Passing Opportunities


She was the daughter of my English lecturer, who specialised in Victorian literature: a kindly man who had invited his tutorial group to spend the night with him and enjoy a day’s walking on the fells. Now it was the evening, and we were back in his house and about to enjoy a meal cooked by his lovely wife. They were a picture of the perfect family, and his daughter the jewel you would expect in such a setting.

I writhed within myself, and wondered what light and casual remark I could use to introduce myself to her when “Mr Glib,” or Andrew Cummings to use his real name, another of the students and one who later went on to enjoy a prominent career in broadcasting, slid in her direction and asked her in the tone of one used to dealing with life and its varied nuances, “So are you at university yourself?” and she smiled at him, revealing she was at the same university as us, but studying medicine. “That’s very clever” said Mr Glib and soon he was oozing himself inside her life and suggesting they might meet for coffee in the student union.

I am confident I was one of my professor’s favourite students because I actually had a passion for the subject he taught, but outside the world of tutorials and precisely worded essays I was socially awkward and with a wardrobe to match. Once more I had to pretend that nothing touched me and “real-life” was a subject of research rather than experience. “How do you put the fun into your day?” I heard Mr Glib ask the unspoilt beauty and soon they were sharing their passion for vintage films, which surprised me, as I had been exposed for extended periods to Andrew’s languid discussions about his interests and “vintage films” had never featured in them.

I ate my meal, and managed to bore everyone but the professor with my discussion on “Fors Clavigera” an interesting text written by the Victorian social thinker, John Ruskin. Finally Mr Glib said “This is not a tutorial Nigel” and smiled at me as if he was being kind, and then at the group with his “Where do we find them?” tolerance: I was never much good at dinner parties.

To make matters worse, Cummings went on to marry her, and enjoy a successful career, no doubt revered by his listeners and fellow broadcasters.

I met him and his wife years later at a reunion dinner where my job as an English teacher drew few gasps of admiration from the group, most of whom were gathered round Mr Cummings, apart from his wife who stood some distance away, staring at a watercolour.

On impulse I went up to her and said, “You know, when we were students, and we had that dinner at your father’s, I wanted to come over and speak to you but Andrew got there first, and the rest is history.”

“I wish you had” she said, and gently touched my arm and I wondered if she might still be my unopened gift from destiny. “How is your father?” I asked, but before she could answer Andrew came over with that smile of his which speaks a thousand languages. “How is life in the classroom?” he asked, cutting across our conversation, “Still banging on about John Ruskin?” and his manner was curiously replete and satisfied. She looked at me, like a conspirator and said to her husband with something of an edge, “The last word isn’t everything Andrew.”

“What do you mean?” he said, but I think I understood her. I hope I did.

 

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Beneath The Stars


You could call it a meeting of minds: a moment when two souls found in each other’s company that a complex world could became simple, but that was all it was and everything. It was a holiday romance, a trick of circumstance where a lady taking a solitary vacation, “She needed a break to catch her breath,” and I, a cynical journalist who was trying to regain belief, collided through my enduring clumsiness: I spilled my coffee on her dress.

Away from there, we both had busy lives, lived out on different continents, and yet for much of the holiday “Paradise” seemed all there was. Nothing is permanent is it? Not any life, moment or transient sense of tranquillity but for this brief time the everyday withdrew, granting us a glimpse of untouched majesties.

After our last evening meal and a couple of soothing drinks, as had become our habit, we moved to the front of the boat, stretching out beside each other so we could stare up at the sky and the amazing blanket of stars visible above us: everything was pristine, clear and deep. Like the sea beneath us, the sky above seemed infinite, and we, like innocents, lay beneath its stillness. News had ceased to matter and only the gentle rocking of the boat spoke of a moving world.

Beyond the reach of gossip we lay wrapped in this velvet and wondrous infinity and she moved and touched my hand. She shone for me then and I dared to think she might love me more openly: soon the warmth coaxed us to sleep awhile on the deck: our fingers played together like children, talking in unwritten code. It was the nearest I would get to being at peace with myself and my circumstance.

We were two people, freed to explore the whimsies of life in a place known only to ourselves, without anxiety and shielded from daily concerns by bonds of unspoken intensity. Silence was ours to treasure, only broken when she said “Do you have a photograph of yourself?” and I said “No” “OK. Let me take one then” she said and lifting up her camera.

Against the rules I asked her “Nothing to worry about is there. Nothing I can help you with,” and she said “No.” We drank some more in silence, tonic water mainly, she didn’t much like alcohol, and then she said. “Off to bed.”

“Before you go” I said, “May I take your picture; sometime in the future I might want company.” Some light came on within her as she waited for me to capture her image, then we went our separate ways. It was a romance built on the denial of intimacy, and yet for all that, as my head lay on the pillow, I fell into that special sleep which only happiness bestows. Even now she remains the spring of the simplest and most noble emotions I ever experienced.

Shortly after breakfast with the ship now moored in harbour, and as we finished a snack of toast and eggs a waiter arrived to say her taxi was waiting. She rose to leave: I knew she disliked drama and suppressed it as much possible, though her eyes said everything, and so, as she stepped back from the table, she smiled and said, “Don’t break anything” which was our secret joke. She walked off then, as if it were the start of a normal day: I never saw or heard from her again. Did I mention she was married?

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Living With An Error


 

Later that day in an evening marked out by routine; a self-constructed prison built of ritual, she put the food out on the table: two pork chops with some vegetables neatly laid out on the side. Her husband smiling, and pretending to ignore her turmoil, poked the cooked meat with his fork, “Lovely, just the way I like it” he said: it’s what he always said. She pushed her arms as if through water, smiling despite the facts. “Shall we watch some TV,” she asked and he nodded: make-believe filled out the silence.

That night he lay down beside her, at a distance: it was their unspoken custom. He was her sweet and innocent mistake, a character with neither malice nor stratagem, lacking nothing but direction, who slid off into sleep while she lay trawling through the day’s events. Meeting Bill that afternoon, the man she should have married, still the same but somehow different, older yes, and more self-contained, still warm but now without agenda, talking of his travels and listening to her problems with kindness marked by rectitude. He was not to be her cavalry: the rescuer from obscure despair. Her steps, once sure, had led her nowhere. What had she wanted?

She was just a girl with dreams, who struck out on the wrong pilgrimage, worshiping a god who was never in the building. Her husband, irritatingly without fault or drive, had failed to offer more than pleasantries. That dream of reaching for adventure, dining out with men of interest, of being slightly more than average, had dwindled to a distant longing, till Bill sprang out of some newspaper, reminding her of her youthful hope and offering a new horizon.

Her husband’s crime was not being quite good enough, settling for second-rate, dwelling on the search for safety and what she once thought of as verbal brilliance proved to be mere repartee.

In the morning he bought her tea and showered as he always did. Quiet perhaps, but not unusually so. She prepared for work, custom managed everything, till she turned to him, asking as he left, “What would you like to eat this evening” and he replied “Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m leaving you.” The door closed before she could reply.

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To Be An Artist


“So you want to be an artist”, my father said, “Or at least an entertainer”. “What’s the difference” I replied, and he said,” An entertainer helps people forget their circumstances, but an artist wants to remind them of the truth: of where they are. ” “That must be a good thing”, I said, “Telling them where they are, but with a dash of hope”. “It might be a good thing”, he replied ” But do people really want to know? Knowing too much is a burden few men can carry”.

I played at nonchalance but my performance was unconvincing. And when I tried to be profound, I kept forgetting my lines, so I was left a man who nodded at strangers in the park or dreamt of hands joined in union across the dinner table.

I realised, over a period of time, that to be an artist is often to be driven out of society by your own anxiety: to seek for answers where no one else has looked, or even worse, where everyone has looked and you find out, somewhere after youth, that you’ve been wasting your time and would have been happier working in a bakery. The lines you wrote when young come back to haunt you.

” Was he the footballer with the photograph of fame. The writer with a frozen hand. The average tragedy of second rate…Who dared to hope and stayed to pay the cost……Who gambled all open a dream and lost ?”

Is there anything worse than wandering off into the wilderness in search of truth, and finding out the truth is wilderness. Finding a purpose became part of the daily grind, one step ahead of just wishing to survive: a harsh journey marked by the development of good manners and the quest for a paying occupation. The one constant was uncertainty, surviving on the edge of shelter, becoming an unexplained presence at the railway station.

So here I was at last, hunched up in a coat given by some charity, and huddled with some others round a small fire, sipping tea supplied by a group of nuns. “What did you want to be when you were young?” the small man asked, he was surprisingly civilised, “Rich” I said, and we laughed. I didn’t like to admit to the art thing anymore

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Araminta


Araminta was always the love of my life and I hers for a time, I believe, but then it stopped. As teenagers we would run across the rocks of the Cornish beach year after year and adventures of the youthful kind was our reason for being, laced in late adolescence with poetry, a shared love of the blues and our first kiss.

Still, as we entered our twenties there was a growing difference between us: I loved “Awareness”, and felt life was nothing but a single moment experienced in different guises, are you still with me, while Araminta’s interests were possibly more grounded and certainly material.

We both came from families “down on their luck” and she felt she must use her beauty and her wit to secure a more comfortable future while she had youth to spend. She met Stephen, a worthy man and kindly, about whom we both laughed when we first met him: we were too young then to understand the value of kindness. He was clearly struck by her, and she by his lifestyle, so that my imploring her not to waste her life being over careful or strategic went unheeded: I think she grew to love him over time.

I was at their wedding because that was expected, but soon afterwards we began to drift apart. I went to university and she to the south of France where his family had a villa. Years passed during which I sought to demonstrate the power of the written word in five or six largely unread novels prompting my mother to say in a moment of encouragement “You can’t keep a good man down” to which I replied, “Perhaps I’m not a good man” making us both laugh: my mother always had a sense of humour.

I passed my life scratching a living from one unfulfilling job after another while maintaining my selfless loyalty to the well-turned phrase and the beauty of existence , keeping my faith alive with just enough “Moments of recognition”, to justify the sacrifice and so it continued into middle age.

Recently, we met it again by chance, in a hotel lobby where she was standing when I walked in to deliver a parcel. I looked very different, I am sure, but still our eyes met in recognition and she came over to me, full of warmth tinged with a sadness and said, “Still the romantic then?” and I replied, without sourness I hope, “I have integrity if nothing else” and she said, “Does it keep you warm” and I laughed and said, “What do you think?” and she said “Thinking is too dangerous.”

There you have it, for me at least: the magic and the repartee which would always bind us. She might love me, but not the cost of me yet I like to believe I was her knight, albeit without armour, and she will always be my angel without wings.

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A Matter Of Custom


We were as different as two people can be, with different approaches to life, culture and religion but at the centre of it I felt you would always be true to me, and so I opened the door to my heart and let you in. Love can be like burglars don’t you think? It can steal up on you and possess you without a sound; presence unnoticed until you discover happiness is no longer possible on your own.

We were chaste, because you said it must be so: in your culture, you told me, a girl cannot be familiar with a man before marriage and it was a formality I was happy to respect and understand. I loved the courtly sense of life it echoed but some consequences of this custom I did not understand.

It seems you were already engaged to be married to a man you had met only once in your mid-teens and this voyage through university was your parents concession to modernity. They would trust you to maintain your innocence until your studies were completed when you would fly home and marry your betrothed, according to their wishes.

It was your custom and your culture that this would be so and you made it plain that respecting the wishes of your parents was more important than any private dream or urgency. In a sense with me, unconsciously I’m sure, you were displaying what could not be offered, and I was banging on the shop door with a currency which would not be accepted.

Neither of us were especially religious, but I discovered that custom and expectations can hold you to a behaviour as much as any faith, and disappointing your parents was not in your lexicon of conduct: your choice could not be personal.

As what you meant to me became clearer and more urgent, you shared the sadness we both felt, but I could only watch you board a plane and take my grief at your parting as the price of past happiness until, bruised it must be said, I realised that “Life, humorous and pitiless,” had played a trick on me and I must move on if I were ever to breathe again and so I did.

Two children and a lifetime later I saw you on some Indian TV channel, rounder and more solid, can I say, but clearly still quite beautiful. “Our Political Correspondent” the words read on the screen, and I wondered how “My Meera” had become so serious. When young, what we cared about was literature, and “inner meaning” and integrity and other vapourisms with which students fill their intellects.

I wrote to you, care of your TV station saying,

“Darling Meera,

I do not wish to interrupt your life, but we are both old enough, are we not, to recognise everything our parents told us was genuinely felt but not necessarily right, and the feelings I had and have for you are both true and real, and would have value in any culture in any era. Contact me please and save me from myself”

I have not received a reply.

 

 

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The Weekend Retreat


You may not have heard of it yet, but you surely will; the new craze sweeping through the internet. ‘Candid Corner’ is a platform where, by using anonymous names, you can be as honest or ‘candid’ as you like about the object of your venom.

Some entries spring to mind. On the less interesting end of the scale ‘“Boadicea” writes of “Mud Pie,” ” I hate him. HATE HIM. He is fat and smelly. Urg eewww”, about her loyal though hygienically challenged husband. Further up the food chain of entries sits “I made his sandwich at lunchtime and put mashed up earthworms in it, with ketchup, he he he. Hope it chokes him” about a boss with overbearing self-importance.” You get the idea.

So now, sitting in front of her computer screen while her husband was out at his weekly Fortune Telling gig, and writing under the name ‘Priscilla’ she wrote of her husband, now called ‘Stale Toast’, “He is dull, dull dull: hopeless and can’t sing to save his life but insists on doing so”. She stared at the screen for a while and then added a new comment. “He sucks the joy out of all who meet him”. At last she smiled and felt a little better for venting. That was the secrets of the site’s success.

She was born Jemima Simmonds. A perfectly decent name, which allied to her attractive eyes, adequate figure and a reputation for tolerance gained her enough friends and male attention to get her through the senior years of school and college, until she stumbled on Nigel Pratt. The secret should have been in the name but she was too young to realise it. Now, as well as being saddled with a serial incompetent, she was also known as Mrs Pratt, or ‘Pratty’ which did nothing to help her acquire ‘gravitas’ at the school where she worked.

Her whole being was filled with foreboding. Tomorrow morning, both she and Nigel were off to a weekend’s ‘Life-Coaching’ event which he had won in a raffle at work. He was filled with excitement at the prospect of this adventure and once again failed to notice his wife’s growing sense of being trapped.

To be fair, which I always hate, the coach, their host for the weekend, did not come with a glowing career pedigree. His latest masterpiece, “The Wellspring of Hope” had just been rejected by a fifth publisher: a piece of news he was keeping from his wife. Still, all was not bad: he had got this weekend gig and a couple of new clients had replaced some of those who left him on a regular basis, disoriented by his non-specific optimism.

The next morning the car started at the first turn of the key, sending a fresh dose of pessimism through her veins. She had prayed for some mechanical breakdown to rescue her, but no.

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