Michael Harding: You can only go so far with a strange woman at 8am

‘You’ll kill yourself with that junk,’ the woman said as she saw me ordering breakfast. The situation escalated from there

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

Sometimes I just want to buy flowers for my beloved. I get a rush of adrenalin as I cross the threshold of a filling station where the door is dressed with buckets of tulips and giant daisies. It makes me feel in love, especially on a sunny morning.

But it’s difficult to know what flowers to buy. I always want the best for the beloved, but I can never ignore a bargain.

So there I was standing in the door of a filling station on the Dublin road early one morning recently and I couldn’t decide which to get: the tulips at half price or the fresh roses. And I could smell food inside, so I decided to have breakfast first and choose the flowers on my way out.

I know there are men who would swipe up the most elaborate bunch in an instant and think nothing of the price. And there are others who would finger through the price tags on every bucket of daisies to get the cheapest. And I wished I was one or the other, but I’m not.

I asked for a rasher, a black pudding and a hash brown at the food counter.

A stout little woman with a limp standing beside me said, “You’ll kill yourself with that junk.”

I said, “You’re up early”, because it wasn’t yet 8am.

“I work at the hospital,” she said. “I’m just on my way home.”

So are you a doctor?” I wondered, a bit sarcastically.

“No,” she retorted “I’m a cleaner.”

The situation, as they say on CNN, was escalating.

“But,” I added, trying to be supportive, “clearers and consultants are all part of a single team. Right?”

“And what planet are you from?” she replied as she glared at me.

Clearly we were off to a bad start, if this was the beginning of a relationship.

“Mary,” she said, speaking to the woman behind the food counter, “would you give these keys to Jack when he comes in?” And she threw a set of car keys towards the lady behind the counter.

I took my food and coffee to the cash desk, paid for everything and went to a high stool by the window in the dining area.

The cleaning lady followed me. “I’m sorry for being short with you,” she said. “I hope you don’t think I was being cheeky.”

“No, you’re dead right. This stuff is unhealthy. But in fact I only dropped in to buy flowers for my wife,” I concluded, with an air of haughty vindication.

“My father was in the army for years,” she said. I wondered what that had to do with anything.

“Well,” she said, “I think the discipline rubbed off on me. That’s why I’m always trying to organise other people’s lives.”

I was finishing off the black pudding.

“If I see a doctor on his mobile phone on the corridor I’m always thinking, Why isn’t he doing his work?” she continued. And if I see him eating his dinner in the restaurant, in his white coat with a stethoscope stuck in his breast pocket, I’m thinking, Why couldn’t he hang it up before coming to eat? After all, hygiene is my department. Do you understand me?”

“I do,” I said. “I understand.”

Then I invited her to join me.

“Well I have to get home to the grandchildren,” she said. “I’m only leaving in the keys for Jack, but I will join you for a minute.”

She went away for a few moments, and returned with a tea bag in a cup of boiling water. She laughed and said, “You see I think everyone should be in my army. But they can’t. Can they? No. I’m not Donald Trump, am I?”

“No,” I agreed, “you’re definitely not Donald Trump.”

“Do you know,” she said, “that every time I walk past the Joe Dolan statue in Mullingar, I fly into a rage.”

“Why?”

“Because he was taller than that. And I like things to be done right. That’s the kind of person I am.”

Eventually we began comparing notes about people we both knew, and by the time we left we were the best of friends.

Apparently she leaves the car at the filling station for Jack, who collects it and leaves it back there in the evening. But I didn’t ask her who Jack was. There’s only so far you can go with a strange woman at that hour of the morning. Although I did buy the roses on my way out. And my only problem then was: who should I give them to?

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