I was having a coffee at an outdoor cafe in Wellington when I noticed Tumba O’eala, the All Black winger affectionately nicknamed ‘The Tank’ at a nearby table, reading a book. I’m not much of a rugby fan but I recognized him immediately with his stocky, muscled frame, shaved head and red-dyed goatee, as did many of the passers by. It was a busy part of town, and a sunny day so there were plenty of pedestrians around.
Every other minute, someone else would recognize him and get excited; then come over and ask something of him: a signature; a handshake; a photo - any confirmation of the encounter’s reality. They’d circle round, then charge in: chubby teenagers, Spanish tourists, middle-aged women, grandmas, and tough old geezers with faded arm tattoos. He was interrupted at least eight times in the fifteen minutes I took to finish my flat white, but was quite congenial about it all, posing enthusiastically, smiling sincerely, vigorously shaking hands, and tirelessly signing autographs. Different muscles popped on each occasion: forearm, bicep, shoulder, jaw. He was a true showman, old Tumba, but it didn’t look forced at all; he was a natural.
With an unblemished view, I observed the scene with casual interest. I live in New York, where celebrity sightings are common, and personally, I’ve never been drawn to making a fuss. They are only people, after all.
Settling the bill distracted me. When I resumed paying attention, Tumba had gotten up to talk to someone. Another fan, I figured. They stood beside my table: Tumba perfectly muscled and erect, the other, older gentleman somewhat bent and wobbly, his cheeks overspread with a grey-brown beard, his face reminiscent of a weasel’s. Only then did I recognize the older man.
My mind pranced back to the winter of 03’, when I’d kissed Sally Freed in the dark room, and finally given up on Jay as a friend. I was reading Loom of Shadows back then; it was the first novel I ever related to personally, and an overt introduction to life’s terrible depth.
‘I love your work,’ Tumba said, shaking hands robustly, letting all those muscles dance on their bones. ‘Absolutely love it!’ He looked like a massive little boy.
‘Glad about that, son,’ Lewellyn replied.
I figured Tumba about my age. I hadn’t bothered with the calculation before. We had seemed so different till then.
‘I’ve read everything you’ve written! Everything!’
‘Everything published. I suppose,’ said Lewellyn, wryly, ‘but good on you, nonetheless.’
‘In fact, I’m reading Under Slow Feet right now!’ The fearless winger beamed. ‘It’s right there on the table.’
The author swiveled his head for a peak. ‘So it is.’
‘Would you mind signing it?’ Tumba used his legendary quickness to zip to his table, pick up the dense novel, and return in a flash.
‘Not at all,’ Lewellyn said, opening the book to the first page and easing a pen from his front right pocket. ‘To whom should I make it out?’
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