow in the washing machine, the only garment diminutive enough to slip through some tiny aperture when wet? Do birds pluck them from the washing line to build their nests with? Well, no. In short. The answer is quite simply this. They are subsumed by larger items. Most usually duvet covers. They find their way into the corners. And we never think to look for them there. So there they remain. The truth is, no sock ever truly gets lost. They are hiding in plain sight. In our drawers, languishing like Jonah in the belly of a textile whale”.

With this he noticed the train pulling into Coventry station – his cue to alight. He picked up his tobacco tin and returned it to his breast pocket. He gripped the brim of his hat between his forefinger and thumb, mimed a little doff, before scurrying down the carriage, through the doors, and off into the soggy winter evening.

She made a mental note to check all her duvet covers and pillow cases when she got home. There were three odd socks that had been sitting on top of her dresser for months now. Rendered redundant and gathering dust.

As the train lurched into life and began to pull away from the platform, she noticed a small moleskin notebook on the table in front of her. Realising it must belong to the bony man, she grabbed it and scoured the platform for any sign of him, but he was long gone. And, besides, there was little she could do now the train was in motion. Except open it and have a read. The contents page was an eyebrow-raiser:

  • The Physics of a Viable Perpetual Motion Machine…p1
  • The Solution to the Global Odd Sock Enigma…p24
  • A Mathematical Proof of the Existence of the Soul…p32
  • Why Belly Button Fluff is always Grey…p33
  • A Quantum Mechanical Explanation of Time Travel as an Existing Phenomena…p49
  • The Solution to the Global Missing Tupperware Lids Enigma…p57

The essays were dense, florid tracts crammed with mathematical ‘proofs’ (she barley scrapped a pass at school so couldn’t discern Nobel physics-prize-brilliance from innumerate nonsense) and a verbose and baroque writing style, falling over itself in a dense thicket of multi-clause sentences and rambling digressions.

Still, if it helped her track down her odd socks and missing Tupperware lids, it was probably worth keeping hold of.

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Wanted: Amanuensis

I have a terrible memory.

Very little seems to lodge there. Like the time a tramp slept in my car. I’d forgotten about that until reminded recently. My friend and I went to pick it up from town only to find the boot ajar, back seats down and the whole thing reeking of cigarette smoke.

fc59ca32-6601-4d3d-a55e-51467e9d0c10-233-0000001f5fa45448_tmpActually, it’s not quite true that I have a terrible memory. I have great implicit memory. We all do. It’s why you can cook your favourite meal without a recipe, or tie your shoe laces. Implicit memory is used in building motor skills, what you might call muscle memory. The repetition of a task, the practicing of an instrument, over and over, on an ever-refining path towards mastery. I’m a drummer, I got pretty good. No, nothing wrong with the implicit side of things.

I reckon my explicit memory is pretty titting plumb as well. Well, an aspect of it is, my semantic memory. You don’t get to be a The Chase™ champion without an aptitude for the conscious storage and recall of data, the conjuring of isolated facts independent of context. My insatiable competitive drive and dependency on shots of quick-win external validation see to that.

img_0281But it’s the other side of explicit memory – the episodic side – where my blindspot becomes blindingly easy to spot. I just don’t tend to lock in spatial or temporal data – sensations, emotions, personal associations of a particular time or place. Events pass through uncaptured, instances of hijinx, chance encounters with oddballs, none of them leave their echo. I have a terrible autobiographical memory. I could never be a raconteur. Or a spy.

img_0294Which is why folks keep journals, take photos, ceaselessly tell their stories to others, I suppose. We must curate ourselves, bring the patchwork of the past to bear on the present, to forge meaning, make sense. A mind alive only in the perpetual moment is either the heaven of the enlightened Yogi or the hell of the dementia-addled aged. Funny that.

My name is…wait…this is ridiculous, my name…anyway, my name is my name and I have a terrible autobiographical memory.

Wet Lace

Her shiny shins gleamed in the lascivious flicker of the candle. Pam had waxed all traces of hair from every bit of her yearning feminine body in preparation for Jim’s visit. Including, whilst absent-mindedly agonising over when exactly blue cheese is unfit for consumption, her eyebrows.

“I like a naked flame” cooed Jim, but not like a dove, like a man paving the way for genital coupling.

c42841c0-378b-41d0-9d0e-d2af760b503c-280-0000004b6a3f1855_tmp“I adore candle light” Pam trilled, but not like a budgie, like a woman inviting a man to persist in paving the way for genital coupling. “There’s just something so…” she searched for the right word, performing an inadvertant little royal wave with her hand as she did so. “…thrilling about striking a match. Grasping the shaft and making it’s little pink head explode with a quick flick of my fingers”.

“Matches” Jim returned, confusingly, too distracted by an overwhelming surge through his groin. A sex storm which shorted his mental processes, like a sort of erotic stroke. A dribbling dog with biscuit balanced on his nose, Jim trembled with a beautiful agony awaiting the command. And Pam ALWAYS issued a command.

“That smell” Jim said through knitted brow, as he tried to place the exotic scent that hung, like like an invisible odour, or an atmospheric flavour, or a mysterious nasal language, in the air.

“You like it? That’s the candle, bought it today. Prosecco and oysters. David Hasselhoff’s new Hoffrodesiac range at Matalan”.

dcf56f88-e240-4f22-86f4-021a6811b632-280-0000004857517143_tmp“Yes, I was wondering why I’d been thinking about the harbour at Whitstable. I like it. They do some fantastic ranges there. Tom Kerridge’s Stinking Bishop Bath Moose is divine. Extremely relaxing and goes great with a glass of red, if you’re an ablution boozer that is!”.

Pam poured Jim a disaronno and Sprite, and sashayed over to the bed to hand it to him. Without warning, she felt an urgent pressure in her colon. With only a split second to settle on a gambit to mask the loud fart that this substantial bubble of feculent tummy gas would inevitably produce, Pam slammed Jim’s drink at the wall, inches from his head. On the plus side the impact and the smashing glass more than covered her bassy bum beefbelch.

“PAM! You’re god damn crazy, woman. Come here you unhinged mare”. Jim pulled Pam onto the bed, and kissed her fulsomely, like a starving man trying to eat an orange through a letterbox. Pam swung her leg over Jim and, in one smooth movement, subsumed his cock into her knicker-mouth.

27101955-2b80-4945-963b-06ec91d1b4cd-280-00000049a7136a35_tmp“Ride me like a rodeo bull, you sexy little cowgirl”.

“Sink your pink in my pocket, you filthy little snookerboy”.

Pam and Jim committed coitus for 7 hours and twenty three minutes, pausing only three times; for the pizza delivery, severe cramp and because Jim thought he could hear a ghost.

The Reckoning

I

Somewhere, an inconceivably massive number of calculations is taking place. It could be in the cloud, in the clouds or beyond the planets. It might equally be in a parallel realm or outside of space-time, perhaps inside a hollowed out mountain or flowing through a global network of supercomputers. The knowledge of the who, where, how or why hardly matters. Just as the ant neither needs to, nor can know anything of the freshly boiled kettle in the hands of the sadistic child.

Every second a zettabyte of information flows in and is assimilated. Information harvested from computer records, CCTV, biosensors, mobile phones, emails, brainwave monitors, paper records, diaries, dream logs, social media, in short every touch point between ourselves and the world – everywhere we leave an impression, scent, echo or trace – is added to the scales. Unknowable magnitudes of metadata for every living thing on the third celestial body from the G2V star of the Milky Way. All added to the scales. Which way they tip is the Reckoning.

He’d had a good life. Actually, no. That’s just an insipid platitude we trot out to comfort our fear-stricken minds. He was scared shitless at the thought of his imminent, eternal erasure. Even the defensive humour reflex catapulting his thoughts to a never ending purgatory loop of synth pop couldn’t cheer or divert him. No. This was the awful icewater-in-the-face clarity of dying and losing everything.

Think of it for a moment. Think that after you go to bed tonight, in the wee small hours as you lie supine and unconscious, your heart stutters to a stop. And your veins go still and cold. And whatever you are, or were, whatever the beautifully improbable thing that’s been haunting your meat module is, just leaves…forever. Dreams fade to black as the electrical storms in your brain flicker to nothing. And you never wake up. Gone.

He was subsumed by that paralysing, sublime terror. The visceral realisation that our life has an irreversible, immutable end game that has us trembling, pleading and acquiescing all at once. But in actual fact he had, according to the balance of the Reckoning, had a good life.

II

He had always had a keen moral sense. A felt and lived sympatico with his fellows, his lodestar was good intention. From an early age he was peculiarly sensitive to the inner states of others, aware that his happiness, sense of self worth, sanity even were all intimately connected to and contingent upon those self same states in other people.

At the age of twelve he had crossed the playground to stand next to, and talk to, a boy who had been singled out as whipping boy for the cruel pleasure of the pack. At seventeen he befriended a house-bound octogenarian lady on his street, got bits for her from the shops, went round for a cup of tea and to indulge her in her reminiscences. In his first management role at the age of twenty seven he had effectively saved someone from taking their life, although he never knew. The switch from being managed by a bullying autocrat to a nurturing coach was the ray of light this poor suicidal soul needed to summon the will to drag themself back to functioning and, in time, happiness. But he never knew.

He wasn’t perfect. Which, as utterances go, is a little like saying grey isn’t white. Mostly his sins were venal – commuting his bad mood to gormless first jobbers in the service industry, littering, not suffering fools, neglecting friendships. But he was never cruel, never wilfully unkind, never truly selfish.

There was that time, when he was eight or nine, when he kicked a frog over a fence. And the time he tried to evade a fare in a private hire cab by climbing out of one of the back windows. He’d lost his coat in a frenzied tug of war with the driver, having slipped out of it like Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s field. The madcap impulsivity of adolescence. The reckless thrill-seeking of our youth. But yes, all in all, it had been a good life.

III

The Oncology Ward was at the top of a labyrinthine Victorian hospital. High, spartan, white walls gave it that cold, institutional air – imbued with an atmosphere of benign torpor, a stoic resignation that often comes from a foreknowledge of death. He had his own room, at least. In a liminal state, just below consciousness yet still dimly aware of the room around him, he sensed the presence of another close by. His brain logged the fleeting moment of shade as something walked round the bed and in front of the window. Despite this, he felt no panic. Rather, he opened his eyes with a beautific sensation of calm and clarity. Turning his head towards the window he saw a man, well groomed and kindly looking, smiling back at him.

‘Hello Phillip’ said the man. ‘My name is Peter, and I’m here for your Reckoning’.

Phillip nodded, slowly, as though in assent although, in truth he hadn’t understood anything of what Peter had just said. He glanced down to read the identity badge clipped onto the lapel of Peter’s suit jacket. It read:

Peter St. Keys,
Ingress Coordinator
Nacre Gate Passing Solutions

In the kind, calm voice of a parent talking their child out of upset, Peter asked softly ‘you are aware that you are dying, Phillip?’

‘Yes’ his whispered reply. ‘I’m just running on fumes, I know’.

‘I am here to deliver your Reckoning verdict. Now, this will all seem very strange, if not fantastical. I know. But I want you to listen to your instinct. I think you are ready to hear what I have to say, and I also think you are aware that this moment is a transcedent one for you’.

Phillip was neither curious nor alarmed by this. He was aware only of an utterly alien feeling of serenity and perfect peace. It wasn’t just that this was a feeling different in degree to anything he had experienced throughout his life. It was altogether different in kind, hitherto foreign and unknown. It was bliss.

‘I’ll use language that you’ll understand’ continued Peter. ‘We – the entity I represent – deal in big data. Every action, every interaction you have had since you became a sentient lifeform we have collected, quantified and added to the balance of your Reckoning. Every thought, word, deed, sin – including those of omission – every beneficent act or utterence, every cruelty and unkindness, every intention and impact we have monitored and thrown into the balance. You are no special case, I should add. This we do – have done, will do forever more – for every senteint thing. At the end of every life we deliver the Reckoning, which is a calculation of impact, good bad or somewhere inbetween, of that life.’

Phillip smiled and let out a little grunt as he enjoyed a private joke with himself. ‘Are you sure you’re not Peter St. Nicholas? That sounds a lot like his naughty and nice list’. He was eager to amuse this stranger, oddly drawn to him as he was.

‘You’ve got it’ replied Peter through a warm grin, ‘except for Christmas, read Annihilation’. They both smiled. It was an immensely pleasurable exchange for Phillip. Which was paradoxical since it centred on that most feared existential threat. But all thoughts of that were gone. Now there was only a delicious warmth radiating out from his solar plexus and galvanising his entire body.

‘In essence, those with a positive score are granted an extension. And the length of that extension is commensurate with the size of that score’.

‘An extension?’

‘An extension. Advances in gerontology have enabled us to fully crack the millennia-old conundrum of ageing. For a long time we have been able to retard or arrest the process, but now we can reverse it’.

‘Since when?’.

‘Oh, last century, 2016 I think. Don’t worry about the details, it’s enough for you to know that we can and that I am here in that regard’.

‘If you would just humour me’ said Phillip, ‘I’ve been a scientist all my working life. I’m just interested I suppose’.

‘OK. Well, a Japanese team put us on to the epigenetic theory. They honed in on two sections of DNA that control the production of a particular amino acid – glycine. You’ll like this, most people do, they bathed a cell line derived from a 97-year-old in glycine for ten days, and found that it restored the mitochondria’s ability to produce energy and actually reversed some age related defects’.

‘Neat’, Phillip cooed. ‘I had no idea’.

‘Would you like to receive your Reckoning?’

Silence. Just the hum of the ceiling fan, the indistinct hubbub ricocheting up from the street several storeys below, and the buzz-buzz-tap-buzz of a fly being confounded by the window.

‘Yes’

IV

Peter St. Keys looked uncharacterisically solemn as he reached into his jacket breast pocket. His fingers emerged clutching a small piece of paper, the size of a library catalogue card. He read from it in a steady, sonorous voice.

‘Phillip James Gregory. During the course of your 59 years, 7 months, 3 weeks, 5 days, 14 hours, 7 minutes and -‘ he looked up to meet Phillip’s eyes with a wry grin ‘I think that’s specific enough -‘ he resumed his recitation ‘all of you thoughts, words, deeds, dreams, sins – including those of omission – every beneficent act or utterence, every cruelty and unkindness, every intention and impact, has been monitored, quantified, and added to the balance. Your Reckoning, as you face 34 minutes left of life, is a net benefit and statistically significant positive impact. You have therefore been granted an extension of 6 years and 2 months’. He looked up again, narrowed his eyes and whispered ‘well done!’ with a heartfelt, affirmative nod of the head.

‘I’m fine, thank you. I’m ready’.

Peter cocked his head and, raising an eyebrow, echoed ‘ready?’.

‘Yes’ Phillip asserted, firmly yet cheerfully.

‘Are you sure? No-one has ever refused an extension’.

‘Yes’. Phillip closed his eyes. He drew in a long, deep breath. ‘I reckon so’.