We have a neighbour across the road who is almost painfully shy and reserved. We run into him often, and always greet him with a wave or a flash of the eyebrows, but in all the years we’ve lived here, we have never said more than two words to each other.
I don’t have a problem with this. I’ve never taken to the sort of enforced bonhomie we all feel compelled to express with people who are often in our orbit but not actually our friends. Quiet neighbours suit me, and besides, if he turns out to be a serial killer, I can deliver the required lines to the visiting press with real conviction; “He was such a quiet man. Never caused any problems.”
But the other day, I was gripped by an almost overwhelming urge to throw a tomato at him. He had, I hasten to point out, done absolutely nothing wrong, and had not annoyed me on any level. He just really, really needed to be hit with a particularly juicy, slightly soft tomato. I will cheerfully confess that my motives did not show me in a good light, and that I should, perhaps, seek out some form of counselling, but I didn’t actually do it, so no harm, no foul. We were out of tomatoes.
So what did this quiet, unassuming little man do to provoke such a mean-spirited response? He fixed his driveway. He laid down a fresh slab of concrete where his driveway meets the road. This is not, in itself, a provocative thing to do. Some might even say that it is perfectly harmless. And they would be right. But that’s not all he did. You see, in order to fix his driveway, he put on one of those natty little yellow safety vests with a reflective silver strip. We live in a quiet cul-de-sac.
I don’t know why it is that I respond to certain types of behaviour this way. Wearing a reflective vest when you’re working in the road is a very sensible thing to do. It’s responsible, and safety conscious, and should be encouraged. But it points to a particular mind-set that always has me reaching for some over-ripe fruit.
It’s just too careful. It worries me. He sat down one day and thought “Right. I need to fix my driveway. I’ll do it at three o’clock on Saturday. I’m going to need 72 concrete pavers, 18 kilograms of river sand, 3 50kg bags of cement, a broad-brimmed hat, and a reflective safety vest.”
I bet he only squeezes his toothpaste tube from the bottom, so that the stripes are still in place when he uses the last, perfectly pea-sized drop. And I bet he always remembers to put the lid back on, and never has to use a knife to hack off the concrete hard lump that blocks the tube when you don’t. I bet he never runs out of toilet paper, and has to dig into the family supply of paper napkins. I bet his keys are hung up carefully on a hook as he comes into his house, and never has to run around like a maniac in the cold, grey light of a winter morning, digging under the cushions on his couch and digging yesterday’s pants out of the washing machine to check the pockets.
He needs, in other words, that tomato. He needs a ripe, juicy reminder from the sky to remind him that life is richer when it’s filled with little surprises. He needs it to remind him that you can be as careful as you like; that you can plan your day with criminally insane levels of care, but once in a while, hey, tomatoes. I just wanted to help him.
Or that’s what I’m telling myself. I may, just may, be feeling just a little bitter. Because while he was busy fixing his driveway, I was doing a little DIY myself. I was doing some tiling. I did not plan my little project with military precision. While he assembled his perfectly measured piles of bricks, and sand, and cement, I got “some” tiles and “some” tile adhesive. And a couple of beers so that I could survey the fruits of my labour that evening while enjoying some ice-cold frothy goodness. And then I set to work.
Or rather, I had to drive back out to the hardware shop to buy a bucket. Then I set to work. For an hour or so. Then I went back out to get some more tile adhesive. And then I reached the edge, and had to nip out to get a tile cutter. After a fifteen minute search for my keys. And every time I went out, there he was, all smug and superior in his wide brimmed hat and his natty little safety vest. Nobody likes a show-off.
But that’s not the whole reason I became fixated on his safety vest. South African are not, on the whole, a particularly safety conscious lot. I smile every time I buy a power tool and see, emblazoned on the side of the box, those little pictures that say “Warning! Safety goggles must be worn at all times while operating!” I have never, not even once, seen a South African in safety goggles.
Things are, of course, different when it comes to people who work for construction companies and the like, because there are health and safety rules, but no South African who whips out a chainsaw to cut some dead branches off a tree in the garden is ever going to whip out a hard-hat at the same time. It just wouldn’t occur to us. You can buy hard-hats down at the hardware store, but those are just there so that people can make these.
I’m not pretending that this approach is clever or rugged or brimming with rock-jawed manliness. It’s actually pretty stupid. It is, as they say, all fun and games until someone loses an eye. It’s just the way things are done round here. The stupid way.
And I did my tiling the stupid way. While safety-vest guy stood back, hands on hips, with a satisfied look on his untanned face, and admired his neatly squared off handiwork, I staggered inside as the sun went down, to find that I had forgotten to put my beers in the fridge. I went to bed disgusted, but woke up the next day feeling ready and inspired. Time to do the grouting.
Or rather time to nip off to the shops again since I’d forgotten to buy any grout. I paused on the way back in to sneer at the boring perfection of my neighbour’s driveway. And then I set to work. I checked up the instructions on how to mix the grout, and there, as always, was the little picture. It was a hand with a line through it. “Warning!” it said “Do not allow to come into contact with unprotected skin!” Ha!
How are you supposed to make those cool little furrows between the tiles with gloves on? It’s just cement. What could go wrong? Two hours later I was weeping quietly to myself. I had sanded three neat little holes into the ends of my fingers, into which the grout had seeped as a quiet little reminder of what “caustic” means.
I fought through the pain and finished the grouting, but not the weeping. Every time I touch anything, the holes in my fingers give me a sharp little reminder that the whole outside layer of skin on my right hand is busy peeling off, like a grotesquely misshapen snake shedding its skin.
But fear not. I have learned my lesson. In future, I’m going to be more careful. I’m going to plan things out. I’m going to be ready. And the opportunity is coming soon. Safety-vest guy was outside surveying his gate this afternoon. It looks like he’s planning to paint it. Little does he know he’s dealing with the new me. I’m never running out of tomatoes again.