Friday, 18 July 2014

A path less straight (pt. 1)

Egg and Chips

I met Egg through friends. We were gooseberries to the romance of the century. While they entwined on a bench on the seafront, we leaned against a railing and scowled at the seagulls. He had a kind of distant look, as though he was listening for very faint sounds from very far away.

He suggested that we find somewhere out of the wind, rather than rely on the radiated glow of other people’s love for warmth, so we sat in a cafĂ© and ate greasy chips and drank over-stewed tea. Trying not to keep up both sides of the conversation or mention my recent ex-, Jason, I had asked him to tell me about his family.

“They’re odd.” He said.

“Everyone thinks their family are odd,” I told him. “No-one wants to be normal.”

“When I was twelve, I was listening to the radio with my Granddad,” he replied, adding more ketchup to the remaining chips. “ Suddenly, he stood up straight and saluted. He stayed rigid like that until the end of the song and then keeled over dead, still stiff as a board.”

“You must have been devastated.” I took another gulp of lukewarm tea.

“Not really, we had a sweepstake on who would be closest when he passed away, I won big-time.” He patted me on the back as I tried not to choke on my tea. “It was his idea, he hadn’t been well since he left the army and it was his way of preparing everyone for the inevitable.”

“What was playing? Was it the national anthem?” I asked.

“It was ‘Baby Got Back’, he hated all that patriotic stuff.” He replied. “Ever since then, if I ever want any advice, all I have to do is tune the radio into some hip-hop station and I hear his voice, rapping the answers to my problems.”

“That’s kind of nifty.” I gave a laugh, but he was not smiling, not in his distant blue eyes.

“It is handy,” he said. “But it makes MTV thoroughly embarrassing.”

Two weeks later Egg arrived unexpected at my door. The romance of the century was on the rocks, Janet had been on the phone wailing and cursing about what Steve had done. I was looking for an excuse not to go around to her place with a bottle of wine and try to hold back the flood of tears with a dam of platitudes.

“Have you heard about Janet and Steve?” I asked, somewhat taken aback because I had never told him where I lived or discussed the possibility of meeting again.

“I surmised something was up, but the battery ran out on my phone,” he replied. “Fancy a drive out in the country?”

Just then the opening bars of some cringe-inducing pop song trilled out from my phone. I noted Janet’s name on the screen, but the battery indicator was flashing and the device went black before I could hit accept.

“Oh.” I said. “Looks like its catching.”

“If it becomes an epidemic, how will people cope?” He gestured towards where an old Ford sat at the kerbside. “Perhaps we should escape before civilisation collapses.”

The car, he explained as we passed fields at a leisurely pace, had been his granddad's. It had never suffered any kind of mechanical breakdown, unless you counted the radio, which had ceased working properly six months after the car was bought and so would not play anything other than eighties tunes.

“That must be annoying.” I said.

“Granddad said it was novel in the seventies, but got old real soon after then,” he deadpanned.

He parked the car on the verge of a seldom travelled road, lifted a rucksack from the boot and led me through an over-grown stile into a field. I followed him along a meandering path, snaking around bushes and then taking a route through a small copse as though it had been laid by a drunk with nowhere in particular to go.

“They could have made this straighter,” I remarked.

“Its easier to follow where the path wants to go,” he replied. “That’s the problem with modern roads, they build them straight and it takes so much effort to follow them.”

I spent the next few minutes trying to digest this as the path zigzagged through a grassy meadow, but I guess he could have been right because we found ourselves at the top of a ridge, the car visible far below us, there had been no sense of climbing. He pulled a blanket out of his bag and set up a picnic as I surveyed the kind of view that people call idyllic but rarely actually go out of their way to find.

We ate a spread of off-beat food, brie and beetroot sandwiches, quail eggs wrapped in bacon, parsnip and sweet potato crisps, cheese scones spread with quince jelly and a cake that he said was made with pineapple and courgette. He told me that it was mostly what he had found in the fridge.

We spent a couple of hours sat, chatting about nothing, drinking gooseberry cordial and enjoying the one nearly perfect day of Spring, until a chill wind rose up and he suggested heading back. He left the rest of the cake, telling me it was a present for the pixies, so that they might let us use this spot again some other day.

As we drove back, Wham and Duran Duran playing on the radio, I realised that I had just broken all of my rules and spent the day with a bloke I hardly knew, leaving my phone at home. But there had been none of the pressing for a drunken Friday night tumble that marked my usual relations with the opposite sex. It was more like a date from the fifties as I imagined them, all jolly good fun and none of that hanky panky, but with less smoking and fewer quiffs. It was certainly better than spending the day agreeing with Janet on what pigs men are.

A fortnight after that I managed to get Egg’s number from Steve, who had sealed the rift with Janet by single handedly keeping the local florist solvent. He apologised for not getting in touch, work had managed to get on top of him. I suggested that we go out to see a film and then I would cook us a meal, he agreed and arrived five minutes early with a bunch of pelargoniums and a bottle of rioja.

I had not heard of the film, but it turned out to be a quirky and intelligent thriller. We laughed at several inappropriate moments and he did not hog the popcorn. The cinema was virtually empty, it was not until a couple of weeks later that I saw it advertised on television so I assumed it was some sort of advanced preview screening.

Back at my house we dined in style on my vegetable lasagne served with over-done oven chips. He told me a story about the layers of lasagne representing the social strata of medieval Italy, proving that to survive at the top you have to tolerate slightly burnt cheese. I drank most of the wine as he had to drive home and had to work in the morning.

“I work for the family consultancy firm,” he explained. “Mostly communication and forecasting.”

“Sounds complicated,” I said.

“Not really,” he replied. “Its mainly answering the phone and making guesses.”

He kissed me sweetly as he left. Not a huge romantic snog, but a gentle peck on the cheek. Some of the distance had gone from his eyes and there was something in his wave as the old Ford pulled away from the kerb. My lasagne never fails.

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