My friend had an experience in one of those supermarkets with four-letter names recently that shook him to his core. He is there a lot, being the main supermarket forager in his family unit.
While browsing in this particular retailer he likes to spot all the entertaining new products that pay homage in name, packaging and taste to other more established brands and then post them to a WhatsApp group we set up mostly for this purpose. These lookalike, tastealike products are an often overlooked culinary artform. My favourite is the Seal chocolate bar, an ingenious tribute to the iconic Penguin bar.
My friend was at the cash desk with his shopping. That awkward part at the end of the conveyor belt where there is no space in the four-letter supermarkets to organise your groceries and so you feel under pressure to move quickly, anxiously sorting your stuff into bags for life to allow room for the next customer. He was flustered and it showed.
The shop assistant, a young Eastern European woman, observed his mild panic and said “take your time” in a kindly manner that suggested she thought she was talking to a very old, confused person.
My friend, who is in his 50s, saw himself as though from the outside looking in. The young woman clearly viewed my friend as some kind of doddery aul fella lacking the wherewithal to gather his groceries in a calm, assured manner. She said “take your time” but what he heard was “take your time old man, you clearly need it at your age, you must be 70 if you are a day”. It was a rude awakening.
Twice in the middle of the night she was forced to emerge from under her pillow to poke me gently and stop my apparently high-decibel snoring
He told a few of us the sorry tale over an afternoon game of croquet which not only makes us sound ancient but extremely Protestant. We were at a very dear friend’s 50th birthday celebration, in beautiful Ballyvolane House in Co Cork. It was very far from croquet some of us were reared, and our group included an ardent Gaeilgeoir with anti-ascendency leanings, but we soon realised we had a natural way with the wooden mallet, which was gratifying.
In fact, it turns out croquet is as Irish as hurling. According to the president of the Fédération Française de Croquet, Anthoine Ravez, it was invented in Ireland. In his brochure for the Coupe des Alpes (France, Switzerland, Italy) of 1992 he writes: “Croquet is a very old game, widely known and practised in France since the 11th century under the name of ‘jeu de mail’. Borrowed by the British around 1300, it was modified over the centuries: the Scots made golf out of it, the Irish turned it into croquet.”
The rules are simple enough, but luckily there were three children around to help us out when we forgot them. They acted as mini-coaches, walking with their elders as we strode around the lawn giving the brightly coloured balls a satisfying and posh-sounding “thwack” with the mallets, trying to score points by getting the balls through white metal hoops. It was a stark reminder of our age differences and brain cell counts.
The boys would tell us in which direction we needed to whack the ball and by the time we went around the course we’d have forgotten the instructions, so they’d cheerfully tell us again, and so it went on for much of the afternoon. It felt like a harbinger of a time to come in all our futures but I didn’t like to think too long about that.
I was sharing a room with my friend, who spent a couple of years in boarding school, where she developed a habit of sleeping with a pillow over her head to drown out all the night-time noises in the dormitory. She brings this pillow on all overnight stays.
The thing about getting older is that it sneaks up on you. Suddenly you have become a menace of a snorer, or you notice, while swinging a croquet mallet, a twinge in the knee that was never there before
Unfortunately, it turned out she needed a larger pillow to share sleeping quarters with me. Twice in the middle of the night she was forced to emerge from under her pillow to poke me gently and stop my apparently high-decibel snoring.
Regular snorers will recognise that dreaded, lonely time after such a poking when you try to stay awake so you don’t fall asleep and snore again only for the whole middle-of-the-night mess to be repeated when you eventually do fall asleep and, inevitably, snore.
The thing about getting older is that it sneaks up on you. Suddenly you have become a menace of a snorer, or you notice, while swinging a croquet mallet, a twinge in the knee that was never there before.
Inside you feel the same, but to the woman at the checkout you have become just another one of the older folk that need kind words and patience but have no discernible characteristics to speak of, just a slowness with groceries.
Being around a lot of other 50-something people for the weekend, people who wield reading glasses the way they used to rock their Raybans, was the ultimate safe space. We recognised each other’s fierce individuality: the interpretation of the dress code – black tie, 1972 – was impressive, and the party pieces ranged from Hilaire Belloc recitations to a stunningly original gentle roast of our birthday host that took the form of a quiz.
Also, we didn’t judge our age-related foibles – world class snoring, disco naps, interesting moves on the dance floor – too harshly. As John Lennon, who never got to reach his 50s, once said: “Count your age by friends not years.”
Which might be of comfort if you find yourself fumbling at the four-letter till.