I attract old men. Specifically, I attract vagrants and those for whom vagrancy is but one misplaced step away. I don’t know why this is so, but can guarantee if I am alone and within 20 feet of such a man he will soon gravitate in my direction and strike up a conversation.
I’ve never yet met one of these disparate souls who didn’t fascinate and bring something to my day – my life even – that would otherwise not have existed.
This morning I’m sitting outside my favourite café in The Square. It’s market day – the usual stalls selling interesting cheeses, organic meat, cakes, local honey and the delicious smell of Gloucester Old Spot hog roast. It’s wonderfully busy, a perfect people-watching day and I, with coffee and pastry to hand, am observing the crowd and penning a poem.
The rough-looking chap in the picture shuffles into my line of vision. He watches me for a few seconds and I just know he’s going to talk. He points to one of the market stalls, have you tried any of those cheeses?
I tell him no, I haven’t, but am sure they’re lovely.
I know food, he says, I’m a chef.
I don’t believe he’s a chef, of course. He’s grubby, unshaven, smells strongly of whiskey and is carrying a small bag in which I assume there’s a bottle. But I smile and pass comment on how much I also love cheese and we chat for a minute or two about port with stilton and suchlike.
What are you doing? He asks, pointing at my notepad.
I tell him I’m writing a poem.
Ah, a writer, eh? What do you think I do? He grins. He has few teeth.
You’re a chef, I tell him.
How did you know that?
He’s genuinely amazed. I laugh and tell him I’m observant. I tell him it’s obvious.
Shift your bag, he says, pointing towards the neighbouring chair, I want to sit, have a chat.
And so we sit and he talks. He’s an absolute gentleman, quietly spoken and full of charm. He tells me specifically he’s a pastry chef and, as he describes the skill of creating light filo pastry, how to raise the perfect pork pie, and runs briefly through the various hotels in which he trained and worked, his conversation scattered with beautifully pronounced French, I realise how wrong I was. Tony is, indeed, a pastry chef.
Periodically he lifts his little bag and takes a not-so-surreptitious mouthful of whiskey from the bottle. He gives me a recipe for parsnip wine and insists I write it down. He moves onto his life situation – his dead son, his absent wife and daughter, the collusion of life events that led this Swiss-trained pastry chef to a dead-beat hotel kitchen and dubious but comfortable relationship with its landlady.
He tells me he writes poems to his dead son.
He pauses. We sit quietly smoking for a few minutes.
Well, that’s it. That’s my life story.
And then he cheers up and tells me he has some racing tips. No, no, I say, I have to keep away from the horses, I have an inner gambler who must be constrained. But he insists. Good tips, he tells me, I’ll win a lot of money.
And when you do, he says with a wink as I get up to leave, we’ll elope.
Can’t say I’ve had a better offer this week.