Lynn Barber

One day in 1992 I went to work as usual at the Independent on Sunday and the doorman handed me a message slip and said, ‘This man has been phoning all night.’ The message said, ‘Ring Alan Green,’ and gave a Jerusalem number. Now, as it happened, Alan Green, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was front page news that week because he had been caught kerb-crawling prostitutes in the King’s Cross area. And it is a mark of how crazed with self-importance I was at the time that I immediately thought, ‘Oh good. The DPP wants me to interview him.’ What more natural than that he should want to give an exclusive to the hottest interviewer in London? I didn’t even pause to wonder why he was in Jerusalem. So I rang the Jerusalem number and said, ‘Can I speak to Alan Green?’ And this horrible cooing voice at the other end said, ‘Minn! Bubl has been pining for you all these years.’ I dropped the phone like a burning coal and didn’t speak again all day.

I met Alan Green – my Alan Green, not the Director of Public Prosecutions – in 1960 when I was sixteen and he was he said twenty-seven, but probably in his late thirties. I was waiting for a bus home to Twickenham after a rehearsal at Richmond Little Theatre, when a sleek maroon car drew up and a man with a big cigar in his mouth leaned over to the passenger window and said, ‘Want a lift?’ Of course my parents had told me, my teachers had told me, everyone had told me, never to accept lifts from strange men but at that stage he didn’t seem strange, and I hopped in. I liked the smell of his cigar and the leather seats. He asked where I wanted to go and I said Clifden Road, and he said Fine. I told him I had never seen a car like this before, and he said it was a Bristol, and very few were made. He told me lots of facts about Bristols as we cruised – Bristols always cruised – towards Twickenham.

He had a funny accent—later, when I knew him better, I realized it was the accent he used for posh—but I asked if he was foreign. He said, ‘Only if you count Jews as foreign.’ Well of course I did. I had never consciously met a Jew; I didn’t think we had them at my school. But I said politely, ‘Are you Jewish? I never would have guessed.’ (I meant he didn’t have the hooked nose, the greasy ringlets, the straggly beard of Shylock in the school play.) He said he had lived in Israel when he was ‘your age’. I wondered what he thought my age was: I hoped he thought nineteen. But then when he said, ‘Fancy a coffee?’ I foolishly answered, ‘No, I have to be home by ten—my father will kill me if I’m late.’ ‘School tomorrow?’ he asked lightly, and, speechless with fury at myself, I could only nod. So then he drove me to my house, and said, ‘Can I take you out for coffee another evening?’

My life might have turned out differently if I had just said No. But I was not quite rude enough. Instead, I said I was very busy rehearsing a play which meant that unfortunately I had no free evenings. He asked what play, and I said The Lady’s Not for Burning at Richmond Little Theatre. Arriving for the first night a couple of weeks later, I found an enormous bouquet in the dressing room addressed to me. The other actresses, all grown-ups, were mewing with envy and saying, ‘Those flowers must have cost a fortune.’ When I left the theatre, hours later, I saw the Bristol parked outside and went over to say thank you. He said, ‘Can’t we have our coffee now?’ and I said no, because I was late again, but he could drive me home. I wasn’t exactly rushing headlong into this relationship; he was far too old for me to think of as a boyfriend. On the other hand, I had always fantasized about having an older man, someone even more sophisticated than me, to impress the little squirts of Hampton Grammar. So I agreed to go out with him on Friday week, though I warned that he would have to undergo a grilling from my father.

My father’s grillings were notorious among the Hampton Grammar boys. He wanted to know what marks they got at O level, what A levels they were taking, what universities they were applying to. He practically made them sit an IQ test before they could take me to the flicks. But this time, for once, my father made no fuss at all. He asked where Alan and I had met; I said at Richmond Little Theatre, and that was that. He seemed genuinely impressed by Alan, and even volunteered that we could stay out till midnight, an hour after my normal weekend curfew. So our meeting for coffee turned into dinner, and with my father’s blessing.

Alan took me to an Italian place on Marylebone High Street and of course I was dazzled. I had never been to a proper restaurant before, only to tea rooms with my parents. I didn’t understand the menu, but I loved the big pepper grinders and the heavy cutlery, the crêpes Suzette and the champagne. I was also dazzled by Alan’s conversation. Again, I understood very little of it, partly because his accent was so strange, but also because it ranged across places and activities I could hardly imagine. My knowledge of the world was based on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës and none of them had a word to say about living on a kibbutz or making Molotov cocktails. I felt I had nothing to bring to the conversational feast and blushed when Alan urged me to tell him about my schoolfriends, my teachers, my prize-winning essays. I didn’t realize then that my being a schoolgirl was a large part of my attraction.

Over the next few weeks, it became an accepted thing that Alan would turn up on Friday or Saturday nights to take me to ‘the West End’. Sometimes we went to the Chelsea Classic to see foreign films; sometimes he took me to concerts at the Wigmore or Royal Festival Hall, but mostly we went to restaurants. The choice of restaurants seemed to be dictated by mysterious visits Alan had to make on the way. He would say, ‘I’ve just got to pop into Empress Gate,’ and would disappear into one of the white cliff-like houses while I would wait in the car. Sometimes the waiting was very long, and I learned to take a book on all our dates. Once, I asked if I could come in with him, but he said, ‘No, this is business,’ and I never asked again.

Besides taking me out at weekends, Alan would sometimes drop in during the week when he said he was ‘just passing’. (Why was he passing Twickenham? Where was he going? I never asked.) On these occasions, he would stay chatting to my parents, sometimes for an hour or more, about news or politics—subjects of no interest to me. Often the three of them were so busy talking they didn’t even notice if I left the room. I found this extraordinary. It was quite unprecedented in our house for me not to be the centre of attention.

Perhaps I should explain about my parents. I was their only child and their only mutual interest. They had no relatives in London, and no friends who ever came to the house—my father had his bridge club (he was a county champion), my mother her amateur dramatics, but all they talked about at home was me, and specifically my school work. My father often quoted Charles Kingsley’s line ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who can be clever’ but he said it sarcastically—he wanted me to be clever, and let who can be good. My parents had been brought up as Primitive Methodists but by the time they had me their religion was education, education, education. I had been reared from the cradle to pass every possible exam, gain every possible scholarship, and go to university—Cambridge if I was mathematically inclined like my father, or Oxford if I proved to be ‘artistic’ like my mother. By the age of sixteen, when I met Alan, I was well on track. I had a scholarship at a fee-paying school, Lady Eleanor Holies, I had a royal flush of O levels, and my teachers predicted that I would easily win a place at Oxford to read English. But still my parents fretted and worried. Their big fear was that my Latin would ‘let me down’.

My parents were first generation immigrants to the middle class. My father was a Lancashire mill-worker’s son, who had taken a law degree at night school and risen high in the civil service. He was formidably intelligent but socially untamed. He still said, ‘Side the pots’ in his broad Lancashire accent—a source of deep annoyance to my mother and me. We also sighed over his habit of leaving the house with bits of paper on his face when he cut himself shaving. My mother was, in my view, more civilized, even glamorous. She had lovely black wavy hair, hazel eyes and a peachy complexion. But my father and I quietly agreed that she had only a beta plus or even beta minus brain. Nevertheless, she had somehow parlayed a frivolous diploma in speech and drama into a part-time job teaching English at grammar school, then a full-time job, then head of English. I always found it shocking that she could be head of English while privately preferring Georgette Heyer to Jane Austen, and Walter de la Mare to Wordsworth, and occasionally thought of writing to the education authorities to denounce her. It was only because I didn’t, I felt, that she was able to continue her remorseless rise through the educational hierarchy.

My parents both earned good salaries, but my father could never shake off his desperate childhood fear of poverty, and was eternally saving for ‘a rainy day’. (In the exceptionally wet winter of 2000, when their house was flooded to a depth of six inches, I cheerily remarked to my father, ‘Well it looks like your rainy day has finally come’. Despite his being blind by this stage, in his mid-eighties, and handicapped by water lapping round his ankles, he still tried to wade across the room to hit me.) His great fear was fecklessness, which seemed to mean any form of fun. Thus—why did I want to have a Christmas tree? Terrible waste of time, money, all those pine needles buggering the vacuum cleaner and ruining the carpet. ‘For fun,’ I told him, and watched him almost die of apoplexy on the spot. He regarded any form of social life as time-wasting—to him my mother’s involvement in amateur dramatics was feckless and profligate. But this must have been one of the very few subjects on which she ‘dug her heels in’ and when my mother dug her heels in, my father knew to retreat.

All my rows were with my father—I remember my teens, before Alan appeared, as one long row with my father. My mother was a passive, occasionally tearful, spectator. Sometimes when he hit me (‘What you need is a clip around the ear’) she would intervene, and often after a particularly loud shouting match, when I had stormed up to my room, she would come sidling up with a hot drink and biscuit as a peace offering. ‘Can’t you be more tactful?’ she would urge. ‘Why do you have to enrage him?’ But I despised her peacemaking, always too little and too late, and once told her, ‘Look, Mum, if you’re really on my side, you’ll divorce him; otherwise shut up.’ She shut up and went away.

This was the tight little family that Alan was to penetrate and eventually shatter. He represented everything my parents most feared—he was not one of us, he was Jewish and cosmopolitan, practically a foreigner! He wore sweaters and suede shoes; he drove a pointlessly expensive car; he didn’t go to work in an office; he was vague about where he went to school and, worst of all, boasted that he had been educated in ‘the university of life’—not a teaching establishment my parents recognized. And yet, inexplicably, they liked him. In fact, they liked him more than I ever liked him, perhaps because he took great pains to make them like him. He brought my mother flowers and my father wine; he taught them to play backgammon; he chatted to them endlessly and seemed genuinely interested in their views. I suppose it made a change for them from always talking about me.

Yet none of us ever really knew a thing about him. I think my parents once asked where he lived and he said ‘South Kensington’ but that was it. I never had a phone number for him, still less an address. As for what he did, he was ‘a property developer’—a term I suspect meant as little to my parents as it did to me. I knew it was somehow connected with these visits he had to make, the great bunches of keys he carried, the piles of surveyors’ reports and auction catalogues in the back of his car, and the occasional evenings when he had to ‘meet Perec’ which meant cruising around Bayswater looking for Perec (Peter) Rachman’s Roller parked outside one of his clubs. Rachman would later give his name to Rachmanism when the press exposed him as the worst of London’s exploitative landlords but at that time he was just one of Alan’s many mysterious business colleagues.

Alan was adept at not answering questions, but actually he rarely needed to, because I never asked them. The extent to which I never asked him questions is astonishing in retrospect—I blame Albert Camus. My normal instinct was to bombard people with questions, to ask about every detail of their lives, even to intrude into their silences with, ‘What are you thinking?’ But just around the time I met Alan I became an Existentialist, and one of the rules of existentialism as practised by me and my disciples at Lady Eleanor Holles School was that you never asked questions. Asking questions showed that you were naive and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French. I badly wanted to be sophisticated. And, as it happened, this suited Alan fine. My role in the relationship was to be the schoolgirl ice maiden, implacable, ungrateful, unresponsive to everything he said or did. To ask questions would have shown that I was interested in him, even that I cared, and neither of us really wanted that.

Alan established early on that I was a virgin, and seemed quite happy about it. He asked when I intended to lose my virginity and I said, ‘Seventeen’, and he agreed this was the ideal age. He said it was important not to lose my virginity in some inept fumble with a grubby schoolboy, but with a sophisticated older man. I heartily agreed—though, unlike him, I had no particular older man in mind. He certainly didn’t seem like a groper. I was used to Hampton Grammar boys who turned into octopuses in the cinema dark, clamping damp tentacles to your breast. Alan never did that. Instead, he kissed me long and gently and said, ‘I love to look into your eyes.’ Eventually, one night he said, ‘I’d love to see your breasts,’ so I grudgingly unbuttoned my blouse and allowed him to peep inside my bra. But this was still well within the Lady Eleanor Holles dating code—by rights, given the number of hot dinners he’d bought me, he could really have taken my bra right off.

And then my parents threw me into bed with him. One day, on one of his drop-in visits, Alan said he was going to Wales next weekend to visit some friends and could I go with him? I confidently expected my parents to say no—to go away, overnight, with a man I barely knew?—but instead they said yes, though my father added jocularly, ‘Separate rooms of course.’ ‘Of course,’ said Alan. So off we went for the first of many dirty weekends. I hated Wales, hated the grim hotel, the sour looks when Alan signed us in. We shared a room of course, and shared a bed, but Alan only kissed me and said, ‘Save it till you’re seventeen.’ After that, there were many more weekends—Paris, Amsterdam, Bruges, and often Sark in the Channel Islands because Alan liked the hotel there, and I liked stocking up on my exciting new discovery, Sobranie Black Russian cigarettes. They brought my sophistication on by leaps and bounds.

As my seventeenth birthday approached, I knew that my debt of dinners and weekends could only be erased by ‘giving’ Alan my virginity. He talked for weeks beforehand about when, where, how it should be achieved. He thought Rome, or maybe Venice; I thought as near as possible to Twickenham, in case I bled. In the end, it was a new trendy circular hotel—the Ariel?—by Heathrow airport, where we spent the night before an early morning flight to somewhere or other, I forget. He wanted to do a practice run with a banana—he had brought a banana specially. I said, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’ and told him to do it properly. He talked a lot about how he hoped Minn would do Bubl the honour of welcoming him into her home. Somewhere in the middle of the talking, he was inside me, and it was over. I thought, ‘Oh well, that was easy. Perhaps now I can get a proper boyfriend.’

(I think the word that best describes my entire sex life with Alan is negligible. I never experienced even a glimmer of an orgasm while I was with him. He was a far from ardent lover—he seemed to enjoy waffling about Minn and Bubl more than actually doing anything. And whereas my games mistress was always bellowing across the changing room, ‘But you said it was your period last week!’ Alan always took my word for it when I said that Minn was ‘indisposed’. So although I spent many nights in bed with Alan, usually in foreign hotel rooms, very little ever happened.)

The affair—if it was an affair—drifted on, partly because no proper boyfriends showed up, partly because I had become used to my strange double life of schoolgirl swot during the week, restaurant-going, foreign-travelling sophisticate at weekends. And this life had alienated me from my schoolfriends—if they said, ‘Are you coming to Eel Pie Jazz Club on Saturday?’ I would say, ‘No, I’m going to Paris with Alan.’ Of course my friends all clamoured to meet Alan but I never let them. I was afraid of something—afraid perhaps that they would ‘see through him’, see, not the James Bond figure I had depicted, but this rather short, rather ugly, long-faced, splay-footed man who talked in different accents and lied about his age, whose stories didn’t add up.

Because by now—a year into the relationship—I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know about Alan. I knew his cars (he had several Bristols), and the restaurants and clubs he frequented, but I still didn’t know where he lived. He took me to a succession of flats which he said were his, but often they were full of gonks and women’s clothes and he didn’t know where the light switches were. So these were other people’s flats, or sometimes empty flats, in Bayswater, South Kensington, Gloucester Road. He seemed to have a limitless supply of them.

Where did I imagine he lived? Incredible as it seems now—but this is a reminder of how young I was—I imagined that he lived with his parents but was ashamed to tell me. I pictured this ancient couple in some East End slum performing strange rituals in Yiddish. The fact that he told me his parents were well off and lived in Cricklewood was neither here nor there: I preferred my version. I suspect this is always the way with con men—they don’t even have to construct a whole story, their victims fill in the gaps, reconcile the irreconcilables—their victims do most of the work. Alan hardly had to con me at all, because I was so busy conning myself.

But by now there was a compelling reason for staying with Alan— I was in love. Not with Alan, obviously, but with his business partner Danny and his girlfriend Helen. I loved them both equally. I loved their beauty, I loved their airy flat in Bedford Square where there were pre-Raphaelites on the walls and harpsichord music on the hi-fi. At that time, few people in Britain admired the Pre-Raphaelites but Danny was one of the first, and I eagerly followed. He lent me books on Rossetti and Burne-Jones and Millais, and sometimes flattered me by showing me illustrations in auction catalogues and saying, ‘What do you think? Should I make a bid?’ I found it easy to talk to Danny; I could chatter away to him whereas with Alan I only sulked.

Helen was a different matter. She drifted around silently, exquisitely, a soulful Burne-Jones damsel half hidden in her cloud of red-gold hair. At first, I was so much in awe of her beauty I could barely speak to her. But gradually I came to realize that her silence was often a cover for not knowing what to say and that actually—I hardly liked to use the word about my goddess—she was thick. I was terrified that one day Danny would find out. And there were sometimes hints from Alan that Danny’s interest in Helen might be waning, that there could be other girlfriends. Knowing this, keeping this secret, made me feel that it was crucial for me to go on seeing Helen, to protect her, because one day, when I was just a little older and more sophisticated, we could be best friends.

Alan always refused to talk about business to me (‘Oh, you don’t want to know about that, Minn’) but Danny had no such inhibitions. He loved telling me funny stories about the seething world of dodgy property dealers—the scams, the auction rings, the way the auctioneers sometimes tried to keep out the ‘Stamford Hill cowboys’ by holding auctions on Yom Kippur or other holy days, and then the sight of all these Hasidic Jews in mufflers and dark glasses trying to bid without being seen. Or the great scam whereby they sold Judah Binstock a quarter acre of Ealing Common, without him realizing that the quarter acre was only two yards wide. Through Danny, I learned how Perec Rachman had seemingly solved the problem of ‘stats’— statutory or sitting tenants—who were the bane of Sixties property developers. The law gave them the right to stay in their flats at a fixed rent for life if they wanted—and they had a habit of living an awfully long time. But Rachman had certain robust methods, such as carrying out building works all round them, or taking the roof off, or ‘putting in the schwartzes’ (West Indians) or filling the rest of the house with prostitutes, which made stats eager to move.

So I gathered from Danny that the property business in which Alan was involved was not entirely honest. But my first hint of other forms of dishonesty came about fifteen months into the relationship when I went to a bookshop on Richmond Green. Alan had taken me there several times to buy me books of Jewish history and the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer—I accepted them gratefully, though I never read them. But on this occasion, I went alone and the book dealer, who was normally so friendly, said, ‘Where’s your friend?’

‘What friend?’

‘Alan Prewalski.’

‘I don’t know anyone of that name,’ I said truthfully.

‘Well, whatever he calls himself. Tell him I’m fed up with his bouncing cheques—I’ve reported him to the police.’

That evening I said to Alan—’Do you know anyone called Prewalski?’

‘Yes—my mother, my grandparents, why?’

I told him what the book dealer had said.

Alan said, ‘Well don’t go in there again. Or if you do, don’t tell him you’ve seen me. Say we’ve broken up.’

‘But what did he mean about the bouncing cheques?’

‘How should I know? Don’t worry about it.’

So that was a hint, or more than a hint. Then in Cambridge there was unmistakable proof. He and Danny had gone into Cambridge in a big way and were buying up a street called Bateman Street, so we often stayed there. One weekend I was moaning—I was always moaning—’I’m bored with Bateman Street’ and Danny said, ‘So am I—let’s drive to the country,’ so we drove out towards Newmarket. At a place called Six Mile Bottom, I saw a thatched cottage with a FOR SALE sign outside. ‘Look, how pretty,’ I said, ‘Why can’t you two buy nice places like that instead of horrible old slums?’ ‘Perhaps we can,’ said Alan, sliding the Bristol to a stop—’Fancy it, Danny?’ ‘Why not?’ So Alan parked the car and we all marched up to the door. An old lady answered it: ‘The agent didn’t tell me you were coming.’ ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ said Danny, ‘how very remiss of him.’ She must have liked his posh accent, which was so much more convincing than Alan’s, because she said, ‘Well, come in anyway—I’ll show you round.’

The cottage was full, overfull, of antique furniture: I found it gloomy and was bored within minutes. But Alan and Danny both seemed enchanted and kept admiring the beams, the polished floorboards, the pictures, the furniture. Having been rather crabby, the owner blossomed into friendliness and invited us to stay for coffee. While she was making it, Alan asked if he could go upstairs to the bathroom. A few minutes later I saw him going out to the car carrying something. Then he joined us for coffee and, after half an hour chatting, we left. In the car, Danny said, ‘Got it?’

Alan nodded.

‘Speed?’

‘Pretty sure.’

‘Got what?’ I said.

‘So was that your dream cottage?’ said Danny. ‘Will you and Alan live there happily ever after?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I found it gloomy.’

They both laughed. ‘You’re so difficult to please.’

Danny said he must get back to Bateman Street. I was still furious with him for laughing at me, so I said, ‘You promised me a day in the country—I’m not going back.’ Danny said we could drop him in Newmarket so we took him to the station, then went to a hotel for lunch. We were having a rather lugubrious meal when two men came into the dining room and one pointed the other towards our table. The man introduced himself as a detective. He said, ‘We’ve had a complaint from a Mrs so-and-so of Six Mile Bottom. She says two men and a girl visited her cottage this morning and afterwards she noticed that a valuable antique map by Speed was missing from one of the bedrooms.’ ‘Oh, Alan!’ I said. He shot me a look. ‘Perhaps we could have this conversation outside,’ he suggested. He went outside with the policeman. I waited a few minutes and then went to the Ladies, and from the Ladies, walked out the back door and away down the street. I had just enough money for a bus to Cambridge, and ran panting to find Danny in Bateman Street. ‘Alan’s been arrested!’ I told him. ‘He stole a map from that old lady!’

‘I’m sure there was a misunderstanding,’ he said smoothly. ‘I’ll sort it out. Why don’t you take the train back to London?’

‘I don’t have any money!’ I wailed.

He handed me a ten-pound note. ‘Don’t worry about Alan,’ he told me. I didn’t intend to: I hoped he was in prison.

He wasn’t of course; he bounced round to Clifden Road a few days later and took me out to dinner. ‘How could you steal from an old lady?’

‘I didn’t steal. She asked me to have the map valued.’

‘No she didn’t, I was with you.’

‘All right, she didn’t ask me. But I recognized that the map was by Speed and I thought if I got it valued for her, it would be a nice surprise.’

I knew he was lying, but I let it go. I said: ‘If you ever really stole something, I would leave you.’

He said, ‘I know you would, Minn.’

But actually I knew he had stolen something and I didn’t leave him, so we were both lying.

Soon afterwards, I did try to leave him. I was bored. I was bored with the sex, and especially Minn and Bubl, I was bored with the endless driving round, the waiting while he ran his mysterious errands, the long heavy meals in restaurants, the tussles in strange bedrooms, the fact that we never met anyone except Danny and Helen. I loved the evenings in Bedford Square when Danny played the harpsichord and Helen showed me her new clothes, but now they spent most of their time in Cambridge and Alan was never going to Cambridge again. I told Alan, ‘We’re finished—I’ve got to concentrate on my A levels.’ He said, ‘We’re not finished. I’ll come for you when you’ve done your A levels.’

On the evening I finished sitting my A levels, Alan took me out to dinner and proposed. I had wanted him to propose, as proof of my power, but I had absolutely no intention of accepting because of course I was going to Oxford. Eighteen years of my life had been dedicated to this end, so it was quite impertinent of him to suggest my giving it up. I relayed the news to my parents the next morning as a great joke—’Guess what? Alan proposed! He wants me to marry him this summer!’ To my complete disbelief, my father said, ‘Why not?’ Why not? Had he suddenly gone demented? ‘Because then I couldn’t go to Oxford.’ My father said, ‘Well—is that the end of the world? Look,’ he went on, ‘You’ve been going out with him for two years; he’s obviously serious, he’s a good man; don’t mess him around.’ I turned to my mother incredulously but she shook her head. ‘You don’t need to go to university if you’ve got a good husband.’

This was 1962, well before the advent of feminism. But even so, I felt a sense of utter betrayal, as if I’d spent eighteen years in a convent and then the Mother Superior had said, ‘Of course, you know, God doesn’t exist.’ I couldn’t believe my parents could abandon the idea of Oxford. But apparently they could and over the next few days they argued it every meal time—good husbands don’t grow on trees, you’re lucky to get this one (‘And you not even in the family way!’), why go to university if you don’t need to? Alan meanwhile was taking me to see houses, asking where I wanted to live when we were married. I couldn’t resist telling my schoolfriends, ‘I’m engaged!’ And they were all wildly excited and thrilled for me, and said, ‘You’ll never have to do Latin again!’ Even so, I was queasy—I’d always liked the sound of Oxford, I even liked writing essays, I wasn’t so keen to give up the idea. But my parents, especially my father, put great pressure on me. Why go to Oxford if I could marry Alan? And, they reminded me, I’d been saying all along that I couldn’t face another term at school.

This was true. In those days, if you were aiming for Oxford or Cambridge, you had to stay at school an extra term after A levels to prepare for the entrance exams. I was dreading it because Miss R. Garwood Scott, the headmistress, had flatly refused to make me a prefect and, while all the other Oxbridge candidates could spend their time in the prefects’ room, I would be left roaming the corridors or slouching round the playing field on my own, without any gang to protect me. But Miss R. Garwood Scott was adamant that I would never be a prefect even if I stayed at school a hundred years—I was a troublemaker, a bad influence, guilty of dumb insolence and making pupils laugh at teachers. I put a brave face on it, but I knew the next term was going to be the loneliest three months of my life. But then there was the glittering prize of Oxford at the end of it—I never doubted I would get in—and I had resolved it was a price I was willing to pay.

Events overtook me in the last few days of term. Miss R. Garwood Scott somehow got wind of my engagement and summoned me to see her. Was it true I was engaged? Yes, I said, but I would still like to take the Oxford exams. She was ruthless. I could either be engaged or take the exams but not both. When was the wedding and which church would it be in? Not in church, I said, because my fiancé was Jewish. Jewish! She looked aghast—’Don’t you realize that the Jews killed Our Lord?’ I stared at her. ‘So I won’t take the Oxford exams,’ I said. My little gang was waiting for me outside her study. ‘I told her I was leaving,’ I announced. ‘She tried to persuade me to stay but I refused.’ They all congratulated me and begged to be bridesmaids. Then I went to the bogs and cried my eyes out.

I told my parents: ‘I’m not going to Oxford, I’m marrying Alan.’ ‘Oh good!’ they said. ‘Wonderful.’ When Alan came that evening, they made lots of happy jokes about not losing a daughter but gaining a son. Alan chuckled and waved his hands about, poured drinks and proposed toasts—but I caught the flash of panic in his eyes. A few days later, probably no more than a week later, we were in the Bristol on our way to dinner when he said he just needed to pop into one of his flats to have a word with a tenant. Fine, I said, I’ll wait in the car. As soon as he went inside the house, I opened the glove compartment and started going through the letters and bills he kept in there. It was something I could have done on any one of a hundred occasions before—I knew he kept correspondence in the glove compartment, I knew the glove compartment was unlocked, I was often waiting in the car alone and had no scruples about reading other people’s letters. So why had I never done it before? And why did it seem the most obvious thing in the world to do now? Anyway the result was instantaneous. There were a dozen or more letters addressed to Alan Green, with a Twickenham address. And two bank statements addressed to Mr and Mrs Alan Green with the same address.

I behaved quite normally that evening though at the end, when he asked if Minn would welcome a visit from Bubl I replied smoothly that she was indisposed. By that stage, I was at least as good a liar as Alan. As soon as I got home, I looked in the phone book—and why had I never thought of doing that before?—and sure enough found an A. Green with a Popesgrove (Twickenham) number, and the address I’d seen on the letters. It was only about half a mile from my house, I actually passed it every day on the bus to school. I spent the night plotting and rehearsing what I would say, working out scripts for all eventualities. When I finally rang the number the next morning, it was all over in seconds. A woman answered. ‘Mrs Green?’ I said. ‘Yes.’ ‘I’m ringing about the Bristol your husband advertised for sale.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘is he selling it? He’s not here now but he’s usually back about six.’ That was enough or more than enough—I could hear a child crying in the background.

I took the train to Waterloo, and walked all the way to Bedford Square. Helen was in, and guessed as soon as she saw me—’You’ve found out?’

‘Yes,’ I said—’It’s not just that he’s married—he lives with her. And there’s a child.’

‘Two, actually.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I’m sorry. I wanted to. The other night when you said you were engaged, I told Danny we must tell you, but he said Alan would never forgive us.’

This was—what?—my third, fourth, fifth betrayal by adults? And I had really thought Helen was my friend.

‘What was Alan planning to do?’ I asked her. ‘Commit bigamy?’ ‘Yes,’ she said soberly. ‘That’s exactly what he intended to do. He felt he’d lose you if he didn’t. He loves you very much you know.’

I went home and raged at my parents—’You did this. You made me go out with him, you made me get engaged.’ My parents were white with shock—unlike me, they had no inkling before that Alan was dishonest. My mother cried. When Alan came that evening, my father went to the door and tried to punch him. I heard him shouting, ‘You’ve ruined her life!’ From my bedroom window, I saw Alan sitting in the Bristol outside with his shoulders shaking. Then my father strode down the front path and kicked the car as hard as he could, and Alan drove away. I found the sight of my father kicking the car hilarious and wanted to shout out of the window, ‘Scratch it, Dad! Scratch the bodywork—that’ll really upset him!’

It was a strange summer. My parents were grieving and still in deep shock. I, the less deceived, was faking far more sorrow than I felt. After all, I never loved him whereas I think perhaps they did. I stayed in my room playing César Franck’s symphony in D minor very loudly day after day. My main emotion was rage, followed by puzzlement about what to do next. I had no plans for the summer or—now—for the rest of my life. When my A level results came, I not only got the top marks I fully expected in English and French, but also—mirabile dictu—top marks in Latin. I slapped the letter on the breakfast table and said, ‘You see? I could have gone to Oxford.’

My father took the day off work, probably for the first time in his life, and went to see Miss R. Garwood Scott. God knows what humble pie he had to eat—and he hated humble pie—but he came back with a grim face and a huge concession. She had agreed I could be entered for the Oxford exams as a Lady Eleanor Holles pupil, and I could sit the exams at school. But she was adamant that I could not attend the school—it was up to him to arrange private tutorials. Mum and Dad talked far into the night about how they would find a tutor, and how they would pay. A day or two later—presumably at Miss R. Garwood Scott’s instigation—one of my English teachers rang and volunteered to be my tutor. She even offered to teach me for free, though I think my father insisted on paying. So I spent that autumn writing essays and going to tutorials, working hard and feeling lonely. My parents were in such deep grief that meal times were silent. Once or twice I saw the Bristol parked at the end of the street, but I was never remotely tempted to go to it.

One day that winter, sitting at my bedroom table writing an essay, I saw a woman walking slowly along the street looking at our house. I guessed immediately that she was Alan Green’s wife. She was prettier than I’d imagined her, but of course mumsy and old. A few minutes later she walked back again and came up the path. My mother must have been watching from the downstairs window because she shouted to me, ‘Stay in your room,’ and then fetched the woman in. They talked for about half an hour. My mother wouldn’t tell me afterwards what Mrs Green had said—with her typical beta brain logic she said it was none of my business. But she couldn’t resist saying, with strange malice, ‘You weren’t the first, you know. He had other girlfriends before you. Anyway,’ she went on, ‘he’s in prison now—best place for him.’ For a moment, I thought she meant he was in prison for having girlfriends, but Mum said no—he’d been caught bouncing cheques. He was charged with three offences, asked for 190 others to be taken into account, and was sentenced to six months.

I sat the Oxford exams, I went for interviews, I was accepted by St Anne’s. In my second term at Oxford, one of the nuns at the convent where I boarded handed me a note which she said a man had brought. It said ‘Bubl respectfully requests the pleasure of the company of Minn for dinner at the Randolph Hotel tonight at 8.’ I tore it up in front of the nun. ‘Don’t ever let that man in,’ I told her, ‘He’s a con man.’ I went round to Merton to tell my boyfriend Dick and he said, ‘Well, I’d like to meet him—let’s go to the Randolph.’ So we did. Alan was sitting in the lobby—on time, for once in his life—looking older, tireder, seedier than I remembered. His face lit up when he saw me and fell when I said, ‘This is my boyfriend, Dick.’ Alan said politely, ‘Won’t you please both stay to dinner as my guests?’ ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ I snapped and Dick looked at me with horror— he had never heard me use that tone before. Alan silently withdrew a large roll of banknotes from his pocket and I nodded, okay.

Dick was enchanted by Alan. He loved his Israeli kibbutz stories, his fishing with dynamite stories, his Molotov cocktail stories. I had heard them all before, except his new prison stories. Alan said that when he got out of prison, he headed immediately for Sark—and here he cast me such a doe-eyed soppy look I almost spat—but he was rearrested as soon as he got off the plane in Jersey, because he had passed some dud cheques in the Channel Islands which were not ‘taken into account’. As Dick walked me back to my convent, he said, ‘I see why you were taken in by him—he’s quite a charmer, isn’t he?’ ‘No,’ I said furiously, ‘he’s a disgusting criminal con-man and don’t you dare say you like him!’

Was Alan a con man? Well, he was a liar and a thief who used charm as his jemmy to break into my parents’ house and steal their most treasured possession, which was me. Of course Oxford, and time, would have stolen me away eventually, but Alan made it happen almost overnight. Until our ‘engagement’, I’d thought my parents were ignorant about many things (fashion, for instance, and Existentialism, and why Jane Austen was better than Georgette Heyer) but I accepted their moral authority unquestioningly. So when they casually dropped the educational evangelism they’d sold me for eighteen years and told me I should skip Oxford to marry Alan, I thought, ‘I’m never going to take your advice about anything ever again.’ And when he turned out to be married, it was as if, tacitly, they concurred. From then on, whenever I told them my plans, their only response was a penitent, ‘You know best.’

What did I get from Alan? An education—the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Alan. I learned about expensive restaurants and posh hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford—I could read a menu, I could recognize a finger bowl, I could follow an opera, I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Alan entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, conventional boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Alan to thank.

But there were other lessons Alan taught me that I regret learning. I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of ‘living a lie’. I came to believe that other people—even when you think you know them well—are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving. So that when, thirty years later, I heard that ‘Minn!’ on the phone from Jerusalem, I hated him more, not less, for all the intervening years.

A Ghost Story
Keeping it in the family