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.
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.
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.
“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.