Sunday, 12 March 2017

An episode from my ultra-pure youth.

The One that Got Away

She was sitting on one of those uncomfortable iron slatted benches that used to be anchored on concrete bases in our parks. This one faced a deserted playing field beside the County Education Centre.
     I was strolling round the edge of the field. It was a warm summer evening in my last term at the Grammar School. She and I were part of a gathering of some fifty pupils from a number of schools in the South Bucks area. From Friday to Sunday we were expected to converse, sing, read, make jokes and declaim poetry entirely in French. In its way it was the definitive "le weekend". The Academie Francaise may have hated that adulterative phrase and its recent intrusion into the purity of their beloved language but they would surely have approved of the idea: English boys and girls spending a whole weekend being as near French as possible.
     I was usually shy around girls, even at seventeen. I'd been at an all-boys school since I was eleven; my pastimes were either solitary reading or the obligatory "healthy outdoor pursuits"; and my female cousins lived too far away to allow social forgathering or covert exploration.  But Frenchness it seems works on other levels than language.
     Judy was small and slight with short, very blond hair. She would not be called pretty but she had an air of calm self-possession that immediately attracted me.She had two books on the bench beside her and one open on her lap. She looked up as I approached. She didn't smile a welcome but neither did she look away.
     I forget what I said to open the conversation but it was almost certainly a question about what she was reading.  It was not in French. Mock horror from me; a half smile from her. Perhaps, I suggested, this was why she was sitting alone, out of sight of inquisitive teachers. 
     Within seconds we discovered a shared passion for the Romantic poets. We chatted, we smiled, we finished each other's quotes from Shelley, Keats, Byron, Browning and his Elizabeth. We even dipped into Rimbaud and Baudelaire. We delighted in our shared enthusiasm.
     The light was fading. I don't remember if any others strolled by; we might not have noticed if they had.
     Someone had to break up our joyous tete-a-tete. Two seventeen-year-olds of opposite sexes sitting together in the gathering dusk of a summer evening could not be allowed. In 1952 the parameters of moral turpitude were clearly defined.
     'Come on now, you two. Inside with you. The dance will be starting soon.'  
     Our joint protests, even in untidy French, fell on deaf ears.'Oh, Mamselle. Nous n'aimons pas la danse. Est-ce que possible que nous restons ici? Nous lisons les poemes Francaises. It's French poetry we're reading.' (hastily shoving aside the Shelley and bringing out the Baudelaire.)
     Weekends like this always finished with a dance. It was a good excuse to keep all the hormones - raging, simmering or apparently dormant - herded together in one place under the vigilant eyes of chaperoning schoolmasters and mistresses. No matter that Mr H.C. (Harry) Todd, our Francophile English teacher, had whisked Miss Elizabeth Thompson (History) off to France last summer in the sidecar of his motorbike - a cause of much lurid speculation in the upper forms . 
     We went into the hall. Judy disappeared either into the crowd or to her dormitory. I can't remember if I enjoyed the dance or even if I danced at all. I never saw her again.
     Our brief meeting is sweet in my memory.