PHOTO CREDIT: 'Herald&Times'
Giddy With It
A Sunday supplement article gave Eric the idea for this year’s holiday. An eighty-six year-old man had found love for the first time on the internet, after taking computer classes at the library. Eric wasn’t looking for love, but he did enjoy a smidge of female companionship when he went away. And here were the means to pre-book it. ‘What would you want a girlfriend for at your age?’ his mother had asked, no matter his age. He’d never found the correct reply.
Not as young as I was, Eric acknowledged, planning to befriend ladies to the point that, on uploading his photographs, they wouldn’t mind what he looked like. He noticed that people didn’t balk at putting personal histories on display and would often mention becoming single at an age when they hadn’t expected to be. Eric targeted his emails at those ladies. A fortnight’s holiday with fine dining and slap-and-tickle for afters was all but in the bag.
Having cultivated five online conversations with women near Cornwall, two with women in Cork and one with someone from Inverness, he had to be practical. Nice as Morag seemed – and pretty, too, for a lady in her fifties – he wasn’t looking for the one woman. So, after fibbing to the Cornish five (who dwindled to three) that he’d started a new job in the area, it was Cornwall ho!
On his first day, he strode his new locale with the fervent appropriation of the seasoned traveller. One has to walk a route only three times for it to feel as familiar as home. He passed a sign outside the beige brick church, ‘Flourish Where Jesus Plants You’. Don’t mind if I do, and he continued on, smiling hellos and stepping off the kerb to allow pushchairs to pass.
At three minutes past seven Eric left his room for the short walk to the Curlew Bistro, wanting to be there first, but not so early that he’d be a whole drink ahead of Pamela. At seventeen minutes past, she strolled into the bar area.
“Hello! You’ll be Eric.” She offered her hand and he shook it, telling her, “Urh, certainly, nice, to meet…ah…very.”
“We’ve recognised each other at least.” She sounded relieved. “I must look like my photos.” She laughed.
Eric’s eyes swept to Pamela’s feet and up again. “A little plumper, maybe, but it can be so hard to tell on the computer can’t it?”
Pamela spent unnecessarily long, Eric thought, looking around the room before she asked, “What are you drinking?”
“It’s only a few minutes till the table will be ready. We should wait. Get a bottle of wine.”
“You found it easily?” he asked her.
“Yes. I was here last Friday actually, for a colleague’s birthday. You – found it okay?”
“Yes, yes, no problem. Ashamed to say it’s my first visit. And I’ve lived here a whole month. Poor form!” Well done, thinking on your feet. “I hear it’s very good. Another place I can tick off the list.”
Eric had risen to greet Pamela and they were both still standing. “Please,” he said, indicating for her to sit. Pamela obliged, arranging her jacket over an empty chair and tucking her bag behind her ankles. As she leant down to retrieve the strap that was trailing into the aisle, an approaching voice said,“Sir, Madam, if you’d like to follow me.” Eric gathered Pamela’s things and, from her expression, concluded it must have been a while since a man had shown such chivalry. They followed the waiter to where the buffed wood became carpet. The waiter pulled out their chairs and returned with menus, “And the wine list, sir.”
When the waiter left Pamela leaned forward, her tone light-hearted, “It’s a little strange, this blind-date business, don’t you think?”
Without lifting his gaze, Eric answered, “We should concentrate on the menus so we’re ready when he comes back.” So far so good. Keeping on top of it. He moved his attention between his menu and the wine list before lowering both. Pamela was staring at him.
“What are you having?” he asked her.
“The soup, then the fillet steak.”
“No… just, well, I’m having the fish ergo I’d selected a Semillon, with the fish in mind, but you’re having meat… I can look again, certainly, for a red… though women do prefer white, so maybe that’s a waste of good red, and the Semillon has ‘a delightful hint of quince’ it’s saying here—”
“White’s fine. Anything.” She raised her hand to the closest waiter.
“Let’s see,” Eric said, when he arrived, “we’re having a soup and a pâté then the fillet steak and the sole.”
“How would you like the steak?” he asked Eric.
“How would you like the steak?” Eric asked Pamela.
“Medium,” she answered.
“Medium,” said Eric.
“And what would you like to drink?” asked the waiter.
“A gin and tonic,” said Pamela. “A double.”
“And a bottle of the Semillon. Hm, hold on, will you still be having wine?”
“No, thank you.”
“Ah. I won’t drink a whole bottle myself. So, um… just a glass of house white for me.”
The waiter clipped away without sound.
“Good, good,” said Eric, “practicalities dealt with. You mentioned blind dates. It may be the first time we’ve met but we did get to know each other by email, so it’s not entirely blind.”
Pamela eased her chair back, “If you’ll excuse me for a moment.”
Eric watched her heading in the direction of the bar, mentally noting that the facilities must be in that vicinity. With no menu to read and no glass to drink from, he tried to think of a few conversational openers for during the meal. After a minute or so, he saw Pamela heading back. How refreshing, a lady who doesn’t waste time in the bathroom. She sat, clutching her jacket and bag. “I’ve cancelled my order,” she said. “I haven’t done internet dating before. I’m finding, em, it’s not quite, for me. At the moment.”
Eric’s mouth opened but he was too stunned.
Pamela continued, “Sorry. How awkward. Good meeting you.”
Eric couldn’t hear her footsteps leaving. He stayed and ate; he’d chosen too carefully to do anything else.
Tuesday was warm and windless. Outside the hotel Eric sat within sniffing distance of the sea, pen poised over pocket-pad. He couldn’t bring himself to insert the fishing museum in the ten-till-one slot, or the two-till-five slot for that matter. The night before he’d started a new book (having ended up in bed more alone than expected) and, if he was honest, all he wanted to do was keep reading it. A man can’t be on the go all day every day. It was decided; he would be lazy.
Eric presented himself at reception to inquire whether the hotel could do him a packed lunch.
“Certainly, sir. Sandwiches? Fruit? That sort of thing?”
“What would you like in your sandwiches?”
“Whatever you have will be fine.”
“Of course, sir. You can collect it here in fifteen minutes.”
“Roast slices of ham would be nice. Do you have ham?”
“One moment. I’ll ask the kitchen.”
Eric scanned newspaper headlines while the man behind the marble counter made a phone call, “…cheese and pickle...egg and cress...beef and tomato...tuna salad or roast chicken…yes, I have it written...I know, but I didn’t think there was any harm—” He turned to Eric. “Well, it seems there isn’t any ham, today. We only have the fillings I mentioned.”
“Hm?” said Eric, looking up.
“Our sandwich varieties”—exaggerated inhale—“are cheese and pickle, egg and cress, beef and tomato, tuna salad or roast chicken.”
“The egg. And the roast chicken. And if you could squeeze a lettuce leaf in that would seal the deal.”
At one o’clock, after laying his book down under the rented deckchair, he bit in and emitted a moan at the combination of homemade mayonnaise, chopped egg and slightly salty butter. Heavenly! I must tell the kitchen! And within moments of the last mouthful he nodded off.
He was roused by what felt like a hairy fish in death throes against his shin, in fact a Yorkshire Terrier, tugging to the end of its lead around Eric’s daysack, till its owner yanked it onward. Eric checked his watch. Four fifteen, too early for dinner. Tidying things into his bag he found the roast chicken sandwich and wondered, mid-swallow, whether its temperature could constitute a health risk but his greater worry was related to wasting it. A glimpse of the dome of the old cinema stirred him. Zipping his pack, he ran a comb through his hair and set off.
The poster described a film about a female detective pitting her wits against a serial killer. When it was over, Eric thought the film was as much about the female detective falling in love with the criminal psychologist. She was a tough nut until she was alone with him and then she wept a lot, and capitulated on his third attempt to kiss her. Ladies with careers have hard shells, he noted. The way to their soft centres is persistence. Stopping at a corner shop for hotel snacks (Ritz crackers, cheese triangles and chocolate raisins) Eric wondered if he’d given up on Pamela too easily. Perhaps she was expecting more effort from him. Logging into the dating website before bed, it seemed Pamela was playing extra hard to get: her profile had disappeared altogether. What would the forensic psychologist do, with these bleak odds?
Wednesday woke him early. Today was a guided tour of the ruins and a meal with Val (arranged by email: the Harbour Inn, 7.30pm). He wondered at the wisdom of a full day out and an evening engagement. There’ll be plenty to talk about over dinner, he reasoned. Plus, his shirt had been pressed the night before.
Eric made his way across the dining room to take his seat for breakfast, at the small table along the wall near the buffet. On his first morning, the waitress had cleared the extra setting and yesterday there was only one place set when he arrived. He got within six feet of his table before realising there were people at it. He wasn’t sure what to do about this. He was stuck to the spot when the waitress touched his arm, “Mornin Mr. Codswallop. I better tell chef to get your eggs in the pan. Caught me out, comin down so early!”
“There are people at my table.” He forgot to correct her on the surname, under pressure.
In hushed tones, she explained, “The Ruffbuns sit here every mornin only you don’t know about it ’cause you’ve not been down till after eight.”
She locked her hand under his elbow and extended her other arm towards an empty table. “There we are now. Usual, is it? Brown toast, pot of tea?”
“Yes. Could I have a sausage as well? I’m on a long day out, who knows when I’ll get lunch.”
He wanted to go to the buffet for his cereal but wasn’t finding it easy. This table was in the middle of the room, not tucked against the wall. And it was set for four; a clutter of mats, cutlery, cups and plates amongst acres of tables and unfamiliar guests. The hotel suddenly felt like a hotel and Eric had thought he was past that stage. The next time I wake early I’m staying upstairs till eight fifteen. Breathing deliberately, he crossed the room and shuffled the length of the buffet, checking if they’d added anything different. Selecting his bowl of cornflakes and a jug of milk, he set off back to his table in the centre. When he thought he spotted it there was someone sitting there, so it couldn’t be, though a few paces closer and he saw his room key on the seat. Oh good God. Who’s this?
“Good morning,” he said, putting his milk jug down, “just collecting my key.” His trouser pocket was no match for the keyring; the long, red rectangle protruded from his hip.
“Oh dear,” said the woman, crinkling her face, “I’m at the wrong table again! They all look the same at this time in the morning. Don’t you find they all look the same?”
“I’ll just sit over here—” Eric turned to move away.
“No, sit down. I insist. I’ll move. Please. Sit.”
Eric wanted nothing more than to sit at this table but she hadn’t made any attempts to leave. Standing any longer ran the risk of appearing very rude. He stepped forward and sat.
“You probably are at your usual table,” he said. “I think I’m at issue. I came down an hour early and have wreaked nothing but havoc.”
“No, it’s me. I’m sure of it. I haven’t had a regular spot since Saturday. Every morning I think I’m at the right place only to discover I’m one out to the left or right. I think they reconfigure the dining room in the night, to confuse us!”
“Aha, yes,” he agreed. “They must leave the clean towels in different places for the same reason.”
“On the bed, the dresser, the chair, sometimes even hanging in the bathroom. It’s a conspiracy to drive us round the twist!”
“Maybe they try to send customers into such confusion that they pay whatever bill is presented, without question,” Eric suggested.
“It’s a good thing we ended up swapping notes,” she said smiling, and wrinkling her nose. “Probably saved each other a few farthings.”
Eyes dipped, he asked, “Do you mind if I...?”
“Gosh no, tuck in.”
“Are you not…?”
“I’m waiting for bacon and eggs.”
“Well, you can’t move to a different table now,” he insisted, “it’ll baffle the waitress.”
“She’s quite bewildered already. Calls me Mrs Hailstone, when actually it’s Hallström.”
All Eric heard was “Mrs”.
“Ah. Mr Hallström a late sleeper?”
“He’s a very sound sleeper indeed. Been dead for seven years.”
“I didn’t mean…I beg your…how thoughtless.”
“You couldn’t have known.” She held out her hand, “I’m Margaret.”
“I hope she hurries with my fry-up. I’ve to be at Tourist Information for 8.30.”
“For the trip to the cheese farm?” he asked.
“The very one! Have you been?”
“I’m going tomorrow,” he replied.
“Hey. What are the chances of that?”
“Pretty high, I’d say. Hotels are full of tourists and tourists go on outings and the cheese trip only runs Wednesdays and Thursdays, so the chances are quite high.”
“Well, when you put it like that, I suppose it is nothing out of the ordinary that we ended up at the same table and booked the same excursion.”
When she said that, Eric felt something obstructing the smooth swallow of his cereal. “You know,” he told her, “I think it is uncanny.”
“Don’t know what’s got into chef this mornin,” said the waitress, dumping down their plates, “movin around that kitchen like a Beach Boys single on the LP settin. Be mayhem,” she muttered, “if I tried that.”
Margaret was spreading a paper napkin on the table and reaching for the toast. “Would you like my eggs?” she asked, while placing her bacon between the slices. “Go nicely with a sausage. Look at the skin on that. Ready to pop.” She pitched her plate and he watched, helpless, as her fried eggs slid next to his sausage. Gathering the napkin around her sandwich Margaret stood. “I’ll have to eat this on the coach!” She lifted her key with a giddy flourish. “Mustn’t run with bacon! Or is it ham? I can never remember.” And she winked, tapping Eric’s shoulder as she hurried off.
Throughout the afternoon, Eric jotted notes from his Roman ruins tour, for the conversation with Val during dinner. Approaching the restaurant, he thought he’d wait for her outside so he could hold the door open, getting them off on the right foot. After a while he moved to the public bench. By eight o’clock he’d seen one lady who looked like Val but on nearing the venue she’d carried straight on, so it couldn’t have been.
After another fifteen minutes he abandoned his wait. The world had become increasingly unpredictable. The fates that could befall a person on leaving the house were legion. He would email to check she was alright. Meantime, it was more important that he got dinner. No sense in him fading away.
After another early night he was down for breakfast before eight – it hadn’t been too bad, sharing a table – though the Ruffbarns (more likely the Rumsfelds? Fairbairns?) must have checked out because Eric’s usual spot lay vacant. He sat with his milk and cornflakes but couldn’t settle, cocking his head as people passed through the space. When the waitress brought his plate, before he knew it he was asking, “Urh, Mrs Hallström, has…?” But someone sidled up brandishing an empty teapot and off the waitress went, “…Urn’s there on the buffet, size of a silo... couldn’t find their bums with both hands...”
Eric stared at the fried eggs he’d ordered, lifting his cutlery but only managing to finish one, which had none of the flavour of yesterday’s. He went to hand his key to reception and hesitated in the hall. Did he want to go to the cheese farm? Or stay here, in the entrance lounge, and read his book? But he decided two weeks was a long time to fill without day trips, so he handed in the key.
Arriving outside Tourist Information, a group was waiting for the bus Eric used the time to study the noticeboard and take photos of excursion posters with his phone.
“Who’s a busy bee?” said a voice he recognised.
“Oh, ah, yes,” Eric spoke to the smudge of lipstick on Margaret’s front tooth. “I plan to venture to a few different attractions,” he said, “whereas you appear to be quite happy going to the cheese farm.”
She jabbed him in the ribs with her purse. “I didn’t get there yesterday. Had myself a little Margaret adventure. Dropped that bloody sandwich, bent to collect it and my glasses fell off. Stepped back seconds before a cyclist wheeled right over them, and the sandwich, I hadn’t seen him, obviously, so not exactly my fault but he was shouting his head off. Anyway, spent the morning at the optician’s waiting for a replacement pair. Safest place for me.”
“Nonetheless, a decisive conclusion to your pork riddle.”
She looked blank.
“Never run with bacon…”
“Oh,” she laughed, “that! You big galoot,” she said, shunting him towards the bus.
Eric had packed his daysack with everything he thought he might want for a coach trip but when they pulled into the car park of Highvale Organic Dairy, just before eleven, he hadn’t even opened the bag (when Margaret had offered her water bottle he’d surprised himself by drinking from it). The driver was trying to make himself heard above the din, “Be back here at two-thirty SHARP or you will not be popular!”
In the throng of people putting on standard-issue hats and overalls, Eric and Margaret became separated. She was on the tour ahead of his. It took him a minute to discern which butcher-hatted woman was her but, once spotted, he never lost sight. He could see her through clouds of steam, between vats, beside presses and laughing with the man leading the tour. The obstructed feeling in his gullet returned. He willed the tour to reach its conclusion, although when his guide said, “That’s it ladies and gentlemen. Enjoy the rest of your visit,” Eric felt he’d let himself down. He was no wiser about cheese than he had been at the start. He wanted the chance to go back round, till he remembered Margaret, out there talking to who-knew-who. He couldn’t get his white wellies off fast enough. Racing to the courtyard, he sauntered casually till he saw she wasn’t there and sped up again through the archway, then slowed down towards the meadow. There were people at picnic tables.
“Eric!” Margaret called out.
“Hello once more,” he said, as she slid along the bench to make room.
“This is Jackie, and Stan. They were on my tour.”
“Hello, yes, Eric,” he managed. He wanted to be with Margaret, just with her. Talking just to her. Jackie extinguished her cigarette. “Ready for the cafeteria, Stanley?”
Margaret’s sandwiches tasted better than his. After they’d eaten they sat on the grass. She placed a palm under his chin and pushed it gently upward. Oh my heavens, is she about to ki--
“You like butter!” squeaked Margaret. “A lot. It’s very yellow.”
He held her hand briefly, to take the buttercup. Margaret had peach fuzz around her jaw line and he resisted an urge to stroke his cheek against it. “You like it too,” he observed.
“I do, I love it. Shall we find the shop and buy some?” she asked.
“It’ll go off in your room. You’d be better with something in a rind.”
“I’ll sit it on the marble counter in the bathroom. It’ll be fine for one night.”
“You’ll eat a pack of butter in a day?”
Margaret laughed. “No, dafty, I’ll be taking it home tomorrow, to my fridge.”
Margaret linked an arm into Eric’s. “It’s nearly two. Let’s go shopping.”
Despite the driver’s efforts to round everyone up it was ten to three before they left the farm. The fields and coastal cliffs which had looked so pretty on the way there were going past in a blur. On some of the bends Eric was thrown right up against Margaret.
“Woops,” said Eric. “He’s keen.”
“Doesn’t that big tree look just like a broccoli head,” said Margaret, pointing, “if you squint slightly.”
“Ah, here’s a thing you might not know,” he said, nudging her elbow, “if you separate broccoli fronds by pulling them apart, rather than cutting them, it prevents the green confetti from shedding. Less mess.”
“I’ll give that a go,” said Margaret, patting his leg. She faced him, saying, “If you’ve never tried it, a squeeze of lemon livens up boiled broccoli no end.”
She took her bottle of water from the mesh pocket, sipped and held it out to Eric, who didn’t hesitate.