Love Streams

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Susannah? When did I see her last? We’ve been through all this. Haven’t we? Outside Peter Jones. We’d been to Cadogan Hall and she’d just been offered an international tour playing second cello in a Candide revival. We’ve discussed this. I set it up for her. You’ve got to be a fixer in this life, there’s nothing better to be than a problem solver, to take on other people’s burdens seamlessly, confidently, because you have all the answers.

I had all the answers. I scribbled them all down in a notebook. I was one of those insufferable people who kept a notebook, a diary. Chatto and Windus published it and the book topped the New York Times bestseller list. I was a bestselling writer. I sat on the set of The Tonight Show, talking to Johnny in my Brooks Brothers suit, smoking my Lucky Strikes, talking about how Henry Miller had considerably altered my perception of life, even though I’ve never read him. My publisher gave me a gold watch because I’d sold so many copies, all while Susannah was playing second cello in second-rate cities across America. She must have seen my face on the television, she must have, appearing through the static on one of those motel sets as a Missouri cloudburst rattled the metal blinds in her bedroom.

She used to take me to concerts, Mahler and Bruckner and Charles Ives, even though I liked rhythm and blues and only rhythm and blues she insisted that I gave these things a try. They played Mahler’s 5th Symphony and I hated it, apart from a couple of seconds, a bar I suppose, of the Adagietto, about eight minutes in when the strings made me feel like I’d stumbled into a universe full of pillows. So, tired, in other words.

We went to a Venetian coffee bar. After the concert. Did I mention we were in Venice? For her birthday. It was the Feast of the Redeemer, the Festa del Redentore, and there were fireworks exploding everywhere, coloured light licking the top of terracotta steeples and terracotta tiled domes, and it was too crowded. Oh, how I hate crowds, nothing beautiful should ever be crowded, don’t you think? Well, Venice was full that weekend, people were surging through the piazzas shouting and yelling and carrying colourful streamers and all the boats out on the lagoon were blaring their horns.

I said something meaningful to her, like, ‘I’ve never been so happy in all my life’, or some such thing, but she didn’t hear me. I can always say something meaningful amid a clamour, but I can never speak my mind in total silence. Strange that, isn’t it?

We kissed by the Lido. There was too much noise and someone kept tugging at my sleeve trying to sell me firecrackers. We made love in The Gritti Palace. We flew home.

A year or so later her depression set in and I arranged for her to get away and the last time I saw her was after that concert. At Cadogan Hall. Outside Peter Jones, remember?

Funny, every single vestige of that night that I had on my person when we returned to London Airport is still collecting dust on my writing table. The ticket stub for the concert, the receipt from the coffee bar and a couple of matchbooks from here and there, little pieces of a night that I had little recall of and didn’t even like all that much at the time. It all seemed to mean so little to me then, but means so much now.

I’m losing track of things. I can’t remember where I left my cigarettes, my loose change. The love streams of my life have stopped leading anywhere in particular. People still ask me to sign that book, its purple dust jacket increasingly battered in the copies I see these days. Please tell me I haven’t written something enduring, something abiding, I couldn’t cope with that, no, never. Time shows up all dishonesty in the end.

His Fortress was a Faithful Heart

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The flickering outdoor light cast a milky pattern across the back yard pond Oonagh had dug on her forty fifth birthday. Michael stared at the water and remembered the dirt piling up beside the wooden deckchair he had sat in while she worked.

Oonagh had the habit of making household rearrangements to mark milestones. On her fortieth birthday she had smashed through a partition wall to open up the dining and sitting rooms and on her fiftieth she had uprooted several conifer trees that had grown so tall they blocked out the sun for the majority of the day.

He’d objected to the pond, he’d objected to chopping the trees down. He’d become unforgivably objectionable after he stopped working at the military installation down by Cogley Wood, and he had mercilessly dragged his feet as she hacked away at the tree trunks.

“Why don’t you go a little easy,” Michael had shouted at her, “you’re fifty now, you’re not as young as you used to be.”

“If it wasn’t for me,” she said breaking to breathe after each swing, “nothing would change around here.”

The fact that he could gaze out across the square to the Robinson place, the fact that he could sit and watch people come and go from the Horse and Jockey pub, the fact that he could make note of the changing seasons, the maypole in the summer, the lighting of the tree in winter, this was her gift of openness to him, chopping those trees down had kept him connected to the world when he most wanted to be out of it.

“To accept the immediacy of death is the only way to overcome anxiety,” she would say, and, “To grow nightingale roses on the eastern side of a garden is to open up your life to a host of secrets,” among other such maxims that were deemed not so serviceable for reality, but certainly were worth bearing in mind for the next world.

Micheal still hated it when people sang ‘Jerusalem’ at weddings, everybody likes the tune but the words are hardly fitting and although they had really belted it out on that summer’s day in 1952, he couldn’t help but cringe at the memory. Although her countenance was divine, the holy city paled in comparison to the passion she would bring forth every Sunday night, in the old place, down by the beach, with the leaky roof and the jet planes from the military installation at Cogley Wood roaring overhead as they did it.

Miraculous moments come and go in the blink of an eye and then, the miracle done, you are left to wonder if it was all just a predetermined certainty you were made to wait a little longer for than you were entirely comfortable with.

Oonagh saw the world in Micheal and the generational back and forth continued until probability conspired that they chop down the trees together and she looked back at him from amongst the fallen wood, the world opening up before him again, as time proved his heart faithful and she told him about the changes.

The Alligator Summer

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I was born in Serendipity on a Wednesday in July. The temperature had been so hot that week in Hampstead that my mother had been forced to give birth to me with all the sash windows in the front bedroom wide open. I would forever hear about the heat of the summer of my birth, about the lunchtime my father fried an egg on the bonnet of his Sunbeam Talbot and the tale of the three alligators that crawled out of a sewer in Kensington in the middle of the day, prompting a citywide panic and newspaper sensation. Many people over a particular age still remember those blistering weeks in the middle of 1949 only as the ‘Alligator Summer’, but it’s a piece of history that never meant very much to me.

Serendipity was a magical house to grow up in, nestled amid the greenery of West Heath Road. It had seventeen rooms, living rooms, sitting rooms, single bedrooms, double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a library, a study for my father and a greenhouse. The greenhouse stood at the far end of the garden, bordering the fence, its rusting metal frame filled in with squares of glass, some of them cloudy with mold and condensation, others cracked and broken. Low hanging branches from the great elm tree next to it brushed the top of the glass on a breezy summer’s day and in the autumn leaves cascaded down and covered the glass entirely rendering the insides obscure to me.

Winter was the best time to be in the greenhouse, winter was the best time to be anywhere. There was light inside when the leaves were cleared away and the glass got too hot in the summer. I would brush aside the terracotta plant pots and rusting spades and trowels and I would climb up on the bench that ran around the edge of the interior, in my parka and my gloves and sit with my back to the wet glass and read for hours. Under the benches there were crates and crates of brown bottles, the labels all faded from the damp, I assumed they were beer, stashed there for storage before a party years ago and forgotten about. I kept quiet about them.

My father bought the house from an eminent psychologist Dr. Louis Rose, my nominal godfather, who was not exactly Freud, but he could spin an engrossing sentence out of thin air.

His wife, Maria, had been a Christian Scientist and she would refuse any medical intervention favouring the power of prayer to cure any ill. Serendipity, she told my mother as she handed over the keys, had a remarkable sense of serenity, which she believed enabled her to tune into the Almighty more easily. Four weeks after they moved to Belsize Park, so Dr. Rose could be nearer to the Royal Free, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

I can remember vividly running madly from one room to the next at great speed, dashing across landings and down staircases. If you run down staircases, as fast of you can, without holding onto the balustrade, your feet barely touching each step, you can sometimes, very briefly, get the sensation that you are flying, that you aren’t touching the steps at all, but are some how staying upright.

The staircase wall was lined with pencil pictures in varnished frames of scenes from fairy tales by the Brothers Grim and I used to sneak out of bed and stare at them long after I should have been asleep because the flickering shadows cast by the electric lights from the floor below seemed to bring them to life.

I was sat there one night when Dr Rose called by. He’d never called before, not since the move, so it was strange. My mother had taken me to see him a few times in Belsize Park and we’d sat in his consulting room me lying on his red settee like a patient while my mother sat opposite him as his desk imploring him, in cooing tones,  not to abandon his love life despite his loss.

“Do you want me to analyse your dreams Miles,” he would always ask me.

“Yes, tell him your dreams Miles,” my mother would say, expecting revelations each time.

“I don’t really have any,” I’d say, which was true then, I wasn’t really a dreamer in those days, my dreams would only liven up when my surroundings became duller.

I liked Dr Rose there was something very real about him. I think it was because he was a very honest man and it’s only through honesty, as I was to learn later, that you can project any kind of sincerity.

“If you want it back you can have it, we can make other arrangements,” my mother would say of Serendipity,  at least twice during every meeting with Dr Rose.

“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would reply every time.

“Yes, but she loved that house,” my mother would counter. “You loved being there with her, surely being among all those memories would be a comfort.”

What a stupid thing of her to say, looking back, she hadn’t lost anybody close then, she’d lived thirty seven years seemingly untouched by real grief.  She’d lost her mother, who she wasn’t very close to and numerous sets of grandparents and great grandparents. She seemed to put all the stock of her life into the men that surrounded her. Other women never interested my mother much, they were like a conquered country to her, nothing much to see.

“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would repeat, “there is no telling when these things are going to happen the bricks and mortar of house couldn’t have stopped it, nor the power of prayer, or any of that hokum.”

I often wondered how Dr. Rose could claim to be so much in love with a person who’s faith and appraisal of life he so doubted, but that night I realised, when he called round and I was sat at the top of the stairs, you have to let some things go for the sake of the greater whole. Just like for some people the summer of 1949 is an agonising memory and for others it’s only alligators.