There was an old and moderately depressed dog, well past its prime, tired and fed up. When you called it, or slapped your knee, or clicked your tongue at it, it just looked at you then looked away and sat down so it could contemplate the pavement. We knew this, because the Ponce and I had been trying to pet this dog for the last half hour and it had resolutely ignored us. The dog did, however respond to the distinguished gentleman who was at the table opposite us drinking steadily and chatting to its owner, a wiry woman with short grey hair, seated on the step the opposite side of the bar entrance. I say distinguished not because he was particularly elegant or handsome, but because he had a distinctively large head, with grey/white shaggy hair, parted in the centre. He could only have been Italian. His face was big and square, with a protruding jaw, Mussolini-style, and his voice was so low and gravelly that it would have been mellifluous, if it hadn’t had such a monotonous tone that it sent you half to sleep while he talked. And he talked a lot. Unfortunately, the Ponce, being a well-brought-up boy despite appearances, was encouraging him, responding to his attempts at conversation with friendly politeness and interest. I, meanwhile, stared into the distance feeling somewhat frigid and unresponsive, hoping he wouldn’t turn and pick on me. If he did, I would fake very bad Italian, as opposed to so-so Italian. I hoped Federico would finish showering and turn up soon so we could finish our drinks and go.
‘I detest dogs.’ the man said, tickling the depressed dog’s ears gently, and stroking its muzzle. His hands, which were large and square like his head, caressed the animal, lulling it into a stupor at his feet.
‘I loathe them,’ he continued, ‘really, I can’t stand them. But this one…. I make an exception for this one. Don’t I, Boy?’ The dog turned morose eyes up to him and sighed.
His owner nodded and added, ‘He’s a good boy, he just doesn’t take to everyone. The thing is-‘
‘Cats.’ said the one with the square head. ‘Now cats I do like. Far more elegant and self-contained, as animals go. Anyway, this dog, this particular dog, has a very nice nature, you just have to get to know him. He’s not as friendly initially as some dogs are. If you don’t know him he’s most unlikely to come over and let you stroke him. He likes me, though. We’re old friends, aren’t we?’
‘-it’s something in his personality, he’s very introverted, but once he gets to know you he’s very affectionate. He’s a lovely little dog.’ The woman on the step talked almost to herself, as if she knew no-one was listening.
The shaggy headed drinker smiled at me, and I smiled thinly back then looked away. I had no desire to engage in conversation, but I had a horrid feeling that he did, that he would get his own way in the end, and that there would be no escape. No wonder other nationalities think we are cold and frosty, because in certain circumstances, we are. Circumstances like striking up conversations with a stranger who loves the sound of his own voice. Already we had been treated to a monologue about the links between Calabria and ancient mythology, the state of Italian politics, and philosophy, a subject which is intriguing, but after I caught the word ‘reality’ I had zoned out completely and only caught the occasional phrase like ‘Well…. I would have to disagree there, you see…… in my humble opinion, correct me if I’m wrong….. That’s not strictly true though, is it?….’ and ‘The reason that’s such an interesting supposition, let me explain, is….’
For now he drew the Ponce back into another interminable discussion about living conditions in Spain, both of them echoing the frequently-held view by Italians that Spain is their ‘poor cousin’ and has little to offer in terms of architecture, Art, cuisine and general level of culture. During this discussion he slipped into effortless Spanish, all the while looking very pleased with himself and probably expecting us to compliment him on his command of the language, which neither of us did. Had he asked, or had we chosen to show off as well, he would have discovered that both of us also speak several languages, as do most of our friends, so if he was looking for praise and gasps of admiration he was looking in the wrong place. The Ponce did, however, betray me, with,
‘Oh, there’s no need to talk in Spanish for her sake, she understands Italian really well, speaks quite a bit of it. Enough to have a conversation anyway.’ I was unable to kick my friend under the table because we were sitting side by side opposite the man with our legs in full view. I was just about to lean over, however, and say in English,
‘Are we going in a minute? This old git’s doing my head in. Why do you keep encouraging him?’ when the man turned to me, and asked, with exaggerated politeness, in Spanish,
‘And are you Spanish, might I ask? You don’t look terribly Spanish, I must say.’
‘No. I’m English.’
‘Ah, you are from England!’ he replied, switching immediately to English. Heaven help us- a tri-lingual bore! There really was no escape. You couldn’t insult him behind his back in any shared language, and you could hardly pass each other a written note about him. He had us well and truly trapped.
‘Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?’
I did, but I replied,
‘Nottingham… ah yes, that’s near Manchester, isn’t it? I have never had the pleasure of a visit to your hometown, but I have of course, been to your fair isle many times. Now… let me see… the Sherriff of Nottingham, right? Didn’t you have a sherriff….?’
‘Yes. It’s Robin Hood country, that’s right. He’s our local-‘
‘And don’t you have a rather good football team? I am Italian, I have to ask about football.’ Here he pursed his lips wrily and stopped stroking the dog for a second so he could press a hand to his chest patriotically. The dog rolled its eyes up at me and huffed.
‘We did, yes, Nottingham Forest. Not any more, that was about twenty or twenty five years ago, I don’t even know what league they’re in now.’
‘Peter Shilton!’ he exclaimed, nodding his shaggy head wisely. ‘Peter Shilton.’
I was surprised that he knew the name, but I was damned if I was going to give him any credit. No-one who courts it so desperately should be granted it so easily.
‘Oh yes, there’s Peter the keeper with nothing to do.’ I quoted an old Notts Forest football chant, certain he wouldn’t know that.
Help was at hand. I spied a familiar figure ambling along the pavement in our direction. Unmistakably tall, with a straight man’s rolling gait, and dressed in a fresh shirt and jeans. Federico to the rescue. I stood to kiss him on the cheek and stayed on my feet on the off chance we all might rise to our feet and leave, but the Ponce waved an imperious hand and stated,
‘I’m having another one, want a beer?’
‘Shouldn’t we be going?’ I asked.
‘Nah, not yet, we’ve got plenty of time.’
‘Ok, I’ll have a beer then.’ Federico caught the waiter’s attention as he passed, ordered a beer, then stood the other side of me and asked the Ponce. ‘What time are we meeting Ricardo?’
‘I said about 11 o clock. We should get a quick drink in front of the Coliseum first, I always used to have a quick drink there before going out.’ He turned to me. ‘I want to take you so you can see it lit up at night. It’s beautiful.’ I sat down again.
A group of girls walked past obscuring the man opposite from view for a moment. I didn’t catch their language but they looked American or Canadian: tall, fair-haired young women with healthy complexions, enviable teeth and short skirts. For a second we could have been in a busy train station- there was a criss-crossing of bodies and conversations, the Ponce and Federico talking to each other across me, the girls passing in front, the barman, bearing a tray of drinks, popping out of the bar in the middle of all this like a wooden figure out of a cuckoo clock, the tired old dog dragging itself back over to its owner and slumping at her feet. Then the ‘crowds’ parted and I found myself face to face with the bore.
‘I saw no legs.’ he announced, directly at me, a twinkle in his eye. Our private little joke. A complicit historical reference, to a hero of my ‘fair isle’’. What could I do but shrug and half-smile back at him?
‘I think those girls were Irish.’ he declared.
‘Really? I would have said they were American. They looked a little tanned to be-’
‘A herd of Irish. Or a new species, perhaps, a herd of some new species. With no legs.’
‘Like I said, I saw no legs. Columns. That’s what I saw passing just now. Columns! Where have all the legs gone, I ask you? All the ankles…?’
I glanced surreptitiously at my friends but they were deep in conversation above my head and were not going to come to my aid.
‘Ankles….’ He continued, savouring the word as if it were a boiled sweet. ‘I love ankles. Architecturally, when a woman is hugely round, or….. or massive, it fascinates me how something so fine could support such a weight. All that weight!’ He was smirking now at his own cleverness, sketching with his hands in front of him the impression of a ‘hugely round’ woman with impossibly fine ankles. I was glad I was wearing trousers this evening. It occurred to me that I could only be having this conversation with an Italian, because only an Italian could discuss women (and with a woman) in such aesthetic, architectural terms, as if we were literally objects: an Etruscan vase, an elegant cupola, a fading fresco.
‘But it’s not only ankles that fascinate me,’ he ruminated, ‘there are other parts of a woman’s body I find intriguing. Not only legs and ankles…..’
Here he lifted his trouser leg a half inch and smiled, pausing to take another sip of his drink. Whatever it was, it was bright orange and looked toxic. Then he continued, ‘But not the parts you might logically expect. Also wrists,’ here he circled his own wrist with his other hand, ‘and fingers….’ Here he pulled at his own fingertips softly, suggestively, as though gently removing invisible thimbles. He licked his lips, running his tongue along his wide, already moist lower lip, and grinned at me, raising his eyebrows in what I’m sure he imagined to be a ‘wolfish’ expression.
The term ‘mental rapist’ appeared in my head. That’s what this old bare bore was: a pompous, erudite mental rapist. He was no idiot, and he knew full well I had no desire to talk to him, and yet here he was, obliging me to do so against my will, talking at me as if it didn’t matter whether I was there or not, or as if my only purpose was to be a receptacle to his thoughts, his opinions, and his vaguely lewd gestures. But a combination of British-ness, tiredness and general holiday stupor kept me in my seat, nodding and responding stiffly, unenthusiastic, vaguely offended but obliged to be there, like the Queen at yet another tedious State reception. If I sat it out for long enough he would transfer his attention to someone else, and start verbally molesting them. And this, thankfully, was what happened. He picked up on a brief interlude in the conversation between the boys, and the three of them were soon deep in conversation again.
Eventually we escaped, though not soon enough. Over the next twenty minutes we were subjected to a lecture on linguistics and language, a subject which implicitly we should all be interested in, all four of us being polyglots. But none as interested as out guest speaker.
‘You see, English is such a rich language because of its subtleties.’ he purred, ‘Take a word like ‘big’ for example. And now take another, very similar word, which has different connotations.: ‘great’. ‘Big’ refers to physical size, I am talking in general terms here of course, but then what about the word ‘great’? It can be used when talking about something large, of course it can, but usually it denotes a moral imperative as well. Not just big, but ‘grand’, although that, of course, is another word in the same group. For example… he is a great writer. As in very good, not just very big. Let’s look at Great Britain-‘ here he looked at me, and nodded as though I were a visiting head of state gracing his banqueting table.
‘Great Britain is a term which has no connection to size, indeed England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland- the sum of these countries is fairly small, in geographical terms. No, the ‘great’ in Great Britain is an acknowledgement of the stature of this little country in the world, at least when she was an empire- and such an empire!… It’s a title granted to itself in recognition of its… well, its greatness…’
‘Actually it has another origin, it doesn’t refer to Empire, or our opinion about ourselves, though most people think it does.’ I interrupted. I flatly refused to be bored to death inaccurately. And about my own country, but he continued speaking over me.
‘Let’s look at another word- the word ‘re-a-lity’, which we were discussing earlier-‘
‘Great Britain was coined to distinguish it from Brittany in France which used to be called Bretagne, and the country Britain, which used to be called Gran Bretagne, so it’s not really anything to do with being morally better, it does refer to size. You see, size is everything.’
‘The word ‘reality’ in English: does this refer to concrete reality or to something else in fact? Because if you look at the word in German….’
He barely even faltered in the rhythm of his delivery. Fine. Suit yourself. Only my country, but you’re the man with the mouth, so you must be right. The breath I had drawn to continue talking was choked in my throat before it had time to form words. So I stopped forming them and sat quietly day-dreaming waiting for this torture to be over. I was not going to waste any more breath even replying to his questions. If this was to be a one way talk, then talk away while I think about something else. My friends are used to me disappearing inside myself sometimes, so after a couple of attempts to draw me back in to the ‘conversation’, the boys left me staring at the pavement and thinking.
It was the arrogance that bugged me so much. There’s nothing worse than an intellectual, academic bore. I remember my ex boyfriend, the older one who came to visit me in Madrid and had to pose as my father, telling me about his university lecturer. He had taken a literature degree a few years ago, as a mature student, and after passing with a good grade, his tutor had taken him to the pub to discuss continuing his studies.
‘We in the department think you should take the masters. We’re all behind you, we’d give you every support’. The university lecturer had told him as he raised his pint to his mouth, but my ex had already made his decision. He wasn’t going to take that masters, and the reason was the lecturer’s moustache. The man had a small, well-tended moustache, and my ex confessed to me he had already decided he was not going to carry on studying under his tutelage because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to stand another year or two years attending tutorials with him and having to look at that moustache while listening to him pontificating. It was the intellectual arrogance of the man, the arrogance of the academic that put him off, and this was somehow encapsulated by that tiny little moustache.
As we walked away from the bar and left the barfly downing the rest of his orange cocktail, about to order another one, stroking the bored little dog again, which had come and settled at his feet, and turning to talk once more to the dog’s owner, Federico asked me,
‘You ok? You’re a bit quiet.’
‘I’m fine. Just couldn’t get a word in.‘
I couldn’t help exclaiming, once we had rounded the corner. ‘And he was boring me to tears! I thought my head was going to explode!’
‘Yeah? I thought he was all right. Bit drunk, but friendly enough; obviously very educated. People like that just like talking to people.’
‘At them, they like to talk at people. I can’t bear men like that, they drive me nuts! Droning on and on at you not listening to anything you say because you don’t matter. That wasn’t a conversation, that was a monologue! Doesn’t even cross their minds that other people are educated and smart as well. And did you notice how he interrupted me and the woman with the dog, but not you two, because you’re men?’
Federico and the Ponce swapped bemused glances over my head.
‘Well, he did. And he was wrong about Great Britain as well, but he wasn’t going to listen to me was he? No, because I’m a woman. Boring, sexist old bastard!’
‘All right… keep your wig on!’ the Ponce nudged me in the ribs and laughed, and he and Federico exchanged glances that said everything. And who knows if they’re right or wrong, it’s hard to say when we live on the same planet but often appear to have landed here from different ones. The glance said,
– What on earth do they get so uptight about all the time? What goes on in their heads? Yeah, he was a bit of a bore, but nothing to get hot under the collar about. What’s with them, eh? What’s with the sudden strop? Women! I just don’t get them sometimes….
‘The word “Great” in this context has its old meaning of “big” as in “she was great with child” or “Greater London”. Likewise, the ending “-y” on the end of “Brittany” has the meaning “Little”, as in “doggy”, meaning “small dog”, or “Jimmy”, meaning “little Jim”. During medieval times, the British Isles were referred to as Britannia major and Britannia minor (as in Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s Historia Regum Britanniae). The term “Bretayne the grete” was used by chroniclers as early as 1338, but it was not used officially until King James I proclaimed himself “King of Great Britain” on 20 October 1604 to avoid the more cumbersome title “King of England and Scotland”. ‘ (wordiq.com)