Jonny McCambridge: Aye robot – my chit-chat is falling flat

I have always thought it useful to be aware of the extent and limit of my abilities.

Wednesday, 7th July 2021, 7:00 am
The long straight walk from my door to the shop

Some people have, over the years, complimented my writing style while others have remarked that I have a knack for telling a good story.

Notable, although perhaps less useful, is my talent for retaining in my memory the result of every World Snooker final ever played at The Crucible.

There are other areas in which I am less proficient. As a child I was obsessed by dreams of becoming a professional footballer. Somewhere, in my teens, the aspiration was abandoned when I had to concede that I was actually rubbish at the game.

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I have no capacity whatsoever for DIY or any manual task. It has been known for me to phone my dad for help when trying to put together the toy out of Kinder Surprise egg.

Another glaring omission from my palette of life skills is small talk, the gift of being able to make inane and easy conversation with someone you don’t know, or know only a little, about nothing in particular.

I must have been off school on the day that social lesson was doled out, or else the part of my brain which controls that function has not developed and is shrunken and shrivelled.

This is not to suggest that I can’t hold a conversation, because I do that every day with family, friends and colleagues. Occasionally I am asked to go on the radio to discuss some topical matter, and am comfortable with that situation because I am talking about a particular chosen subject (if they ever decide to broadcast a section on great Crucible finals, I’d be a natural).

Instead, what I am referring to here is the difficulty in filling random, awkward silences with more casual acquaintances. Rather like Mr Darcy, I “have not the talent which some people possess, of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done” (that is where the similarity between us ends).

While not a debilitating condition, it does have its implications. I hate going to the barber and often let my hair and beard become messy and unkempt rather than endure the torture of being trapped on a chair, trying to spin out remarks about the weather, or how busy I am, for half an hour.

Usually, when I am with my wife, the effect is mitigated as she is a natural talker and, unlike me, able to project the impression of actually being nice. When we meet people in the street, she happily chats while I generally sulk and scowl in the background.

Some mundane social functions can become magnified and daunting in my mind. I’m walking into my corner shop just as an older woman who lives on my street is leaving. We briefly say hello before she passes on. But I don’t really notice her because I am distracted. There is a teenager who works on the till who, I think, views me with contempt. I can never shift the feeling that he is looking down on me as I pay for my basket of shopping.

Now, he is scanning an ice lolly which I have presented at the counter. A Choc Pop. He seems to take an age studying it and looking for the bar code. I find myself mumbling something unnecessary and unconvincing about it being for my son.

My relief at getting out of the shop is quickly tempered when I spot my next problem. The elderly neighbour is walking home. My walking pace is much faster, and it is impossible for me to get back to my house without passing her. Then, I know, she will want to stop for a chat.

It is a walk of less than five minutes to my house. I briefly consider going an alternative route, which involves hiking in the opposite direction, through the village, up and down several steep gradients, and then along the busy A1 road. It is a journey of about three miles.

Instead, I hang around for a few moments out the front of the shop, kicking stones along the road and pretending to study something on my phone. I consider eating the lolly, but I can see the moody adolescent shop assistant peering suspiciously at me through the window. Reluctantly, I move on.

Then I give myself a good telling off. I’m an accomplished man in my mid-40s and should not allow myself to succumb to such pathetic insecurities and social paralysis. I march confidently along the road towards my neighbour and catch her in less than a minute.

I approach from behind and brightly exclaim “HELLO!”, much louder than I had intended.

The woman jumps in the air.

“Good Lord! You gave me such a fright!”

We walk on. She remarks on the fine weather.

“Aye,” I say.

She comments on how big my son is getting.

“Aye,” I say.

She says the years go so fast.

“Aye,” I say.

Because I walk faster than her, I keep finding myself a few steps ahead and then having to stop to allow her to catch up. I am trapped now and feel that to walk on and leave her behind would be interpreted as blatantly rude. The agony is prolonged as she stops briefly to examine some flower beds on a patch of grass near our estate.

“Such lovely flowers.”

“Aye.”

“The council have done a really good job this year.”

“Aye.”

“It said on the forecast that there might be rain coming in later.”

“Aye.”

I can feel the Choc Pop is beginning to melt in my pocket. This does not feel like an appropriate thing to say at this moment.

“We might take the chance to get the grass cut before the rain comes in.”

“Aye.”

We turn the corner into our estate. I can see my front door. So close now.

“So, I suppose that’s the schools on summer holidays now?”

“Aye.”

The last few steps are undertaken in silence. We finally begin to move in separate directions.

“Well, that’s that then. It was nice talking to you.”

“Aye,” I say, as I disappear indoors.

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Alistair Bushe

Editor