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Welcome to the latest edition of Story Press. Today, our protagonist is an obsessive germaphobe whose natural instincts force him out to help others, and it changes him, potentially forever.
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Read the last edition of Story Press, The Man In The Woods, about a script writer who suffers from writer’s block, ventures to a party, and has an evening he’ll never forget.
It’s been 19 days since I went outside. That was to take the bins out. It involved a complex set of manoeuvres: opening all doors, the outside gate, and the outer bin lid to set out a clean path from bin to bin, putting on latex gloves and a face mask, disinfecting all outer contact points of both the bin itself and the bag within, lifting and tying the bag up, carrying it across the kitchen at full arm’s stretch, across the corridor, down the stairs, out the front door, down the garden path and into the bin. And, of course, I planned a full body clean from top to toe, both before and after the exercise.
Being a germaphobe, it would never have gone as simply as that. As I was rushing down the stairs as fast as I could, desperately trying to end the whole ordeal, I accidentally kicked the bag with my left trainer, it split open and last week’s dahl spilled out over the stairs. I stood in it and slipped back, falling down and landing in the cold wet dinner.
I know what you’re thinking: why did I bin the dahl when I could and should have eaten it? The answer is, I found a hair in it. It was long, straight and dark. It may well have been one of mine, but that doesn’t make it any less disgusting. It’s not as though it’s healthier to eat your own hair rather than someone else’s. And I can’t eat anything that’s touched a hair like that. Many of you will simply pluck the hair out, dispense of it, and carry on with your meal as though it were all going perfectly. But I can’t do that. What if that hair contaminated the food, you swallow it and then you get some odious gastro-infection. And who’s to say there aren’t more hairs? Why does that have to be the end of it? If you’ve managed to get one hair in there, there’s every chance others have followed. And who's to say it’s even your hair? What if it’s someone else’s? The worst outcome of all! What if someone packing lentils at the factory scratched their flaky scalp, and a single filthy hair floated down from their head, carrying all sorts with it, and wrapped itself around a lentil, only to show up now, swimming around the surface of my dahl in the pan in front of me.
In the case of landing in last week’s dinner, you mustn’t start with cleaning the mess up but cleaning yourself. It’s the fear more than anything. You could be cleaning away at your stairs while all sorts of bacteria are working away at your arms and legs. I threw my clothes in the wash on a long, hot cycle, rushed to the bathroom, turned the shower on, found my cleansing sponge, and scrubbed as hard as I could until my skin went red raw. I scrubbed so hard it bled. Better that than leaving a spot untouched.
I sat down in the shower and reflected on my actions. There were many steps I could and should have taken to prevent such a catastrophe. I thought to myself, I will not make the same mistake again. For one thing, I should have double-bagged. The best of the best double-bag. It’s a surefire prevention method. And I should have bagged the dahl in a small bin bag or sandwich bag before binning it, sealing it away behind one further protective layer. These are the kinds of things I’ve spent years thinking about, guarding against, and yet I still fall short. I am human, sadly, and cannot avoid all error.
All of this and 19 days have passed. I’ve tried my best to put off doing the bins for a while now. About 10 days ago I should have done it. I’ve been evenly distributing things across the various bins around the house. But the time is coming. Maybe I can get away with just one more day.
Anyway, this is all beside the point. What I have come to tell you is this. The most extraordinary thing happened to me this morning. In between work callsI was cleaning my office. I often eat snacks at my desk and although I prepare the scene with napkins, plates and a nearby bin, it’s impossible to prevent a rogue crumb finding its way across the desk or onto the floor. So I wiped down the desk, vacuumed the floor, disinfected everything, and binned any excess discoveries. In doing so, I found the most horrible compilation of dust to the rear of my computer monitor. I could only reach it by unplugging the monitor to move it, or to climb up on the office chair and reach around the back. Given the volume of cables and delicately positioned objects (the laptop, the lamp, my post-it notes, pad and pen, HDMI, mouse and keyboard cables etc.), I opted to climb and reach.
As I wiped vigorously the spots where the dust had compiled, I looked out the window down onto the street in front of the house.Down on the pavement opposite, a young girl was cycling on a little bike with multicoloured, reflective tassels hanging off the handlebars. She had stabilisers on but nevertheless was reaching quite an impressive speed for her small frame. She reached the dip in the pavement for the driveway opposite my house, swung down into it and her handlebars wobbled as she attempted to control her vehicle. Coming up the second dip, the vehicle took control, the bike wobbled vigorously and careened off the side of the pavement into the road, tipping the girl out with it.
I looked closely, clenched the antibacterial wipe which was now drying in my hand, and the skin around my fingers drying with it. The girl started to cry and inspected her elbows and knees, which looked red raw, just like my legs did 19 days earlier. I suddenly felt a pang of empathy, like nothing I had ever felt before. I swung off the desk, kicking my computer monitor as I did, ran down the stairs, grabbing my first aid kiton the way, and out onto the street. I leapt past the gate, and over to the girl.
“Hi there, I saw you fall. Are you okay?”
The girl said nothing, but cried continuously. My heart was thumping.
“Let’s have a look, let’s have a look.” She turned and I saw the graze that had spread like a fire up her arm. There’s one spot where the contact must have been which is the deepest red. I cleaned her arm and taped some gauze across the worst of the damage. She cried even more each time I touched her arm.
“Th-th-th-thank you, sir.”
“Thank you very much.” A woman came jogging from around the corner, pushing a pram with her. She looked flustered and red-cheeked. “I struggle to keep up with her.” She bent down to the girl and said, “Look what you’ve done. I told you to be careful and not to go too far out of my sight.”
The woman stood and looked at me.
“I saw her from my window and grabbed the first-aid kit. She’s an excellent cyclist but she must be careful.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you, thank you. Her father was never half as thoughtful as that when he was around.”
“Really, it’s nothing.”
“Do you live around here?”
“Just here.” I pointed to my house.
The woman looked it up and down. “It’s a handsome house. I like it.”
“We best be on our way.”
“Yes, I hope she’s okay. Do inspect it and clean it when you get home.”
“I will do. I hope I’ll see you again,” the woman said. Her smile was playful and I felt awkward, like I’d interrupted a scene between two other people. I was an outsider, an alien.
I smiled. “Goodbye.”
I turned back to the house and only when I got behind the other side of the door did I realise what had just happened.
I leant back against the door, and heard the tick-tocking of the grandfather clock. Dust swirled in the shaft of light that peeled in from the back window. I squirted some anti-bacterial gel into my hand from the dispenser by the door.
For whatever reason, ever since, I have felt so sad. I feel as though the world is pressing itself onto me like a giant, morphing balloon, suffocating me with its stale, rubber, airless energy. And no matter how much I scramble, I can’t escape it.
I haven’t been able to do anything ever since.
And, naturally, I made a rapid mental note to scrub my left shoe from back to front and top to bottom later on.
I’ve worked from home in my telesales job for three and a half years now. It’s improved my mental health beyond belief, so scarcely do I have to interact with my germ-ridden colleagues. One time, about four years ago, I was sitting in a board meeting when Gerry, a director, sneezed so violently into his handkerchief that the fabric rippled and some of his produce escaped its reach and slapped the edge of the table in front of him. I was sat beside him and the whole scene scarred me for life. I’m certain a very small fleck caught the knee of my suit trousers. I left the meeting at the first instant to go and be sick in the toilets. Gerry’s failure was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
While we’re on the subject, I also vacuum the seat of my office chair. I know, it sounds absurd, but the facts are only a vacuum cleaner can tease out the crumbs that make their way into that tight little space between the seat and the back. I’m convinced that that little space is created by the enemies of germaphobes simply to prod and poke at our fears.
It’s been a long time since I looked down onto the street from this particular window. Ordinarily, I am sitting in my office chair. When positioned at the optimal height, my view is fixed on the cascading tiles of the roof opposite, the passing clouds above it and the occasional birds or planes that pass in varying sizes across the infinite distance.
I always keep four in the house. One in the bedroom, one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom and one in a cupboard by the front door. The latter proved the best companion today.