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U3A Writing: A Chance Encounter

Ida Smith tells of an encounter in a supermarket cafe which reveals a sad tale of unfulfilled love.

The old man sitting at the small green table in the crowded supermarket cafe was angry at the poor service. Where was the coffee and bun he'd ordered ages ago? And all that was happening was that more and more shoppers kept cramming into this little place, but not a waitress in sight.

He wasn't at all surprised when he saw the woman, who had just parked her laden shopping trolley, walk directly over to his table with the only seemingly available empty chair.

“Would you mind?” she asked almost desperately, “if I shared your table?”

He grunted, “Help yourself.”

“This place is always so crowded,” she ventured. For a moment he wished that he could block his ears. He knew this line of conversation so well. Her voice droned on, “I've been coming here for years – me and my friend Maggie. She passed away last week.”

He heard the catch in her voice and suddenly felt mean that he had ignored her. “Shame,” he proffered. “Maggie, did you say? Maggie who? I knew a Maggie once.”

“Her name was Maggie Hilder.”.

A stab of pain went through him. “Maggie Hilder – impossible.” he thought. Could it be the Maggie Hilder he'd known so many years ago?

He shifted uncomfortably. “How come that she never married?” he prompted. “Did she ever tell you – I mean, the reasons why? Like, was it some guy or other who had let her down, or hurt her badly?” The stab of pain was back.

“Well,” said his table companion. “I'm not so sure if I should discuss it – not even knowing your name, or what ...”

The waitress brought his order and placed it before the old man, “I'll have tea and a scone,” she ordered hurriedly before the waitress moved off.

The woman had lapsed into silence. Now he wished to hear more. This stranger, sitting opposite him, had opened up a wound. He and Maggie Hilder had known each other for years, many years ago. In fact, they had known each other as scholars and had regularly, in the past, caught the same long-distance train to their respective home towns on the same route, for the school holidays.

Then, toward the end of the war, they had met again, strangely enough on the train. He was going home on leave, and she, then at university, home for the short vacation.

“You know,” the old woman spoke again, breaking into his reverie, “She told me of this soldier. She'd been so in love with. They had met when still at school.”

“He loved her too, very much,” he heard himself saying in a quiet voice, almost a whisper, “But somehow, he felt he wasn't worthy of her love and lacked the strength of mind to make a commitment. Actually, he didn't know what being in love meant.”

The old woman was staring at him. He went on, “He probably broke her heart,” she heard him whisper, "and later, when he realised his mistake, she'd left the country. I never saw her again.'' His voice was filled with sadness.

Maggie's friend was staring at him. “I don't believe this ...” she said in a high-pitched accusing voice. “You! You must be Joe! How odd!”

The, overcome with emotion, she quickly paid her bill and left. He kept his face averted as he heard the rumbling of the trolley wheels growing fainter in the distance as the vehicle drew away.

“Maggie,” he whispered, “I never found love again.”

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