I was just making my way into the shop to pay for my fuel as she was coming out.
“Hello!” she cried, throwing her arms around me. She held me by the biceps, with a beaming smile on her face. She asked me how Lady Barton St Mary was. Fine, I replied. Then she continued, asking after Master Johnny and Miss Katherine.
“They must be grown up now,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, a fixed smile on my face, “they are. And – how are you and your family?”
“Oh you know,” she said, touching my arm once more, “same as ever – you know what we’re like!”
“Excellent. Well, it’s lovely to see you,” I said, taking a couple of steps toward the counter.
“Oh yes. You too!” she trilled, leaning forward and kissing me on the cheek before heading for the door, giving me a little wave with the tips of her fingers. What a lovely lady.
I just wished I knew who the devil she was.
It all started years ago when Lady Barton St Mary and I had our first house. I was approached by a young, attractive girl in town.
“You’re Rob, aren’t you?” she said, her eyes sparkling.
“Erm. Yes, I am,” I stuttered.
“I saw a photo of you in your house last weekend,” she explained.
“Oh. Did you?” I responded, obviously still processing this information without trying to look too disarmed.
“We had a fantastic party there,” she said, winking, before moving on.
One of the advantages/disadvantages of Lady Barton St Mary having younger brothers who were willing to house sit when we had one of our (frequent) weekends away.
Because of the nature of my (almost) voluntary work, I meet lots of people, usually in groups, usually for a couple of hours a week for several months, eventually moving on and not seeing them regularly again, if ever. People compliment me on my ability to learn the names of 10 or more complete strangers within a few minutes. Obviously this is a skill that is learnt with experience. Rarely do I forget a name. Very often, I can meet people from years back and remember their names, their children’s names and what they did for a living after only knowing them for a short time.
I did forget the name of one woman in a class earlier last year, but I coped with it in the only way I knew how.
“How did you get the nickname Fred?” a new member of the group asked her a few weeks later.
She pointed at me.
“He couldn’t remember my name, so he just called me Fred,” she explained, “and it stuck. Even my husband’s started calling me Fred.”
So, I’m not perfect. But it’s so disarming when somebody you don’t know from Adam greets you with your own life history.
There was the time when I finished a half marathon and a couple shouted over to me, waving. They asked after my children. The woman explained that Maisie would be so excited to see me now, since it had been nearly 8 years since she’d seen me. She told me to stay where I was and disappeared, leaving me with her husband to make small talk, of which I had none, only trying to give a long, drawn out account of my run, hoping he wouldn’t test me on my knowledge of his family.
His wife returned with her daughter Maisie in tow, a rather bewildered teenager.
“Look! Remember that song that we used to sing!?” her mum prompted her. Maisie nodded and looked at the sweaty, tired old man standing in front of her. I asked her how she was, how was school, so glad to see her again. I could tell by the look in her eyes that she knew I had no idea who she was, but fortunately she wasn’t going to tell her over-excited mum and dad. Well, at least not until I was in my car and several miles out of range.
In the supermarket one day, I was accosted by an entire family as I negotiated my shopping trolley around the canned vegetables aisle.
“We’re back!” the man sang, arms wide, “fantastic to see you!”
“Oh. Yes!” I said.
His wife explained that Australia hadn’t worked out. It was Daniel’s allergies that prevented them staying. Mum is always talking about you– have you seen mum recently? She always liked you…
Then the questions about Lady Barton St Mary, her work, Miss Katherine, Master Johnny.
I was completely lost, trying not to make my eyes dart this way and that for an escape route. They continued to bombard me with information about the life they were now living, how good it was to see me and catch up and – hey – you’ve got our number – give us a call!
“I certainly will!” I trilled, scurrying around the corner, abandoning my trolley and running for the car park.
Then there was the pasty shop incident.
As you probably know, I like to follow a low carbohydrate diet in order to maintain a reasonable weight. That means no potatoes, bread, rice, pastry or sugar. Most of the time, I can keep this regime up, but there are rare times when my body just needs hard core carbs and I have to live with the guilt of eating them.
This particular day, I’d convinced myself to throw caution to the wind and visit the pasty shop for the first time in two years. I felt a slight trepidation as I viewed the array of greasy pastry envelopes in the heated cabinet as I queued to purchase one.
“Can I help you?” the shop assistant enquired.
“Yes, I’d like a small traditional …”
“Oh my God! It’s you!” she said, putting her latex gloved hands to her mouth. I panicked.
“It’s not for me, it’s for my friend Little Andrew,” I blurted, “ I don’t eat them…”
Her brow furrowed momentarily, before the smile returned.
“I can’t believe it. You look just the same! Wait until I tell Olivia!”
“Yes. Olivia,” I repeated.
She wrapped my small traditional pasty and took my money, still chuckling and shaking her head.
“I used to love you doing those summer shows, playing the music and making funny comments and announcements,” she giggled. Well, at least I know where she’d seen me before, hosting a school summer fete on the P.A. with music and general piss taking of the teaching staff.
“I can’t believe it,” she said again. Neither did I.
I smiled and turned to leave the shop.
“Enjoy your pasty! Come back soon!”
“Yes. No. It’s not for me. Little Andrew. I’m on a diet,” I explained as I scuttled out, weighed down by the huge weight of my dieting brain.
Well, at least it meant I would definitely resist the urge to have a pasty in future, rather than spend agonising moments trying to work out who she was.
Then the other day, I greeted a former member of a group I had.
“Hello Sam! Great to see you! How’s John? What did he do after the army? I know he was after that finance job…”
She was looking at me blankly.
“Who the bloody hell are you?”