I knew when he set the copy of Good Housekeeping magazine to one side that he had been waiting for me. Not me specifically, but a version of me; someone on their own who would speak and not shrug; someone who would agree with him that it was a day for indoors; someone who thought a seat by a turf fire in a hotel lobby was a comforting spot to be planted, a reassuring position for the day that was in it. ‘Reassuring’ had been his word, but I repeated it. ‘And don’t we all need reassuring these days?’ Why this need to echo and agree? I don’t always do it, though when I do, I know it is a form of connecting, a nod to the importance of the everyday encounter, a tacit agreement to converse. To be honest with you, I hoped he was done with the weather, that he would return to the pile of magazines beside him, the National Geographic perhaps, and fall silent. Not a chance. Good Housekeeping had been set down gently but firmly, he was done reading. Made me smile, a man of his age reading ‘Ten Best Recipes for Autumn’s Apple Glut’. I was weighing up the rights and wrongs of tearing the page out for my mother when he became more expansive. ‘We decided to stay another night,’ he told me. ‘Where else would I be going on a day like this? The daughter’s away into town, but I’m perfecting the art of doing nothing. I’m getting very good at it.’ Soft eyes, perfectly round, like a child might draw, placed too far down his face – though, on reflection, I think that’s what a bald head does to every face – and a voice that would suit reading the Shipping News. His were slow tones, rolling sentences without pause, a somniferous voice with stamina. So easy to examine him as he held my eye and spoke; it was as if a spider had spun an invisible thread between us and I couldn’t pull away. His colour was up, a red dot on each cheek, no doubt from sitting too close to the fire, and I was going to ask if he was too warm, then decided not to, lest he thought it an invite to sit beside me.
‘Have you ever seen a wild mountain goat?’ He didn’t wait for an answer, for it hadn’t been a question, it was an introduction to a story, the way a question often can be. ‘I saw some in Culloville last month. Nice part of the world. A forgotten spot, the way border places often are. Thought I was looking at a herd of black sheep until I got the eyeglasses out. No mistaking them, not once I saw their beards. A fine sight. Just when you think the world is falling apart, you come across a herd of wild goats on a hillside and your faith in the world is restored.’ He reached for the teapot on the low table front of us and said he could ask for an extra cup, that there was enough in the pot for two. ‘I’m grand,’ I said. ‘That you are,’ he said, as he strained over his shoulder, presumably to catch the eye of a passing waitress.
The place was deserted, since arriving I’d seen only him. He gave up on finding a waitress, pushed his spectacles to the end of his nose, and peered over them. ‘And would you be here to meet someone, or have you just pulled in off the road for a break? Th’on’s a poor day for driving.’ Now, to some, that might sound nosey, but he wasn’t asking me for the sake of prying, rather, the question was a means of extending the conversation, of elongating the encounter. I don’t know how one comes to know the difference, but one does. I told him my friend worked nearby, that she was meeting me here for a bowl of soup during her lunchbreak. The intelligence was accepted with a nod. I don’t think I asked him any questions, but I learned plenty about him, nonetheless. Grandchildren (five), electric cars (onto his second), trips round Ireland (too many to count), number of un-used computers given to him in the Civil Service, which he refused even to switch on, before taking early retirement (three), smart phones (one – acquired lately, tricked into it by one son who spirited away his perfectly good Nokia when he was in hospital only to return the next day with ‘this thing that needs a degree to operate’), mountain goats (‘at least twenty’).
Eventually, my friend arrived and we left him at the fire and moved into the dining room. He was still there, watching the peat burn, an hour later as I left. He asked what I’d had for lunch; leek and potato soup seemed to be a pleasing answer. ‘Be sure to look out for the goats if ever you’re in or around Culloville.’ And he waved goodbye to me, an oddly endearing wave with a fluttering of his hand from the wrist.
Encounter, by Czeslaw Milosz
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn. A red wing rose in the darkness. And suddenly a hare ran across the road. One of us pointed to it with his hand. That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture. O my love, where are they, where are they going The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.