We’d being trying to meet for lunch for weeks, but always something had got in the way and either she or I had had to cancel. But at long last we’d managed it, and after two pleasant hours we emerged from the fish restaurant and made our way along the sea front towards the car park, still marvelling at the achievement.
We hadn’t gone far when she noticed two planks leaning against a wall. They were six by twos, each about 2ft long. The sight of these planks seemed to cause her to lose the ballerina’s poise that she’d maintained throughout lunch. She became agitated and started hopping from foot to foot.
An absent person was putting in a new window frame. The job was half-finished. It was unclear whether the planks were gash, or materials essential to completion, or a loose, rather abstract embodiment of the concept of a safety barrier.
‘Should I just take them, do you think?’ she said, almost beside herself. ‘They are exactly what I need.’ I imagined she was thinking of doing a spot of do-it-yourself. Shelves, perhaps. I’m not above inexpensive improvisation of that kind myself. And a little light thieving on our first date would certainly have cemented whatever tentative connection we had already made across the luncheon table.
There were lots of people about and the planks were not without value. The sudden alteration in my behaviour from well-fed boulevardier to cautious spiv gave her a start and the moment was lost. A delightfully spontaneous post-prandial adventure was strangled at birth. ‘I’d better ask first, hadn’t I?’ she said. She said it as if she were trotting out moral positions until she lighted on one I approved of. I was still doing my impression of Private Walker checking to see if the coast was clear.
The wall and window belonged to another busy restaurant. ‘Let’s ask,’ she said. We pushed our way in through two glass doors and people with full stomachs coming out. The waitresses looked sweaty and harassed. Nevertheless one quickly came bustling over and mustered every remaining atom of politeness to put herself at our service. She was cockney. ‘Hallo! You have some wood outside,’ was how my lunch partner began to explain her plank love.
We’d met at the gym. Before today I’d only ever seen her at the gym. Before today I could hardly have conceived of her as a person who existed outside of a gym or wore anything but shorts and trainers. So while she gradually enlightened the initially puzzled waitress, I marvelled anew at the sight of this unfamiliar woman in jeans and street shoes. She is very petite, almost minute, and the waitress was tall and handsome, and she was looking up at the waitress as one might look up at the Shard. Before today, all of our conversations had been brief, snatched, gym conversations, with month-long gaps, often with one or other of us contorting ourselves on a warm-up mat. From these conversations I gathered that she is a hard-working and devoted Mum on the one hand, and a fanatical martial artist on the other. She holds black belts in karate, taekwondo and judo. Her karate club practises ‘full-contact’ karate sparring, she once told me. ‘Don’t you get injured?’ I’d said, horrified. I used to get quite badly injured doing ‘no-contact’ karate, I said.
And the more she reluctantly revealed about herself, the more I realised that this tiny, smiling, modest, unfailingly courteous, superfit woman quietly followed the way of the warrior. After that I would bow to her on sight, and she’d laugh, but I meant it. It was her warrior courteousness that accounted for the brevity of our gym conversations; she imagined that I thought as she did; that to chatter in the gym was slovenly.
For lunch she’d had the soup of the day. She’d taken three quarters of an hour to eat that and a lump of plain bread, while exclaiming all the while what a wonderful treat she was having. She sat with her back straight and she inclined gracefully forward from the base of her spine to meet her soup spoon halfway. She laughingly confided that the cappuccino afterwards was a rare and thrilling indulgence.
By the end of their conversation about the wood, she and the tired waitress were as close as sisters. The waitress was sorry but she could only take down a phone number and pass it to the owner later in the day. As we walked back out of the restaurant together, I said, ‘We should have just nicked them. What did you want them for, anyway?’ She looked at me as though weighing me up to decide whether I was worth the telling. ‘I’m a knife thrower,’ she said with simple modesty. ‘And they’d make perfect targets.’
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