A Brief Encounter by Dorothy Snelson

Do we ever really know someone? Even someone we think we know well? Alternatively, someone who is just a casual acquaintance; a brief encounter?

Jen met Roland at an Evening Class; Brush up your French. She was hoping to go to Languedoc for a holiday. They were a happy bunch of students who chatted away during breaks and repaired to the pub afterwards. Esther, their very patient tutor, usually went along too. She probably needed a stiff drink by then.

They were a happy bunch with one exception, Roland. He was different, awkward and diffident. A definite loner. Esther tried to draw him out but to no avail. Others tried too but gave it up as hopeless. Roland was determined to remain an enigma. His replies were monosyllabic, a grunt or silence.

Despite being invited, he never deigned to go to the pub. It was inevitable that his name cropped up there from time to time and he was discussed , sometimes quite disparagingly.

‘He’s a moody so-and-so’ said Tom.

‘He’s downright rude,’ Susan bemoaned.

Jen felt uncomfortable about this, and always tried to steer the conversation onto a different subject, or even at times defend him.

‘He could be just shy or overwhelmed’ she proffered.

‘Overwhelmed my arse’ Tom said plainly. ‘The bloke’s a moron.’

Naively Jen tried to establish some sort of rapport with him.

She made a few embarrassing overtures, but he just continued to ignore her. She was beginning to wonder why he had joined the group, when plainly any sort of interaction was a trial. There wasn’t any sort of chemistry, which was drawing her to him, although he was a reasonably good-looking fellow. She was probably old enough to be his mother.

She just seemed to be on a mission, which as time went on was proving to be Mission Impossible. Heaven forbid that she was turning into some sort of detective. A latter day Miss Marple? Well she didn’t see Roland as any sort of murderer, rapist, wife beater, or even cat burglar, so why the sleuthing? She couldn’t help myself though. It was turning into some sort of project, the Discover Roland Project.

She tried to study him without making it apparent. Like a detective, attempting to deduce from his clothes, his mannerisms and his possessions, some idea of his lifestyle and personality. It wasn’t easy as there were few clues. He didn’t give much away. His age she guessed to be somewhere between thirty and forty. He had all his hair and his teeth as far as she could see without close examination. He wore no wedding ring but that didn’t say much. Many married men didn’t wear wedding rings. His clothes were of decent quality and at least modern if rather conservative. Sometimes Jen sat opposite to better observe his mannerisms, and facial expressions. Other times she would contrive to sit next to him to peek at his writing. He had an educated sort of hand, neat and precise. She tailed him out of the class at the end of one evening to see what sort of car he drove, if any. What she would have deduced had he got into a high end Merc, or an old rust bucket, she didn’t quite know. However, the question never arose as he drove a perfectly ordinary black Ford Fiesta.

By week eight of the course, her interest in Roland was beginning to flag. She had to accept that Roland was inscrutable and likely to remain so. Just when she had decided to give up bingo, breakthrough! The oracle spoke. It was week nine, and they were discussing French food, as a welcome diversion from conjugating verbs. What he said exactly, she couldn’t quite remember later. It was not so much, what he said that she was concentrating on, but the way he said it.

Head down, no eye contact, and a voice that was flat, and devoid of expression. It was a light bulb moment. She realized then that Roland had Asperger’s Syndrome. Why hadn’t she realised this before? The signs had all been there if only she had recognised them. Perhaps it was because he was older, and the only other times she had witnessed it, had been in a much younger person.

She had once lived next door to a family whose son, John, had Asperger’s. John had displayed just the same type of behaviour looking back. A lack of eye contact, a lack of social skills, and poor interaction with people. Jen’s sleuthing was over. Case solved, or was it? She still didn’t know why Roland had joined this course?

It was December and the course finished. They had a celebratory meal and everyone went along, except Roland. Jen accepted that she would probably never encounter Roland again, but at least she’d discovered the reason for his standoffish behaviour. A friend of Jen has bought tickets for a pre- Christmas classical music concert. A local choir were performing in the setting of the Parish Church. Just before the performance, the friend called Jen, to say that her hubby had been admitted to hospital with chest pains. She gave Jen the tickets, and undecided whether to go on her own, Jen casually looked at them to see what was on. The name of the soloist caught her eye, Roland Lennox. Surely not her Roland from French class?

She went along to the concert. During the first half, Roland (yes it was the same Roland) performed a solo of such vocal purity and expression, that Jen was almost moved to tears. The director/conductor opened the proceedings by explaining that the proceeds from the concert would go towards their forthcoming trip to France. They were twinned with a town in France and the choir had been invited to perform there at Easter.

Another piece of the jigsaw fell into place, as the reason for the French lessons became apparent.

At the interval, she noticed two women talking to Roland and guessed they were probably related. At the refreshment table, she managed to manoeuvre nearer, and struck up a conversation with the younger one. She mentioned that she had recently met Roland at French classes, and was bowled over by his performance. It turned out to be Roland’s younger sister, Marie, she was talking to.

‘I suppose it was soon apparent that Roland was not like the rest of you’ Marie said. ‘Yes’ Jen replied. ‘It took a while to realise that he wasn’t just being rude or boorish but that there was a reason for his behaviour.’

‘Roland has overcome a lot of obstacles to live an independent life. You realise he has Asperger’s?’ said Marie.

Jen nodded. ‘Yes it was several weeks before it dawned, but eventually I twigged.’

His sister went on. ‘He is a very intelligent guy .Under different circumstances, he would have had a glittering career probably. That was never going to be the case with his condition. Mum and Dad had quite a time with him when he was young. Temper tantrums and bad behaviour. They stuck with it though and insisted he went to mainstream school, the same school I went to.

My dad had a business and that meant that Roland found a position there. Dad died a few years ago, but my husband manages the business now, so Roland has security, and although the job is repetitive, it suits Roland’s personality. People with Asperger's like things to be orderly and hate change.’

‘How did he come to be involved with the choir? ’ Jen asked.

‘Well he always had a beautiful singing voice. It was a pity that he could not have been classically trained, but having said that he seems to be a natural. A friend joined the choir and suggested he try it. She helpfully prepared the way by letting the others know that he had Asperger’s, and just what that meant in terms of his behaviour. Since he joined, it has been wonderful to see how much it fulfils something in him. He is transformed when singing. It is his passion now and we never thought he could achieve so much.’

‘Well it seems as if Roland has had quite a journey to get to where he is today, but I’m glad I had the chance to hear him sing’ Jen said.

‘Yes’ his sister went on. ‘In his twenties he attempted suicide. He was a very troubled soul. Work and music have transformed his life. He wouldn’t have had the confidence to join your French class years ago, but now he lives independently, and has his work, and a social life built around his music. We worry less about Roland now.’

Mystery solved and the old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ resounded in Jen’s ears as she drove home.

Selected: 24th Short Story

Published in Issue #30

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