CJ Stone's Britain: Western Reunion (Poole)
CJ Stone's Britain, May 17th 1997 Guardian Weekend
A woman on a nearby table had been listening in with that look of mild disdain that is so characteristic of the English. Her face said it all
To be honest, it was more awkward than I had imagined. I was in Poole in Dorset, meeting an old pupil of mine. I used to teach English as a foreign language. The ex-pupil’s name is Vera. She’s twenty four now, and has just qualified as a Nurse. When I’d known her she was eighteen. We’d had this brief, innocent romance. It had mainly involved long walks along the beach holding hands, and deep conversations looking into each other’s eyes. I’d been flattered by her attentions, and she was - as she was telling me now - equally flattered that I took her seriously enough to want to listen to her. But it was one of those times in both of our lives when the lure of simple romance overcame what you might want to call the logic of the situation. The truth is - and we were admitting it to each other now - it was really just a fantasy, though a very enjoyable one at the time.
And now, here we were all these years later, sitting in a café in Poole, looking across the table at each other, wondering what to say. I asked her the time, partly for something to ask, but also partly because I was hoping that the pub would be open soon. She didn’t have a watch on, but she leaned across to a man on a nearby table.
“Excuse me, do you have the time?” she asked in her lilting accent.
The man came over to our table. He was fumbling with his watch, and rather than tell us the time, he showed the watch to Vera.
“Kh-are jhu Kh-English?” he asked. That’s about the best I can do represent his accent. He gurgled his vowels. He was obviously Spanish.
“No, I’m German,” she replied.
That was his cue. He literally shoved me aside and sat down opposite Vera, and began telling her this story. It involved his son, who had qualified as a Mechanical Engineer at some University in London. After graduating the son had applied for a job. Soon the application forms had arrived. After this he went before the interview panel. He got the job. The company was German, so he did his training in Berlin. He spoke several languages fluently, including German, English and Spanish, so he was sent to San Sebastian in the Basque Country. But while he was in Germany, his daughter was conceived. So his daughter, (our informant’s grand daughter) said to him, “Grandpa: I was conceived in Germany, born in Spain, and educated in England.”
And that was it. “Thank you for listening,” he said, getting up and bowing briskly with a graceful old-world charm. And he went back to his coffee on the other table and never said another word. Vera and I were dumbfounded. The conversation had begun and ended so abruptly. We wanted to ask him all sorts of questions, such as what was he doing in Poole, and did he like the place? It was obvious he was lonely, and that he latched on to any foreigners he met to tell them this same story. I imagined that his stay in England had not been a happy one, and that the parochial reserve of the average English person would puzzle and confuse him. During the whole conversation a woman on a nearby table had been listening in with that look of mild disdain that is so characteristic of the English. Her face said it all.
After that we went to the pub. I rang my friend Phil, and he rode down on his bike. The beer kicked in and the awkwardness disappeared. Suddenly Vera and I were old friends. We were gabbling excitedly at each other as if we’d only seen each other the day before. Phil was smitten. He likes German women, and the thought of a German Nurse must have seemed like a dream come true. He was leaning forward, looking into her eyes, and philosophising lyrically at her in his hesitant, fumbling way. I don’t think she understood half of what he said. His favourite word is “consciousness”.
There was a party on a nearby table. They were all wearing these tiny multicoloured plastic hats. Someone brought a cake in and presented it to an old man sitting down. It had eight candles in it, so I guessed he was eighty. All the family were there. There was a young man drinking with a blonde woman at the bar. He came over to one of the older women and, indicating with a brief backward nod and a movement of the eyes, asked, “so what do you think?”
“She’s gorgeous,” the older woman said. It was obvious that the blonde woman was meeting her prospective in-laws for the first time.
Another woman was dancing in that big-hipped way older woman have, swishing her skirt about and dangling her hands in the air as if holding a tray at a vicar’s tea-party. A young man came over and kissed her neck and - I swear this was true - her eyes glazed over and she touched herself between the legs while pretending to smooth down her skirt. They were all having a wonderful time.
Meanwhile Vera was looking more relaxed. “I’m feeling tipsy,” she said.
“That’s a good word,” I enthused, like the English teacher I used to be.
“Yes,” she said: “you taught it to me.”
Poole. It’s one of those place-names that seem to require a geographical suffix. “Poole-in-Dorset”, you have to say, which leads me to suppose that there must be other Pooles about. (I looked it up: in fact the only other Poole there is is a place called Poole Keynes near Cirencester.) It has the largest natural harbour in the world, with a shoreline of 100 miles, which just about explains the reason for its existence. In the 17th Century it was one of the main harbours in the Newfoundland circuit. Ships travelled from here to the New World carrying salt and provisions, then on to the Mediterranean loaded with salt fish, then back to Poole with wine, olive oil and dried fruit.
I’d been staying in suburban Parkstone at Phil’s Mom’s bungalow. She’s one of those archetypal grannies, all bustling charm and aimless, friendly chit-chat. She’s 81. I loved it when she called me Chris, and I wanted to call her Mrs M. and hug her. I never did. In a way, maybe, she represents the spirit of modern Poole, which these days is more of a retirement centre than a working port.
So, anyway: at the end of this extensive drinking session, Phil, Vera and I tottered off into the damp, Poole evening to find something to eat. We were looking for an Indian and had plans to go clubbing in the evening. We passed the Nurse’s Home where Vera was staying. I could sense that Vera really didn’t want to go on with this journey. The warm lights were calling to her. We sent Phil off on his bike to find the mythical Indian restaurant, while Vera and I ducked into the hallway, and when he came back - all eager to keep the party going - we told him of her decision.
“Oh,” he said, in a sad little voice, “are you sure?”
“Yes,” she told him, with an unexpected firmness.
Phil looked disappointed, like a little boy who’d just dropped his ice-cream.
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