‘Mind if I join you?’ says the woman in the green top and purple skirt. She’s a petite woman, apparently in her late twenties and seems uncomfortable in her outfit – like she’d prefer to be in something more formal but has been told to try to loosen up. She reminds me of someone. I can’t think who.
‘Do I know you?’ I say, a little embarrassed and trying not to appear rude.
‘Ruth’ she says, holding out her hand over the table. ‘I don’t think we’ve met before.’
‘I’m Gabriel’ I say, shaking her hand. ‘Is there something I can do for you... er Ruth.’
‘No, I just fancied some company for dinner.’
‘I hope you don’t mind. It’s just I’m new here. Well, I suppose we all are aren’t we.’ She laughs a little nervously. ‘I feel a bit lost to tell the truth. You don’t mind do you, really?’
‘I don’t know if I’m going to be very good company.’
‘Well, that makes quite a few of us I expect. Would you like some wine? I could order some.’
‘I’d love some. Thank you.’
She turns waves to a waiter to come over.
‘What were you reading?’ she says once she’s told him what she wants.
‘Oh I wasn’t really. I find it’s best, if you’re going to sit in a bar on your own, to bring a book.’
‘I wish I’d thought of that, but then, now I don’t have to, er unless you want to read.’
‘No no. I have to admit, when I first woke up I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but now, despite everything...’
‘Here we are.’
She looks at me intently in what I think of a very old fashioned feminine way, with her elbows on the table and her chin balanced on the backs of her interlaced fingers. There’s something very Audrey Hepburn about her. I feel she expects something of me – scintillating conversation or reassuring advice and I’m flattered but not entirely at ease with her. Anyway she may have died at eighty for all I know. There’s something disturbing about old ladies that have hung onto their girlishness I always find. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse when it sneaks up on you disguised in a young body. Also I used to be very easily taken in by this kind of attention – a woman shy enough to bring out my masculinity but outgoing enough to save me the trouble of making the first move. Unfortunately I’ve come to distrust it: either the timidity will be a front and she’ll turn out to be a complete bitch or the boldness will be put on and I’ll spend the rest of the trip counselling her. Oh listen to me. What a miserable old curmudgeon I’ve become. We order Tunisian lamb with cuscus and roasted vegetables and she tells me all about her life without my having to contribute very much at all. Apparently she ran a shoe shop in Lewes in East Sussex, a place I knew very well so we should have plenty to talk about. I realise quite quickly though that she was one of those very ‘focussed’ people who never did anything much except work. She claims to have ‘absolutely adored’ art when I mention it, and music, and gardening too, but never found the time, what with the paperwork and staffing problems and all that.
‘You wouldn’t believe the mess I came back to if I was out for just one weekend’ she tells me. Nobody else could be trusted to do things properly. She had to do everything herself – even mop the floors sometimes. I can imagine. It’s my mother she reminds me of. I ask about family and she gives me a sad little shrug. No time for that either I suppose.
I lean back with my arms folded listening to her berate everybody she ever had to deal with for their slackness and lack of commitment. I try to look sympathetic but really I think, she talks about her business as if it’s this terrible burden she’s been forced to bear when actually, she chose that life, and she believed in it, and she was proud of it. And now apparently she wants my sympathy.
‘Sounds like you could have afforded to take some time out’ I say, somewhat disingenuously.
‘I don’t think so’ she says seriously.
In life I learned to use the phrase ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been extremely busy’ as an excuse when I was late for things (which was all the time). People seemed to be more impressed with that than if I told them I wasn’t really a morning person or I’d mislaid my keys. I’d tended to assume everybody did the same and that this ‘busy lifestyle’ shtik that everyone claimed to have back then was something similar, but no, apparently some of them actually meant it. Anyway, she’s wearing me out just sitting with her. She tells me she died of cancer but mercifully doesn’t offer details. She was sixty-five.
She then politely asks me what I did and I give her a quick précis. Finally I imply that I am still very upset about losing my wife (or being lost by her rather) partly to put her off, in case she has any designs on me, and partly so that I can be a bit preoccupied without seeming rude. She reaches over and grips my hand in sympathy but doesn’t let on about anyone she’s missing particularly. We order coffee and retire to the forward lounge and chat politely about our lives, carefully avoiding the ‘messy bit’ as she puts it, as if the end of her life was just a faulty product. Actually it’s her does most of the talking; glibly dropping in the names of haute couture designers, exotic resorts and fast cars as if of course anyone aught to know what she’s on about. I haven’t a clue but I smile as kindly as I can. I only really wake up when she starts on about the ‘myth’ of global warming and her penchant for jetting off to the other side of the world whenever she ‘felt like a change’. Apparently she’s one of those who firmly believed that the whole thing was a left wing plot, cooked up entirely to give governments an excuse to put up taxes. Bizarre.
‘Do you know...’ she continues, ‘Do you know my gym had the nerve to suggest rigging up the exercise machines to a generator? Said it would cut their lighting bill in half. We told them in no uncertain terms. We said “We’re here for the good of our health, not for the good of the bloody planet.” They couldn’t say anything to that. Bloody cheek! I told them – “I don’t pay my membership fees to work for the national grid.” Bloody cheek...’
To argue with her feels particularly futile under the circumstances. I can concede in any case that the connection was never absolutely conclusively proved, even after fifty years or so of scare stories, but given the fact that, when I last checked, global temperatures (and sea-levels) were indeed rising, it seemed extraordinarily bloody-minded to carry on as if nothing was happening. I’d wanted the theory to be wrong as much as anyone but I wasn’t prepared to take the risk. Anyway, the conversation moves on without incident.
I hope I’m not going to be stuck with her alone for too long or this could turn out to be a very long voyage indeed. There are still very few of us up and about. There should be as many as a hundred of us, plus guides somewhere. I count about fifteen. Alison tells me it’s early days.