August 25, 2020 at 3:30 pm #8720
When you’re in your mid-thirties with three young children, when your life, which not so many years before was right on the edge of falling apart, has finally settled down, just about the last thing in the world you could possibly need is to fall in love with a barmaid fourteen years your junior. But then, Susie was no ordinary barmaid.
A February lunchtime, a dismal, grey, fag-end-of-winter day, the sort that makes you wonder if spring is ever going to come. I was on my way back to the office after going to the bank and paying an overdue bill, and I was feeling a bit more buoyant than usual for getting that weight off my mind. I’d almost reached the office when, out of the blue, came the thought, ‘No, sod it, let’s go and celebrate with a pint.’ I’d already passed the boozer I usually went to when the mood took me, and I was on the verge of turning back when I thought of the pub further down the road where we’d had the office do at Christmas. I’d never been in there before then, but I’d quite liked the ambience, so I decided to give it a try.
Two snap decisions in the space of a few seconds. By such tiny chances are the courses of our lives changed, sometimes.
There was nothing on my mind as I walked through the door of that boozer but the anticipation of enjoying a quiet pint. That lasted all of two seconds, until I caught sight of the barmaid who was stepping forward to serve me. ‘Ooh YES!’ was the reaction: instant, totally visceral, no thought processes involved at all.
I was absolutely not ready for this. Several years before I’d had my heart broken after falling tumultuously and painfully in love with Ann, an intelligent, poised, good-looking woman with a dazzling, megawatt smile, a couple of years older than me and far more emotionally experienced. I thought I’d found my soul-mate but, alas, the lady returned my feelings only to the point of enjoying my company as a friend. I had been carrying a torch ever since. Oh no, thank you very much, I wasn’t about to go through all that again.
I didn’t realise that matters were already out of my hands. It was months before I admitted to myself what had happened. Something I’d always regarded as a romantic fairy tale. I’d fallen in love at first sight.
I didn’t understand it all. I still don’t, not really. Physically Susie wasn’t remotely my type. I’ve always liked brunettes and, despite having a Spanish father, she was very fair. Her hair didn’t fall long and straight and silky like Ann’s: it was a rumpled, curly mop. I had no conscious way of knowing, at that first meeting, anything of her personality. Some subliminal message by-passed my intellectual and logical mind completely to kick-start my emotions back into life after nearly a decade of shut-down.
At first it was easy to stay in denial. Whereas I’d been convinced that Ann was exactly what I needed, I knew perfectly well that Susie was exactly what I didn’t need. Furthermore, at our first meeting Ann had given me the most blatant come-on I’d ever had from a woman, whereas Susie gave me no encouragement whatsoever. That first time she did a perfect impression of an ice queen, serving me in po-faced, total silence, not even deigning to tell me the price of my drink. I was not impressed.
None of that stopped me going back to the pub once a week or so. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but love hasn’t got much to do with sense, and I was in love, even though I wouldn’t admit it. I told myself I just liked looking at her, and what was the harm in that? Especially when it was obvious that it would never go any further, for the freeze continued, the feeble attempts at conversation I occasionally made all fizzling out like sparks on wet tinder. And so I reckoned I had nothing to lose by pulling a stunt I’d never have had the nerve to go through with if I’d thought I had any chance of being more than another face at the bar.
I’ve always been a bit susceptible to sinus problems, and at this time a recent heavy cold had left me with blocked sinuses in both ears. Because everything outside my head was muffled and everything inside it sounded unnaturally loud, I was very soft-spoken, and Susie always had trouble hearing what I was saying. I conceived the idea of what I christened ‘sub-titles’: writing appropriate messages (‘Hello!’; ‘A pint of Burton, please.’) on some old index cards that were lying about the office, and holding them up instead of speaking. I wasn’t at all sure how she’d take this, but the first time I tried it Susie fell about laughing.
I don’t know how she’d regarded me up to that moment – too old, too dull and too staid to be worth her interest, likely enough – but the ice was broken. Conversations became steadily longer and more personal; and as I got to know her better my feelings, the feelings I was still trying to deny, rapidly escalated. I saw that po-faced mask open out and come alive, becoming one of the most mobile, expressive faces I have ever known and playing host to a repertoire of funny faces the memory of which can still, after all these years, make me smile. I saw her change from ‘just a pretty face’ into a person – and what a person!
Though the word is so often misused as a synonym for vivacious and she is not particularly brash or noisy, Susie is possibly the most uninhibited person I have met. Secure in the quiet but seemingly unshakeable self-assurance that often adds several apparent years to her real age, she’ll do just what she wishes to, no less and very little more, disdaining equally convention and other people’s opinions; the incisive, perceptive intelligence that is wasted behind that bar slicing away at such things to expose the bedrock of what really matters to her. Thus freed, she treads her own path, following her own thinking and her own desires. ‘Why should I?’ or ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ or ‘I don’t care!’ are Susie’s watchwords; ‘Hang the consequences!’ she says, with the certainty of her youth that things will work out right; and if they don’t, well, what’s the use of worrying?
These words, written while I was still seeing Susie regularly, give a more vivid picture than anything I could write now of how she impressed me. Susie’s mother, a forthright character who’d drop in to the pub now and again and whom I found at least as stimulating to talk to as her daughter, read (not by my intention) the piece from which I’ve taken them, and her verdict was, ‘Everybody loves Sue, but you got her to the life. It’s so beautiful and true.’ But looking back now I would change one detail. Rather than disdaining convention and other people’s opinions, it was more as if she ignored their existence. Her freedom was not so much a conscious effort to be liberated or to rebel, but rather as if the idea of not being free simply hadn’t occurred to her.
Perhaps it was this freedom of spirit that gave her a quiet but marked brightness that made her seem that little bit more alive than most other people. She shone like a beacon; in a roomful of people she stood out like a colour image pasted into a monochrome picture At first I thought this might be just me, the moonings of a man besotted, but when I tentatively mentioned it to Susie’s mother I received another endorsement: ‘Oh yes. When she comes home the whole place comes alive.’
Yes, Susie was like no-one else I’d met, a real one-of-a-kind. Relations between us never did go any further, which was just as well, because that would have turned my life upside-down all over again, wrecking my young family – and anyway I would have been no good for her. But before she departed from my life, off to spend the summer at her father’s house in Spain, she gave me a gift beyond price.
I’m a wimp, a softie, always have been: timid, emotional, unsure of myself. Sensitive, if you want to turn it into a compliment. I can cheerfully admit this in my old age, but such things are not ‘manly’, and in my younger days I thought of them as faults to be ashamed of, to hide away as best I might lest I arouse the contempt of my peers, or, even worse, of women.
A month or so before Susie left the emotions I’d been trying to suppress got the better of me and broke out (never mind why, especially since I still don’t entirely understand it myself) to the extent that I turned up at the pub in such a state that my weakness, as I thought of it then, was on open display. At least it was to Susie. Her colleague who served me acted perfectly normally, but Susie instantly realised that something was amiss. And she didn’t react with contempt or derision, but with concern, worry, even alarm. I rather doubt if she would have admitted it, but I saw all those emotions in that expressive face, and heard them in her voice. And when I apologised, before I left, for making a fool of myself, her reply was, ‘No, you haven’t.’
Susie, simply because she was Susie, clear-eyed and free from prejudice, taking things as she found them on her own terms, had accepted me, weakness and all, just as I was, and thought no less of me. And if she could accept me, then why shouldn’t I accept myself? In this way I finally came to realise that what other people thought of me was their problem, not mine. By thus showing me I needn’t be ashamed of myself Susie set me free of a burden that had oppressed me all my life. I’ve held my head a little higher ever since.
And the independence of thought I’d so admired had its effect on me too. Once, after I’d been moaning about how boring my job was, she’d said, ‘If you don’t like your life, change it!’ Easier said than done, I’d thought at the time, but not long after she’d left I sat myself down for an honesty session. ‘Do you actually like this office work you’ve been doing for years?’ I asked myself. ‘No,’ came the answer. ‘Are you even any good at it?’ came next, and again the answer was, ‘No.’ ‘Why the hell are you still doing it, then?’ was the obvious follow-up, and the sad answer was, ‘Apathy and inertia.’
‘Just do it!’ was another of Susie’s watchwords. I chucked in my job in the bus office and ‘went down the sharp end,’ as it was called in the trade, to become a bus driver, and I never regretted it. I doubt if I would ever have broken free of my middle-class upbringing to do such a thing if it hadn’t been for Susie’s influence.
Who would have thought that such life changes would have resulted from a casual impulse to go for a lunchtime pint?
Though I can’t say I didn’t miss her, I never carried a torch for Susie the way I did for Ann, probably because my expectations had never been so high. As the years passed I thought of her now and again, but with no very deep emotions. I even managed, almost, to dismiss my falling for her as a bit of an aberration, something to feel vaguely ashamed of, for the idea of a family man approaching middle-age obsessing over a young girl tends to evoke scorn and derision – even though I’d always known that Susie hadn’t seen it like that.
And then, nearly ten years after I’d last seen her, Susie got on the bus I was driving. I’d seen the tousled blonde head in the queue from a hundred yards off, and told myself not to be so bloody silly. I didn’t even bother to look up when her turn came, but the moment she opened her mouth I knew my first thought had been right all along. That startling deepness without huskiness, that precise, slightly drawled speech, I’d have known among a thousand voices.
When she got off about a quarter of an hour later she left me smiling, literally. The encounter hadn’t felt at all like the opening of old wounds, more like a surprise gift to brighten my day.
Years before I’d predicted that her looks would actually improve as the passing years printed her personality into her face. She’ll be, I’m sure, just as lovely in her forties as she is now in her fresh-faced early twenties, I’d written, and possibly even lovelier in her thirties. I’d never thought I’d ever have the chance of finding out whether I’d been right, but now I’d had the immense satisfaction, all the better for being so unexpected, of seeing that I’d been bang on target.
Susie had matured and mellowed from a pretty, nervy girl (she bit her nails and smoked heavily, and at quiet moments would pace about behind the bar like a caged lioness) into into a bewitchingly attractive woman. She was now just at the age when I’d imagined she might look her best, and if anything she’d exceeded my expectations. More laid-back and happier in her life as she plainly was, she was enchantingly lovely.
And seeing this, I no longer felt any need to be ashamed of having fallen for her. It hadn’t been an aberration at all. The old magic was still there, was working on me all over again, and how could I have ever resisted it? She would always be a flame in the darkness, brightening the lives of those lucky enough to be around her. Yes, it was a pity that I would never be one of them, but I’d long ago learned to live with that. Though I knew this had been a miraculously lucky chance and I’d almost certainly never see her again (for she’d told me she lived in France now and was only in England to visit her mother), I was able to let her walk away without regret, to file her away under Memories to Treasure. And that in itself was something to smile about.
But that isn’t quite the end of the story. Susie hasn’t vanished from my life without a trace the way Ann did. I learnt a little about the way her life has turned out from that encounter on the bus, and over the years since I’ve turned up the occasional mention of her on the Internet. Not much, but what little I have found has been interesting and rather delightful.
It was always obvious that she’d never rest content with working as a barmaid for long. Back then she told me she wanted to be an air hostess so she could travel and see the world, but I couldn’t see it myself. It just wasn’t her. I couldn’t imagine her packaged in a uniform, toeing the line, putting on the artificial charm.
Neither could I see her settling down to any humdrum, routine job, and I was glad to discover that she did no such thing. After moving to France, where she still lives, she went to stage school and became an actor and a circus performer: a clown and a trapeze artiste, no less. In 2006 she was in Madagascar performing with an organisation called Clowns Sans Frontières, whose mission is, as their UK website puts it, ‘supporting the emotional well-being of children living through disaster by sharing laughter and play.’
Later on in life (she would be in her mid-fifties now) she has run courses, passing on her circus skills to young people – in French, English or Spanish, all languages she’s fluent in. By far the most exotic, adventurous life-path of anyone I’ve ever personally known, but entirely fitting. There never was anything ordinary about Susie.
Recently I even found a photo that captures Susie the trapeze artiste in mid-flight. It’s only a small black-and-white picture, and I had to blow it up, with consequent effects on its quality, to be sure of recognising her. But though it’s set in a mask of concentration there’s no mistaking the face that moved me so profoundly and unexpectedly that grey February day.August 25, 2020 at 4:36 pm #8723BellaParticipant
Thank you for taking us with you on that trip down Memory Lane. What a lovely story. Here’s to Susie.August 26, 2020 at 1:55 pm #8748
I don’t want to come on like a rampant egotist, but within hours of my posting this latest blog Ath’s new challenge appeared, and all the excitement has pushed my blog out of sight way down the wall. So this blog is another thing that’s going to go…………..BUMP.August 27, 2020 at 11:43 pm #8753DaedalusParticipant
Wow Richard, what a story. I really wasn’t expecting that ending. It’s funny when you meet people who just have this sort of energy about them, who you know in your bones are remarkable. Lovely bit of real life at a deep emotional level, beautifully toldAugust 28, 2020 at 9:59 am #8755
I wasn’t 100% certain that the (very) occasional references I found on the Net were to ‘my’ Susie until I found that photo. Susie isn’t exactly a rare name; neither is her given name, Susana, not in Spain. And though her surname may be exotic in Britain, she’d told me it’s common in Catalonia, where she was born.
On her last day at the pub I gave her the complete set of the sub-title cards. When we met again ten years later she told me she still had them. Aah, sweet…August 28, 2020 at 1:02 pm #8758DaedalusParticipant
It is!August 31, 2020 at 8:22 am #8769JaneShuffParticipant
Lovely story, Richard. Funny how some people stay with you over the years while others disappear from your memories.
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