The Fower Quarters: 05 - In the Bag
Author(s): Sheena Blackhall
Copyright holder(s): Sheena Blackhall
"Maybe she will," I agreed. It was slow on the college reception desk that night, mind-numbingly slow. The minutes crawled by like arthritic tortoises. The clock above the calendar ticked like a creaking cog in a rusty wheel. The security guard fretted along the corridor with nothing to secure. A toothless old man wearing a green tea-cosy hat, his nose webbed with a mesh of small, bucolic veins, came up to ask where the life class was to be held that evening.
"In for a cheap thrill," sniffed Sandra derisively. "Imagine posing in the buff before the likes of that."
"Cheaper than a prescription for Viagra," I said. "He's on benefit. The life class is free. Have a little charity."
"Canada," Sandra muttered incongruously.
"I said Viagra, not Niagara."
"No, I saw a bag like that when I was in Canada last year. Looked like a Cherokee Indian had sat in his tepee and chewed it."
I gently lifted the top flap of the brown leather bag.
"It says, 'Made in Taiwan'. How many Cherokee Indians do you know, sitting in tepees in Taiwan chewing leather bags?" I asked.
"Always there with an answer, aren't you," Sandra countered. "God, I wish there was a bomb alert or something, just to liven things up a bit."
The phone rang twice in the next hour. The first caller was a gentleman who wanted to know if the college ran classes in acupuncture. It didn't. The second was a woman, practically incoherent with rage, who needed to know why we had cut off her housing benefit. "You want the Council, not the College," I told her.
"Oh, any excuse," she frothed. "You bloody bureaucrats all stick together."
At 7.30 p.m. Sandra went to the cupboard and brewed two mugs of coffee. The walk-in cupboard behind Reception was tiny, airless and dark, groaning with rack upon rack of tightly cramped files on every subject from Apple Mac to Yachting. There was even a pamphlet entitled "French for Football Fans" left over from the last but one World Cup.
Sandra emerged from the cupboard bearing the coffee and a pamphlet clenched in her teeth like a clever retriever. I grabbed it and began to read, assuming it was hot off the Graphics Department press, something new for us to learn.
It wasn't. "Somebody's spelt appointment with one 'p' on this 'Beginner's Guide to Arabic'," she said. "Should we tell them?"
"No," I said. "They wouldn't thank you. Besides, apart from the duff spelling, the lettering's beautiful - and just look at the camel on the cover. You can almost smell the desert. You'd half expect a ton of sand to fall in your lap when you open the pages."
"Suppose so. And anyway it's not as if any of the public would notice a spelling error nowadays."
"Higher Still," I said.
"Lower Yet," she responded. We laughed.
Sandra's OK. I like working with her. She's younger than I am, and probably brighter, but I'm more cunning and definitely more devious. I have manipulation down to a fine art. My husband, who has learned this by bitter experience, is always looking for my hidden agendas now, even where none exist. Even if I suggest an outing to the beach, his instinctive reaction is a nervous, "Yes, but why do you really want to go there?"
Since I can duck and weave verbally, we never get weighed down with irrelevant work. Sandra can handle the computer, and I can handle le boss. With these shared skills, life is relatively easy. We finished our coffee and turned our attention again to the mysterious bag.
"Obviously," I said, "the owner's not coming back for it."
"Licence to snoop?" asked Sandra.
"A licence to ascertain rightful ownership," I corrected, "and to snoop."
We opened the unclaimed bag, fishing out the items one by one. It feels almost a violation, doesn't it, dipping into someone else's bag, laying bare their most personal possessions? My mother practically slept with her bag. Paranoid! I used to wonder if she kept a severed head in it, or a throbbing tarantula with foetid fangs. I looked inside it once when she actually left it unattended. There was nothing more sinister there than a purse, two paper hankies, a lipstick and a key. Hardly the stuff of international espionage. She was a very private person, my mother. What was hers was hers. Sharing was common, she always said. Sharing was done by people who couldn't afford fresh bath water and spent their lives
tainted by other people's tidemarks.
Entering this bag, however, was interesting. Sandra withdrew a dark green object that vaguely resembled a mortar bomb with a cap. That stumped us, till George, the janitor, solved the mystery on his way past, trundling a box of prospectuses en route to the Open Learning kiosk.
"It's a bike bottle," he explained. "Aa yer sports freaks cairry them."
We decided therefore that the bag owner was lean as a whippet, like a strand of French liquorice.
"I wonder if women cyclists wear thongs," mused Sandra.
"Shouldn't think so for a moment," I replied. "It would be the equivalent of dental flossing your backside."
Having established that our bag owner was a knicker-clad, streamlined whippet, we fished out the next article. Sandra grimaced. "It's a crime novel," she remarked. 'All That Remains', by Patricia Cornwall. In a gravelly Hercule Poirot voice, she proceeded to read the blurb from the back of the book. "Ligature-tight tension ... gruesomely crucial expert knowledge ... scalpel-sharp intuition ... stomach-churning accuracy... Sounds like a cake-mix recipe." she muttered.
"A female cyclist with a penchant for murder," I reflected. To the dental floss image, I added a shifty look and tightly-knotted buttocks.
"Whoever she is, she's myopic," my colleague continued. "Those spectacles are inches thick."
Our murderous cyclist now peered out from within my imagination like a tunnelling mole. '
Swiss formula hand cream was the next clue. "They need cream to slide into those Lycra things they wear," I said.
"And a shoe horn," added Sandra.
A folder, notes, pencils, highlighter and several ball-point pens pinpointed the occupation of the bag's owner. Obviously and unsurprisingly a student. "But are the notes neat?" I wondered aloud.
They were. Extremely so. I now had an almost complete picture of the bag's owner. A half-blind, murderous cyclist with pained buttocks and obsessional tendencies. Obsessives are always neat, incredibly so - anally retentive to the point of constipation.
The purse was a hideous, rainbow-hued, velcroed, wrap-around object, which looked like it had either fallen off the Magic Roundabout or come out of a psychedelic horror movie.
"At least it won't get lost in the dark," said Sandra.
There was only one plastic card in the bag, a bank card with the name, "Ms H. Smith" embossed upon it.
"Henrietta?" suggested Sandra.
"Too Victorian," I objected." You can't cycle in a crinoline."
"Helen, then," she tried.
"Greeks aren't obsessively neat," I told her. "They smash plates, for God's sake. And most of them are permanently tanked up on Retsina, the ones I've known."
"Heather?" was Sandra's next proposal.
"Heathers aren't murderous. Heathers are twee," I pronounced. "Heathers are found pressed between the pages of the 'Peoples Journal'. They're as wholesome as curds and whey."
"Brucellosis!" muttered Sandra, but I ignored that.
Now we were down to one cosmetic bag, two paper tissues, a packet of Fisherman's Friends and a half-sucked Polo. Personally I am deeply suspicious of people who choose to suck Polos. Unlike pandrops, Polos are not straightforward, uncomplicated confections. Of course, what anyone does with their tongue, in the privacy of their own mouth, is their own affair, but there is something perverse and unnatural about a Polo. It simply isn't British.
"Our cyclist is foreign, half-blind and murderous, with clenched buttocks and a cold. She may well be a Neo-Nazi," I concluded.
"A cold?" queried Sandra.
"The Fisherman's Friends! Nobody buys a packet of those, unless their sinuses are blocked like cement in a drain."
This left only the contents of the cosmetic bag to scrutinise. It was a mawkishly floral cosmetic bag, quite out of keeping with the Euro-trash bike bottle, with which it clashed horribly, like a Cornkister singer resplendent in nicky-tams in a the midst of a line-up of Sweet Adelines.
A present, I decided, from an elderly aunt.
Over the table rolled one dark lipstick, Hazelnut, which meant our cyclist had lips that resembled melting chocolate; a mascara brush like a dead moth; and a maroon eyeliner pencil. The final article, a small packet encased in foil, toppled out to join the small pile of possessions littered across the shiny top of the reception desk.
It was like spit in your cappucino. Like a lacy pink brassiere on a nun's washing line. It was, according to the label, a whisky-flavoured condom.
"Well," said Sandra, "speaking personally, I prefer my whisky out of a glass. But who's the owner?"
"My money's on the Ring-binder," I speculated.
"The Ring-binder?" Sandra asked.
"You wouldn't know her. She's a day-release student. Face like a curtain rail. Every square inch of skin is impaled with a gold ring - cheeks, nostrils, eyebrows, the lot. She's got more perforations than a postage stamp. And that's just the bits you see."
" You don't think. ..?" Sandra began.
"Yes, there too, I shouldn't wonder. Probably stapled tight. Hence the flavoured condom."
"Would the whisky be Southern Comfort then?"
"Probably Japanese whisky as opposed to Stars and Stripes."
Just then, unexpectedly, the Ring-binder strolled into view. I shovelled the contents unceremoniously back into the bag as the Ring-binder leaned over the desk, breathing huskily. I caught a whiff of BO, pot-pourri and hash - a curious combination altogether.
"The lavvies is flooded," she announced aggressively. " Fit are ye gaun tae dee aboot it?"
"Wear Wellies," muttered Sandra, fortunately unheard by the girl.
"We'll notify the relevant authorities," I trotted out.
"I've jist daen that," said the Ring-binder sarcastically.
"Despite recent cut-backs," I informed her, "our job description does not yet embrace plumbing, but we'll page the janitor."
" Aye, O.K," she sniffed, mollified. A strand of mucus coyly coiled around one of her gold nose rings. She reminded me of a champion Charolais bull at the Tarland show.
I pushed the bag across the desk towards her.
" Won't you be needing this?" I inquired.
"Nae really," came the reply. " Tisnae mine."
Two giggling students from Service Industries approached the desk to ask for a holiday timetable. The bag didn't belong to them either. An oilman wanted to know if we ran correspondence courses on etiquette. And no, it wasn't his either. Three lecturers came in to book college cars. None of them had ever clapped eyes on the bag before.
"I give up," said Sandra. "It goes to the police station tomorrow."
We were just pulling down the shutters round our little communication outpost at closing time when a pensioner shuffled up. Her hair was dyed a diseased peroxide colour. Frizzled strands of a disastrous perm dangled from her scalp. There was, however, no mistaking the hazelnut smear on her lips.
"Scuse me, Missus," she said, addressing me in preference to Sandra, mistakenly assuming I would be the more responsible by virtue of my age. "Scuse me, but that's my bag ye've got there. I left it here this morning, fin I cam ooto the gym."
Snatching up the brown leather bag, she tottered off with it out into the rainy night.
"God Almighty," said Sandra, staring aghast at the retreating figure.
"No," I corrected her. "That's Ms H. Smith, who's the bag's legitimate owner. I just wonder what kind of bike she rides."
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The Fower Quarters: 05 - In the Bag. 2021. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved January 2021, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=550.
"The Fower Quarters: 05 - In the Bag." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2021. Web. January 2021. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=550.
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