The Danish Botanist

Sami Drawing
Illustration – Bryan Hemming

“Picture yourself on a bicycle,” the Danish botanist said. I was hardly listening. The flecks of foam accumulating on his moustache were far more interesting than whatever he was droning on about.

“Out in the countryside. And you see a woman in front of you …” We were sitting outside a café in Santa Catalina’s Plaza de Republica drinking coffee.

I gazed across the square to where Juani’s little bar used to be. It was the little things that seemed to have changed so much.

“What’s the first thing you notice about her?” I glanced up.“Don’t answer straightaway.” He raised a finger, “Give yourself time to think.”

My mind went totally blank. For the life of me, I couldn’t even remember what he’d started off with. A few brief moments elapsed. I wondered what Juani might be doing in Barcelona.

“So? Have you thought about it?” The Danish botanist asked.

Knud had introduced himself as soon as I’d sat down the table. Within a couple of minutes I learned he was a botanist. A Danish botanist. A couple more and I knew he’d been happily married for twenty-five years. Up until his wife ran off with the butcher. Not their butcher; they didn’t have a butcher; they’d been strict vegetarians till his wife ran off with the butcher.Vegetarianism went hand in hand with being a botanist, Knud felt the need to explain. He couldn’t understand what she saw in him. As far as Knud could tell, the only thing he and the butcher had in common, was that both men’s work formed a major part of their diet. With that even my feigned interest began to drift. You didn’t need to be an agony aunt to know that it wasn’t just sausage meat Knud’s wife had developed a taste for. Knud had only put two and two together after seeing her in the butcher’s shop rather too often for a vegetarian. It still took him eighteen months and an overheard whisper or two in the organic food shop before it clicked, he said. All that time he’d convinced himself she was trying to persuade the butcher to change his profession and eating habits.

“What was the main part of the question again?” I asked, seeing Knud was still waiting for an answer to something or other. A pick-up truck had drawn up right outside Juani’s old bar.

“If you were riding a bicycle and saw the back of a woman in front of you, what would be the first thing you’d notice?”

“The rear end of her bicycle?” It was as much a question as an answer. My mind had started to wander again.

“You’re not trying hard enough. Think about it.”

Although little more than seven months had passed since I’d last seen Juani, it seemed much longer. Three men were sitting in the cab of the pick-up.

Knud was still waiting for an answer.

“A bicycle? I don’t know, what is the difference between a woman and the back of a bicycle? To tell the truth, I’m not that interested in those sort of jokes.” The men climbed out of the cab. They were dressed in grimy overalls.

“It’s not one of your stupid English jokes. It’s a serious question. What would be the first thing you’d notice?” The men walked up to Juani’s old bar, unlocked the door, and went inside.

“The rear light?”

“No, no, no. Not a bicycle. What’s the first thing you’d notice about the woman?” The men came out and were joined by another a man wearing a suit. Juani sometimes rode a bicycle.

“Her bicycle?” All four men surveyed the frontage of the bar. A lot of pointing and nodding started going on.

“You’re not paying attention. I’ve already told you she’s not on a bicycle, it’s you. You’ve come up behind her on your bicycle.” The men went back inside. I tried to remember what colour Juani’s bicycle was. It’s the littlest things you always forget.

“Red.”

“Red?”

“It was a red bicycle. I remember now.” And I saw Knud was losing patience with me. “Sorry, I was thinking of something else. What was the question again?”

“I’ll give you one last chance. Concentrate this time. Picture yourself riding a bicycle along a country lane. Suddenly, you see a woman in front of you. What’s the very first thing you notice about her? The very first thing.”

“Oh, I see what you mean. Mm, I don’t know, I suppose it would be the car.”

Knud looked puzzled. “The car? That’s interesting, I didn’t mention a car. Why the car?”

“I don’t know. If I’m out on a bicycle in the countryside, the only women I’d expect to see in front of me would be in cars. Even then it takes a bit of time to work out if they’re women or not. I have to do it from the silhouettes of their heads. There’s not much else to see. And I can only really do that properly if they slow down or stop. Of course, a lot of the time I get it wrong, as they’re often men with long hair.”

“Kindly, conserve what little imagination you have for other purposes. This is not a real situation. The question is purely hypothetical. So you can stop making it so difficult for yourself. Let’start again. Forget the car. Forget the bicycle. Picture a woman walking in front of you. Now remember, think hard before giving me your answer this time.”

“But I thought hard last time, that’s the very reason I got it wrong.”

I certainly didn’t want to think any harder. It was making my head hurt. Besides, it was becoming obvious he’d been thinking quite hard enough for both of us. For him it was some sort of trick question. The whole point of his little interrogation was for me to come up with the wrong answer. And believe me, by that time, I wanted nothing more than to give him the wrong answer he wanted. But I’d already given him enough wrong answers; they just weren’t the right wrong answers. And now, however hard I tried, I couldn’t think of anymore wrong answers to give him. Nevertheless, I still tried. I tried desperately to think of a wrong answer that might please him. But  thoughts of Juani’s brown legs pushing the pedals of her red bicycle kept overriding any other visions.

“Her legs,” I blurted in a final attempt. Bingo! By the look on his face I’d got it. “Her hair, and then her figure,” I added. The Danish botanist looked very pleased with me. At last, I’d got three right wrong answers in a row

“Aha!” he pronounced. And I knew he’d won whatever game it was we were playing. We both sighed with relief. “Then you are a normal man.” He said it in a way that made me realise being normal was not the most desirable option. “When asked the same question in the USA eighty-five per cent of American males gave that answer,” he said. “Ten per cent said the first thing they would notice was her bottom. But only five per cent…” I could already tell this five per cent was the cream to which he belonged, “…gave the answer I gave.”

I knew he wanted me to ask.

“What was that, Knud?”

“Her face.” A smile of victory crossed his own face. “I would notice her face. You are a normal male.” He pronounced again. “But I am not.” There was no need trying to convince me, I was way ahead of him on that score. He was as nutty as a fruitcake. “I would cycle along,” he continued, “until I drew abreast of her, when I would turn to look at her like this.” Pretending to have his hands on a pair of imaginary handlebars, he indicated how he would turn his head to look into her face. “That is the most important part of a woman to me.” Little wonder his wife had run off with the butcher. “One time, I was at a party with my ex-wife when I began chatting to another woman. As we were leaving my wife remarked on what enormous breasts the woman possessed. I told her I hadn’t noticed,” he laughed. I laughed. “I could only remember her face. You see, I only look at women’s faces. They tell you so much more.” Now, he had caught my interest.

“What did your wife say?”

“She slapped my face and called me a liar.” Knud looked hurt. “I never lie.”

He certainly wasn’t a normal man all right. A normal man would’ve definitely looked at her breasts. And a normal man would’ve definitely lied about looking at them. Come on, even his wife couldn’t help looking at the other woman’s breasts. No wonder she assumed he was lying. Either he had lied, and was double-bluffing now, or he was clinically blind. I looked at his eyes. He was wearing glasses with thick lenses. That might explain it, tunnel vision. I began wondering how his wife had explained what she was doing in the butcher’s shop all those times. What would be the correct vegetarian answer? But something else occurred to me.

“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “But your proposition was, what would I first notice about a woman walking in front of me?”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t say she was walking towards me?”

“No.”

“And you even demonstrated yourself turning your head as you passed, like this.” I mimicked his earlier gesture, holding a pair of imaginary handlebars. I could be just as nutty as he was. “So she would’ve have been walking in the same direction you were riding?”

“Yes.”

“Well, in that case, her face couldn’t possibly be the first thing you’d notice. She’d have her back to you. That’d be the first thing you’d see. Otherwise you’d go crashing into her.” Knud was stroking his beard. Thinking him pleased, I decided to enlarge on my modification.  “Besides, you can’t go cycling blindly about ogling people’s faces as soon as you overtake them. Think of all the accidents you might cause. Quite apart from the people you might frighten or offend. You could even find yourself leering into the face of a long-haired, homicidal maniac.” He frowned. “You must keep your eyes on the road ahead, Knud. It’s one of the basic rules of safe cycling. As a responsible Dane, you of all people should know that.” It was my turn to assume the smile of victory.

“Interesting,” he said thoughtfully. “Not your stupid English humour.” My smile of victory faded. “You weren’t meant to take it quite so literally, nevertheless, I see your point.” At the sight of Knud’s brow knotting further, I began to feel sorry for him. I could see him mulling it over in his mind. As I saw his expression crease with horror, I knew he was back on his imaginary bicycle, overtaking a walker. He had just turned round to find himself gazing into the wild eyes of a burly, homicidal, Andalucian psychopath out on the ramble. He quivered slightly. “I will have to think on how to pose the hypothesis a slightly different way,” he finally said, “So that the more literal of mind, such as yourself, can’t allow their minds to wander quite so indiscriminately.” At the same moment, it was quite obvious he wanted to think of another way of posing the hypothesis that would keep the elite down to five per cent. By this time, I was more than happy to be in the normal eighty-five per cent.

I glanced back across the square. He’d almost made me miss something with his stupid hypothesis. Things were happening. One of the men in grimy overalls was carrying a large painting out of Juani’s Bar. Seeing he was about to throw it onto the back of the pick-up, I jumped out of my chair and rushed over. I shouted over for him to stop. He paused to turn.

“What are you doing?” I cried.

“What do you mean? What am I doing? What are you doing?”

“What are you doing with that?” I pointed at the canvas he was holding.

“I’m throwing it onto the back of this truck,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing.” It was a composition of random splashes. The sort of effect you might get if you accidentally upset a few cans of different coloured emulsion on the back of a sample of carpet. I remembered the night I’d helped Juani first hang it in the bar when it wasn’t quite dry. We’d stepped back to admire it. I still have part of it on my favourite leather jacket, from when the bar got crowded later that same evening.

I assumed as casual an expression as I could muster.

“Can I have it?” I said.

The man in grimy overalls eyed me suspiciously.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“I’ll pay you for it.”

“How much?”

“Twenty euros.”

“It must be worth a lot more than that.”

“But you were going to throw it away a minute ago. You thought it was rubbish.”

“That was before I knew you wanted it.”

“How about thirty?”

He looked at the picture, turned it round, and looked at it again. He cocked his head to one side to see if it looked any better that way. And then he looked at me.

“How about fifty euros?” he said.

“Fifty? A man would have to be crazy to pay fifty euros for a thing like that!”

He stared at me for a moment, cool as ice.

“Si,” was all he said. And I knew he knew. As luck would have it, of all the countless billions of ordinary people out on the myriad highways and byways of the planet on that particular morning, one such crazy man stood before him. Shrugging his shoulders, he grabbed the painting in both hands, swung it high above his head, and made ready to send it crashing onto the heap of rubble in the back of the truck. But then he paused mid-air to glance in my direction. I glimpsed the scrawl of Juani’s signature in the right hand corner.

“Forty,” I said.

“Fifty.” He held it poised. The flimsy stretcher wobbled as the delicate canvas flapped. I shut my eyes.

“Forty-five.”

“Fifty, or she gets it.”

“Okay, fifty euros.” Opening my eyes again, I pulled the notes from my pocket and stuffed them into his hands.

As I walked back across the road with it tucked under my arm, I could hear him sniggering with his workmates.

“What’s that?” Knud asked me.

“It’s a painting,” I said.

“Interesting.” He squinted at it. “Are you sure?”

© 2014, 2016 Bryan Hemming

 

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