His voice is the first thing I hear when I walk into the shop. “Mina.” He is calling to her down a book-lined corridor to the back room where volunteers are sorting through bags of donations. “Those shoes I bought here before Christmas – remember? The size thirteens? I nearly didn’t take them. Haven’t they’ve turned out great! I wear two pairs of thick socks with them and they almost fit. I trip over myself the odd time ’cause I’m not used to shoes that big, but other than that they’re just the ticket.” I had a wee chuckle to myself, admiring his talent for looking on the bright side. An ability to be grateful for ill-fitting shoes signals a man with a dribble left in the bottom of his glass who can see it as a ‘glass half full’. Mina’s disembodied voice emerges from beyond the books, “I’m glad to hear it, Bobby.”
Bobby squeezes past me, where I’m examining shelves of kitchenware: pyrex dishes, mis-matched dinner and side plates, two pie vents in the shape of a little bird singing (or gasping its last breath, depending on whether or not you are a ‘glass half full’ type of person). A stainless steel wine cooler is filled with fish slices, wooden spoons, whisks, tongs, sieves, blunt knives and a nutcracker. Ikea has a lot to answer for, filling our kitchens with utensils that have a shorter shelf life than a three-day-old herring, before they’re shunted along, barely used, to the local charity shop. Still in their boxes, my eyes fall to a potato ricer and a sugar thermometer. What a palaver, both of them. There’s a meat tenderizer – maybe I should get it, if only for the therapeutic value to be had in bashing a piece of steak. The only thing I give any serious consideration to is an egg slicer for 75p – one of those with a slotted dish for holding the egg, before pulling down the little guillotine drawbridge of wire blades to dismember it, rather pointlessly, into dainty slices. What every kitchen doesn’t need.
“Have you any warm coats in?” Bobby’s chatting again. “We’re very short,”the lady tells him, blaming the arrival of the cold weather in the last couple of weeks. “No harm. I’ve enough coats to set up a shop of my own. I was only wondering. I’ve given up coffee,”he declares seamlessly, in a marvellous non sequitur. “I’m gradually cutting out everything that’s bad for me. I’ve not touched sugar in twenty years and the dentist says I’ve had no decay since quitting. It’s wonderful. I’ve got gum disease through. She had to remove four teeth last time because of the gum disease. She had them in a wee plastic cup and showed them to me – perfect they were. Isn’t that great?” I admire his ability to be curious and delighted by his decay-free extractions.
I left without an egg-slicer, didn’t buy the meat-basher, and I didn’t succumb to ill-fitting shoes; but I took away a reminder that, from the right angle, even when the outcomes seem dire, the emptiest of glasses can be viewed as half full. Raymond Carver wrote a poem after being diagnosed with cancer. Some call it, ‘an unvarnished statement of gratitude’. Carver was prodigious and talented at both writing and drinking; one of them was going to kill him. He picked the right one to quit, and added ten years to his life before the cancer moved in. In a super-human act of seeing his glass half full, Carver is grateful for those ten bonus years, even calling himself ‘lucky’. There might be more to Bobby and his teeth than he let on, and there might not be, but, like the two of them, we would do well to enjoy the gravy while we have it.
Gravy, by Raymond Carver
No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.