It’s a beautiful afternoon. The sun is beating down, the sea breeze is raking my hair … and I’m heaving a snotty, wailing three-year-old past the hawkers and traders ranged along the seafront.
The infant is flopping about like a freshly caught mackerel and getting heavier by the second, when an elderly gentleman with a kind face and badly broken teeth waves a yellow balloon in our direction.
We’re in Budva, a small but attractive medieval town on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. A town which just happens to have its very own Blackpool-style promenade, where said gentleman is obviously big in the balloon trade.
“Oh, no thank you,” I say, as I hurry past, wondering how on earth he could think this was the perfect balloon-buying moment.
To my surprise, Balloon Man breaks into a trot alongside me, cooing to the boy and insistently waving the balloon, saying, “It’s free! No money. Here … good boy. Stop cry. Take balloon.”
I slow my pace, wondering how to proceed: it’s very kind of him to offer the balloon – and churlish of me if I refuse – but really I don’t want to reward my son for throwing the mother of all tantrums.
I hesitate, but it turns out that my vacillations are redundant, since before I can say a thing, Balloon Man is beaming and the boy is clutching the balloon in a grubby paw.
We thank Balloon Man and continue on our way; the wails subside to snotty hiccups and, once the little human has completely calmed himself, I insist that he returns to say thank you for his gift. And herein my mistake…
Balloon Man waves away our thank yous and tells me that his son lives in America; he has a grandchild the same age as the little guy whom he rarely sees as he’s afraid of flying. So far, so platonic.
But then Balloon Man asks me the whereabouts of my husband, and I explain that I don’t have one – which is clearly a concept beyond his ken, because he begins to berate the errant husband who has wantonly abandoned me and my son … before asking where we’re staying and suggesting that perhaps he could come and see us some time.
Luckily, I’m able to say that we’re just visiting Budva for the day; we’re actually staying in Kotor.
“I drive to Kotor,” he says, optimistically. “I look for you when you come back for bus!”
And he does.
He spies us en route to the bus station and comes to the playground where the little guy is playing, hovering hopefully while I studiously ignore him. When it’s time to pass his stall again, the little guy conveniently bolts, and I have to run and grab him before he finds himself under a car. Balloon Man watches wistfully from afar.
The next day, Nanna, the boy and I are on a boat trip around the bay of Kotor. The infant has been adopted by a Kosovan family, and is being petted by their kids when the captain’s mate – a rangy young gentleman and a recent graduate in economics – takes me by the hand and invites me to the bow of the boat.
We sit with the wind in our faces, soaking up the sunshine and chatting. (Another tourist asks if he can go up front too, to take photographs, but is tersely rebuffed by the captain.) He asks where we’re staying, and wonders whether we might meet up for a drink one evening.
And it’s then I have a flash of realisation: my niche!
As a woman with a child, I’ve been ignored by men for so long that I’d almost forgotten about my ‘under 25, over 55’ niche – and my apparent inability to attract any man outside those parameters. But here it was again, alive and well and living in Montenegro.
For a while there, it looked as though the Great Date may have derailed my ill fortune, but the second date was … nice … and then he disappeared on a six-week academic tour. And, if I’m honest, I forgot all about him.
After that, life has been so busy with one thing and another, I’ve barely had time to consider my single status. Still, when all’s said and done, I suppose there’s some sort of reassurance in knowing that times may change, men may come and go … but no matter what, I’ll always have my niche.