Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Mutual recognition - or not

Now that was an interesting encounter.

I was in my butchers this morning, stocking up on meat items to take with me on my approaching caravan holiday. Bacon rashers, gammon steaks, kidneys, liver; and some black pudding as an indulgence. Well, while chatting to the staff (Peter and Eddie), in walk a couple. I immediately recognise the woman, but can't place her. We have definitely met sometime in the past. But where? I wasn't sure about the man, but then I hadn't yet had a proper look at him.

Peter goes off to vacuum-pack my freshly-cut gammon steaks, and Eddie is serving these persons. I sneak a sideways glance. No question, I do know her. But she isn't one of my current circle. And then she turns to her husband, consulting him on what else to buy. And of course, I get to hear their voices. And I can then place them both, with total conviction. I used to work with them in the big office in Croydon until I retired in 2005, twelve years ago.

Not 'with them' on any case of mine. Steve (the husband) did work similar to mine, and was in on the meetings I attended, but I don't think we ever shared an investigation. Scilla (his wife) was in charge of a team on the floor below, I seem to remember. But I saw her around almost daily. We spoke sometimes.

It was however twelve years ago, and we were now all older and greyer, and sporting a few more lines and wrinkles! And this wasn't Croydon - it was a Sussex village. I was surprised, really surprised, that I'd had such instant (and absolutely certain) recognition of who they were.

What about them? Did they realise who was standing nearby? It didn't look as if they had.

Time was when I'd ignore a situation like this, keep quiet, preserve my anonymity, and not take the initiative. That was the old low-profile way. But the Lucy Melford of 2017 is no such feeble person. She has learned confidence and self-assertion, and to hell with the outcome! They can't kill me. I stepped over, and said, 'I do know you both, don't I?'

Hmm! My reward was a pair of blank faces. No hint of recall on Steve's face. Scilla peered at me, and said, 'Well...I think I do know your face...'

This wouldn't do. I turned to Steve, and said, 'It's Steve, isn't it?' Ah, at last - a glimmer of light in his eyes! 'Oh, hello!' he said, feeling his way, 'Are you still living in [he named my village]? You retired didn't you?' 'Yes, I still live there. I retired at the same time as Scilla,' I replied, indicating his wife, and thereby confirming that I genuinely did know exactly who they were, and hadn't mistaken them for somebody else.

Steve, still feeling his way, next asked, 'Are you keeping well?' I almost did a little dance. I laughed. 'Do I look on my last legs? I'm very well, thank you. I've been losing weight, to improve my health. Slimming World. Two and a half stones in ten months. Do you know,' I said to both of them, 'Do you know that you're looking at Slimming World Woman Of The Year 2017?' I thought this was a neat way of establishing not only my health credentials, but my standing in the village. Quite different from the type of accolade I might have once claimed.

They clearly didn't know my name though. I decided to let them work it out for themselves.

'I thought you would still be in London,' I said. Steve replied, 'No, we moved to Dorset, but now we're living here in [the village where my butchers are].'

I wanted to ask what made them abandon a presumably idyllic country lifestyle in Dorset. And what, in any case, had they had done with their lives generally in the intervening years. But Peter had come back; I needed to pay; and a butchers' shop isn't really the right place to conduct any kind of reunion. So we left it there. It's entirely possible that we will bump into each other again, though not necessarily soon.

Mulling it all over in Fiona while I drove along, I wasn't quite sure that Scilla had really grasped who I might be. But no doubt her husband would be able to nudge her memory. I wondered what he would say.

What do you ever know about a colleague in an office? Only things about their talent for the job, and how agreeable (or irritating) their office personality is. So far as I know, Steve knew absolutely nothing about my private life as it was back in 2005, except where I travelled in from. I don't think Scilla knew even that. No doubt they'd now be pooling their meagre scraps of knowledge, trying to reconcile that vague past image of me with the quite different person who had accosted them and claimed recognition. Perhaps they'd phone other retired colleagues they'd kept in touch with, seeking further scraps of information to fill in the picture.

I had, in fact, met up with a handful of former Croydon colleagues in February 2011 and April 2012. These lunches included my final boss, who had been Steve's too. He could tell Steve what he might be curious to know.

And I'd attended a Croydon Christmas Lunch in December 2014. Steve, or more likely Scilla, might still know some of the staff who'd been there.

These reunions had all gone rather well. But three of them in four years had been enough, and I hadn't sought any further contact. In any case, I'd slipped from people's memories, to be recalled only because of something I might have done or said that still ignited sparks of pleasure - or resentment. In fact very few persons at the 2014 Christmas Lunch had remembered who I was. Hardly anyone had worked closely with me. There was a limit to what we could talk about, apart from generalities.

And I felt one or two had made it clear that I wasn't altogether welcome: I had, after all, been a halfway senior figure, 'one of them on the top floor'. Sparrows don't necessarily feel comfortable with an ex-eagle perched in their midst. And the fact that by 2014 I'd been a carefree lady of leisure, on an ample pension, for a good number of years might have choked a few throats. There was a pay freeze in force by 2014, but it didn't apply to 'lucky pensioners' like me.

Steve and Scilla had been eagles too. I wondered how they were now regarded, if they ever met up with the old crowd. I wondered lots of things about them. But chiefly I felt glad that they were still a couple, and still in reasonably good health. I'd heard from another source that some colleagues had developed chronic illnesses, and one (younger than me) had actually died. I hope we encounter each other again, but of course it may never happen.

In the end I'm really intrigued about two things: my own obvious ability to recognise a face not seen for many a long year - what a sleuth I might have made! And other people's inability to recognise my face after a similar gap of time. Have I really changed so much?

Who else might walk straight past me, not realising who I am?

And is this a good or bad thing?


  1. I have done that a few times too. Once at an event where we forced to have name tags someone grabbed my hand and introduced themselves. Many years previously we had started on a committee on the same day and both risen to the top of that organisation but had not seen each other for a decade or more.

    I held on to her hand and said "but you know me". Eyes kept flashing between name tag and face until the penny dropped.

    People who really knew you can be surprised at first but once they start to overlay the new information with memories it all makes perfect sense...

    Enjoy the trip.

  2. Perfect sense, eh? Well, perhaps there WERE ample clues in the 2005 persona to suggest what might happen to me in future years. Oddly, neither Steve nor Scilla seemed surprised, though, who knows, they may have done some Oh My Godding later that day...



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