Rufus and Penelope

A story of would-be lovers, well-travelled sandwich ingredients, and the need to belong


1. Rufus and Penelope

Rufus is painfully unfit. Actual pain comes with every step. The constant, dull ache of heaving weight his poor weak muscles were never intended to carry. The sting of overburdened lungs, vainly pushing against the folds of flesh, trying to eke just a tiny bit more oxygen from the paltry amount of air his bulbous form allows in. when he walks, Rufus projects a sound like an old neglected bellows. each step accompanied by an almost mechanical wheeze, as though he is an ill-designed automaton whose parts are too old to replace and whose ancient iron lung is partly fused and lacks the freedom of movement it once enjoyed.

Rufus is in love with Penelope in the sandwich shop. he loves the way her face isn't quite symmetrical and that far from try and hide the fact, she purposely accentuates it with a diagonal fringe - to her, a stubborn refusal to conform, to cut her own, asymmetrical path - to him, a bold and ornate frame around a work of fine art. Some of Penelope’s customers would agree, though the harsher ones might say she is, if anything, a Picasso. Penelope is not her real name. The Lovely Baps sandwich shop, whose clientele come as much for the postcard sauciness as they do for the food, does not have a policy on name badges so most of the staff don't wear them. Most of them are called Janet anyway, so there would be confusion in either case, compounded no doubt by the fact that Deidre, the one member of staff who does wear a badge, chooses to wear one that proudly declares her name to be Janet. Perhaps we all just need to belong.

In the absence of a name badge, Rufus chose Penelope - a nice old Greek name, which he feels lends their unspoken love a sense of gravity and myth. it is also perversely appropriate, given the epic nature of the forty-nine shambling steps Rufus daily makes from his desk to Penelope’s counter. every day the same sandwich: Italian ham and Dutch cheese with a pickle, of unknown origin, on rye bread, lightly buttered and cut into two rectangles just how he likes it, rather than the standard triangle given to other customers. it has been 11 months since Rufus ate one of the sandwiches, as his doctor has him on a strict calorie-controlled diet and bar the pickle with the mysterious past, none of the contents are permitted to Rufus, but nevertheless he continues to make his daily pilgrimage for this well-earned but never devoured treasure, which he then carries the full forty-nine steps back to his desk. there it sits for the rest of the afternoon as Rufus eyes it wistfully through the bottom of a glass, newly drained of nutritious and tasteless low-calorie shake, it slumps, gradually, reluctantly, in a sorry heap as the life of the once-fresh ingredients ebbs away and Rufus slides it off the edge of the desk, in to the bin. he pauses as though half-remembering something, then turns out the light above his desk and heads home. Sixty-six steps bring Rufus to his front door, and a further nine to the sofa where he will spend the majority of the evening, pondering whether tomorrow will be the day that he musters the courage to say something to Penelope, beyond the pathetic "thanks... er, bye" that he manages to splutter each lunchtime. Rufus picks up the newspaper and as he catches up on the events of the day his head spins at news of the millions of lives going on all around him.

Janet has never been entirely comfortable in her awkward frame. sometimes she has disquieting dreams where her limbs are made of wire coat hangers, roughly twisted together, so when she tries to put on pretty dresses she just sticks out all angular and pointy, and the clothes don't hang right, and her shoulder is too small and angled down, so her bag strap keeps falling off and making her look ill-at-ease and clumsy. Janet has always dealt with the oddities in her appearance by complementing them, drawing attention to them, in a yeah-I-know-I-look-funny-and-I’m-totally-cool-with-it way. But each time she does it, each time she puts on the costume of the confident non-conformist, she feels a pang of longing. Longing to just be normal, to just blend in. To be Conventionally Beautiful. To belong.

Janet slides the rye from the brown paper and just as on other such days, the sound brings to mind the rustle of a present emerging from its wrappings on a birthday morning. Janet sets down the loaf on the ancient battle-scarred breadboard and meticulously cuts two slices. in the shop they have a slicer and Janet tries her best to emulate the smooth even slices of the German, precision-engineered behemoth she is Not Allowed to Use at work. Any food that isn't sold during the day is fair game for the staff, though they run a tight ship so leftovers are not to be relied upon. sometimes, when the weather turns, customers go for chips, shunning the lovely baps in favour of something hot to wrap themselves round and so on days like today Janet gets to take home enough to make Arthur's Sandwich, Just How He Likes It. Italian ham, Dutch cheese, and a pickle from Weston-super-Mare, though Arthur probably doesn't know that as Deidre opted not to list the humble origins of the pickle on the menu. She spreads so that the butter fully covers one side and then folds the slices of ham over themselves. The cheese lays on top and keeps the ham flat, then finally the nomad pickle and the top slice. She neatly cuts the sandwich into two rectangles and puts it on a plate. Usually in the shop they do two triangles, but Janet suspects that Arthur is more of a down-to-earth, rectangles man and so always does his that way. Deidre says it's not polite to ask customers their names because then you forget them and get them wrong and insult people, but Janet thinks he looks like an Arthur.

Placing the plate on the table in the kitchen, Janet fetches today's newspaper from the bag that keeps falling off her shoulder, and lays the paper alongside the plate. She walks towards the lounge calling after her "I made your favourite, love, it's on the table with your newspaper" then she sits in front of a stream of dumbed-down programming, acutely aware that she does not fit any of the demographics. The sandwich will stay there, uneaten, its gradual sagging decline mirroring Janet's resigned slump as she realises another day has passed with her managing no more than "two pounds thirty-five please, sir". Janet’s eyes glaze over as talent show blends into soap and documentary blends into chat show, and her spins at the fervour and pace of the millions of lives going on all around her.
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