Thursday, July 4, 2013

A cupful of cold water

We all have our favourite expressions. Some we use all the time, others we let slip into disuse. Some are for public consumption, others for private – and some just for our own selves.

I can’t eat a grapefruit without thinking of my friend Bob’s flatmate and his midnight feasts [Parrots of the Caribbean, posted in June], but the story wouldn’t be funny to anybody else. You had to be there.

“Up and down like a yo-yo” doesn’t need explaining. Even people who have never played with a yo-yo know more or less what it is. At my boarding school in Brisbane we used to say “up and down like father’s pants”, which was – and is – both evocative and funny, if used sparingly. I still find it an effective way of describing erratic line-charts of company sales or profits.

Some slang doesn’t travel well. In the Queensland of my youth, “a boofter kid” was a heavily built male baby or infant – innocent enough, but too easily confused with the p-word, today. There was no exact female equivalent that I recall – only the satirical observation, “she’ll be [or she must be] a great help to her mother”. I wonder if that has survived.

My boss in Toowoomba once dismissed a Balance Sheet of mine as “like a Chinese packapoo ticket”, which offended me greatly. Yes, some of the figures were out of alignment, and they shouldn’t have been. But the insult was way too severe – "OTT", we’d say today.

A rugby coach (boarding school again) once yelled – in front of the whole team – that I was as useless as a cupful of cold water. Mercifully, he spared me the full three-litre original version, but it was embarrassing enough. (The original is too coarse to be explained in this blog – the kiddies, you know...)

Linda and I say “two tuppennies” to mean “spare no expense”. It’s a handy expression, but we don’t use it outside the family; it’s not practical to use an expression that needs explaining. That one dates from my life in the Earl’s Court flat in the winter of 1963-64, and it began with David’s need to cash his wages-cheque at Barclays Bank.

No ATMs in those days, so the choice was between waiting until Monday, taking the tube into town to “his” branch of the bank, or cashing it at the nearest branch to where we lived. Chris and I stood back while he showed his ID to the girl behind the counter. “No problem, sir; all we need is threepence for the revenue stamp.” David grudgingly passed over a threepenny bit.

“Oh dear. I’m terribly sorry," she said. "I don’t seem to have any threepenny stamps. Or any one-penny stamps. Only twopenny stamps. Sorry!” She paused expectantly. To our astonishment, the situation actually sent David into a cataleptic shock, which my dictionary defines as a trance or seizure with loss of sensation and consciousness accompanied by rigidity of the body.

The girl waited; Chris and I waited; David couldn’t move, being in a trance or seizure with loss of sensation, etc. Testing my recollection against my little table-clock just now, I believe he remained stock-still for a good sixty seconds, which is a long time to mull over even such a critical decision.

Then, with all the resignation of a gambler committing his last penny to the roll of the dice, David slowly took out what for all we knew was his last penny, pushed it across the counter to rest beside his threepenny bit, and said carefully, “I’ll have two tuppennies, please”. Then he turned to find Chris and me on our knees behind a pillar whimpering with suppressed laughter, and asked, “What?”

I haven’t seen Chris for nearly fifty years: I’m sure he remembers the incident, if he’s still alive. David remembers it, though he pretends not to. His wife half-believes it because she knows I wouldn’t lie, but she can’t quite picture the scene. She should do. After all, she smiles when we tell her about The Man Who Loved Grapefruit, which wasn’t nearly as ridiculous.