Mind you (continuing yesterday's theme of amazingly good social success) there are traps and dangers in the lively conversations that spring up with strangers. It's delightful when the exchange flows beautifully, but you have to be very careful where the talk may lead, and in particular whenever personal history becomes the topic!
Yesterday, for instance. I was in Shaftesbury again, that hilltop town in North Dorset. I go there unfailingly when in the area. As I often do, I took the fast A354 road southwest from Coombe Bissett through rolling countryside with wide open views to the junction with the B3081, then followed a classic scenic route northwest through Sixpenny Handley and Tollard Royal, coming down off the high chalk downs at Zig-Zag Hill, which, believe me, has incredibly sharp hairpin bends, although that's all part of the fun. It's always worth visiting dear old Shaftesbury, just for the drive! And afterwards it was exhilarating to whizz back eastwards along an almost-empty A30 to just short of Fovant, where a minor road took me south up the steep chalk escarpment once again, down into Fifield Bavant, and then east along the attractive valley of the River Ebble; and so back to Coombe Bissett.
Anyway, while in Shaftesbury I noticed a few changes. New shops had arrived, old ones had gone. I tried on some stuff in Shirley Allum, a ladies' fashion shop I've bought from before, and discussed there what was going on with the town's main hotel, which was originally the Grosvenor Hotel - the scene of my first honeymoon night in 1983 - then in 2010 had become the upmarket, arty, metropolitan, Michelin-starred-cheffy Hotel Grosvenor at a reputed cost of three million pounds, had gone into administration from lack of clientele, and was now, after yet another expensive makeover, trading in new hands as The Grosvenor Arms. It was still a posh hotel and restaurant, but with a wider appeal more in tune with country tastes, and its historic origin as a coaching inn. Apparently the signs were now good, the restaurant being full on weekends. I was pleased to hear it. I'd eaten there before, when it was the Hotel Grosvenor, and had enjoyed lovely meals but in almost embarrassing solitude, outnumbered by the staff. Yes, they did afternoon coffee. I went in and ordered one at the bar. It was a very reasonable £2. I chose a comfortable-looking settee to sit on. My goodness, what a change in the layout and decor! The dark colours, fancy coloured lights and sharp contemporary artworks of the former Hotel Grosvenor had been swept away. It was now light and open, and much more pubby and inviting. The coffee came. It was good.
Then an older lady came in, seeking a pot of tea for one. I invited her to sit with me. She was in town to see a photographer. She lived in Henstridge, midway between Sherborne and Shaftesbury. She painted. She told me about her interests. She used photography in connection with her art work. She had learned about geology. We discussed rocks. I admitted that I didn't really know much about the geology of the Jurassic Coast! She knew Sussex, as well as Dorset. During the War, she remembered staying in West Chiltington with a yachting family by name of Crowhurst. I wondered whether there could be any link with the Donald Crowhurst who died tragically in the round-the-world non-stop single-handed yacht race held in 1968/69. We discussed the bravery of Ellen MacArthur, who was in a similar race in 2004/05. I had never forgotten her live satellite broadcast from a stormy southern ocean, when, in tears of real fear, she described what had to be done to clear a cable snarl-up (or something like that) at the top of her mast. It involved climbing the mast, a dizzying, very dangerous feat in that tremendous sea. She did it, and defeated her fears. I so admired her, and still did.
Then our conversation, so easy between us, so wide-ranging, moved on to my interests and background. I freely discussed several things. I mentioned my niece's recent marriage in Iceland, and how my nephew had become a father with the birth of Matilda just two weeks ago, making me a great aunt. Did I have children of my own? No. But I had a step-daughter through my marriage. I explained how A--- was now in New Zealand, and how, sadly, we seemed to be drifting apart, day-to-day contact being impossible. What about my husband, where did he live?
That made me pause. My husband! I had no smooth reply ready. After a second or two, I said he was in New Zealand with A---. In fact A--- now had all of her close family around her there, and so was never likely to come back. Very nearly all of this was the literal truth, but she had tripped me up. It wasn't 'he', it wasn't 'my husband'. I felt horribly uncomfortable telling a fib to this lady, even a harmless fib. Fibs are lies. Lies are dishonest. I began to blush. I think she must have noticed my hesitation in answering, and my blushing, and would surely decide that there was much more in what I said than met the eye. Perhaps one side, or both, had misbehaved. I doubt if she could actually guess the true situation, even when pondering it afterwards, and it didn't matter two hoots anyway because we would never meet again. But I felt that I had slipped up. Shortly afterwards she had to go off for her appointment with the photographer. She left in rather in a hurry, I thought. I saw the damage that one little lie had done.
I'd only been asked directly about 'my husband' once before, at a caravan accessory shop. The situation was quite different. It wasn't dangerous then. But I could plainly see how awkward a subject it could be in an intimate woman-to-woman chat over coffee. And woman-to-woman chats were becoming the invariable rule. It was one of the few topics, like school, that could expose my past life. It was clearly best to avoid saying that I'd ever been married at all - except to my thirty-five year Revenue career! I just didn't want to invent lies, however smooth and well-practiced.
Am I over-scrupulous? My public demeanour is, like anyone's, designed to convey a certain impression - not a dishonest one, but a selective one, a carefully-considered one. I don't advertise who I used to be to people I casually meet. Certainly not my past embarrassments. This is necessary for basic social integration, and indeed basic self-protection from harm. And, hand on heart, what ordinary person hasn't a secret or two that they keep to themselves? We all have something to hide. But not being perfectly open bothers me. The bottom line is that having to be untruthful about something fundamental makes me squirm. It's childish, and of course unavoidable in adult life, but it's a problem. And discussing my husband is an enormous Great White Whale of a problem!