He could not believe this darn joke had gone so far. He had been out having drinks with Sally when it started. PJ O’Brien’s Pub at Southbank was the unlikely location for the beginning of his dilemma. After three whiskies, and a challenge from his best friend he was a sitting duck: “Finish a classic, sappy romance within six months, and prove you are not the closet romantic I suspect.”
Every week since he had begun his romance, she would follow her Friday night invite to drinks with, ” How’s the world’s most romantic story going, Derek?” Sally stuck at things, she said, because she couldn’t bear to leave things unfinished. He on the other hand, Sally informed him, was too proud to back down from any statement he made; to admit that he was wrong.
Now it was a Saturday morning, a few hours more than four months later, and he had made little progress. He had come to one conclusion: he was a closet romantic but he was going to keep that to himself. His eyes had grown misty with tears while reading The English Patient, and Love in the Time of Cholera, but he wasn’t going to expose that side of himself to Sally. In fact, he was angry that the previous night, Mick and Jim had found out what he was doing, because of Sally’s indiscretion. Mick and Jim were tormenting him at work:
“How’s the hot Mills and Boon going?”
“It’s all heaving bosoms and throbbing members, mate”, Jim would say to Mick and they would give self- satisfied smirks.
How could he win? The more he thought about this darn project, the more he began to suspect Sally might be right. He couldn’t write some sexy, hot piece because then Sally would harp on about how he was sex-crazed, and addicted to Ralph like half her workmates, who grabbed women on the butt when they’d had a few. He couldn’t write something that made Sally, and her best girl mate Monica (he knew Sally would show it to her friend no matter what she said), weep over, and actually finish reading or he would be known as a romantic. He couldn’t believe this whole stupid thing was keeping him awake at night. Could it be true that at twenty nine and a half years old, he couldn’t be honest with anyone about how he felt about male/female relationships? That’s what Sally had said. Was she right?
Finally, after a late night reading of a quarter of Margaret Anne Walker’s Accidental Mistresses, he made up his mind. he decided he would write an historical romance. It was based on his grandfather’s courtship of his grandmother.
He reminisced about his Grandfather talking about how he had met Michelle, who was one of his mate’s sisters, at primary school, and then after losing contact for a few years, they had met at a church picnic. His Grandfather remembered gazing at this pretty creature with wavy auburn hair down to the middle of her back. When she had come up to him and smiled, he had thought how very pretty her brown eyes were. When she had said,
“Hello, Ralph. It is nice to see you again.” He had realised it was his old friend, Michelle. This time there were no scraped knees or a dirty dress but a well-groomed, cheery, pretty young lady, all grown up. There’d been dancing, and he had taken the last turn around the floor with her, then strolled in the moonlight , holding her hand, before all the girls were called away for their trip home in the bus.They had corresponded, and met as often as they could, until he joined the army in 1940, and all through the war, he had thought of her often. Finally, they were married on the 6th of April, 1948.
Derek found himself recreating walks in the moonlight, country bicycle rides, river-side picnics, candlelit suppers and even love letters. His Grandfather has also kept a diary. He remembered his “Granda” as being described as an eloquent man, able to recite poetry and given to a witty turn of phrase. His diary had an edge to it, and Derek found his almost thirty year old eyes misting over. As he read a passage in Granda’s diary, he realised Autumn was his favourite season too.
Morning September 16 1947
“Well, I’ve been on a few of what I call dates with Michelle. In my heart, I treasure her above all the women I have known, but I am taking it slowly because she seems so young in so many ways. I am only six years older than her but five years of war, while leaving my body relatively unscathed, made life seem both far more horrifying and far more precious than I could have imagined. Michelle has a lightheartedness that both attracts and mystifies me. Everything in me seems raised in intensity, my senses trained to pick up the slightest sound or movement during night reconnaissance, now gaze upon the rambling autumnal roses as works of art, the colour of Michelle’s lips. It is as if I was never a carefree boy roaming the countryside prodding everything with a makeshift walking stick, and planning elaborate practical jokes on our school rivals with my best friend Gordie.
The beauty of this morning took my breath away. The air was cool and damp ,such that taking a breath was pure sweetness, the scents on the gentle breeze were those of drying grass, magenta roses and turning leaves. The movement of the air felt like silk on my forearms, all the hairs stood to attention as if the breeze were the wake of Demeter. My heart fluttered in my chest as I heard the dawn chorus, followed by the singular hopping and fluttering of energetic Blue Tits. The risen sun lit the trails of mist, and turned the dew upon the grass to jewels. The rustling leaves tinged with orange and gold stilled as the bank of Oaks by the garden stream were haloed by the long fingers of the morning sun.”
Derek remembered an Autumn morning like that; one long ago in his childhood when he had visited Granda Ralph, and Nana Michelle. He remembered her as a grey-haired woman, fond of the kitchen where she ate, read and chatted, with an effortlessly bright smile. Now she seemed the star of his Granda’s life. He could not imagine ever felling that way about someone. His Granda went on: “There seems no limit to the imagination when the heart is light and every sense attuned to life. Right now I cannot imagine other than the most perfect picnic, and a perfect response from Michelle.”
Late Afternoon 16 September 1947
“I have been anxious all this afternoon to leave work and record here the most treasured moments of my life to date.
When Michelle told me two days ago that she had a half day off today, I was keen to get her to agree to a ride and a picnic. It was the first time we were ever alone. All our other dates were in groups though we have held hands and danced. As usual when I cycled to the front of her house, she waved and made my heart stop with her wide smile. In that moment I remembered my army mate Geoff, and his words on receiving a letter from his sweetheart, “I got it bad Ralph, I got it bad.” I shook my head to clear related memories, my desire to keep the day wonderful. Martina came towards me and put her hand on my arm. She smiled again, and I said, “You look lovely.” She blushed, and my smile was as much for myself as it was for her. We cycled two miles west to a meadow by the low falls on Southdown Creek. It is a pleasant sheltered spot with spreading Oaks. I spread the rug in the sun and produced bacon butties, Oatcakes, apples and lemonade. I had of course prepared this with Mum’s help but I did fry the bacon. I poured Martina’s lemonade into a tin cup, and offered her a bacon buttie.
“I don’t eat bacon, but I will have an apple please.”
I was disappointed but the ride had given me a keen appetite. I ate the two thick sandwiches with enjoyment; the simplest food tastes far better outdoors. Martina finished her apple, took and munched on an oatcake. “My compliments to your mother.”
I placed my hand on my heart, and pretended a grimace of offense. She laughed and I joined in, and then we started talking about our families, our interests, and what we did during the war. I kept my comments as vague as possible: I fought here, I fought there, with no descriptions of the battles. For one moment, her face was a mask of pain, “My aunt’s only child, my dear Charles, like a brother to me, died at El Aghelia.” Tears glazed her agate eyes. I took her hand. Her smile broke the tension. “Thank god. It’s over now.” I nodded and I can’t remember what I said but she laughed at it, then lay down on the rug. I lay beside her, and she said, “Autumn is my favourite time of the year.” I described the morning to her, and she said, ” Ralph, you are quite the poet. I admire that. Her sincerity charmed me, and I reminded myself that I said I would go slowly.
“Michelle”, I said, “I admire you. I think I’m falling in love with you.”
She was silent for a long time, but I was encouraged by the fact that her body shifted toward me, and her little finger brushed my hand. We lay like that for quite a while, then she remarked, “I love the autumn clouds. Look that one looks a bit like a butterfly.” She rattled on for a while, and when she grew silent I asked her if she had ever read Keats’ poem “Autumn.” I recited part of it, and she seemed impressed with my knowledge of poetry.
When 10.30 am came around Michelle said it was time to leave. We raced each other back to her house, she leaned her bike against the fence, and put her hands on the handlebars of my bike. She leaned over and her lips brushed my cheek. “I really, really like you, Ralph”. Then she turned and rushed through the gate, up the path to the door. Her pleated skirt bounced above the curve of her calves, and I admired her until she disappeared. I long to see her again.”
Derek noticed that there was a smiling face drawn in the margin with a different pen. The face had wavy strands drawn around it. Had his Granda shown Michelle the diary later? The question intrigued him for the remainder of the day.
He went on to do considerable research for his novel about what each would have experienced during the war, so he could imagine each person’s days. When he was finished he felt satisfied. He even made two copies, and burned one, placing the ashes in a sturdy shoe box. He went to his grandparent’s grave plot and sprinkled the ashes. He thought, I hope you love birds like my story.
On Friday evening, 5th of July, 2013, he gazed at himself in his bathroom mirror, when he finished shaving.
“Derek, you old sap!” He felt a warm glow in his heart he would never own up to. He placed his treasured finished story: All’s Fair in a shoe box, and shoved it under his bed. He pulled out the 200 pages of rubbish he, Mick and Jim had worked on last weekend. “This will do to keep Sally and Monica happy.”
He shoved it down his shirt and grabbed his car keys. Closet Romantic.
TO be continued…