Whatever we do in life, there are always consequences. ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity’ may be a slightly grandiose quotation from an historically inaccurate feature film, but to a certain extent the sentiment holds true. It is a lesson that I learnt many years ago, and one that I wrote about in Flying with Cuckoos. Usually, if we do good things good consequences result, and vice versa, but every now and then an exception that proves the rule raises its disagreeable head. This was that exception, and it all started some years ago with a barbecue.
Now, before I get to that, allow me to explode a myth. I know that, when it comes to barbecues, men have a popular image of themselves as the hunter and provider; returning to a hungry family with all manner of slaughtered game, which they then proceed to cook over smouldering charcoal, on a balmy summer’s day, and under the collective and worshipful gaze of enamoured spouse and grateful offspring.
It is a fanciful image that has resulted in untold cases of Salmonellaand Botulism, spread by middle-aged couch potatoes wearing toque hats, and aprons adorned with crude motifs; prodding at raw sausages and pink chicken, with a wicked-looking fork in one hand and a can of Foster’s in the other.
Well that’s not for me: never has been, and never will be.
If pressed, I’ll carry the barbecue back from the store. I’ll even assemble it and light the charcoal, but after that it’s all down to the person who knows how best to cook the food, without troubling the local public health inspector, and that is definitely not me.
You see, my wife is the cook in our house. She’s better than good, and I’m worse than useless. So why would we suddenly reverse roles, just because this is the one day in the British calendar year when the sun condescends to show its face?
In truth I can just about put up with my own barbecues, but I have never enjoyed other people’s. Forgetting the flies and ants and wasps, I dislike sitting on canvas chairs, trying to balance a paper plate on my lap, while failing to sever pieces of leather-like steak with a dull plastic knife, or vainly trying to spear cremated sausages with a blunt plastic fork.
Then there’s the small-talk, which I was never much good at. I always found it mind-numbingly tedious to have to make complimentary murmuring sounds whenever the hosts start boasting about the staggering achievements of their obnoxious brat, or, worse still, moves on to give a blow-by-blow account of how they single-handedly completed yet another ghastly home improvement.
Which was one of the reasons I bought a new gas barbecue. I figured that, with a new gas barbecue, we could invite others to visit us, rather than us visit them. I also figured that, with a gas barbecue, my wife wouldn’t need me to light it and tend it, and I could therefore slope off to my study at an opportune moment.
But that left me with the charcoal barbecue, which, due to my aforementioned dislike of barbecues, was almost new and in perfect condition. I offered it to members of the family, I offered it to friends.
Nobody wanted it, and so I finally took it to the local council rubbish tip.
Council rubbish tips; now there’s a culture shock if ever I saw one. They’ve changed so dramatically, and the staff have become so dictatorial in such a short space of time. In days gone by we would arrive, dump our rubbish, and immediately drive off; leaving a man with a pitchfork to decide what was worth keeping and what wasn’t, but not today. Today the staff have become a sort of ‘green police’; inspecting the rubbish, item by item, and then brusquely directing the discarder to a dozen different receptacles.
I know this recycling mania is all about our greater awareness for the needs of the environment, and I applaud the initiative, but a little servility wouldn’t go amiss. I can’t believe that even the likes of Orwell could have foreseen the humble refuse collectorbecoming such a blunt and offensive caricature of ‘Big Brother’.
But back to my nearly-new barbecue, loaded onto the back of my gas-guzzling and environmentally unfriendly four-by-four. I was standing at the entrance to the local rubbish tip, now made-over and rebranded as a regional recycling centre, awaiting that all-important permission to proceed to the metals receptacle.
“What yer got there then?”
He was a surly individual, dressed in council dungarees and clutching the obligatory pitchfork. He rubbed his chin as he spoke, and squinted hard at me as I answered. If he was hoping to intimidate, it worked; that pitchfork looked dangerous.
“Err, um, it’s a barbecue.”
“What’s wrong wiv it?”
I could see the wheels going around as he processed the information. Understandably, the cogs refused to engage. As he continued to stare blankly back at me, I decided to explain further.
“I just bought a new gas barbecue. My wife prefers gas, but there’s nothing wrong with this. . . look.”
I dragged it from the car and stood it on the tarmac. He rubbed his chin again, and circled the beast, as if hoping to spot some sort of blemish or flaw. He found none, and nodded sagely as he spoke.
“Mmm, looks alright.”
I felt I should say something.
“You can have it, if you want; there’s really nothing wrong with it.”
He stood in deep contemplation for a few tension-loaded seconds, and then finally prodded the pitchfork in the direction of the mobile cabin that served the dual roles of office and canteen.
“Put it over there.”
I dragged it over to the indicated area, and then shuffled uncomfortably back to the car. I called out a cheery goodbye, saw his answering nod and thought I saw the flicker of a smile, but it could have been wind. Seconds after that I was away.
I didn’t give it another thought, but a couple of months later I was back at the tip. When he strode over to me, I smiled. He didn’t smile back.
“That bloody barbecue!”
“Your bloody barbecue. . . it’s ruined my life.”
I assumed he was joking. I joked back.
“Don’t tell me; she’s got you cooking every weekend.”
“Naw. . . she’s left me, and it’s all your bloody fault.”
It only took one glance to see that he wasn’t joking, and he was still carrying that pitchfork. I warily eyed the twin prongs, and began mentally recalling my unarmed combat training. Step sideways, parry, step inside the radius, disable. I was hoping I wouldn’t need to use it.
“I’m sorry, what do you mean?”
Suddenly he dropped the pitchfork, and all the misery in him came gushing out.
Apparently he’d taken my old barbecue home, and on the following weekend he and his wife had invited the neighbours round for a lazy barbecue and an afternoon in the garden. Unfortunately, the neighbours had brought a friend with them. My man with the pitchfork had thought nothing of it, but a week later his wife left him and ran off with the neighbour’s friend.
I spent the next ten minutes not knowing whether to laugh or cry, while failing to extricate myself from the unhappy result of my ‘good deed’. It was no good telling him that she must have been unhappy long before he bought the barbecue home. No good, either, trying to tell him that it was better to know sooner rather than later, and he could now look for someone faithful. He was devastated, and it was all down to me and that bloody barbecue!
I hastily tipped the rubbish into the nearest skip. Whether it was the right skip or not, he didn’t seem to notice or care. Then I jumped back into the car, and said.
“I’m really sorry.”
“Back to your wife now, I suppose?”
I left him to his misery, and didn’t go back to the tip for months.
I doubt that even Aesop could have found a moral to the story, and so I’m not going to try, but a few months ago I was back at the tip. He stopped me, and proudly told me that he had a new wife. He still didn’t look any happier, but I heartily congratulated him and his new wife, and then ran for it, because I’d just finished tipping our now worn-out gas barbecue into the metals skip.
Have a good one