Her face was like a map of the forgotten world or maybe just a nightmare, lined, creased and tired from experience, but there was a quality of defiance about it which drew you to a second look. Those smoker’s eyes, I knew, were full of memories and insights, good and bad, blessed or wrapped in regrets and moments of euphoria created from a fabric of the finest chaos: drink, I suspected, was her refuge and her jailor.
I met her at a literary conference where the great and good rose and spoke on marketing and I, somewhat at a loss, had gone to see if I could finally get a sense of creative direction. She, it appeared, had been the first secretary of the main speaker some twenty years before and had been invited to attend the conference by him out of a longstanding loyalty. The guru had his wife and eldest daughter with him and everything was clearly above board, but she was knowing in that chaotic way “the lost” can be when they look in your eyes.
“Buy me a drink” she said, standing slightly closer to me than was necessary. “I’m a bit rushed” I said, looking around me as if there were people I should meet, but of course, she knew I was just avoiding her. She’d been there a thousand times in many situations, but still she snarled, “Get lost pretty boy,” which clearly I was not. At a loss now, and not wishing to be rude I said, “Just the one then” and placed a protective hand on her back as if I was wise enough to guide her. She looked up then and her face came alight which was somehow more disturbing: too much happiness, too much warmth: you know the thing.
Drink in hand and pointing at the principle speaker she said, “He was gorgeous when he was young, lovely, and he still sends me Christmas cards if he’s got my address.” Clearly a decent man but then, in his youth, when she was working for him, she implied he had not yet learnt the distinction between wise actions and those which offer brief excitement.
As she started to unravel her past before me the great man in question came over and said, in his apologetic way, “Can I borrow this gentleman for a moment” and with that he whisked me over to the far side of the room. “Best not to get too involved there if you catch my drift” and I nodded my assent. “She needs someone to look after her though” I said and he nodded in his turn.
She was one of those people you invite into your life at your own peril and clearly she knew more about our guru than he would like to be known by others but, despite that, there was a loyalty between them. The connection was her most precious memory, a source of pride to her as was his constant, if discrete, compassion. Older than him, perhaps, but she “saw” him before others new him, and supplied him with comfort when he was in need:that he could never forget.