Sipping grappa is nice, but there’s also a pleasure
In listening to the venting of an impotent old man
Who’s back from the front and asks your forgiveness.
~ Cesare Pavese, “Sad Wine”
I met a lovely old man today in town. The sort I’m drawn to – glimmer in the eye, chirpy nature… signs of a remaining spark inside a body which is failing.
When you see that glimmer, it means stories.
We’re in a lift and it’s stopped inexplicably. He’s leaning on a stick, his other hand clutching his wife’s arm. He must be late eighties – possibly even early nineties – and his back is so stooped he’s permanently looking at the floor. They’re an intriguing couple. The minute I see them I’m curious. He, with his cheerful face, healthy, scrubbed complexion, bowed back, tweed jacket, flat cap, almost unnaturally large hands – retired farmer, think I, he has that look.
She, on the other hand, is exotic. Younger than him – probably in her late seventies – and dressed like a Romany fortune teller. Very bright clothes swathed and floor-length, a turban-style hat, huge ornate earrings, eyebrows non-existent but painted on with a thick, wobbly black line – way, way, way too much make-up all round. And yet a lady. Perfectly polite and well spoken. Just barking – totally eccentric.
They make an extremely Odd Couple. I love people like this.
So, we’re in the lift. It’s not moving – or, at least, is taking a time. The old guy lifts his head, his back twisting with the effort, and says you ever been stuck in one of these things?
No, I say. This is an accidental lie, I realise later. I was stuck in a lift once, many years ago – it lasted twenty minutes or so and, apart from one girl who became a tad claustrophobic, wasn’t scary and excused us twenty minutes of a dull psychology lecture.
But, I tell him, I did write a short story about a couple stuck in a lift and used my imagination to work out what it would be like. Was it awful for them? he said. I hope you made it awful.
Well, yes, I said. They die in the end.
Oh, he says. That’s pretty awful then. It is like that though.
We exit the lift and he tells me they’re like punishment cells. And I’ve been in one of those too, he says. So many potential stories here, I think – wonder where he was in the war. I ask him which was worst then, the lift or the punishment cell? His eyes sparkle again and he chuckles – the lift, he says definitely the lift. Thought I’d never get out.
We chat a bit longer. He asks what I write but I don’t say, there’s no point. I tell him I have an over-active imagination and will write anything. He says he has one too. And I just know this man has a zillion stories to tell, and he’s itching to tell them, but there’s no opportunity to listen. It’s a shopping centre. I contemplate asking whether they’d like to go for a cup of tea, but that seems creepy and odd. Yet there’s a part of me that reckons he’d love to – he’s certainly not going to walk far in town with those legs, the stick, the need to lean onto his wife’s arm every step.
But I don’t ask.
We say cheerio, how nice it was to chat, and go our separate ways.
These are the moments, I think, which add richness to lives watered down by banality. All too few of them, though, and often short lived.
The photo, incidentally, was taken in a restaurant which used to be a chapel. They’ve kept the confessionals… well, the doors at least. The walls are gone and, as such, the image is not quite trapped in a lift, nor confined in a punishment cell, but more symbolic of the prisons in which we place ourselves – when, caught in the noise of our lives, we fail to see those interesting people shuffling by; and when we let banality win out by thinking there “isn’t time” to carry on a conversation or that it’d be “wrong” to pursue a potential one.
Shame. I do hope I bump into them again.