I was reading extracts from one of my stories to a class of Italian students in Ravenna, assuming a friendly pose, sitting instead of behind the table on a chair, on the table top from where I could see the faces of all my questioners. My terrifyingly quick translator sat next to me. The usual questions, some naive, some knowing.
“How much do you get paid for a book?”
“Which authors do you think you’ve been influenced by?”
Standard stuff till one smart alec raises his hand and asks, “Why are you wearing odd socks?” I look down at my feet. “Oh, they’re not odd,” I say, “I’ve got a pair exactly like them in the drawer at home.” It shuts him up, the class laughs. The truth is I told a lie.
I don’t have actually a similar pair at home. Years ago I gave up the struggle to pair socks washed by a washing machine and dried by tumble-driers or on radiators. Things fall apart, as Yeats noted. Those which were made to be joined forever fall asunder. Like twins in some Bollywood melodrama, my pairs of socks inevitably get separated.
I am not alone. It is a phenomenon noted by many, pondered by friends and researched by few. There are underwear drawers all over the world full of single socks, their mates and partners gone, God knows where. Some say that the lost ones go, like the damned souls of Dante’s imagination, to ‘sock-heaven’, there to wait till they are re-paired with their siblings.
Though not normally a metaphysically inclined person, I began some years ago to believe in sock heaven. There must be some malign force in the universe, unknown to physics, that spirits single socks away in droves and leaves their languishing partners to be paired with unmatching others and their bewildered owners to search in vain and gather plastic bagfuls of the residuals in the chance that their prodigal brothers (or sisters, one mustn’t be sexist about socks) would certainly one day return. Unless one extends one’s metaphysics to include reincarnation, the socks that go to their own private heaven will never return ’till all socks are judged and resurrected.
It was when the lad in Ravenna asked me why I had odd socks that I began to doubt the metaphysical basis of my ruminations. After all I had constructed a modus operandi to deal with this regular disappearance. I told myself that the colour, shape and pattern of socks are what the Vedic sages labelled ‘maya’, an illusory reality. All socks are, after all, just clothes for the feet and the rest is vanity. It led me through the years to store socks without pairing them and to randomly choose two each day, a lucky dip from the drawer. People noticed and perhaps, like the Ravenna lad, came to some unflattering conclusions about me.
And through the long struggle versus this constant haemorrhage, I devised, some years ago, a way of avoiding this opprobrium. If I bought the same colour of socks whenever I went into Marks and Spencer, several pairs of the same size and material in packs of five or 10, it wouldn’t matter which sock went with which. They would certainly all be identical and though they would certainly dwindle in numbers as they availed of their passage to sock swarg, I would certainly be wearing paired socks each day and then on my next foray into Marks and Spencer, would certainly replenish the supply with the same colour. Two eventualities destroyed this brilliantly simple solution.
The first was that Marks and Spencer changed their range of colours the next year. And the second was that my near and dear who had noticed that I wore odd socks began giving me, on my birthday and on Christmas, Diwali and Parsee Brand-new Year, packs of variegated, invariably multi-coloured socks. Back to square one. Which led me to wonder if this was a problem specific to levels of global development. I mean I had never, in my years in India, heard of sock heaven. I may have actually lost a sock or two, but it was never treated as an epidemic to be discussed in general male company or socially addressed. I recall the dhobi neatly putting one sock in the other and delivering the pair ironed and flattened like a sick shuttlecock. Hand in glove, or sock-in-sock, rather.
Here in England, and I suppose in most of the world where dhobis have actually been abolished by the progress of the labour market, the problem presented itself and being of a scientific bent of mind, I determined to get to the bottom of it. Bottom is the operative word. A watchful study of the progress of the socks from feet, through the washing and drying cycle to the drawer was the obvious path. Over several washes of several pairs I followed the socks. Yes, one or two did disappear during the slosh of the wash. Over several weeks one of the survivors placed in the tumble dryer also fell in battle, disappeared in the process.
Then I noted that other sock-washers slung the wet socks, hand-washed on occasion, on the radiators versus the wall. Some put their entire wash in baskets waiting for it to be ironed and placed the baskets on chests and on the metal cases of boilers. And there on the top of the baskets, ripe as Adam for a fall, were the odd socks.
I got a set of screwdrivers, a long stick and an unwound metal clothes hanger made into a sort of thin poker. Anyone who knows the shape of English central heating radiators knows that they have actually a thick horizontal pipe at the bottom which would certainly allow the socks to fall behind the radiator without allowing them to show below.
Yes, there they were. An age of cobwebbed socks from behind the radiators, from under the chests of drawers, from behind the metal case of the boiler. And most satisfactorily, from the unscrewed pump of the washing machine into which one or two had, versus the intention of design, been sucked. I admit, there were only 11 of the 34 missing ones retrieved that day, but then the principle had been established. Did Isaac Newton wait to see whether more than one apple fell to the ground?
Elated. I felt like the boy who had been shown how the magician cut the lady in the box in two. My faith in my rationalist, anti-metaphysical stance was restored. It was, for a moment, akin to what Nietzsche felt when he declared God is dead. But unlike the existentialists, I don’t long for a restoration of faith. I long for a dhobi.