On my walks round Valley's End I often meet several people who might be classified as 'simple'. Two of them never speak to me and barely look at me sideways, although one of them always has a careful glance at Benno before dancing a little detour to make sure they don't pass too closely. The other one takes long steps, hands deep in the pockets of his dark, long overcoat, summer and winter, head down; I doubt that he notices anybody, at least, he gives no sign that he does.
The other two chatter. If you let them, they'll chatter for as long as they can detain you. Both of them have a strange power over me. I feel bad about leaving them standing in the middle of the road, still talking inconsequentially, while I walk backwards, stumbling away from them, muttering, repeating what they've said, agreeing with whatever I think they've been saying.
The four are all middle-aged, only one is a woman.
I met her on the footbridge over the river yesterday afternoon. She had me pinned down, while I edged past her; I was almost across when she changed her mind about letting me go without interrogating me. It is always an interrogation, never a friendly, but non-committal, "nice day today" which is the usual currency exchanged with a chance-met fellow walker. Abruptly, with something of an accusation in her tone, she asked:
"Do you live in Valley's End?"
"Yes, I do".
She smiled a sour smile, not believing me. Not only do I meet her out walking, we have also shared a cup of tea and a biscuit at many charity mornings.
"I don't know you".
I have learned that it's best not to mention previous meetings. They will involve a lot of explanations which I am too impatient to give. I smile, hoping I don't look as shifty and ill-at-ease as I feel.
"Yes, we've been here xx years now. I think I've seen you before. I live in Mrs. Pettigrew's house".
Round here, your house is never your house, it is always the house of the previous owner. It only becomes your house when you leave it.
"No", long drawn-out, shaking her head. "No, I don't know you."
She isn't mellowing. There's a small pause, during which I turn slightly to attempt my escape.
"Have you found a cleaner then?" this was unexpected. So she knew me after all?
"Yes, thank you, I did".
"Because you were looking for a cleaner, weren't you?" How could she possibly know?
"Jolly good, well done, who is she?"
"A girl from the town".
"Because I do cleaning as well, you know".
"Do you, that's kind of you." I'm babbling. But I have reached the end of the footbridge, the open road is two steps away. Up to now I have been shuffling sideways, crab fashion, I am about to turn my back to her and, with luck, say goodbye over my shoulder.
"Yes, I do", she said, "I can come and clean for you".
Benno's nose has led him off the bridge and on to the verge up the road on the other side a little way. Excellent dog. I pretend I'm looking for him.
"Excuse me, I must . . . . . . .
"Nice to meet you", she calls after me.