The things life teaches you are not always valuable. Many people learn not to trust, not to hope, not to give. But if you are lucky in your circumstances – have loving parents, are spared extreme poverty or early exposure to loss, violence or frustration – and if you are equipped with a reasonable amount of natural wit, the chances are that what it teaches will be useful. I, for example, am convinced that two of the things I’ve learnt have contributed a great deal to the fact that, looking back on my life, I see it as being, in spite of various setbacks, a happy one.
My two valuable lessons are: avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness. Both of these can be dangerous, and in conjunction with sexuality even lethal. The first has plunged innumerable couples into disappointing, sometimes disastrous, marriages, and it is far from uncommon for the second to cause horrors such as a man choosing to murder his wife rather than see her prefer the company of another man. And even well short of such an extreme result, it can and often does cause a great deal of distress and pain.
It was fairly easy for me to learn both of these lessons because I have a prosaic personality and little natural inclination towards possessiveness, but it is far from easy for many people. Some even consider attitudes which I think poisonous to be necessary or beautiful, and it would be naïve to imagine that argument could change their minds. Probably the best one can hope for is that romanticism and possessiveness should be less often taught by what the young read, sing and see on screens.
This is not the place to go into detailed autobiography (plenty of which I have done elsewhere), but my beliefs were learnt from my own experience, so that experience has to be sketched in. I can say, therefore, that the most valuable relationship of my life lasted for forty-odd years because neither my partner nor I was possessive. Nor were we romantic. We just happened to know each other well enough to talk and listen without inhibition, and to recognize that we could do this from our first meeting, which appears to me to be the necessary bedrock for love. What Barry and I had between us began when I was forty-three, passed through years of sexual harmony and others of solid friendship, and ended only when he became too ill and I (approaching my ninetieth birthday) too old for us to carry on. At that point, luckily for both of us, he was rescued by a loving niece who swooped in and carried him off to spend his last days in his native Jamaica. My body recognized my relief at this before my mind did. For months I had been enduring a lot of pain from what I thought was rheumatism. Three weeks after he left I suddenly realized that the pain had disappeared.
Quite unlike this relationship was one that hit me when I was twenty-three and extremely vulnerable because I was recovering from heartbreak. I had fallen in love at the age of fifteen with Tony, to whom I became engaged when I was seventeen. That, suprisingly, was a sensible love because we suited each other well. The snag was that he was a person who lived in the moment with unusual intensity, which made him wonderful to be with but dangerous to be apart from, and apart we were when he, who was in the Air Force, was posted to Egypt, and I decided that I was enjoying my last year at Oxford too much to give it up, so that instead of getting married before he left we would wait until that year was over. And then the Second World War began. Knowing him as I did, I could never blame him for falling in love with a girl who was in his present moment, but I did suffer greatly from the way in which he abandoned me by simply going silent, without explanation, for two years. It was a miserable ordeal and felt like the end of everything, because I had never foreseen any future for myself other than marriage: it seemed as though I had lost my life as well as my love.
After leaving university I was living at home in Norfolk with my mother (my father was away in the Army). I was doing my best to lead a normal existence, but it was difficult because none of the men I met had any quality apart from ‘not being Tony’. I had a strong feeling of being ‘dead’.
Our house was on the estate of my maternal grandparents, just across the park from their much larger house, which had been taken over by the Army for the duration of the war and now sheltered a shifting population of soldiers being trained for active service. We felt, as everyone did, that we must be hospitable to the officers in charge of those soldiers, dumped as the poor fellows were far from their homes and families, to live in considerable discomfort with people not necessarily of their choice, prior to being sent off to God knew where and the possibility of death. So my mother and I did what we felt to be our duty, and invited the major in charge to come across the park and have supper with us.
The man who appeared, called Stephen, was in his mid to late forties, extremely tall, good-looking, and – it soon appeared – from a background similar to our own: country people, but civilized country people, whose involvement with their horses and dogs didn’t prevent their houses from being full of books. He was Irish, but his job in peacetime had been housemaster in one of the smaller English public schools. He was easy to talk to, and obviously pleased to have been rescued from loneliness by people who turned out to be congenial. I suppose about half an hour passed before I realized that perhaps this was a man who was not just ‘not Tony’. We were due to go a day or two later to a small dance being given by friends of ours who lived twelve miles away, and I was pleased when my mother asked him if he would like to come with us. Yes, he would; and I, who had been feeling pretty tepid about that dance, began to look forward to it.
We spent a lot of that evening dancing together, and by the end of it his ‘not being Tony’ was completely replaced by his being Stephen; and I – oh God, how wonderful: I was not feeling dead any more!
My mother was driving that evening, and a friend of hers had come with us, so it was natural that on the homeward journey Stephen and I should sit in the back of the car. At once his presence beside me became electric and I could feel my hand, which was resting on the seat between us, begin to hum with invitation. I was careful not to make any provocative movement, but that very care seemed to increase the intensity of the humming, so that I was hardly surprised when his hand reached out to cover mine. Mine turned over so that we were palm to palm, and the shock of it was like that of two naked bodies meeting. After a couple of minutes he withdrew his hand – oh no! – but it was only to slip his arm round me and draw me closer, so there I was, talking lightly to the two women in the front seats as though nothing was happening, while this secret rapture was melting my bones. There wasn’t a shadow of doubt, from that moment on, that we would soon be making love.
I suppose Stephen must have been thinking, probably with amusement, something on the lines of, ‘Well I never, this apparently respectable girl isn’t half ready for it!’; but as the affair developed he must have realized that I had fallen wildly, abjectly in love with him. There began to be a gentleness, even a tenderness, in his behaviour that suggested as much. He clearly was not a man accustomed to having affairs. To this day I can remember every significant word he spoke to me: after our first love-making – ‘Oh my God, I’d forgotten I could feel like this’; after he’d been back to Ireland on a week’s leave – ‘I thought of you all the time, even at the most unsuitable moments’; during our last love-making – ‘I don’t suppose you’ll believe this, but I do love you’. I wished he hadn’t made that last remark, because he was right: I didn’t believe him. Or rather, I said to myself, ‘When he says “love” he doesn’t mean what I am feeling.’ But I never dreamt of telling him what I was feeling. I never asked or told him anything, because I didn’t feel I had the right to. If I asked I would be intruding on forbidden territory, and if I told I would be burdening him with unwelcome information. That was what I felt. I suppose it was because he was so much older than I was, and his being married made him, in my eyes, a different kind of person.
Because I knew quite soon that he was married. I’d had to go to London for two days and on one of those days my mother had spent an evening with him. Although I had thought I was being cleverly discreet, I don’t doubt that she could see my enraptured condition only too clearly. When I got home she said: ‘Darling, you do know that Stephen is married, don’t you?’ ‘Yes, of course,’ I snapped, and went quickly out of the room before (so I hoped) she could see I was lying. Shutting myself into the lavatory, I thought: ‘What now? I suppose I ought to stop this quickly, before it becomes impossible?’ And the answer came instantly: ‘I’m not going to. It will end in tears but so what, I don’t care. I simply don’t care. Nothing on earth is going to make me give this up!’
Our affair was short, a matter of a few embraces in the backs of cars and on woodland walks, and only two blissful nights in bed together, before the Army spirited him away to who knows where (wartime destinations were always strictly secret), after which only two letters and a sadness that was made more shattering by my mother finding out everything. (Fortunately I was able quickly to find a job that took me away from home, thereby allowing my mother and me eventually to recover our mutual love.)
I never dared to suppose that Stephen would think of getting a divorce and asking me to marry him, but if he had done so I would certainly have said yes, and if he survived the war (oh, how I hope he did) that wonderful, awe-inspiring being would have turned into an Irish schoolmaster in the most boring kind of school, and I would have become a schoolmaster’s wife. And that, very probably, would have ended in disaster. Such speculation is, of course, idle, but I was going to learn for a fact that I am not good wife material, so I can’t deny that it could have happened.
I used to suppose that my unwifeliness was the result of suffering early and discouraging misfortunes in my love life, and those may indeed have contributed to it; but now I think that I could not have slid into it so easily and totally without discomfort unless there had been an innate disposition towards it. There had always been a lack of the maternal instinct. As a child I despised dolls, and later I remember thinking, when looking at a small baby, ‘I’d much rather pick up a puppy.’ That shocked me. Tony had enjoyed imagining the children we would have, and I had recognized my own lack of enthusiasm for this game, but not how deep it went. I quickly told myself, after the puppy incident, that once I had a child of my own no doubt I would love it: that must be how it worked, so stop worrying. Perhaps I was right about that. Perhaps. It is true that when, in my forties, my body tricked me into pregnancy I did experience intense happiness, but to this day I am disconcerted by the speed with which I recovered from the miscarriage. I expected something far worse than the one dreary little dream I had, soon after leaving the hospital, and I have never had a single wistful thought about that child. I suspect that a streak of beady-eyed detachment that I can detect in myself steers me away from very strong emotional commitment. The role that seems to me most comfortable is not that of Wife, but that of the Other Woman. And in that role I am good, because I have never for a moment expected or wanted to wreck anyone’s marriage.
What I was really happy with was a lover who had a nice wife to do his washing and look after him if he fell ill, so that I could enjoy the plums of love without having to munch through the pudding. That was what I had during the first eight years of my relationship with Barry. As soon as his wife divorced him and the munching began, clouds began to gather, to be dispersed in a way which must have appeared to onlookers a bit odd. I ceased to want him as a lover, he found someone else who did, she moved in with us and became my best and closest friend, which she still is, and for the next six years we three lived together as happy as can be. She – Sally – was much younger than we were, so eventually she decided to move out and get married. By that time we were so firmly knitted together as ‘family’ that we didn’t lose her – we simply absorbed her husband – and in the years that followed they and their two children could be relied on to help us keep going. Because gradually we did need helping. Barry’s health began to fail and as he got iller and iller, I got older and older. By the time my ninetieth birthday was approaching, looking after him . . . well, I remember thinking, ‘Talk about munching! I might just as well have been a wife after all.’ It is blood-chilling to think of all the old couples who have to plough on together without our luck.
That luck consisted partly of the support we received from our beloved ‘family’, and finally even more from the generosity of Barry’s family. When he was rescued by them, so was I.
Those long years we spent together were, in spite of their sad end, thoroughly rewarding as far as I was concerned. During them I was able to enjoy a relationship while living my own life and discovering myself, as I don’t think I could have done in an ordinary marriage, where very often a woman’s happiness, or at least contentment, has to be won by learning to shape herself into a good fit in another person’s life. And a marriage plunged into while blinded by an abject romantic passion such as mine for Stephen . . . well, one can’t be sure, but I would certainly never bet on its working well. So, when my mother told me that Stephen was married, ought I to have erased the possibility of disaster by being sensible? Am I sorry that I didn’t do that?
No, I am not. Everything I say about how my life developed is true, but still, without the memory of that delicious passion, it would have been much the poorer. So much for the wisdom of old age!
Photograph © Yvonne Thompson