A few years ago I wrote some children's books, the Kissy Sizzle trilogy.
They're still available on Amazon and remarkably reasonably priced, though the price came down when no one bought them so maybe that's something to think about if you were considering making a purchase.
The books featured a little girl, a little boy, a yellow dog and a big dog, some time travel, some Nazis, several deaths and a legion of gorilla headed robot knights, the latter being my favourite creation. The children set off on a series of magical adventures, accompanied and protected by the dogs, visiting places I had visited and times I wish I'd experienced. I started writing them because I'd recently become a grandfather for the first time and, having no legacy to leave behind once the inevitable occurred, wanted to at least leave something for her to remember me by.
I'm estranged from my family now and, being a bitter old bastard, I truly believe that's the way it will remain. I doubt either of my granddaughters will have read them, nor do I believe they'll ever know anything about me. It's a situation with which I have come to terms. I was quite literally left to rot by those I'd once protected, so balls to 'em all.
Many of the adventures undertaken by the heroes were loosely based on real life (and far less exciting) events I myself had previously experienced. Some are just retellings of imaginary adventures I'd had during my own childhood, the gorilla headed robot knights being one such example.
Art, if that isn't too pretentious a word to use when describing one's own work, imitating life.
One of the characters, an old lady, was based upon a lady that once did me a great kindness several decades ago in a town square in southern France, a place not many miles from where I've once again found myself. This time, though, I find myself in the company of yellow dog and a big dog.
Life imitating art?
The woman in question looked to be in her late fifties, though her gait was that of someone at least a decade older.
I saw her face only briefly, spoke to her for less than thirty seconds and then promptly forgot all about her for the best part of the decades that have blossomed and withered betwix then and now, until I needed to put a face to the kindly old lady in the tall tale for short folk that I wrote.
Recently, probably as a result of my new location, I keep seeing her face. Sometimes in dreams, sometimes in those moments when I'm enjoying a bowlful of my favourite tobacco and staring at a blue or starry sky and sometimes when I see a person glance back at me.
It was the summer of 1990 and, it turned out, the hottest day of the year. I was lounging on a dusty pavement in a municipal park with my back against my knapsack when we met. Some fellow backpackers and I were whiling away the hours whilst waiting for a ferry to depart, playing cards and enjoying the glorious sunshine.
"Pardon," She said as her shadow fell over us, "Are you Anglais?"
All of us with cards in our hands squinted up at her, though it quickly became apparent it was only me that she was addressing. The sun cast a bright halo around her head, obscuring her face.
"Oui" I replied, almost exhausting my French vocabulary.
"Pour vous..." She said, holding out a pizza box, the smell of the hot cheese and pepperoni emanating from within reminding me that food had been a scarcity for the last few days whilst simultaneously setting my stomach off grumbling.
I was mortified. The lady with the cheesy box clearly thought me to be a vagrant. I declined her kind offer, politely and with a smile.
"S'il vous plait, c'est, erm, it is clean..." She opened the lid to reveal the pizza, moist and deep and missing one piece. "...you look like my son".
I didn't know how to respond, I simply took the box from her and smiled. The lady turned away as I gazed after her.
Once she'd taken three or four laboured paces she paused and looked back over her shoulder. Now free of the solar-halo I was able to see her face clearly. Short, white hair lay in curls around a plump face that was both tanned and deeply lined from a life lived on the cote d'azur.
"Merci", I called, completing the exhaustion of my lexicon of Le Language.
Her lips were slightly parted and her chin trembled. Her steps seemed to stutter as if she couldn't decide which direction to take while she looked at me for the final time, an expression of sadness sadder than a stranger should ever be allowed to see spreading across her sun-kissed face. She smiled, turned and was no more.
That evening I caught the ferry to St. Tropez where I would, eventually, engage in a little ice-cream selling on the beach and salt-water scrubbing out in the bay. Everything did as every thing does and carried on regardless. I quickly forgot to wonder about my brief encounter with the woman.
The memory is crystal clear. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place during a beautiful period of existence. I can replay the scene in that quality of HD that only memory can create whenever and wherever I want. I can pause, zoom in to count the stray hairs caught on the collar of her coat (a heavy, chequered coat that looked far too substantial for the climate) or examine the card I had been about to play. It was the queen of hearts, I'm not sure if that was ironic.
I've no idea what, for that lady, came next.
For me, it was pizza (the first I'd ever eaten that I hadn't taken out of a freezer) and many games of cards in the sun before catching my ferry. My day was rounded off with a night sleeping on a bench half way up a mountain whilst a pack of dogs tore open my backpack having been attracted to it by the scent of the single slice of pizza wrapped in a Super-Marche bag I'd tucked away in one of the pockets.
I'd awoken when I'd heard the snuffling and gentle growling of the hungry hounds. Peeping out from within my quilted, nylon cocoon I watched as they rifled through my worldly goods, pissing on a select few items.
Frustratingly, I was aware that the most I could have done to protect my chattels would have been to hop at them and fall over, thereupon providing them with one of the biggest and juiciest chew toys a hound ever had. The sleeping bag would have provided some protection from the jaws of those hungry strays, though not for my succulent face. Also, rabies.
As my father always said, whenever faced with insurmountable odds, "Fuck that for a game of soldiers".
Those mangy, Gallic curs had left me with nothing but the orange shorts in which I'd been sleeping, a piss-soaked back pack, a couple of brightly coloured tee-shirts and a pair of shoes.
I say "pair of shoes" but, unfortunately, one of the pair was a Nike trainer and the other a leather sandal, so maybe to refer to them as a "pair" is somewhat misleading. My mismatched footwear did, however, provide me with a convenient conversation starter whenever I met someone new.
Hopefully, that slice of pizza that those beastly bastards had so coveted gave at least one of them the Brad Pitts.
I can never ask the woman about her son. I wish I had. Maybe her sadness was because she'd lost him to disease. Maybe he was killed on active duty with the military. Maybe he was very much alive but, because of some stupid misunderstanding, had chosen to keep turned the back he'd turned in anger and, if the latter of these suppositions were to be true, maybe the sadness was soon to be gone and she now spends many happy Sunday hours laughing with her grandchildren as my doppelganger and his wife prepare a delicious lunch for them all to share.
I wonder if she ever wondered about me and, if she did, what did she imagine?
I'd imagine she'd imagine something nice, a better life for me than I've provided for myself. Conceivably, she remains alive today. Whether she is or not is just another one of those questions to which I'll never know the answer. As far as I'm concerned, she continues to live Schrodinger's life.
I hope she lives in a little house amidst the lemon trees and wears a hat in the sun. I hope her calendar is filled with the birthdays' of descendants, that her pension plan has proven sufficient and that she has her son and her grandchildren to provide her with the luxuries that she deserves whilst having already provided her with a plethora of memories, memories of good times and loved ones rather than memories of a foreigner who looked a bit like her son, playing cards in the dust, wearing orange shorts...
...and eating her bloody pizza.
Sometimes, we let our imagination take control of the tiller. Generally, this is a mistake. We think the worst. We assume the worst. With no answers to our questions we continue to question, each question requiring a satisfactory answer. Not the correct answer, just one that is satisfactory. The answer we can imagine in most detail. Satisfactory.
But the satisfactory answer remains bereft of confirmation. No red tick from teacher to indicate we got it right, no smile from a question master on a television quiz show. Nothing.
So we continue to ask in the sure and certain knowledge that we'll receive no confirmation. What seems obvious at first is usually, though not exclusively, the correct answer. The woman with the pizza was most likely in mourning for a dead son. My appearance in her day had probably upset her and had cost her five sixths of her lunch. That is all I knew, know or can ever learn about the woman. On that day, at that time, she was sad and she gave a hungry teenager a pizza.
Maybe, later that evening, the lady that had fed me sat down to watch her favourite quiz show on the television, laughing and claiming to have known the answers to every question just a moment after the contestant had given their own answer to the immaculately coiffured quiz master and maybe, in passing, she'd mentioned our meeting to her husband. I imagine he was trying to read his newspaper while wearing the grumpy expression of a man too vain to wear reading glasses, squinting at the blurry words on the page. Maybe she told someone else about seeing her son's ghost in the park, maybe she kept it to herself.
If I'd taken the time to converse further with the lady then the rest of that day would've panned out differently. I would've found out her story. Maybe I'd have discovered that the son I reminded her of was fit and healthy, very much alive, and that she'd pitied me simply because she thought me too thin. Maybe her son had died in tragic circumstances, taken against the natural order of things earlier than she and leaving behind nothing for her to live for.
Maybe she'd once made a mistake and, as I now have, turned her back on her offspring, leaving him to rot whilst, to her, he continued to exist in some kind of Schrodinger's Offspring fashion, possibly alive and flourishing in another part of the world or posibly dead and decaying in a ditch.
Maybe I'd have become so engrossed in her story that I'd have missed the ferry and, therefore, not lost my pack to a pack.
One day, I came back to Blighty. One day, I settled down, albeit not forever. One day I had a son, then another. And a daughter. One day I got divorced and, on a couple of other days, I had a couple of heart attacks. During those days I continued to forget about the kind lady with the pizza, she being nothing more than the briefest of brief encounters many years prior, the beginning of a story that was never ended...
...until I wrote the ending.
Imagination, my friends, is the ultimate entertainment system.