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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Animus

When Dorothy was born, he couldn’t have been happier for him. Rob was the first of his friends, his real life-long thick-and-thin friends, to have a child. They both understood, instinctively and unspoken, that things would never quite be the same, but it was too big and important and defining a moment for anything other than celebration and support.

Liam and Rob’s relationship was underpinned by a cut and thrust banter; they shared a deep and indigenous love of whimsy, a mutual desire to give the mundane the slip. They enjoyed a sort of competitive intellectual sex, rooted in humour and dripping with inventive prowess, the kind most close male friendships thrive on. The fleshless homoeroticism that mystifies girlfriends and wives everywhere, who console themselves with mutterings about ‘bromance’, feeling threatened but trying to mask the feeling beneath dismissive ridicule.

Rob had a child, a baby daughter. Liam had to make his peace with the fact that he was now a once a fortnight outlet, a hastily grabbed bit of respite when the maelstrom of new parenthood permitted. For his part, Liam tried to assume the uncle mantle – which he wasn’t – but despite his best efforts to show interest, arrange midday boozeless meet ups, Rob remained aloof. He knew that Rob and Mirzia were shaky, in fact their relationship had come within one harsh word of shattering irreparably on countless occasions, but for some reason they stayed together. Mirzia was a cold fish. It was bad enough she couldn’t find it within herself to support Rob’s art. Far worse was the attitude of mild contempt and derision she seemed to display. A sort of eye-rolling when will the scales fall from his eyes? sneer. Sour bitch.

Rob’s relationship with Mirzia was terminal. At first the shockwaves of the split didn’t seem to reach baby Dorothy. She was 18 months and, apart from daddy not being around as much, and mummy and daddy never taking her out together, some semblance of normality abided. A mature, grownup attempt on both their parts to ensure continuity for the kid’s sake. But slowly, as Mirzia’s inner life began to disintegrate, her hatred for Rob – a corrosive acid rain – began to eat away her sense of duty, of right, of proportion, of everything.

It started with Rob being denied access. He would call round for pick ups as arranged, but Mirzia simply wouldn’t open the door. Rob suspected she was in on these occasions, and he tried to stay calm and toe the increasingly painful line she was setting him. But then, one unremarkable day, his own Hiroshima. Mirzia dropped ‘Little Boy’ when she took his little girl.

Middlesbrough was a long way away. Two trains and just over three hours. A six hour round trip every time he wanted to see his daughter. Which would have been doable, bearable, no impediment at all since he would get to spend time with his illuminating, soul-sustaining doe-eyed sweetheart, his little Squigglepig. But then Mirzia stopped answering the door.

Tribunals and family court hearings didn’t seem to spook her. If anything they made her more intransigent, even more bitter and hell-bent on snuffing out his happiness. The cruel and unusual punishment she was meting out had long since passed the point of proportionality for any of his notional ‘crimes’. Weeks turned into months, months become a year, and the absence of his daughter hit him like a bereavement. He mourned his living, laughing, lovely little girl every waking moment. As he said to Liam, jailbirds doing porridge for spousal abuse get better access to their children than him, more recourse through the courts. The message seemed horribly clear. So long as Mirzia was a fit mother, the system had no fight on behalf of the father.

Two years drifted by. Now it was Liam’s turn to experience the vertiginous symphony of joy, discovery, hope, fear, angst and love that is first time fatherhood. A girl. Poppy. A blue-eyed, heart-flooding little baby girl.

At first he felt a weird nervousness around Rob. Oddly inhibited by the prospect of talking about his little girl. Rob tried to pitch in with advice, tips, the mutual support of one who has been there, but after the first few months his interest was generally little more than a polite show. Once, when they were having an open and unfettered pow-wow about Dorothy, Rob’s long nightmare, and how Liam felt it had coloured his attitude to Poppy, Rob fixed his eye: “Would I be heartbroken if I came round your house and saw you playing with your little girl? Of course I would”. It explained everything. Sixteen months after Poppy was born and Liam’s longest and most favourite friend had fled to a parallel universe of self-preserving denial because he was still in mourning.

In time Rob moved to Bristol, leaving Liam in landlocked Derbyshire. They rarely communicated, met up a couple of times a year, still made each other laugh. But it wasn’t the same purity as before. Their relationship had been cut with something that left a bad taste, the lesser high of a drug adulterated. But there was no bad feeling. There had been several lifetimes of that already and, besides, Liam had a new, diminutive, doe-eyed best friend.