Miles Kington Remembered: Blue ink and keys: separating the men from the boys

20 May 1997

Many years ago, when I was a mere lad, I used to suffer from a regular disfigurement. It was a blue patch on my thigh. This blue patch, measuring about six square inches, used to appear suddenly, then fade away again, gradually. The doctors were baffled at first, but then traced it to the fact that I carried ballpoint pens in my trouser pockets.

"It's what we doctors call leaking pens," one explained to me. "You put the pen in your pocket. It leaks. All you notice is this blue patch on your leg. As a doctor, I would recommend you to use a pencil wherever possible."

And I did for a while, except that pencils have a nasty habit of coming through your trouser pocket and jabbing you in the leg, leaving your thigh looking as if it belonged to an unsuccessful graphite addict. I finally gave up carrying writing things in my trouser pockets, and graduated to the more grown- up habit of secreting them in my jacket pockets. This led to another malady, namely holes in the bottom of pockets. What happens is that the pen or pencil gradually creates a small hole in the base of your pocket and then disappears through it like a brave British prisoner of war breaking out of a camp through a tunnel.

Unfortunately for his escape plans, the pen or pencil then finds itself in the lining of the jacket, and pretty soon you get a collection of writing instruments lying inside your jacket along the lower edge, plainly tangible but unseen and inaccessible. The only way they can be reached is by making a new hole in the bottom of the jacket, or by enlarging the pre-existing hole in the jacket pocket and reaching down to get all the escaped things, neither of which is to be recommended unless you are fairly desperate for a pen, or unless one of them starts leaking. Better to rattle around with these invisible pens. At least you'll know there's one there should you really need it.

Now, things like this are an integral part of the growing process of many boys and there comes a time when we outgrow such foolish things.

I have not had a blue thigh patch for years and years. Most of my jacket pockets are intact, and I have hardly a jacket with anything down the lining. (Though I have recently noticed some very small objects lurking in the depths of my dinner jacket, way down in the lining. I think these may be small wooden toothpicks of the kind used to spear bits of cheese or small sausages at receptions and which I tend to stick into my lapel pocket if there is nowhere else to put them. Presumably they then work their way down in the traditional manner.)

But I have recently noticed another malady attacking my person in the shape of weakened trouser pockets. Occasionally I will put loose change in a trouser pocket, not realising the pocket has begun to leak, and the money will then fall through a hole on the pocket, rattle down my leg like a fireman down a pole and reappear, cascading over my shoe. And the reason that my pockets are giving way, I think, is that I am inflicting an abnormally large key-ring on them.

Bunches of keys, like paunches and fingernails, just grow and keep growing unless something is done. I don't think I owned a key until I was about 20, but thereafter you start acquiring more keys in dribs and drabs until... well, until I now have a bunch of a dozen or more keys, some of which I use a lot and some of which I never use and cannot even identify, but which I hang on to just in case, and every time I merely get the keys out to let myself into my house, I jangle like a warder going into a prison. And because you cannot get many keys on one ring, I find that my keys are on half a dozen different rings, strung together like those molecular models you occasionally glimpse on Open University programmes...

"That's funny," said the doctor, last time I had a check-up. "You've got a blue patch on your thigh. Wonder what it can be?"

"Leaking pen?" I suggested.

"No, don't think so. Looks more like a bruise. Do you keep anything heavy in your trouser pocket?"

"Yes. A bunch of keys."

So I have learnt something about life after all. Two things, actually. One is that everything leaves a blue patch on you sooner or later. The other is that if men really cared about clothes they would have started carrying handbags years ago.