All morning a tune intrudes on my solitary work,
the theme from The Great Escape. I cannot shake the
blasted thing; du dum, du dum du du dum . . . . On it goes,
this worm of a tune, insidious, distracting, joining with the
blazing heat to slow me down and tempt me to idleness,
until the midday Angelus, with its promise of lunch—perhaps
the saumon en papillote—spurs me to finish the job.
‘Can you help me please, Monsieur? I can’t seem to get this
She calls me as I cross the road into the shade of trees on
my way home. The door belongs to the electricity
substation, as I assume the plain building to be from the
company vans that are often parked there.
‘The key turns, but the door won’t budge.’
It must be her first visit, or at least her first alone. Why has
she come? Slight and dark-haired, she wears no ID and
carries only a folder and a cloth bag too small for a set of
tools or instruments or anything nefarious. Unsure how to
question her right to access, I settle for the presumption that
saboteurs do not come with keys.
‘I’ll try,’ I say.
In the matter of hefty security doors I have no illusion of
competence, but she needs help. My bottom line is to not
look foolish, whereas she has already weighed the passing
embarrassment of appealing to me against the ridicule she
would face if she had to admit—as the youngest person at
her office I would guess—‘I couldn’t open the door.’ The
laughter would haunt her forever.
The key does indeed turn, clockwise, twice round in a
sophisticated lock. Pulling the door and pushing it firmly,
then sharply, makes no impression. Counter-clockwise
perhaps; push, pull. Still no go. What now?
For a moment I peer around the corner of the building,
wondering if the key might fit some other door. Already I
must appear daft or desperate.
‘Sorry, I can’t work it, I’m really sorry.’ She is gracious, and
I am about to give up when, challenged by the door’s
obstinacy and my own failure, I tinker. This is usual for me.
Being no mechanic, and lacking substantial experience, I try
to solve technical problems from basic principles and, when
that fails, tinker.
You know how it is with locks. Sometimes they make you
struggle as if you are levering the whole wretched door by
means of the key rather than merely retracting a latch or
deadbolt. The impeccable mechanism before me, however,
responds with so little friction, so softly, that you might say
it does it willingly—until it reaches a definite, dead stop.
Given that, why do I try an extra twist, vigorous and
challenging compared to the ease of the main rotation?
Perhaps I fancy that the fitting in the door might be out of
line, in contradiction of the lock’s dynamic perfection.
It gives. The lock gives. The key turns less than ten degrees,
but deep in the door, something shifts. Surprised, I release
the pressure and an opposing force pushes the key back. A
When I first tried the door, its flanges and frame convinced
me that it would open outwards. Now as I give the key its
firm, extra turn once more, it seems natural to pull.
Nothing. Before I release the key, however, without
intending to, I nudge the door.
It gives way. It swings on balanced hinges, silent, as easy as
our fridge, with no protesting squeal or scrape that you
might expect of a difficult door. We look at each other, the
young woman and I, sheepish. She pushes the door fully
open to reveal heavy duty electrical switchgear, consistent
with the impression I had gained of the building.
I say a silly thing, ‘Be careful,’ as if the young woman now
stepping inside is going to be anything but wary among all
these volts. She has been unable to open the door, I have
got lucky, but my absurd caution, which I regret at once,
might have spoiled the encounter—had she heard it. I wish
her a good day: ‘Bonne journée’. She thanks me and I carry
on to lunch. Opening the door has taken a minute.
I escape up the hill; du dum, du dum du du dum . . . .
She will, I bet, say nothing to her colleagues.
Until recently David Mathews was a work psychologist, delving in
other people’s trades, putting into words what it means to be an
archaeologist, a receptionist, a forensic psychotherapist—
anything you like. Now he writes short stories about everyday
foolishness and heroics. On his blog (www.
davidmathewsstories.com/) he occasionally passes on the
political wisdom of his good friends Sidney and the distinguished
psychiatrist Sir Arthur Whatnot. Born in Wales, David divides his
time between Bath in England and a village in southwest France.