Had one of those moments today.  They don’t happen often, but they happen.

I was in a big branch of Boots the Chemist, killing time while my prescriptions were being made up – loitering in the cosmetic aisles, idly scanning the nail polish shelves on the unlikely offchance of a stone cold bargain or, failing that, something sufficiently jaw-dropping to justify full list price. It wasn’t looking promising.

For the purposes of this account I should perhaps give a description of my appearance:

Black baker-boy cap

Denim jacket (seen better days. One more machine wash and it’ll fall apart.)

Woollen check scarf.

Dark red shirt.

Gloves (black, thermal. It was a cold day, despite the sunshine.)

Black corduroy trousers (second best pair – I was only shopping.)

Black faux-Converse plimmies (very convincing! – £3.99 from ALDI.)

This being the spring of 2021 and thus the time of Covid, I was wearing a standard-issue pale blue disposable mask, which I was having to re-seat repeatedly every few minutes as it kept getting caught on my 3-day beard growth and creeping incrementally off my face.  

Doing this for the umpteenth time, I became aware of a figure hovering – no, looming – a few yards away from me at the end of the aisle: a tall, wide, ungainly-looking man in over-heavy shoes. The store security guard – and it was plain he was watching me. From behind his dark blue “I got it to match my uniform so it would look kind of official” face-mask, he addressed me.

“Bit out of place!”

There was nothing confrontational in his tone.  It was good-natured – matey even – but, mentally ticking off the checklist of lazy assumptions that had clearly given rise to the remark, I rankled.  Inside my chest a tiny, very angry drag queen straightened her wig, bristling for a scrap. I quashed her, opting instead for my default weapon of response in such situations: Mr. Spock.

Specifically, the 1960s Spock, as portrayed by Leonard Nimoy in the original series. You know that slightly cocked-head expression of mild puzzlement he gets when faced with some new evidence of the aberrant illogicality of humans?  That one.  I adopted it.

“Sorry?” I replied. “How do you mean?” My tone was questioning but unprovocative.

He coughed nervously. “You must be feeling a bit out of place,” he said, “…in the make-up aisles.”

Wishing there really was such a thing as a Vulcan Death Grip, I dialled Spock up another notch.  “No.  Not at all.  I’m looking at nail polishes.”  As I spoke, I emphasised the point by removing my gloves, revealing two fistfuls of freshly-applied iridescent turquoise (£2.99 – bargain bin, TK Maxx).

I swear that in that moment the entire shop could hear the cog-wheels clonking into position in his head as he took on board the reality of me and my shopping preferences.

“Ah… right,” he said, and – to my relief – took himself off, out of my field of view.  Victory secured, I stood Spock down and resumed my browsing.

Within 30 seconds, he was back.

“Er… just so’s you know. Next aisle? There’s a 3-for-2 offer.  Rimmel.  Only you might easily miss it.  Cos of the label.  The writing’s very …er… small.”

“Oh lord!” I thought, “He’s gone into cis-het over-compensation mode now. His diversity training’s kicked in.  He’ll be stuck to me like a limpet.”

In an effort to shut down any further avenues for engagement, I shot him a polite, non committal nod and feigned deep fascination with a Revlon 3-in-1 Gel kit.  It didn’t work.  Even after I had turned away, such that I could no longer see him on the periphery of vision, he remained: I could sense him.  Looming.  He loomed.  Then he did something I wasn’t expecting.

He approached me, arriving at my side, somewhat more closely than permitted by the strict letter of social distancing I thought, and – in a voice several degrees softer, yet oddly more urgent – said:

“I wear nail polish. Just at home, like.  Buy it online. Couldn’t do it here. Difficult.  You know…the job.”

I turned, for the first time looked directly into his eyes and saw the sincerity burning there – saw also that in this drama, this petty slice of everyday tragicomedy, I was the idiot.  I spooled back to that initial exchange, re-ran his opening remark, and heard what I had missed – or perhaps had refused to let myself understand.

He’d thought I was a newbie: an older man, navigating the make-up displays for the first time and floundering, drunk on the sheer importance of it, scarce able to focus on any single item from the bewildering kaleidoscope before me, all the while feeling exposed and conspicuous, as if there was a giant neon sign over my head flashing the word FREAK, and – above all – completely unequal to the herculean trial of choosing a shade and taking it to the lady at the checkout. He knew what that felt like, just as I had once, and not so very long ago.  Far from challenging my right to be there, he had – in his gauche, clumsy way – been trying to show support: reach out to a fellow nailie.

From behind our respective face-masks we swapped acknowledging smiles and, in an act of gauche clumsiness all my own, I proffered a cheesy thumbs-up. 

“Whatever works, mate,” I said. “… and yeah, I’ll check out that 3-for-2. Cheers, man. Good call.”

About the Author

Ken Cumberlidge was born in Birkenhead and cut his performance teeth on the Liverpool pub poetry scene of the 1970s.  His work has appeared variously in print and in numerous online journals. Since 2011, Ken has been based in Norwich, but can be lured out of cover by good company and an open mic. This has led him to become an habitué of the slam poetry/spoken word scene. He likes it. A lot.