A friend of mine once told me that when it comes to people, she thought of me as something of a magpie. By that, she meant that I collect people – characters to be precise. Now, before you go getting it into your heads that I am some kind of narcissist who constantly needs people around me, or craves attention, let me attempt to qualify what she meant by her statement.
Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “Doctor Who and the Epitome of Exaggeration“. It concerned the fact that, as a writer, I am prone to jot down interesting snippets of overheard conversations. These can often be as gold dust to a writer. The other thing that I am prone to do, is people watch. I can sit for hours in a cafe or train station, or outside on a terrace, just watching the world go by and making mental notes of the curious characters that make up the every day. This is what my friend meant in calling me a magpie. I collect conversations and characters with which to adorn my work.
And yet, I felt compelled to correct her. For you see, a magpie generally collects shiny things, glittering objects that glint and reflect the light around them. I don’t just collect those shiny characters, however. To me, there is a great fascination in the darker, dirtier, more unseemly side of life.
Take, if you will, the example from today. Whilst shopping in my local supermarket, I stopped my the meat counter. I was thinking of making chilli meatballs for dinner tonight, and I noticed that the minced beef that they had looked particularly appealing. Behind the counter stood two men, both engaged in conversation. One of them quite clearly had a cold, and kept blowing his nose on a handkerchief as he talked. Seeing that I was standing by the counter, the guy with the cold looked up, smiled and asked if he could help me. I smiled back and said that I would like a kilo of the minced beef, please. Without missing a beat, he put his handkerchief down onto the meat counter, before proceeding to grab a handful of the minced beef with his ungloved, unwashed hand! I stopped him before he could go any further, and asked him if he thought that what he had just done was either (a) hygienic and (b) appropriate. The look on his face couldn’t have been more befuddled than if I had happened to have grown two heads! No matter how many times I explained to him why what he had done was wrong, he seemed totally incapable of grasping it. Eventually, the penny dropped for him, but rather than apologise, he simply responded with, “Oh, and I suppose you do everything perfectly in your kitchen?”
“Not necessarily,” I replied, “but I’m not inviting people in to come and pay for food.” I walked off to find the manager, who, I feel it is only fair to say, was most apologetic and agreed wholeheartedly that it should not have happened. He promised to go and speak to him about it right away.
I paid for my groceries and left the supermarket. A few minutes later, as I sat in my car in the car park, I jotted down what had happened, together with the words “Revolting butcher. Fat, greasy, unhygienic – sneezes on the food before he wraps it.” Another character was born.
And so it is with my life. Little Miss Magpie, collecting characters, keeping them safe until they are ready to come to life in some tale or other. The world is full of stories. I just need the time to write them!