Fearful of mutiny by an angry mob of Striders, I thought it best to reconnoitre the walk route on my own, without pressure, so I could make my mistakes unobserved. And I had made one or two, but managed to recover and regain the route before long. So I arrived at the Cherry Tree, nestling in rural Oxfordshire, in good spirits. I bought a pint, ordered my food and confirmed with the barmaid that the pub would be able to accommodate about twelve hungry and thirsty walkers of a certain age on a Monday lunchtime, subject to reasonable notice.
I chose a small table by the wall, sat down with my drink and fiddled with my phone while I waited for the food. I was feeling quite contented, but perhaps I appeared lonely: a woman approached the table and addressed me.
“Would you mind if I joined you? It’s rather better than eating on one’s own.”
I wasn’t sure I agreed with her: I’ve always been comfortable in my own company, and after a morning of walking, with occasionally stressful navigation, I wasn’t in the mood for making the effort to be sociable. But she was no drunk or weirdo – a well dressed woman in her fifties: it would have been rude to turn her away.
She introduced herself as Clare, rather formally shook hands and sat opposite me at the small table. We were too close not to talk, and I assumed that she wanted to converse rather than sit in silence. So we exchanged small talk. My food arrived before hers, and she gestured me not to wait, so she was doing more of the talking.
She was partner in a firm of accountants in London and she had taken the day off. She mentioned that her husband was a partner in the same firm, who commanded a huge daily charge out rate. When the conversation turned, as it will, to the weather, I mentioned that it had been one of those rare summers when I wished we had a swimming pool. She responded that she couldn’t say that, as they had one at home.
In a wide ranging and superficial conversation we agreed that Lord Carrington had been a gentleman, and that Boris Johnson certainly was not, we discussed our respective careers, and then she asked me if I had any children. So I prattled happily about our older daughter, smart, diligent, funny, analytical, and our younger daughter, a small force for chaos, art student and singer in a band. Eventually it was time to return the question. I was about to step on a mine.
“And you? Do you have children?”
“I had two of my own. A son and a daughter. And a stepson. My daughter died in a road accident in July.”
“I…oh God…you mean last month?” She nodded.
“She was 26. She was driving home from work on a country lane and a truck came round a corner on the wrong side of the road. She died immediately.”
I floundered at the enormity and horror of what she had just told me, and feebly attempted a few words of sympathy. She continued.
“She was six months pregnant. The baby would have been my first grandchild.”
So far she had been composed, but was now making an effort to hold the tears back. I continued to mutter platitudes and shift in my seat. After a few minutes we had both finished our meal and I wished her well and we said an awkward goodbye.
I resumed my walk, once again getting gently lost in the west Chilterns, reflecting on her courage in exposing her grief to a stranger in the pub, and hoping she found it somehow therapeutic. And I thought of some things I could have said which might have been more helpful. And Clare went home, I hope, to continue her slow healing process. One day at a time.