A new travelling companion has entered my life. His name is Stick, because – well, not to put too fine a point on it – he is a stick.
I’ve recruited him to help manage a right knee which has stiffened up over the last few months. Age and general decrepitude are the main reasons for this, but smashing it when playing rugby at school, and having my wife whack it with a cheeseboard in the course of a minor domestic dispute several decades later did not, probably, improve matters.
Stick’s a fine, upstanding chap, a little short of a yard high, with a bright brass collar where shaft meets handle and a stout rubber ferrule where aforementioned staff meets pavement. He makes himself useful, as well as being sociable with the other occupants of the umbrella stand in the hall.
They are a pair of hefty golf umbrellas (courtesy of the Irish and the North Devon tourist boards) and a slim red umbrella (Cunard in origin).
Before Stick’s arrival the two golfers spent all their time yarning about the conditions they had endured on gale-battered Scottish links, the manicured elegance of courses in the Caribbean, or the quality of the lunches available at Royal Lytham & St. Annes or Wentworth. And, recently, whether the influence of Mr. Trump will make any lasting difference to Turnberry.
Mrs Cunard could rarely get a word in edgewise, though, given an opening, she would seize it and chatter on at great length about her own experiences – dining at the Captain’s table, exciting ports of call, shipboard romances and the hazards of “tendering ashore”, despite the manly assistance of handsome sailors.
However, I know she felt quite dominated by her two companions.
Stick’s arrival has changed all that. I am not sure if he is of Beech extraction, or something a little more exotic, but he has a fund of stories about the forest of his youth (or saplinghood, as it is called in arboreal circles). He gets on tremendously well with the old golfers and flirts outrageously with Mrs. Cunard, to her great delight.
Indeed, their evening conversations occasionally rise to such a pitch that I have to close the door in order to concentrate on re-runs of “NCIS”, to which I am in danger of becoming addicted.
Now I’m sure you see nothing unusual in the situation I describe, as some of you may possess umbrellas and sticks of your own. However, I have a problem, which I had not anticipated when I brought Stick into my life.
The problem is that he is changing me – or, rather, my character.
It started when Carole and I took him to Dubrovnik. The moment we (Stick and I) found ourselves in that wonderful but overcrowded old city, we became eager to cut a path through the aimless throng, like some short-tempered squire from a Thomas Hardy novel. Indeed, Stick did manage to poke the calves of several obese Americans and quite a number of Frenchmen (who are disinclined to queue), before I managed to get him under control.
When I wore my Panama Hat, all hell broke loose. Stick transformed me into a retired Indian Army colonel, beating off the natives as he strode purposefully through the bazaar. With or without the Panama, Stick insisted on being used to point to things or wave in the direction we were to walk (that last “we”, incidentally, includes the ever-patient, ever-understanding Carole).
Back in London, I have managed to get Stick under some kind of control, but am aware of the changes he has wrought upon me.
Before his arrival, when travelling on crowded trains and buses and the London Underground, I would sometimes (but not very often) be offered a seat. Following the long-established London etiquette of non-verbal communication, I would either accept with no more than a grateful smile and a nod of the head, or refuse politely, explaining as briefly as possible that I would be leaving at the next stop.
Stick has changed all that. Travelling with him, I get many more offers of a seat, and respond with phrases like: “Thank you very much, young man”, or “That’s quite all right, my dear, I’m getting off at the next stop.” The latter is aimed at ladies of all ages, and delivered in what I hope is an endearing and avuncular manner, but I find myself pronouncing “my dear” as “mi-deer” (As in “Have Some Madeira M’dear”). Even worse, “off” comes out as “orrff”.
Yesterday evening, at London’s Victoria Station, I approached a uniformed chap on the platform, asking if the train stopped at Bromley South. At the sight of me, and Stick, he drew himself up to attention and replied “Yes, sir”. And he really meant the “Sir” part. Without Stick I would have been lucky to have received a cursory nod or a grudging “Yuss mate”.
So, on the whole, I think Stick has brought about some lifestyle improvements. He has managed to bring harmony and a new lease of life to the occupants of the umbrella stand. And has persuaded me to consider buying a cravat to wear with the Panama hat on holiday next summer. (Particularly appropriate if we return to Dubrovnik.)
However, I am running the risk of morphing into a chubby version of Wilfred Hyde White.
Though perhaps that’s no bad thing, as he was a proper gent.