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A Trivial Inquiry

Ten Tales … Dieci racconti … Decem Fabulum.

English, Italian, Latin … in whatever language stories have come down to us as a delightful medium to offset worry or boredom … In the time of The Plague in Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote of the stories told by just such a group as they while away the hours in isolation from the Black Plague.

In keeping with this tradition, we offer you likewise some stories here. These stories may or may not have appeared on this site before, but it could be from a long time ago and many may not have read them. Let us now go to story number four:

A Trivial Inquiry

Peter Haffney took his latch-key from the deadlock and closed the front door behind him. He paused inside the entrance as one is want to do when first coming home, and looked about. He was not seeking anything in particular, just reassuring himself that everything was as when he left it that morning. An air of suburban mustiness pervaded the house and the dreary silence echoed even the polished rustle of his suit. He then proceeded to the kitchen pantry and easing his portly bulk between the ironing board and bench top he placed a plastic shopping bag with several regular sized cans of food on the bench nearest the pantry. Taking one of the cans from the bag, he raised it to eye level and read the label. On satisfactory completion of this task, he shook his head slowly and sighed. Taking a similar sized can from the pantry, he held it next the other and compared … the brand was the same, the content was the same, even the advertising slogan was the same, however, they had changed the layout of the label!

Gone was the old familiar pattern that had for more years than he could remember been the hallmark of the company’s product. The label, it could be said, was of greater recognizable value than the product contained within the can! indeed, when he thought about it, that old familiar label must have been the same since before he was born! But now that was all gone and, heaven forbid, perhaps too they had changed the mix of ingredients in the product …

Peter was a worried man. A worried man because for many years, because for a goodly part his life (or at least his married life, for that was when his little strange mannerisms first came to public attention), he had suffered from what is called a “obsessive-compulsive disorder”. His peculiar obsession was concerned with the cooking and eating of food … he would never eat any food that he had not himself prepared, with the exception of fish and chips. Though this condition may seem humorous to the layman, it can single out the victim for mischievous mockery. Peter had been many a time made the butt of poor-taste humour. For instance, although he would never eat any food his wife would prepare, he did bend this rule for a roast dinner (his mother always had the Sunday roast) … but he had to guard his portion at the table against mischief … such as: If anyone was to touch his food, never mind with a finger (Heaven forbid that!) but with just a clean knife or fork, he couldn’t help but sweep the corrupted article off his plate with a flick of his fork at the speed of light! So on a really bad day, bits of roast would be hitting the walls or television or whatever ‘til a cry of exasperation issued from him and the protagonists buckled over in convulsions of laughter! Such is the life of those that suffer this neurosis. Because of this complaint, Peter’s mainstay of nutrition from Mondays to Fridays was canned spaghetti on toast! Saturdays were fish and chip days … Sundays were … well if his wife was cooking one; roast day, otherwise … you guessed it; canned spaghetti on toast!

But now, all this was thrown into disarray with the shock of discovering that “the company” had changed the label and perhaps, the ingredients! Fortunately he kept up his supply of cans to allow a weeks ration of meals … in case a family member took a liking to spaghetti on toast. So all was not lost, he still had a week to sort this nagging doubt out … he would write to the company seeking reassurance.

A gentle beam of afternoon light shone through the lounge window. Peter folded back the top sheet of writing paper and placed the pad squarely in front of himself. He then sat and thought … while he was thinking, he carefully examined the point of his pencil, for, you see, he always wrote with a sharp-tipped, Staedtler Bl pencil, preferring it to a ball-point as it was not likely to clumsily slip over the paper and make for illegible writing. The house, except for himself, was empty. It exuded that unexciting silence that is common to outer suburban houses … nothing extraordinary would ever happen there and was tinged with the stale mustiness of yesterday’s air-freshener. Peter touched the tip of the pencil to the tip of his tongue and began:

Dear Sir/ Madam,

I am writing to you to make a small … trivial … enquiry. For many years, I have held your product above others on the market as being greatly superior in quality and flavour. Indeed, I have travelled great distances to full-fill my obligation to purchase your product when the local supermarket was not able to supply your particular brand! However, today, when purchasing my usual supply from the supermarket, I was astonished to be informed that you had changed the layout of the label! Upon inquiry if there had been some sort of mistake, I was reassured by the proprietor that this was indeed so! Though he hastened to add that the ingredients were the same, I was far from reassured! So I am writing to you seeking that reassurance and I don’t think I can exaggerate the importance of this reassurance required to myself!

I, fortunately, have a number of cans of your product (see the accompanying label) to see me through another week. So I would appreciate a swift response to this letter (may I suggest return post?) to reassure me of your continued high standard of ingredients.

I await, in anticipation, for your reply … may it be favorable …

Yours truly,

Peter Haffney.

Peter gazed at the letter with a sense of satisfaction. It said no more nor no less than he wished to say. It was written in that clear, concise script taught to him by his primary school teacher, Mrs Herreen, who enforced such a high standard from her star pupil with the aid of a flat, slim, wooden yard-ruler that would cut over his knuckles when a grammatical deviation was observed by the attentive Mrs Herreen gazing sternly over his shoulder!

Even the underlined words were encouraged by that same teacher, with the logic that:

“It does no harm to the correspondence, Peter, if you draw the reader’s a-ttention to a par-tic-ular point you wish to em-phasise by the use of underlining speh-cific words or phrases in nee-ed of their a-ttention!” And she would invariably finish her homily with a steely gaze over her glasses down the pointed rule.

But all this was inline with the mathematical precision of Peter’s mind. For his was a very mathematical mind. Indeed, perhaps the obsessive affliction itself was a result of conflict of reason versus reality. Perhaps the fact that the uncertainties of life did not adhere to his own personal equation resulted in the withdrawal of his eating habits to a more precise routine … a routine that he had complete control over. A cabinet maker of our acquaintance was of the same type. His obsession was with jokes and satirical humour. His over-exuberant laughter would ring through the rafters on all occasions and he became known by his laugh, his nickname being; “The HO! HO! man” … but that did not disguise to us his mathematical brilliance … and it became most visible in his skills with the chessboard, even at state-level competition. That and his swift response to subtle mockery. He too, like Peter, controlled his lifestyle through his obsessions, and with these obsessions, distracted and distanced themselves from too close a familiarity with the unruly chaos of life.

However, it was now nearly two weeks since he had written to the company. His supply of the older brand labelled cans had run out, and he had searched in vain for others at more distant markets. His fidgeting restlessness had not gone unnoticed, though, for the sake of sparing himself from inevitable ridicule, he had not said a word of his predicament to any member of his family.

“You’re not giving up smoking and your football team’s on a winning streak. You’re breaking even at cards, though you lost a little at the dogs the other night so I’m buggered if I know what’s eating you … but you’re out of sorts this last couple of days,” his wife accused.

“It’s nothing, nothing … I … I’m on a bit of a diet,” Peter excused himself so.
His wife let out an explosive guffaw …

“That’ll be the day!” She narrowed her eyes cunningly: “You haven’t been tucking into your spaghetti the last couple of days I’ve noticed that … what’s the prob’ can’t find the can opener? Got worms?”

“Look, piss off, love! It’s nothing … leave me be I’ve just been making a little inquiry … that’s all.”

“But you’ve got some cans … ” She moved to the pantry and took out a can. “Why look!” she announced gaily. “They’ve changed the label … crikey, after all these years,” and she gazed pensively at the can. Peter came and took it gently from her hand and placed it with the others on the shelf.

“So they’ve changed the label? So what? It’s their label they can do what they want with their label.”

His wife had been watching him closely while he mumbled this little discourse. She suddenly let her jaw drop a little as it all dawned on her …

“Oh, I see … the label! The label has changed … OK! OK! But what of the ingredients? That’s why you’ve not been hoeing into it this week, and I thought you were coming down with something … ha! ha! … you poor bastard! … ha! ha!”

“Don’t let it worry you, don’t let it worry you … I’ve made inquiries and I expect an answer any day now!”

But his wife didn’t look as if she was worried at all … as a matter of fact she had to ease herself into a chair so as not to crumple up with laughter. Peter reflected on the wincing humiliation he would suffer when this new one got around.

“Oh! You poor suffering dear,” his wife spoke between gulps of breath, then the look of comical angst on his face set her off onto another round of laughter.

Still, it was another three days before Peter was able to set his mind at ease as to the ingredients in his favourite food.

He walked in through the doorway from work with a bundle of letters in his hand. He was thoughtfully sorting through the mail when his wife asked:

“Anything there for me, love?” But she already knew the contents of the mailbox … she had looked before and saw the “brand-name” letter among the others and decided to leave them in the box for Peter to find.

“Yes … yes a couple the usual bills.” But here his eyes widened in anticipation.

His wife was watching from a sly vantage point in the lounge as he slit the envelope with his pocket-knife. Peter was a study in silence as he read the letter … then, slowly, his eyes closed with delight and a small smile spread over his lips.

“Anything else?” his wife asked.

“Oh … yes, one for me.”

“Important?”

“Well … sort of … just a reply to a trivial inquiry.” And upon completion of the read, he methodically tore the letter into very small pieces and placed them into the waste-bin. Next, whistling a little self satisfied tune to himself he went to the pantry and took out a now familiar can. His wife spied this little pantomime from her vantage point in the lounge and shook her head smiling …

“The poor dear,” she said to herself.

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5 comments

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  1. Anne Byam

    Thank you Joseph for keeping us occupied for a short time with excellent story telling – a break from the covid-19 spread all over the TV. I am NOT downplaying this rotten virus, but it has become somewhat of a chore to many – and not so much to others … to home-bodies ( me ) … it is of no bother whatsoever to remain as isolated from the outer world as much as possible during this more than weird and very scary time.

    Your story rang a couple of bells – first that so many people can be so cruel, laughing at anothers’ misfortunes while knowing nothing of the reason for their behaviour. Says much about some people.

    Secondly, ( and I do not have OCD ) it has quite often annoyed me that labels are changed for heavens knows what reason. Especially in the pharmaceutical area – labels are almost as important as the contents, as health relies on not only medication, but continuity — and the large chemist companies, seem to have different brand labels to many items nowadays – week or so about. Appears they access stock from just about anywhere – but in fact, they are given what is in their particular warehouses at the time. I get over the shock very quickly … but have been known to ask the chemist about any differences there might be !! I trust my chemist – he’s a good bloke.

    Anyway, thanks again for your story this time – and for the many stories you have so generously told recently.

    Cheers –

  2. Joseph Carli

    Thank you Anne, for this most recent comment and the support you have given me in the past…I will leave this here for tonight and give a more detailed response tomorrow..it is late…and I must sleep….goodnight.

  3. Joseph Carli

    Again, Anne..hello…The chap in the story I knew quite well..he was related to me through my first marriage, and of all the in-laws, I thought he the most approachable and the most congenial..I did witness those little peccadillos first hand and he mostly took it in good stead..he wasn’t above some mischievous tricks himself…I could relate such if we met…for they are best told in the oral story way..which brings me to the writing of stories.
    I wrote this comment on this post when it was first put up ..:
    “ There is an integral ingredient missing from the Australian story…and it is the awakening of a mythology for us newcomers to this land to hold as a kind of stabilising talisman to give us security of purpose and a direction toward the future…much like the Ancient Greeks held their mythology close to their lives as lessons of greater or lesser ethical or moral observation.
    The Indegineous peoples have theirs solidly fixed to their skin…there are many whites who want to “sew” that ancient mythology to their own cloth…it may be a comfort, but surely it is a cold comfort in that the obvious differences of tribe or clan or ancient bloodline just cannot be compared.
    But no…we settlers have been in this land for over two hundred years now, and it just may be time to take those first child-like steps to weave our own tapestry…and certainly it must be crossed and interwoven with those first peoples, because we have dragged them struggling and under restraint into our story-line…I am certain they are on the cusp of breaking free and resuming their own mythological destiny..but we too must commence to write the song-lines that will tie us to this country..and secure for our children’s children’s future as secure a sense of “belonging” as those long-lived first (indigenous) peoples…”
    Perhaps that is seeking a greater panorama than the above story demands, but each story we tell of our peoples is a thread woven into the fabric..”Peter Haffney” wove his own particular thread into our cloth, and with his passing, a fascinating character will go, but he leaves the “memory thread” woven into our lives and with the telling of this yarn, I hope to have drawn attention to that particular idiosyncratic weave.
    As for labelling..I find it very difficult to place the label of “writer” next to my person..for I have and will always consider myself a carpenter first and an accidental writer second..as I have always made my living off the building trade. I wince at the pretentiousness of some who scramble to so quickly add letter and title after their name..as if such will lubricate others opinions more favourably toward themselves…
    Again, Anne..and others..thank you for reading my stories.

  4. leefe

    An OCD English teacher who never taught him “fulfil, so he uses “full-fill”? Ummmmm . . .

  5. Joseph Carli

    leefe…I didn’t say she (Mrs Herreen) was a good teacher…she was a regular tartar!..: “. . . I wonder if she bought that Humber off the deceased estate of Mrs. Herreen…now THERE was a tartar…a wealthy widow who lived opposite the Primary school I went to…I know she was a widow because she always wore black and wealthy because she was chauffeured around in a big black Humber Snipe…She donated large sums to the school I attended and in return, she was sometimes given “control” of a class for an afternoon…she would stalk up and down the aisles of us fifty-odd kids (that’s “odd” in number, not personality!) swishing a cane into her cupped hand and looking threatening…she had the physique of Hatty Jaques and the eyes of Myra Hindley..”

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