letters, paper, write

Chapter 6. A Journey to Manchester Best Forgotten

The daies gon, the yeres passe,

The hertes waxen lasse and lasse

Of hem that ben to love untrewe.

John  Gower          Confessio Amantis

‘The days go, the years pass,

The hearts grow less and less

Of those that are to love untrue.’

Old Gower was right, wasn’t he?  The hearts of people who are false in love just shrivel up.  They just shrivel up.

Anne’s second year at university was a strange year.  Going to lectures, going to meals, going to films.  Yes, she did all that. One carries on, you know.  One carries on.  But it all seemed rather humdrum now.  She wrote letters to Harvey, of course.  In those days we wrote letters, you know, and the post worked well even out in the country. The postman mattered. The postman could tell you who was ill and who was well, and who had just inherited a fortune from an uncle in Westmoreland that no one knew about.  He could tell you if those clouds meant rain or if they were just passing by, and he could tell you if Somerset would win the cricket match against Surrey.  He could even tell you about your Aunt Bertha’s holiday in Bognor Regis because he read her postcard before you did.  Those were the days before computers when life moved at a different rhythm.  News never broke in those days.  It arrived at its own slow pace.  How long did it take for news of Trafalgar to reach London?  How many days?  But that is going back a bit, I admit. 

Harvey was in Manchester.  Of course, he was a bad letter writer, just as Anne was a good one.  In fact, he hardly wrote at all.  She wrote very often, especially at first. Although Harvey hardly wrote, he thought of Anne a great deal.  Anne both wrote and thought.  But distance has always been an evil. Does absence really make the heart grow fonder?  Harvey became involved in rugby and the film society.  He didn’t become involved with any girl in particular, but with several in general, but only in a non-committed on either side sort of way, more out of goodness of heart than anything else.

 ‘I’m going to Manchester this weekend.  My brother’s there. Andrew.  I’m going to stay with him for the weekend. I’ll be driving up on Friday evening.  Why don’t you come too? We can stay at Andrew’s place and you can drop in on Harvey as well.’

Janet Parry-Smith, who gave this invitation, was studying law with Anne.  Her parents had just given her a Mini, and she had planned this trip to Manchester to celebrate. 

In those halcyon days there were no mobiles, and there was no instant messaging.  At such short notice Anne couldn’t let Harvey know she was coming.  The peace of that time!  But those days are long gone.  Their quietness has long gone, and now we are all connected 24 hours a day.

It was unfortunate that Harvey was involved with a girl in precisely his non-committed, goodness-of-heart way on the same Friday evening as Anne went up to Manchester with Janet.  It was December 9th.  Christmas was coming and the goose was getting fat.  The day had been wet, grey and cold, with scuds of rain, and gusts of wind from Siberia at street corners. It was the sort of evening when you wanted to get home as soon as you could, close the door, heave a quick sigh of relief, take off your coat and make a cup of tea.  It was the sort of day when you had to make your own luck because the weather would not make it for you.

‘I had been thinking about Harvey during the whole journey from Bristol to Manchester, when I could, that is, because Janet kept chatting to me. I imagined the look of surprise and pleasure on his face when he opened the door.  It wasn’t hard to imagine. I saw exactly the smile, the warmth, the hug, the contact, the catching up on news, the hot mug of coffee, stirring in the sugar (two for him, none for me).  Why does he never get fat? Neither of Janet nor I knew Manchester but after a few wrong turnings we arrived at Harvey’s house in Rusholme.  It was just after ten o’clock in the evening.  We’d just heard the headlines of the news on the car radio so I know it was just after 10. We had driven slowly up the street looking for the house number in the rain.  Why do some people paint the number the same colour as the door?  Why do some houses have no number at all?  Then at last we found it.  Janet parked just outside. It was like in the films when the hero can always park directly in front of the house he is visiting.  Why can they always park in films?  Why are the suitcases in films always empty?  Anyway, there was a space waiting for us outside Harvey´s house.  Number 23A. That was lucky.  I got out, waved goodbye to Janet and went in the front door just as someone else was coming out.  That was lucky too. There was no need to ring the bell. I ran up the stairs to Harvey’s room, knocked on the door. There was no reply so I pushed the door gently and went in.’ 

Anne had imagined how surprised and pleased he would be. Surprised Harvey certainly was, but his expression was more of confusion than of pleasure.  Do things in this world ever turn out the way we imagine?  ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ women gang aft a-gley.’ Appearances, and indeed much reality, were against him.

Anne, unused to this situation, just turned around and walked out of the small bed-sitting room. She left it, with the usual mess of clothes strewn over the floor (no, not usual, since this time not all of them were Harvey’s).  The way she ran down the stairs was so different from the way she had run up.   She went out into the cold street of small semi-detached houses.  They looked grey in the rain. Of course (like in the films?) Janet had already driven off, certain that all was well. 

Anne walked alone down the rainy Manchester road, past the Indian shops, still open, selling bright saris and past a group of friends chatting happily as they went into a pub.   Life goes on.

She had left Harvey and the girl with him together.  He was in that unenviable state of mind of wanting to explain everything and being able to say nothing.

 Anne first walked down the street, but then she started to run in her hurry to get away from the house which she had been longing to reach the whole day. She had felt warm, but now she felt frozen.  Luckily she had the phone number of Andrew’s flat and when she came to a phone box she called him. Janet had just arrived at Andrew’s and when she heard what had happened she insisted on coming back to find Anne. Andrew came with her to make sure Janet didn’t get lost. They found Anne, a forlorn figure, tall, drenched, in the rain by the phone box, her dark hair glistening in wet strands.

Ah yes, our best laid plans go oft awry. 

‘She isn’t crying, is she?  It’s the rain, isn’t it?  Her cheeks are so wet.´ 

They stopped by the phone box. ´Come on, Anne.  Get in the car. In the front.  The heater is better there.  It doesn’t reach the rear seat. Come on, we’ll soon be back.  You’ll soon warm up!’

Kindness helps, but once alone in her room, a tiny box room at the head of the stairs, Anne went to bed, pulled the blankets around her, and cried herself to sleep.

Next morning, Janet tried to persuade Anne to wait and to go back with her to Oxford the following day, but Anne had nothing else to do in Manchester.  Manchester, having promised so much, had nothing else to offer.  She thanked Janet, went to the coach station (of all grim places in England in the 1960s, coach stations were surely the grimmest, with undoubtedly Bristol’s beating all others into second place.  It is better now, much better now, but in those days it was depressing.)  Anne decided to take the next coach back to Oxford.

It rained the whole way, but she was glad of the rain.  It was a comfort.  The noise of the rain on the large coach window.  The droplets blown back in streams.  The gentle swish of the enormous wipers on the windscreen.  The clouds.  She couldn’t have stood a sunny day with its optimism and promise!    Sitting in her seat, as the coach rushed southwards in the constant rain, (as least something was constant in this world!), with an elderly woman in the seat next to her munching a Crunchie bar, Anne thought back to the first time she had ever been in Harvey’s room.  Why does the mind play these tricks, when he was the last person in the world that she wanted to think about now?

‘I had lent him George Orwell’s “1984”.  He had lost his own copy and needed to check some quotations for an essay on Unamuno.  In those days we needed the book itself when we had to check a quotation!  No Google to help out then!  Unamuno! Una + m + uno! One + m + one!   I needed the book to lend it to Janet, and so I’d asked Harvey for it. He was in the middle of making tea, so he told me where it was in his room. It was, or so he thought, on the top shelf of his bookcase.

I pushed at the door.  It stuck, and I saw that there was a huge pile of clothes behind it.  Another pile of clothes on the floor! But these clothes were innocent!  I pushed harder and then, squeezing round the door, I found a heap of dirty and clean shirts, socks and rugby kit all together, mixed up with some golf balls, the last few Observer colour supplements and various coffee mugs.’

Then, like Livingstone about to launch himself into the heart of darkest Africa, Anne summoned her courage, stepped over the huge pile of washing and ventured in.

It was a different world.  There were rows of beer mats round the wall, posters of the Gorges du Tarn and of the aqueduct of Segovia, and a map of the world.  Anne saw a long piece of string which was tied at the head of the bed. She followed it round.  From the bed it went by a system of hooks and pulleys to the light switch by the door, where it was tied again.  On the floor there were scarves, gloves, jeans, coat hangers and books.  On the chairs were shoes and a muddy rugby boot.  Just one.  Where was the other?  This was like the one shoe you see in the gutter.  You only ever see one shoe.  What happened to the other one?  Little circles of dry mud from the studs had fallen on to the floor.  On the desk by the window there were papers, packs of typing paper, two calendars, half a dozen pencils, and three darts with Union Jack flights.  ‘And a photo of me.  Let’s forget the mess!’

Harvey shouted from the dining room, “Have you got it?”

“Of course I haven’t got it.  The whole place is a disaster.”

Harvey joined her, and they eventually found “1984”.  It had fallen down behind the bookcase on to the floor at the back.  Harvey tried to get it but his arm was too big to get under the bookcase.  Anne retrieved it, lying full length on the floor, she could just reach. Just.  And there they had stayed together, full length, long after “1984” had been found and the tea had gone cold.

The old woman finished her Crunchie bar and Anne looked out at the wet fields.   

Some land was completely flooded with a few brave trees waving their arms to each other across the expanse of water.  Other fields, a little higher, were merely waterlogged.  The river here had lost itself and gone wandering cross-country, patiently looking for the sea.

‘I never wrote to Harvey again, but I didn’t stop thinking of him for the rest of the term.  Then, when term ended, it was back to Erewhon and to Christmas. There were decorations to put up, the holly to cut from the tree in the hedge by the paddock, the mistletoe to find and tie on the lampshade in the sitting room.’

Harvey phoned and explained, of course, but explanations are dull things, and the air was not cleared.  Both he and Anne seemed content to let things rest.  It was a type of truce. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Because of this (or was it only because of this?) Harvey decided to go to Australia at the end of his teacher training course.  He finished his Cert. Ed. in June, and in July he set off for Perth, via India.  He was restless, as so many men are, when they are newly men.  He needed more than a job from Monday to Friday, and an afternoon of sport on Saturday.

‘We saw each other once before he left.  And what an afternoon that was.  Empty, just empty.  No spark, no life.   It was in July in the long vacation. We had agreed to meet at Ludlow, in the bar of The Feathers, at 1 o’clock.  Ludlow is more or less the halfway point between Manchester and Bristol, a little to the west perhaps, but almost half way.  We had been there together once before and it had been a very happy weekend.  Very.  The castle, the half-timbered buildings, the old streets and us.  Never go back!  No place can give you again what it gave you before.  Never go back! Things may go well once, but they cannot be relived just because we tread the same streets, see the same buildings and walk on the same grass again.’

Harvey saw Anne as soon as he entered the bar.  She was sitting at a table near the window, alone.  She looked good.  She always did look good.  He looked at her long dark hair, and her smile and the way she wore good clothes well.   ‘She’s becoming even more beautiful.’  Harvey could have given up Asia and Australia and everything else right then.  Still, he had taken his decision.  He’d taken his decision.  India was the next stop.

“Sorry I’m late.”  It was 1.30.

“That’s alright.  I was a bit late too.”  (She had arrived at two minutes after one.  ´Why do I keep excusing myself? Assertion. Í matter too.  I + You +!  I+ U+!  Remember the  I+!)

“Good drive up?”

“Yes, it was, and the car started first time. What are you doing next year, Harvey?”  (It’s always best to go straight into things.) 

 “Well.  That’s it, Anne.  That’s what I wanted to tell you.  I’m going to Australia.”

(Perhaps it isn’t always best to go straight into things.) “To Australia?”  (Manchester had been bad enough, but Australia?  Keep your voice low.  Just stay calm.  Just look calm anyway.  Pause a bit.)  She didn’t say anything for a moment.

‘Overland to India.’

“Overland to India?  I think you will enjoy it.  How are you travelling?  Who are you going with?” 

“With Jake.  You know.”

(No, I don’t know, but anyway.) “Good.”

“There’s one other thing I want to talk about with you, Anne.” 

(What else? He’s going off to Australia.  What else is there to say, unless he’s going to New Zealand too while he’s there?)  

“I want to ask you a favour.” (A favour?  Fat chance!)  “It’s about Jenny.” (Who’s Jenny, for heaven’s sake?)

“Who is Jenny?”

“Jenny’s my sister.”

She thought she heard a slight tone of reproach in his voice at the fact that she must have forgotten Jenny’s existence.   Anne felt guilty.  (That’s ridiculous, I’m the one being abandoned.  I+, I+, I+.  How does he manage it?  Ah yes, Jenny.  I think we met just once, about a year ago.)

“You met once, about a year ago, in Oxford.”

(That’s right.   I remember her.  She was doing “ O” Levels then.)

“Well, she’s going to Oxford to study law. Apparently you told her all about your course and she was really impressed.  She wants to study law as well.  Because of you, really.  You’re quite a hero to her.   Well, a heroine or whatever. So I wondered if you’d mind looking after her a bit, especially at first.  You know, help her get over the first few weeks.  You know the first few weeks at university.”  (Anne knew, and she shivered. In those first few weeks she had felt so lost.)

“Of course I’ll help her, Harvey.  Give me her phone number.”  

Having talked about Jenny and with little more to say except goodbye, they were both miserable. They had once meant so much to each other, and now so little. The afternoon they passed together was pointless. Anne hated the afternoons anyway: especially that dead hour between three and four which always took some getting through. They went for a walk.  What would have been so happy at another time – the clouds, the first sounds of rain on the leaves, the rush for shelter, the sun again – today was empty.  Just empty. They said goodbye and went to their cars.   Anne’s wouldn’t start, and so Harvey came back.  He managed to get himself covered in oil and to get the car going.  They smiled at each other for the first time that afternoon.  (‘No, I’ve made the decision.  It’s India now.’) And then he went and she went and that was that.  They drove their separate ways, Anne south and Harvey north, and as each minute passed, they became further away from each other.  As Anne was coming into Bristol on the Gloucester Road, she saw a poster for  ´Peer Gynt´ at the Theatre Royal. Harvey had taken her to see the same play at the Playhouse in Oxford in December 1964.  They had nearly missed the start.  It was at the end of the first term of her first year at university.

7 December, 1964

Although it was December, the weather was surprisingly mild and wet.  There were even one or two red roses still in flower in the neglected borders near the front door of Anne’s hall of residence.  Two brave roses.  Anne arrived at Harvey’s flat at ten past seven.

“Anne, good, you’re here.”

“Well, come on.  It starts in 20 minutes, and it’ll take us that long to get there.  And that’s running half the way. Come on. “

She turned to go and was at the top of the stairs when Harvey shouted, “Anne, we can’t go yet.  I can’t find the tickets.”


She ran back and saw him lifting up cushions and searching in books.

“Clothes on the floor!  Books in the bed! Why is your toothbrush under your pillow?”

“Forget the toothbrush, Anne.  Concentrate on the tickets.”

“I am concentrating on the tickets.  Where do you normally put them?”

Harvey didn’t normally put theatre tickets anywhere. (‘I’d better not point that out though, not at the moment.’)  It was Anne who found them.  They had been pushed into the frame of the mirror in the bathroom, so that they would be handy.  She retrieved them, put the toothbrush back in its place, shouted to Harvey, and rushed out.  He ran after her. Halfway down the stairs he had to go back as he’d forgotten to bring any money.  He caught up with her as she was passing the phone box, fifty yards down the road, theatre-wards.  They ran down the High in a personal best time, and finally reached the entrance of the Playhouse.  The middle-aged man who took their tickets thought how attractive Anne looked.  She was gasping for breath, her hair dishevelled, laughing and, the Playhouse man was right, she looked very attractive indeed. Harvey saw the man’s look, and realized how much he took for granted.  He put his arm round Anne’s shoulder, and they went into the theatre together.  Their seats were in the middle of a row, and they scrambled past a line of disapproving faces as people sitting comfortably and opening boxes of chocolates had to struggle to their feet, and, making the most of the inconvenience, dropped their hats and clutched their coats.  Anne, apologizing, moved skilfully past, and Harvey mumbling sorry all the time knocked knees and ankles as he went.  They sat down as the curtain went up.

No more lost theatre tickets now.  No more theatre.  Anne concentrated on her driving, and she went through Bristol, out over Bedminster Down and along the A38. Back into Somerset and home to Erewhon.

Harvey drove back to Manchester resolutely and packed.  He was setting out, and the world was all before him.  He was to cross rivers and seas, mountains and valleys.  He was fit and young.  Buses and trains were there to be taken.  The plains of Asia were waiting for him.

Anne buried herself deeper in her law books with coffee and Mozart (‘When the angels play for themselves, they play Mozart, but when they play for God, they play Bach’, Uncle Henry again) and biscuits for company.  That night she read till half past two in the morning, and then went sadly to bed.  Sadly to bed.  What could be worse than that?