I'd been sent by my editor to interview a local poet on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. The poet was a well-known face around town, but was now in a retirement home.
"Be sensitive," my editor had said, "if he’s not all there."
It turned out that the poet was as sharp as glass. Of course, he was physically frail and sat awkwardly in a wheelchair, but the biggest trouble with him was that he did not want to reminisce. He wanted to talk about the present, about words.
"Not many in here talk about words," he said.
I said it was often a struggle to find the right one.
“You struggle? A journalist?” He wiggled his eyebrows.
He wondered how I’d phrase the headline to this story.
I shrugged. "I don’t know. 'LOCAL POET REMINISCES'?"
He blew a raspberry. "Grab the reader hard," he said. "How about this –" He stretched his arms wide and opened his big hands. "'THE OLD POET WITH TWO LOVERS'."
My mouth dropped. "We haven’t talked about that."
He leaned in. "You didn't ask. It’s more interesting though, isn’t it?"
"Yes, but –"
"You doubt me? It’s true. I'll tell you the secret. I tie a balloon around it and say a prayer to St Jude."
"The patron saint of hopeless causes."
He told me he’d used poetry to seduce two lady-friends. His detail was so colourful I did not doubt him: the story was obviously true, and remarkable. A ninety-year-old juggling lovers. Before I left he’d made me promise to use his headline. That tickled him.
"It’s irresistible!" he laughed.
I fought about it later with my editor. He said, "That poet writes about birds that migrate and church towers and the mechanisation of agriculture. He is no Lothario."
“It’s a front-page story,” I said. “It’s inspiring.”
Eventually, the editor gave in. We used the headline, and when the paper came out the following week with the article in it, it was a sensation. I rushed across town to show the poet. When I found him he was alone in his room. He looked desolate. I thought there had been a bereavement.
“Has something happened?” I asked.
He grasped a rolled-up copy of the paper in one hand. “Yes.”
“Well, what is it? Are you unhappy with the article? We used your headline.”
He sighed. "I forgot. I forgot they did not know about each other."