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Updated: Jul 7, 2018

When my partner, Gaynor, was a teenager, she worked part-time at a chemist’s shop in Bradford. On one occasion, which she still remembers with embarrassment, an Asian man came in and asked her to sell him some fresh lettuce. When she looked puzzled, he simply repeated his request. She told him this was a Chemist’s shop and they didn’t sell lettuce. However, he persisted and, eventually, she went through to the back of the shop and told the chemist what was happening. He went to speak to the insistent customer, nodded, and sold him the condoms he’d been asking for.

What we’re talking about here is the chemistry of misinterpretation, as when our two-year-old grandson, Jaxson, who’d been playing in the back garden, ran inside to our daughter Becci, shouting: ‘Mummy! Mummy! Come and see! There’s a hamster sleeping in the garden.’ When Becci followed him back out, Jaxson showed her a large dead rat which had just been caught and killed by their dog, Bella.

Nick Toczek, Jaxson's sleeping hamster
Jaxson's sleeping hamster

Here’s an incident which occurred when our son, Matthew, was about three years old. He and Gaynor were out shopping in the centre of Bradford. He was walking along beside her when he suddenly froze in his tracks. Coming towards them was a nun. In a blind panic Matt turned to Gaynor when the nun was just a few paces away and, pointing directly at the approaching figure, screamed: ‘Mum! Mum! A witch! A witch! Kill it!’

Some misinterpretations are deliberate… especially when I get a say in it. There’s a row of three shops just a hundred yards from our house. The first is a NatWest Bank, then a chemist’s shop, then an Asda supermarket. The chemist until 2016 was a great guy called Clarence whose car registration plate was Pill 1. He and I have been friends for years. Shortly before he retired I called in the shop and asked to speak to him. The place was always busy and, as usual, there were several customers either being served or waiting for prescriptions. Consequently, when Clarence emerged, he asked me if I’d prefer the privacy of a small back room which was reserved for seeing people with any problem about which they might feel self-conscious. I said that it was fine because I was happy to explain my small problem in front customers and counter-staff. ‘Okay, Nick,’ said Clarence, ‘what’s wrong?’ Pausing for effect, I began: ‘I’ve just been shopping in Asda. When I got to the electronic check-out and began scanning in my purchases the automated female voice told me that I’d got an unidentified object in my bagging area…’ When I then paused again Clarence looked puzzled. Pointing down at my crotch I continued: ‘… so I was hoping that you could take a look down here at my bagging area and tell me what the unidentified object is and whether I need to see a doctor.’

I’m not sure that all the customers got the joke, but Clarence and his staff did, then – keeping a straight face – he assured me that I’d be fine, nothing needed checking, and I should go home and stop worrying.

Truthfully, I hate shopping, not least because I’m always tempted to say the unsayable. You know when you’re in somewhere busy and you’ve been waiting ages to be served? Eventually you get to the front of the queue. It’s then that the overworked and underpaid person behind the counter who feels guilty for having no control over the situation is likely to say ‘I’m sorry about your wait, sir.’ This is when I have to bite my tongue. I’m fairly slim and the obvious reply is to look down at my waistline before saying: ‘Well, don’t be. You weigh much more than me, fatty.’ I’ve never actually said it, but I’ve been tempted dozens of times.

My favourite encounter was when I went into a large department store (which I’m pretty certain was C & A) to buy a shirt. Before I’d even had the chance to glance at any of their stock, a young shop assistant was standing next to me. “Can I help you, sir?’ she simpered. How could she possibly help me? She was in her early twenties. I was then in my late fifties. We were total strangers. What did she know about my taste in shirts? It was an embarrassing situation for both of us, yet she was only doing her job. Chemistry matters. I wanted to defuse the situation. Suddenly inspired, I picked up the nearest pile of shirts, handed them to her and said: ‘Of course you can help me. I’m a shoplifter. Shove these inside your jacket and meet me outside in two of minutes.’

She stood there holding the shirts for several seconds before saying: ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we’re not allowed to do that sort of thing.’

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