Shortly after writing my post yesterday I was walking home from town.
It was around 5pm and my mind was engaged in serious pursuits.
There were conkers all over the place – and I mean literally EVERYWHERE.
Naturally (being a responsible and mature adult) I found it impossible to carry on walking without stopping to pick some up. They are after all a public health hazard and people may trip.
I feel it’s my civic duty to collect them.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that I also absolutely love conkers.
The swirling wooden patterns on their shells (that sadly fade so quickly on fresh ones) captivate my attention like little else at this time of the year. They’re like a finely polished mahogany dressing table – and are teeny tiny things of beauty.
Plus they remind me of being a little boy – which also enhances their appeal.
I placed five particularly healthy specimens in my pocket and continued on my way.
‘Do you have the time for me?’ a lady walking in the opposite direction (towards town) suddenly asked me, pulling me away from my thoughts of conker trees and playgrounds.
She looked nervous and fidgety. My radar pinged slightly.
It was an oddly worded request.
Nevertheless I lifted my arm, and showed her the time on my wrist.
‘About 5.12.’ I said. ‘Just after.’
She looked at me for a moment, and I looked at her.
There was an unusual pause, and then she dropped a five pence piece on the floor that she’d been fidgeting with.
Instead of picking it up she looked at me again.
Normally I’d have picked it up for her – but on this occasion I let it lie on the pavement between us.
After a brief pause she bent down to grab it herself, trying to get hold of the tiny coin between her thumb and forefinger, initially with little success.
After a couple of attempts she finally stood up with it and put it in a big black purse that she was holding – which I noticed was shiny on the outside but grubby inside, and almost empty.
She zipped it up.
‘Ok.’ She said, looking up the road and then directly back at me.
‘Depends on what you’re looking for…’ I replied ‘…what kind of busy do you mean?’
She looked at me and then back down the road.
‘Busy.’ She said.
‘Well it’s town…’ I replied. ‘… by definition it’s all busy. What exactly are you looking for?’
She huffed, exhaled in an exaggerated shrugging motion with her shoulders and looked at me again.
I smiled at her but something was amiss.
When there was no answer I too shrugged a little and started to slowly continue on my way.
Unexpectedly she started to walk with me, in the opposite direction to the one she was initially traveling in when I’d first met her – which was away from town.
‘I just want somewhere busy.’ She said, emphasising the word.
I stopped. She seemed nice enough – but very distracted and nervous and I didn’t really want to be followed by her.
I looked her up and down.
She was slender woman, dressed in black leggings, flat bottomed canvas (dusty) navy blue pumps, and a baggy orange jumper with long sleeves. It matched the leaves on the floor, and I wondered if she’d chosen to wear it because it was Autumn.
She looked younger than me – but it was hard to gauge her age because (particularly around the eyes) she seemed simultaneously… older as well.
Her obviously dyed hair was scraped back – and underneath its light auburn colour there was about a centimetre of natural brown roots that were beginning to show through. Most noticeably her wide brown eyes were continually scanning everything.
One minute she was looking me up and down, evaluating me – and the next she was looking in random directions around her.
She was either high, wanted to steal something, had already stolen something, or was trying to avoid someone or something nearby.
‘Ok – but what KIND of busy are you looking for?’ I said, trying to understand the question.
‘Shopping busy or pubs and clubs busy?’
She huffed, appeared to be about to walk away in exasperation, took a couple of steps back toward town, stopped and then turned around once more.
‘Look.’ She said, and then stopped, took a step back, and then a step forward.
‘I’m just gonna come out and say it. I’m looking for business.’
She looked me straight in the eye for the first time and fidgeted with the zip on her purse.
It was MY business she wanted.
‘Ok – no problem.’ I replied, deflecting the comment completely – and turning into an instant tour guide for Leamington Spa.
‘Well if you follow this road there are loads of pubs and clubs about 500 metres in that direction…’ I said pointing down the street.
‘Or if you head up there and turn right by the fire station and then take the next left there are even more bars.’
‘…and men – where are they mostly?’ She said.
‘Outside the pubs and inside them as well I guess…’ I replied.
‘Where there are pubs there are men. You’ll probably find some business there.’
‘OK.’ She said, not moving.
She looked me pointedly in the eye one final time.
I stood in silence.
We just looked at each other for a while until after a few seconds (it seemed a lot longer) she finally walked away with her purse and the five pence piece (which I noticed was now once again in her hand) towards town.
It looked like the beginning of a long night for her – and as I walked on I reached into my pocket to touch the conkers.
They were shiny and cold, but slowly warming up in my coat.
One or two had a slightly sticky feel to their surface from the insides of the green spiked shells that I’d peeled them out of.
I turned them around in my pocket, thinking.
Why wasn’t she looking at the conkers all over the place? They were beautiful and the floor was covered with them.
The little green casings that protected them as they fell were scattered everywhere amongst the brown and orange autumn leaves.
Town looked lovely – but she didn’t see what I did.
She instead was completely focused on the need to get money to fill her empty purse.
Something had caused a pressing need to place herself in unfamiliar territory so that she could do what she had to do anonymously.
Conkers clearly couldn’t compare to a drunk stranger with spare cash.
There are times that it’s good to be reminded that I love conkers, and that my problems are relatively small. I’m addicted to little more than coffee and cottage cheese these days – and sometimes I forget how special a place that is to be in life.
Although my burdens have never consumed me in quite the same way hers clearly were I also felt for a long time that nothing mattered in life and everything was hopeless.
I can’t help but wonder what it must have taken for a single, vulnerable woman to have a conversation like that with a complete stranger – and the sense of desperation that must accompany it.
What made me choose conkers and her choose whatever controlled her choices?
I guess I’ll never know.
I’m glad I chose conkers though internet.
Yay for conkers.