Like a snail carries its shell, we all carry our past around with us. Still with us are books we have read, the holidays we have enjoyed and the friends we have spent time with. One June, in the garden, on the corner of the lawn by the Peace roses, Anne handed Harvey a Coca Cola. As he opened it, and threw back his head and started to drink, the taste took him back to Perth, and he was in the vegetable market at 6 in the morning. He had already opened about forty sacks of potatoes and thrown them on the belt. It was his first drink of the hot Perth day. The women packers were drinking their cups of soup and chatting about the TV programmes they had seen the previous night. He was in Perth until he shook his head and opened his eyes and saw Anne smiling at him, pushing back her long hair. He looked around and saw the pale blue mass of forget-me-nots in flower, the lilac tree behind them and the clouds rushing across the sky late for an appointment in East Anglia. Perth had been good, and now this was good too.
We do not change much. In spite of the sensible advice we give ourselves each morning, in spite of our good intentions and plans for the future, we do not change much. Anne still had her daily battle with herself. Each morning she had to put herself in the right frame of mind to start the day but living with Harvey was like breathing a fresher air. She was not going to be beaten. She was going to carry on. She’d keep plugging away. However bad a day was, however little she could concentrate on things or get stuck into things, it didn’t matter. She was going in the right direction. She had a family to form, though that is another story. She had work to do and jobs to get finished. She looked westwards through the pines that grew in the garden of the old vicarage, and through them she saw the red sun going down over the Bristol Channel and the hills of Wales faint in the distance.
“I will never give up. No, I will never, never give up.” She smiled again at Harvey, and together they went back into the house, walked through to the kitchen and started to prepare dinner.
I’m so glad it all turned out well for her. Things so often don’t. Some young people have a knack of meeting the wrong young people. Some lovely girls marry some terrible men, and mistakes are made, because the young are, just that, young. And there we are. But sometimes things turn out well, and I think that they did for Anne.
I don’t see them often, but they always invite me for Christmas and Easter and so I go down to Somerset twice a year. I stay overnight at a nearby hotel, the Crown. Well, it’s really more a pub than a hotel but it’s just a field away from their cottage, and that’s the main thing. They always want me to stay with them, which is very kind, but I feel happier in a hotel. There I’m not bothering them or talking too much or taking too long in the bathroom or whatever. Then I drive back to Chiswick the next day. I am not sure how many more years I’ll be able to do that. I find driving so tiring now. There’s so much more traffic nowadays and everyone seems to drive so much faster. There’s always the train, I suppose. I could take the train back to Paddington from Temple Meads in Bristol, and I know that Anne would pick me up at the station when I come and take me back there when I go. I don’t like to bother her, though. I must not become an encumbrance on anyone.
I know I must never outstay my welcome when I go to visit them. And I must never begin mumbling ‘When I was a boy…’ That would bore them to death. I can think it, but I must never say it.
I remember, and it was probably when I was a boy but I won’t say so, I promise I won’t, I remember an old German beer tankard that was on a shelf in the lounge at Erewhon. It was grey with large letters of that old German script in blue. It said, ‘Ein froher Gast ist niemands Last.’ ‘A happy guest is trouble to no one!’ That’s what it said, and it’s right. Absolutely right. The things you can learn on German beer mugs!
I’d show you the photos if you had time, but I expect you want to move on. You have things to do. The wedding ones, I mean. I still have them. But wedding photos tend to be boring unless they are of your own wedding, and there are always far too many of them, I think. A sunny day, it was. In July. Just about the only sunny day we had that month. I remember waking up to one wet morning after another, all through the month, and then on the day of the wedding, the 25th it was, the sun was struggling to make an appearance at seven o’clock, by eleven it was glorious, and it made up for all the wet days before. Well, you can see it in the photos there. I have finally inflicted them on you, you see! I drove down the M4 the day before the wedding. Yes, that’s me among all the grey-headed uncles in the back row there. The older generation. Doesn’t seem a minute since I was in the front. No, not actually getting married, but I was best man a couple of times, you know. Yes, I was best man twice. Well, well. Always best man, never the groom! Never mind!
Well, that’s it then. Time to say goodbye. No, not a hug. I don’t like hugs, I’m afraid. People do tend to give a lot of hugs today. I’m a bit too old for them, I suppose!
I’m glad it all turned out so well.
Erewhon and other matters
Well, there we are. But we’re not quite finished. Let me just tie up a few ends and fill in a few gaps. It won’t take long.
Anne’s view of Erewhon came at the beginning of her story. She grew up at Erewhon. Henry’s view was different. He visited from time to time. Here is the estate agent’s version of the sale of the old house, and this view was different again. This description, as most estate agents’ descriptions, bears little relation to reality. But to which reality? Reality is nothing more than the collection of untaken photos of all those who lived in Erewhon or who visited or who just passed by the house and looked at it through the apple orchard on their Sunday afternoon walk. Our dreams and our nostalgia are what matter. But at least this extract from the sale advertisement will add something to your picture of the place as it was when Anne’s family parted with it.
“Sole agents – New instructions
A detached, 4 bedroom farmhouse in about 2 acres in a lovely rural yet not isolated position. The accommodation includes 3 reception rooms, four bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, cloakroom and stone outbuildings including detached barn, garaging and stabling. Mature garden with lawns and shrubbery. Large paddock. Apple orchard.”
Anne hated seeing Erewhon among the list of advertisements for houses for sale. Seeing it in the Westington Mercury, with all the other houses up for sale, saddened her. There it was, on the page, their home. She felt they had betrayed the old house that had trusted them. It had served them so well and for so long, and they had decided to sell it. How ordinary those lines in the advertisement were, Anne felt, when she remembered the Christmases with fires in all the hearths, the only time of the year when this happened, and the house became so warm and cosy. In all the rooms they burnt the logs they had gathered on their walks and the fallen branches they had pulled back from the wood three fields away. She remembered the summer mornings when it was sunny so early and it seemed wrong to linger in bed and the summer evenings when it was still light at eleven o’clock. She remembered all the meals they had enjoyed in the room that looked over the garden. What memories that old table in the garden room must have! How many conversations it had listened to!
How cold the advertisement sounded! ‘A detached, 4 bedroom farmhouse’, indeed! Erewhon was home.
Janet studied law at Oxford with Anne, and, like Anne, later worked in Bristol, though as a solicitor not a barrister. Just before the trip to Manchester she had bought her first car, a Mini. She had driven it around Bristol for a week and now wanted to try it out on a longer trip. She decided on Manchester because she had a brother there, Andrew, who was studying geography at Manchester University. He later taught at a school in Leatherhead.
Janet specialised in conveyancing, and on her own account judiciously bought and sold several houses. She then became a partner in her firm and by the time she was thirty was a rich woman. She was single. Many men were frightened by her intelligence. ‘It is hard to kiss a very successful lawyer’. This is a generalisation of which Thurber would have been proud! And he collected some interesting ones, for example: ‘Peach ice-cream is never as good as you think it’s going to be’ (which he labelled ‘idiosyncratic’) and ‘People who break into houses don’t drink wine’ (‘fascinating but undemonstrable’)….’ And of course, the bold and unforgettable but untrue ‘There are no pianos in Japan’! ‘It is hard to kiss a successful lawyer’ would be in the ‘fascinating but undemonstrable’ category.
Well anyway, Janet was rich and single. Some men were too timid to approach her at all. Some, the good ones, not wishing to appear mercenary, drew back. Others, not so good, were attracted precisely for that reason, but Janet saw through these, though it took her longer to see through some of them than others.
So, at 30, Janet was still Parry-Smith, a good friend, occasionally lonely, usually happy, very sensible and committed to her work.
The companion, Rusholme, Manchester
Anne never heard anything more about her and wasn’t interested either. Harvey hardly knew her. Ships do pass in the night sometimes. He thought she was doing post-graduate work with children with hearing and speaking difficulties, but he wasn’t sure. She drifted into his life and out again, a university acquaintance, anonymously. Why are university friendships never so lasting as those we make at school?
The singer on the ‘Eastern Queen’
This was Leandra Davies who went on to greater things in Australia in the late 70’s. She achieved certain fame there in clubs and occasionally on the radio by singing songs from musicals popular on Broadway and in the West End.
Henry was an old school friend of Anne’s father and had known Anne all her life. He had been Uncle Henry for most of that time, and now he was just Henry. When she married, Anne was 24, and she had received 24 birthday presents from him. He was always there, could always be consulted, and could always be relied on. He was an unmarried accountant who lived in Chiswick and had worked in a pleasant office with a magnificent view of St Paul’s. Henry belonged to that increasingly rare breed, which had once been so common in England, the sporting bachelor. He had played rugby and cricket for his school and his university, and he still went to all the rugby internationals at Twickenham and all the test matches at Lords and The Oval. He attended every old boys’ reunion at his school and was a member of various societies in London. He had given Anne his stamp collection when she was ten, and he had felt it his duty to watch over her as she grew up.
Carmen met Henry in Barcelona when he went on a trip to Spain in his early twenties. They got on well, had several coffees and beers together and promised to meet again soon. That didn’t happen. He never went back to Barcelona and she never came to Chiswick. They always wrote though, every few months or so, and, of course, at Christmas. Pen friends, that’s what they were. Henry wanted more but she said no. She knew that he would not be at ease among people who ate octopus and squid and that he would not be happy away from London, his work and his societies. Sometimes you must be sensible. They haven’t seen each other for over 40 years. Henry did his best to learn Spanish at evening classes. His written Spanish was not bad but he when he spoke Spanish he had a very English pronunciation that he has never managed to shake off. They keep meaning to see each other, but the years seem to go by. Perhaps they will meet one day.
‘The Archers’ is still on the radio. It began in 1950. When the programme started, a young actor, Norman Painting, was offered the part of Phil Archer. He was unsure whether to accept it or not. A friend said, ‘Go on, take it. If you’re lucky, it may give you six months of work.’ He took it and was very lucky indeed. He was still recording episodes shortly before he died nearly 60 years later. As he worked through the decades, his character grew old as he himself grew old, and he went from being the young romantic lead to the wise and respected patriarch of the village.
A couple of years younger than ‘The Archers’, ‘The Mousetrap’ was born in London in 1952. Anne’s mother took her to see it on a visit to London just before Christmas in 1958. As the play grew up, it needed a larger house, and so later it moved from the Ambassadors Theatre where it had begun to St Martins Theatre where it is still playing.
So there you are. ‘The Archers’ and ‘The Mousetrap’, parts of Anne’s past, are still going strong.
Listen to the one and go and see the other.
Kingston in Westington
On this rocky promontory at the end of the beach, was a small theatre with two towers on the front facade. For Anne the towers themselves seemed to promise dreams. Every August her parents took her to the summer show, and every January they took her to the pantomime.
The theatre, on the rocky outcrop in the grey Bristol Channel, seemed to Anne, when she was young, the gateway to adventure on the high seas. This feeling was sparked by the pantomimes and those marvellous painted backdrops that were so loved in the fifties. They took you to a world of galleons setting sail westwards, down the Channel, along the Devon coast, past the rocky cliffs of Cornwall and then south to the sun and to adventure. They took you to a world with no frontiers or boundaries, to waves and to tropical beaches, to coral reefs and to sunsets.
It was a fleeting dream that flashed across the mind and dissolved sadly each time the pantomime ended. When the curtain came down, Anne went out of the warm magical world of the theatre through the double doors and outside where she struggled with her umbrella in the wind and walked with her mother and father back to their car through the dark and rainy January night.
That’s it then. Our curtain falls too. For now, at least, we leave Anne and Harvey and Henry all busily occupying themselves and getting on with things.