I’ve a former colleague whom I’ve known since the 1960s. We’re both long retired and occasionally meet for lunch. This used to be beer and sandwiches but now it’s more likely to be tea and sandwiches, not because of any conversion to abstinence but, with pubs fighting for their lives, one can never be sure what sort of pint is likely to be served. Decent beer has to have a regular turnover. If not it becomes sour. I could go on but won’t. Our early years as colleagues were spent in Fleet Street, where pubs had a pretty good turnover.
My friend, who is older even than I am, has a quirk of character which makes him seem inwardly to struggle for breath if he is anywhere near a green field – not because he has a physical allergy but because the environment is totally alien to him.
Since I moved from London we have tried various places to meet but it has become clear that he will be uncomfortable anywhere except where the traffic roars, buildings are high and there are shopping malls – I think that is the word.
I do not mock this. When Mrs Llew and I lived in North London I knew people who spent all day at Brent Cross shopping centre. They were bereaved and this made them feel close to life. My friend has always lived alone.
And so, today I braved a market town in the next county which has a railway station. It has a cobbled market square and an ancient church on a hill, below which the dual carriageways roar. Walkways abound and fifty yard ramps soar. A multi-storey car park is a terrifying vertical maze – much of it seeming to be set aside for our ‘servants’ who work for the local authority.
I parked my car, met my friend and we went for tea and sandwiches in the mall.
We made our way via the underground, deafening bus station. Up the lift and into the relative peace of the mall’s canned music we went, and settled in the café area.
As we chatted I saw a young woman sitting at a nearby table. She seemed utterly still: watchful, but without anxiety. Every so often she would take a tissue from a bag and reach across. Meanwhile she proceeded with her meal. Next to her was a man, an Asian, equally tranquil, also quietly attentive. Occasionally they would exchange a quiet word.
This young woman had the manner of a mother keeping a quiet, alert eye on her child. But the recipient of her attention was not a child. He was a middle-aged man who was tucking into a cooked lunch. He too seemed comfortable with the situation. I think one would describe him now as someone with learning difficulties. When he had finished eating the young woman’s associate/ colleague? assisted him with his can of Cola.
I was utterly taken with the appearance of relaxed love on the part of those caring for this man. As I left I smiled at the young woman. She looked surprised and I wondered if I had seemed patronising – or intrusive.
Before I drove off, gasping for the green vale five minutes away, my friend and I went looking for Holland and Barrett’s dandelion capsules (saves postage). We saw the little trio again.
The young woman looked at me – and smiled.