The other day I got on the bus and found that I couldn’t actually make my way down the aisle. I checked my feet: no, I wasn’t standing in cement or quicksand. I checked the air: no, it hadn’t suddenly acquired a consistency that was so thick you couldn’t actually walk through it. I waved my hand in front of me to check if there was an invisible force field halfway down the bus but there wasn’t, although somebody did wave to me from the back seat.
I was momentarily mystified but then I realised that I’d got the strap of my backpack caught in one of the seats so that I was in fact hooked like a grey-haired fish. I had to walk back a few steps to unhook myself and as I did so I saw and heard a few people laughing. Somebody shouted ‘Write a poem about that!’ and I found myself suddenly going tomato red, traffic light red, ketchup red. I blushed like a sunset and I could tell, perhaps by the extreme heat that suddenly enveloped the bus from my puce face, that everybody else on the bus could experience my very public blush.
Then having wrestled my backpack off the seat with the help of a fellow older person’s bus pass holder, I sat down and continued to glow with embarrassment. I felt, if I’m not going down a wormhole here, embarrassed that I was embarrassed. Indeed (and here I really am descending the spiral staircase of the wormhole) I was embarrassed to be embarrassed to be embarrassed.
I sat there gazing out of the window and tried to give myself a good talking-to. Silently, of course. Why should I blush with embarrassment at my age? I’m 67 years old, for goodness’ sake! I’ve been around a bit; I’m not a teenager, self-conscious in an empty room, am I? No, I’m not. My blush began to fade like an autumn sunrise.
I started to think about the times I really had been embarrassed when I was younger. Like the time when I was about seven in a crowd at Bridlington and I’d grasped the wrong hand thinking it to be my mother’s and my shame was almost volcanic, although of course that’s something we’ve all done. Or the time when, as an actual teenager, I bought a pink paisley shirt and tie combo and wore it to secondary school on a day that I had been told by jokers in my form was a non-uniform day when it wasn’t. It definitely wasn’t; I was the only person in assembly, not in uniform and, worse, I was the only person in assembly wearing a natty pink paisley shirt and a smart pink paisley tie. I thought I might die, as hundreds of eyes stared at me and hundreds of mouths opened wide in operatically cruel laughter.
And, oddly, even though this was decades ago, I’m squirming with embarrassment now, as I type this. I can feel my cheeks reddening, I can feel, somehow, hyper-visible, as though I’m back in that shirt and tie and everybody in the world has got me in their eyeline. That’s the thing about the E word, as I might call it, because even writing the word makes me blush; it’s like one of those scarab beetles that can lie dormant for ages and then come back to life. The blush beetle never dies, it only sleeps. And when the embarrassing memories come back they come back in wagon loads.
Like the time when I did a poetry reading with my late brother-in-law Martyn Wiley at a village hall in Somerset called High Ham. When we got to the village hall we saw a notice that said TONIGHT: ADULT COMEDIANS and I told the organiser we were just daft poets and he said ‘Oh, you’ll be fine’ but we weren’t. Nobody laughed. Halfway through the show a man got up and said ‘I’m going to the toilet now. If you say something funny while I’m out, let me know.’
Aaaargh! I’m exploding with embarrassment now. Hold the Chronicle away because it might catch fire from the heat radiating from my face. I’ll just glug some water to cool me down and get the boat of my day back on an even keel. Ah: that reminds me of the time I spilt that water down that bloke in a posh suit…