March 22, 2005

Folie de roll

I have spent most of this afternoon worrying about a mystery swiss roll.

I was looking through my rucksack during a duller-than-usual tea break and was surprised to find a plastic bag inside it. At first, I thought it must have been the bag which had earlier contained my lunch, which I bought this morning from a supermarket, and carried into work in a plastic shopping bag. That bag, however, had long since been binned. It had, moreover, been from Tesco. It had contained a ham sandwich and a banana. The bag in my rucksack was from Sainsbury. It contained a raspberry swiss roll.

I do not eat raspberry swiss roll. I do not like raspberry swiss roll. It strikes me anyway as being unpopular by the general standards of comestibles: prior to setting eyes on the one inside my rucksack, I cannot recall setting eyes on one of them in many, many years. I would not, in the normal course of events, have any reason to contemplate a swiss roll, let alone contemplate the course of events that had led to having one in my possession. Yet there it was: rather flatter than it had presumably been before, largely inedible even had I been minded to eat it, but unquestionably in my possession as a result of a course of events which I could neither remember nor get to grips with.

I do not, as a rule, pick up the shopping bags of total strangers and put them in my rucksack. If I did, I like to think I would have better reason to do so than the theft of a raspberry swiss roll which I do not even like. I also like to think that I would remember carrying out the theft afterwards. You do not want to find yourself carrying out acts of larceny without even realising that you are doing so. You might steal the wrong thing entirely. You would certainly, being unaware of the theft, be equally unaware that the police, who you saw hurrying down the street, were hurrying after you in order to recover the unwittingly stolen property.

I suppose unconsciousness of the action might constitute a defence, in so far as there would be no intent - but then again, who would believe your story in the first place? I certainly wouldn't. Or I wouldn't have, before I found myself trying to work out how, let alone why, I had stolen a mystery swiss roll. It wasn't just that it might be something more serious next time - a coat, a wallet, a chocolate cake perhaps. Even as it was, I could imagine the Hammersmith Chronicle leading on the story:

'I do this all the time', the man claimed in court. 'At least I think I do. I can't remember'. He went on: 'I don't even like them'.
The defence would ask me to prove it by eating one while pulling a face, like OJ Simpson putting on his glove. It would be fabulous entertainment. I would be in court in the morning. I would be in the Chronicle by the afternoon. By the time I got home they would be reading about me on the internet all over the world.

I am sure that I was discovered sleepwalking, once or twice, when I was a child. But sleepthieving is a different thing entirely. And thieving unconsciously while you are awake - well, it is a passably eccentric thing to do. Even, one might add, a little erratic.

But I have been doing many erratic things of late (and earlier than that, too). On Friday, I lost my keys for fifteen minutes at the end of work, and rushed round the library in a mostly-controlled panic for a quarter of an hour, until they were discovered sitting on the desk opposite mine. On Saturday evening I accidentally locked the cat in the sitting room overnight, despite having checked (I thought) the room beforehand to see if she was there. She was only discovered the next morning by my landlady who heard the mewing and was able to release the confused and chastened creature - and was also able to inform me, later that same morning, that I had left the gas ring on after using it.

I then completed the weekend by travelling into town with the specific purpose of handing in a form at a Central London shop in order to claim a couple of free tickets for an exhibition. On this occasion, my rucksack contained less than I had expected: I left the forms at home. (I then went to an internet café, since I had been sent the forms by email, and paid to have them print some more - which I then took to the shop, who told me that all the free tickets had gone. I was completely unsurprised.)

Even today, while mulling over the matter of the raspberry swiss roll, I found two pounds and fifty pence in my back pocket. I have a small coin purse, which I keep in a front pocket. I could understand that coins might have fallen out of it and into that pocket - or flown out when I opened the purse, as happened later in the evening in the off licence. But how they could have travelled into the opposite pocket, I could not imagine. I was loth even to rummage further in the pocket in case I pulled out a playing card, or a rabbit, or an egg.

I have worried often about madness, or at least about irrational actions, things you do which have no reason, things you do which are not based on reality, which are based on a false perception of reality. Do things that you immediately forget, and are you not in the same sort of world? I do a lot of things which lead me later to sit down and ask myself - why did I do that? It is a step beyond that, to ask - did I do that? And when did I do that? And the logical step beyond that - what else have I been doing that I don't remember? I thought I cut out excessive drinking to stop things like that from happening. (Which has its own logical step beyond that - why bother, if it doesn't make a difference?)

There was, to my relief, a rational if unlikely explanation. Actually, it was unlikely enough to come out of one of those comedies where everything turns on two complete strangers looking the same, or having the same clothes, or having identical suitcases. It transpired that one of my brother librarians had, the previous day, bought a cheese and tomato pizza from Sainsbury. Which, coincidentally, I had as well. He had put it in the fridge for the afternoon before taking it home, which, coincidentally, I had as well. So when I went home - leaving before he did - I must have taken his, put it in my rucksack without noticing the raspberry swiss roll in the bag, taken the pizza out of the bag without noticing the raspberry swiss roll that was still in the bag, and taken the rucksack back into work the next day. With the raspberry swiss roll, still unnoticed, inside it.

He wasn't too upset - and he'd have had to be enormously upset the balance out the hugeness or my relief. I have had, in my time, a certificate of sanity, a claim very few people can make. Or, at least, a certificate issued at a psychiatric institution declaring, officially, that I did not belong there. I paid my colleague forty pence as compensation for his raspberry swiss roll. He'd only asked for thirty-five. It has to be worth five pence of anybody's money to know, however temporarily, that you are still sane.


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