The kempt and ingenuous young man held before her a carving of an enormous African family. The carving was awful enough to start with, but had be mucked over with tar. Eleanor was reluctant to touch it.
‘I don’t-‘ she fumbled. ‘I’m travelling, I can’t-‘
The please-madams were not going to stop. She could not claim to have no money, she could not simply walk away from a man who was speaking to her, and some forms of freedom must be bought.
Consequently, she met Calvin in the lounge of The Horseman trying to keep the big dark monster from her dress.
‘For me? You shouldn’t have.’
‘I shouldn’t have,’ she confessed woefully. ‘He wouldn’t go away.’
‘There’s the most miraculous word in the English language: no. Most children learn it before they age of two.’
‘This is just what I need,’ she said, as the head waiter led them to their table, glancing at her souvenir with disapproval. ‘A carving of the happy twelve-child family for my clinic.’
‘You haven’t changed,’ Calvin lamented.
Eleanor could no more focus on the menu than on conference paper at Trattoria. The prospect of food was mildly revolting: a warning sign. In the company of men she’d no interest in she was voracious.
Calvin decided for them both. ‘The game’, he announced, ‘is delectable.’ His smile implied a double entendre that went right past her.
‘So,’ he began. ‘You’re still so passionate?’
She blushed. ‘In what regard?’
‘About your work,’ he amended. ‘The underprivileged and oppressed and that.’
‘If you mean have I become jaded-‘
‘I didn’t say-‘
‘I said. But it’s hard to picture you jaded.’
‘I could learn. I see it happen in aid workers every day. You keep working and it doesn’t make any different until eventually you find your efforts comic. But when you start finding all sympathy maudlin and all goodwill suspect, you think you’ve gotten wise, that you’ve caught the world on, when really you’ve just gotten mean.’
‘You think I’m mean?’
‘You were, a little,’ she admitted. ‘At the KICC this afternoon. This is Eleanor, Exhibit A: the hopeless family planning worker, beavering away in her little clinics among the – “fecund hordes”?’
He smiled and said as gently as one can say such a thing, ‘You still don’t have a sense of humour.’
‘I don’t see why it’s always so hilarious to believe in something.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me to sod off?’
‘Because when people are wicked to me, I don’t get angry, I get confused. Why should anyone pick on Eleanor? I’m harmless.’
‘It’s harmless people who always get it in the neck. Why can’t you learn to fight back?’
‘I hate fighting. I’d rather go away.’