Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Passionate Affairs

Yesterday I wrote about the scene in H.F. Ellis's book where the elderly schoolteacher, Mr Wentworth, reaches the end of his final term at Burgrove House School. And I said how wonderfully evocative I found it of how empty and desolate a school can feel, immediately after the boys have departed for the holidays.

All of which reminds me that I once wrote a scene like that myself. It occurs in Passionate Affairs, a novel that I published under the pen-name Anne Moore.

The narrator of Passionate Affairs is a man of nearly 60 who looks back to a time when he was 14, a year in which he had a full-blooded, sexually active love affair with a French girl of 18. (Is this an autobiographical story, I hear you asking. No. It isn't. Dammit.)

By the way, the age of the male participant in this affair was found deeply worrying by one American editor, to the extent that she decided against publishing the book on that ground alone. But in the UK the publication was greeted with absolutely no consternation whatever.

'This is a fascinating account', said Kirkus Reviews UK, 'of the consuming power of sexual passion, and a remarkable insight into the claustrophobic world of traditional public-school life.'

Anyway, whatever you make of that, I rather like the end-of-term scene myself. I'm quite pleased with it, even several years later. So I'm going to reproduce it here. Well, why the hell not? It's my blog.
The house emptied rapidly. No other boy had any reason to stay. Most caught the train to London. A few caught trains in other directions. Some were driven home by parents, who had all had instructions to be there early.

Soon it seemed that I was the only one left.

Perhaps, somewhere on your bookshelf, you have a collection of poems by Swinburne. If so, take the volume out and read his description of ‘A forsaken garden.’ It conveys, better than I possibly could, the sense of desolation which is felt when you find yourself in an empty, wintry place which was once warm and filled with laughter and friends.

Such was the atmosphere in Daubeny House on that drab December morning. It was barely daylight. The rooms were cold and gloomy, lacking all human content. With the boys gone, the shabbiness of the surroundings suddenly became visible.

I went looking for Suzanne and found her in the corridor outside the prep room. She had, I think, been looking for me. I would like to think so.

‘Robair?’ she called. ‘’Ave you a moment?’

Oh yes. I had a moment.

‘I ’ave something for you.’

She took me into the Bannisters’ living-room. Forbidden territory for me really, but I didn’t care. She crossed to the far side of the room and picked up two things: a letter, and a copy of a gramophone record, an old-fashioned 78 in its brown-paper wrapper.

‘For you, Robair,’ she said shyly, and smiled, as if nervous that I might reject her gifts.

I took them from her.

‘The letter,’ she said, ‘is for you to read later. Not now. I say a little thank-you to you for being my friend.’

I must have looked embarrassed; I hope I did, for if any thanks were due it was the other way round.

‘And the record,’ she said, ‘I would like you to keep it. A little reminder of me.’

As if I would forget.

I thanked her kindly, and we both mumbled a bit. We wished each other well. We kissed, chastely.

The one thing we did not do was promise to write or see each other in the future. I think we both knew that any further contact would be fruitless. Suzanne certainly did.

And so we parted.

I kept Suzanne’s letter for a long time. It lived in my wallet, and it grew dog-eared and worn with time. I kept it until I got married, in fact, and then I threw it away because it seemed disloyal to hold on to it any longer. But I regret that now.

The record, Charles Trénet singing La Mer, I still have. I no longer have the means to play it, but when I began to write this book I went out and bought a new copy on CD, so I can play that if I wish. Which I do wish, now and then. It’s a very sad song. No wonder Suzanne cried when she heard it during the play rehearsal.

I never saw Suzanne again. Maman or Daphne may have known what happened to her, but if they heard anything they never said. And I never asked. If I had, I’m sure I would have been told to forget her.

Quite right.

Sometimes, when the newsreels show us a Parisian street, or a shot of some other town in France, I scan the faces of the women, hoping that I might catch a glimpse of her. But would I know her if she was there? Probably not.

If Suzanne is alive today – and I hope she is – she is probably a plump French housewife, cheerful and gregarious, with a mass of grandchildren. And when she turns on the radio and hears Charles Trénet singing La Mer, does she ever remember, do you think, an English boy called Robair and his passionate love for her?

I do hope so.

3 comments:

pundy said...

That's beautiful. And for people of a certain age - like me - painfully evocative.

And under that grumpy exterior, eh...

Andrew O'Hara said...

Utterly charming.

Dodo said...

I think that is wonderful; full of atmosphere and feeling. The characters are so alive even in this small excerpt of the book.