I met Menna Pritchard in Cardigan, an unexpected tweet asking the question of whether she was brave enough to ask me out for a drink. I’d always wanted a groupie, and often joked that the only groupies I got were middle-aged men, but also knew if I ever came across one I’d run a mile (she wasn’t a groupie, or even a “band-aid”). I’ve never ‘dated’ in my life, and I’m pretty clueless when it comes to love and women - something I put down to go to an all-boys school (woman scare me more than any North Face), and for me the ins and outs of courtship are just ins and outs. Maybe it’s a Yorkshire thing, maybe it’s about not wanting to be hurt, that my heart is a fragile thing, and that all I ever see is disappointment around the corner - failure instead of hope. But I was single, and I was incredibly lonely, and my heart was broken, and still breaking apart, so I tweeted back ‘why not?’.
Life never turns out how you planned it - that beautiful woman you meet on the internet that leaves you dreaming of paradise turns out to be a seven-foot Nigerian con man, or the perfect woman you spied on desprate4ashag.com is in fact an expert in photoshop and a lover of cats (I know it’s terrible, but although clueless about love I have a thing about never getting involved with anyone who has a cat in their profile picture). And so when I did some facebook/twitter/instragram/flickr stalking I was shocked that this woman Menna was a beauty, was into the outdoors, and had a lot of crazy tattoos. Straight away I readied myself for disappointment. I also saw she had a young child, but that there was sadness behind her amazing smile. Like everyone, she had a story. Imagining someone like Menna would want to go for a drink with me was very flattering, but I knew it would never happen, that something would spoil things, like the time another beauty tweeted asking if I’d take her out, only for it to transpire she meant to take her and her boyfriend out climbing (I met said boyfriend and he said I could take her out, but only if I taught her to climb a big wall). I can take loneliness more than I can take disappointment but took a chance, after all - am I not meant to be bold?
The night of the talk came around, and as was to be expected there was no Menna, a tweet telling me she was late and was trying to get there, leaving me feeling foolish for believing in such whimsy, but also talking myself down, that all she wanted was a drink anyway. At half time, she was still not there, and so I sat alone feeling a little fed up, but also giving myself a good talking to that what did I expect, life is never as you dream it could be, that no beautiful woman can just pop up out of the blue.
At the end of the talk, my friends at Fforest asked me if I wanted a drink, and so I stood in the bar, feeling a little better about things like you do with a fine wine in one hand and a fine human at my shoulder, giving me a sort of life sigh when all of a sudden she was there, walking in, looking as flustered and nervous as me, the conversation I had been having forgotten in an instant.
My first impression was she was so young, and although she told me she would be 30 next year, she’s still only 28 (never quite got this logic). We went to a pub around the corner and - unlike me - we had a few drinks (G&T’s - which I like as it makes me feel like I’m a Spitfire pilot) and she told me about herself (she’s read Psychovertical and Cold Wars so I had nothing much to add to what she knew).
I think many men are mistaken in the belief that what women want is someone who is sensitive and open, who exposes themselves, who shares their demons. I think they’re wrong. What most women want is a Darcy or Oliver Mellors, someone secure and solid, who is sure of themselves, but not so self-aware as to be in hock to their demons, but can offer some small amount of sympathy, but only a small amount - a man who makes things simple, who will not mirror their own insecurities, but instead makes you feel that they are no longer relevant, a man who doesn’t cry with you but makes you laugh, who makes you pull yourself together (but would never say that to your face). All woman (and men) want to be saved - but as I said I’m clueless about such things.
Instead of taking this advice, we talked about the good and the bad, and I could see that Menna was a little broken like me. When she said she was single I asked her if she was crazy or mad or something, and she promised she wasn’t, but I was a little, otherwise, why would I ask? I had been slowly losing my grip on things, slowly, but over a very long time. At the age of 43 I’d found myself single, with no money in the bank, or a roof over my head, questioning the very necessity of my existence as I raced up and down the country, standing on stage and putting on a brave face. When I asked her about her life and dreams she told me she was a nobody and that I was a somebody, and I wouldn’t find her story of interest, which was really sad. No one is a nobody, and in my considerable experience of meeting many ‘somebody’s’ I’d say they are often the dullest of people, with little to say on any subject other than themselves. I had spent the last two years climbing with friends who probably considered themselves outsiders in the race to be ‘somebody’, but who I had believed in, that there is no such thing as a nobody, that very often it’s their ordinary experiences that make them interesting.
We each have a story as rich in events and characters, tragedy and hope as any bestseller or HBO drama, only a story we often fail to see as such, being the lead character in our own lives. Menna had had a wonderful life ahead of her, full of opportunity and craziness, a bit of a punk, living in Brighton - what more could anyone want. But then she got pregnant and made the brave choice to turn her back on her life in order to bring a new one into the world - the burden of which she knew she would carry alone. So five years ago, she packed up her youth and moved home to Wales with a newborn daughter, started a degree in Outdoor Education (she got a 1st) - working her way through university, never asking the state for anything - defining what a real single mother was capable of, just like my Mum had. The only thing she took was the pain of life seemingly cut short.
When she talked to me about her life I could sense the anger, frustration, sadness but also pride in her story, she had been cast out of paradise, but maybe now she had grown enough to know that pubs, clubs and bands were not paradise at all (although having a lie-in definitely is). She told me about her life experiences, each far richer than any wall or summit, but as undervalued in their zing and zest.
When we left each other I gave her a hug and she hugged me back, and I felt that sense of connection, that she hugged me tighter and for longer, and that when she did I felt some of the pain I was feeling squeezed out of me. She took away the pain I was feeling for a moment. She gave me hope. Hope I could be happy. Hope I could be normal. That she could save me - and I, her.
We begin seeing each other, sharing our love of eating good food, watching Alan Partridge and the usual, my life all of a sudden feeling as if a window had been opened. The friends I’d confided in told me not to be too hasty in getting involved, knowing I had not dealt with my break up with Karen, that I had not yet sifted through the hot embers of something unique, wonderful and special that we had once had. I told them I was over it and had been for ages, but yet Karen was all I often thought about, the puzzle of how things go wrong, layer upon layer of complexities. Someone said recently I had been a fool to break up with Karen, and I’d said we’d chosen medals and mountains over each other, but no flippant answer could ever put how I felt to rest - but Menna dulled these thoughts. With Menna, I forgot those burning coals. I confided in Ella that I’d met Menna and she made me happy, to which she replied “Going to Nandos makes me happy, but I wouldn’t eat there every day”. Others warned me that Menna was too young, ‘closer to Ella in age than you’, but I didn’t want to listen to the doubters, after all, life is long enough for mistakes, but too short for regrets.
We moved in together, trying to make a normal family, which had been my ideal, even if I began to realise I wasn’t well suited to this normal life I’d figured I needed.
Then a few weeks ago Menna was asked to speak at the Woman’s climbing symposium in Glasgow, something I think she was pretty shocked at, after all, she was a nobody (she actually has some great stuff to say). When she told me I was away in America and I could tell she was scared to agree to speak, after all, there would be all the current greats there. Mina, Shauna, Hazel and the rest - what could she talk about?
I think it’s sad that we don’t value our own stories as much as others, that a woman who had brought up a beautiful child alone, given up her own youthful dreams, worked, studied, had her heartbroken, and yet remained a beautiful human being can be judged as lesser than a woman who pulls hard on plastic, or grit, who is self-focused and selfish (no offence intended!). Why is it this way, that they view their words and thoughts and deeds as having less value just because they can’t pull so hard? I guess because they are ordinary, ordinarily extraordinary, lives whose theatre and tragedy go on all around us and mostly unseen and not shared, only the odd glimpse when you take the time to look and to ask. “I drove a lorry for thirty years but the one thing I was good at,” said the man beside me, holding his bottle of pale ale “was drinking and whoring”, while another, on a train, tells me of pulling off a seventy-year-old homeless man’s socks in a police shower and seeing his toes come away with the fabric, lost to frostbite. I ask a man how he ever overcame the bitterness of a wife who robbed him of everything he owned, and he answers “It helped me to rise, to walk a higher road”.
Maybe everyone should talk more about their lives, take a moment to write their own stories down, to not think of them as small and valueless, but as a fable, an epic, a movie, having just as much value and importance as any other, all lives weighing far more than the one living them can ever know.