Three times we met in the space of a single month. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. That’s not a coincidence.
Things don’t happen that commonly, I thought, without a reason, a purpose. Yet, even as I thought this, I began to doubt it. A man can be in two minds, as the saying goes, but there were times like these when I felt my mind was occupied by a mob of bickering courtiers all jammering to be heard.
Okay, it’s a small town with two supermarkets, a town hall and a court house but the municipal population’s over 20,000 and thus, for that very reason is an urban district, not a town, so the population extends to the people in the rural wilderness that surrounds the town and don’t care for a variety of reasons to be included in an urban district.
Y’see, there I go again trying to winkle some logic from a recalcitrant conundrum, on the one hand, it’s possible, on the other, there’s two chances and Slim’s out of town.
So, return to basics, start where it began, I tell myself.
I saw her first in the supermarket, not the extreme economy one, but the other, on the High St, where every fruit and vegetable was both organically produced and ethically sourced and there was a proper butcher from whom to buy your meat and fish.
Like that made a difference but it did. Where my conscience was assuaged as my purse got depleted and I could walk out feeling good about my self and for a short time, the world I lived in.
She was buying cheese and the salesperson doing her very best to promote a new goat’s cheese, a craft cheese, she extolled, made lovingly and with care from the milk of free range goats, herded humanely on the side of a mountain in Co Clare. I waited my turn to buy some parmigiana, cut from a wheel.
She was well presented, I thought, with care and style that wasn’t brash or showy. Her colour combination of violet and navy complimented her naturally tanned complexion and faintly auburn hair that rested comfortably on her shoulders.
Her lips, I noticed, had the countours of a perfect kiss on a love letter while her eyes were a deep, dark and smouldering green.
By now they were on her third goat’s cheese tasting while the salesperson stuck resolutely to the produce of the wild goats from Co Clare, making me wonder if she owned a leg of one of the goats that were now getting on my goat.
‘Sir,’ the fervent goatherd addressed me, ‘would you like to try a sliver of this goat’s cheese and give us your opinion?’
No, I would not, I thought. ‘I’m not particularly fond of goat’s cheese,’ I said.
‘Oh, please,’ the auburn-haired beauty asked, turning those eyes I could now see were a sparkling emerald on me, ‘try it. At least your opinion should be honest.’
It wasn’t just those eyes that enveloped me, I felt, it was her scent, an exotic odour of rose and patchouli, that swathed my senses like a gentle summer breeze.
‘Don’t be surprised if I throw up,’ I ventured, smooth to the last, taking the proffered portion from the spikes of the cheese knife and popping it in my mouth, an action I regretted immediately. Eating goat’s cheese, I’d often thought, was like chewing perfumed glue, not pleasant. It lingers in both taste and texture.
Auburn with the emerald eyes waited expectantly, those orbs wider in question while the enthusiastic goatherd looked as though she were riverdancing, unseen, below the counter.
I swallowed, realising too late, how difficult it is to smile, scoff and not regurgitate. The whole debacle was simultaneously nauseating, infuriating and embarrassing. I imagined I changed colour too as Auburn with the emerald eyes’ questioning look turned to alarm as she handed me a napkin and the goatherd did her best Munsch impression.
I retched, hacked and spat into the tiny paper square, turned on my heel and walked away, mortified, thinking, how could I ever face that woman again, how can I ever show my face in that shop again? The damned napkin, soaked in saliva and goat’s cheese, was stuck to my hand.
Too often in my life I’ve been confronted with my own social ineptitude in the face of someone with whom, for a tiny moment, I imagined myself conversing, exchanging ideas, even quiet moments of laughter and pleasure.
I left the shop with a sticky hand, a foul taste in my mouth and a searing heat behind my ears and along my entire neck. I felt like a traffic warning.
The second time we met was very brief, unexpected and almost as humiliating as the first. It was an uncommonly hot day so I treated myself to a pint of beer in the garden of one of the local pubs. It was a popular spot, particularly on those long summer evenings.
There was a cross section of the local community, either loud, brash and inflationary mobile or settled, senile and living off a pension fund depleted by recession. A Greek chorus of the local rugby club, beer-bellied and boisterous, howled at a television behind the bar while a young crew with impossible haircuts, toned bodies and gravity-defying buttocks, breasts and noses admired each other at the other end, and that was just the men.
I wore my Panama hat, a green linen shirt and a pair of cream linen pants and thought I cut quite a dash. Until I went into the toilet and the water faucet came away in my hand and, gushing, soaked my shirt and the entire crotch of my linen trousers.
My long journey back, through the bustling beer garden and the length of the crowded lounge, soundtracked by a chorus of titters, jeers and unabashed howls of laughter, proved bearable enough in a life littered with social gaffes until I encountered Auburn lady with the emerald eyes entering the lounge with a group of friends as I completed my ignominious exit.
Of course both of these incidents or encounters, however accidental, prompted another bout of deep and critical introspection. I concluded why would anyone like her, so elegant, sweet smelling and stylish, even think about someone like me unless as an amusing after dinner anecdote?
My hair began receding when I was a teenager and for at least two decades I lived off how it was not so much my hair receding as my gaining face until even that wore thinner than my shiny, sparsely thatched, pate.
My weight and waist line weathered the advancing years with dignity and restraint until, turning sixty and a bout of bad health, my belly broke loose from its moorings and, while it expanded, my savings diminished, almost in direct but opposite proportion.
There were landmarks I could map of my life’s most optimistic moments; my children and my grandchildren, in particular. But if I dwelled too long on those happy moments then my marriage interrupted, a wilderness of intellectual and emotional isolation.
A career as an insurance actuary had few highlights, almost by definition, while my secret life as a poet sparked some minor notice, two chap books but little acclaim. In a statement of account, it hardly amounted to much. In short, I concluded, while no risk, I was no catch, either.
The third encounter occurred in the National Library when I was the third poet in a presentation of five and attended by less than twenty. The poem I’d chosen had a line about being heard by a crowd of two men and a stray dog, such are life’s cruel ironies.
The young man from the Department of Arts and Culture introduced us with an enthusiasm that hardly matched the event but it raised my spirits as did the glass of whiskey I had later at the meet and greet while we chewed Cheddar on a stick and struggled to match the wide-eyed enthusiasm of young, undergraduate poets with the fervour of groupies who, I knew from bitter experience, would soon surpass and deride us at a hip, backstreet slam event.
So when she touched my shoulder and, enveloped again by that refreshing breath of rose and patchouli, I knew, before I turned, who I would see but worried, as I turned, if had whiskey breath or cheese in my teeth. It was her. She smiled and said how much she enjoyed my poem.
I know we spoke but I can’t recall what I said. I know we laughed but I can’t remember her jokes. They had to be hers as I have none. I couldn’t remember her name but I know what it is because she wrote it down with her phone number on the sheet where I’d printed my poem, the last hurrah of a hungry poet.