fool thinks that one hard day's snowing makes a winter resort. He came
whizzing down east Heath Road on skis, his sticks flailing like broken
arms, woolly tassels on his pokie hat flying scarlet and white. On the
suddenly narrowing kerb opposite my window where cars normally lose their
hub caps with a profitable clang of notification (£1.50 is the going
price) he struck and fell all of a heap.
"Did you see that?" he asked, jubilantly, when I helped him up. "That's a
great obstacle. Boy, I'm going to turn this place into a winter sport's
paradise. The Swiss will come to Hampstead Heath for their holidays. It's
relatively undiscovered. Look, I'm the only one skiing!"
He was the only one who didn't know it was a road. It just happened to be
impassable that day. If
you're going to build an Alpine Butlins it's as well to remember that
there have been about five such days in the past hundred years. One of
them was around 1926 when High Street, Burwell, Cambs looked like a white
railway cutting. I must remember things like this when I join the
programme panel of "Looks Familiar" next week and they show us our comics.
"O! Look!" Mum-my cried. "We
can-not get out!" The lov-ly white snow was pil-ed high a-bove the kit-chen
win-dow. Does that mean Lit-tle Jac-kie can-not go to school? No such
blood-y luck. "Hoo-ray! We can slide down from the bed-room win-dow on-to
the road!" yells joll-y Pe-ter.
I have to interrupt the programme here
with a news flash. There was a tap at the door and Aunty came in. This is too bad really; she knows when I say "come
in" I don't mean her. If you remember she's Maggie's first flatmate in
London and she's always bringing the bad news from Ghent. Last week she
telephoned and told me about the flight to Scotland before I could stop
her. I had to go to bed. I said: "Nothing about Maggie and you can make a
cup of tea."
"She wants her little black woollen hat," she said.
I sat at the typewriter blocking
my ears up trying to concentrate on this piece. Twenty-four hours to
deadline and I don't even know what it's about now. I've seen that dear
little head-hugging woollen hat all over town for the past six
months, bobbing down from the
tube station at six o'clock, coming out of University College at
lunchtime. I followed it into the gents once. It goes with the long
herringbone grey coat with the separate fur collar she was so proud of
picking up for a fiver. The hat shouldn't have been with the rest of her
stuff in the boot; I haven't had the courage to open since Fizz did the
big lift. I hope he hasn't swiped my spare wheel.
"I'm going to live with Maggie in Brussels," Aunty said next. This is the
kind of thing that makes me tremble; you'd think six months as a European
and Maggie would be ready for
Moscow. Instead she's going back to where I found her. Never
mind the tea this was the
point of no return. I told Aunty she could tell me anything that was good,
nothing that was bad. What she didn't know was that after a three-month
emotional battle, this afternoon I posted off a simple letter to Maggie at
her last known address. Taking it to the postbox involved the exhausting
mental and physical processes of lifting a brick in a dream.
I wondered if you would like to spend Christmas
with me somewhere nice. No strings, no dramatics, perhaps the beginning of
a new friendship whatever you may have heard or read, there is nobody
I was going to put three kisses at the bottom, but then only put two for
fear of scaring her off. That is if she is not already married with a
number of demanding step-children. What a difference a year makes. Last
Christmas we were in Puerto de la Cruz, comfortably ignoring each other,
she sunbathing by the pool and
me above on the fifth floor balcony of our suite writing a short
story called "The Ninth Life and Death of Crusoe Cat". When Maggie came
up to rest and shower or get out of the sun she gave her little two-note
whistle (whistle G and E, one musical third descending) to announce her
arrival back into my life.
"I've got her telephone number," Aunty said.
She can keep it. It would be easier now to telephone the Queen. "She says
she's in every night." This could be good or bad, depending on who else is
in. "She's painted the flat yellow." That's a nice permanent
colour. "She came home ill one evening and no-one even came into her
Now we're getting warmer. Well, Richard, a good friend and ex-flatmate
of mine is not exactly the paternal type, apart from his beard which is
establishment. His basic training was in marine engineering though he's
now in computers, plugging Europe into the grid, replacing people with
knobs. He's a good beer
man, once played semi-pro clarinet and shares
my love for revivalist and
traditional jazz. Having Maggie in his flat in Brussels has been almost
like keeping her in the family.
"Take good care of her, Richard," I asked him that evening last May when I
walked him part-way home after his offer. "Mmm... mmm... mmm," he said in
his well-known style. Which is sufficient communication among friends, dammit,
unless you happen to be dying.
The optimistic lunatic sees this as a poignant opportunity to save
Maggie's life and win her love again.
"Drink this darling..." Chicken soup made with real chickens. No, that's
no good. Heinz tomato soup always restored her to life when she was
shattered and could eat nothing. Remember Saroyan's "The Struggle of Jim
Patros with Death":
"Mother," I said, "don't cry for me. If I'm going to die, I'm going to
die. We come into this world to live one life. Please get me some chicken
"You've sat up all night, haven't you?" Maggie asks. It was nothing. The
crisis came at 4 a.m. but only I and Poodle knew about it. The snores
faltered, changed key, stopped... Quick, chicken broth, bagpipes, the hand
on the temple pouring out love and prana and then: tub-thump, tub-thump,
tub-thump... Do ye not hear the pipes? The distant sound of "The Road to
"Jack, darling, you've saved my life and now it's yours again," says
Maggie. Ah, whisht, lassie. You've got the strength of the hills in you
from running barefoot through Hamilton as a child. "Keep giving her the
soup," I tell Richard when I leave, not wishing to outstay a welcome.
"Maggie is going to live..." "Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm," he says (pleased). And so
"She's really looking forward to me going over," says Aunty.
She watches my face when she says quite simple things and the sensitive
writer gets the feeling there's a
message somewhere in the air. So far as I can gather, it is this: Aunty thinks
that Maggie is a happy, flat-sharing bachelor girl again. Which is where I
came in five years ago.
What a golden memory. Only trouble is Maggie is still sweeping up.
"She's saving every penny she can to pay her bills in London," was the way
Aunty put it. They're not her bills at all, it's our joint housekeeping
account. One TV play would wipe them out.
"So shall I buy Maggie a new woolly hat or will you?" Aunty asked. What a
dear old soul she is, trying to throw us together again. "About a pound at
Peter Robinson's," she hinted. "She doesn't mind black or mauve." "Morve,"
Maggie would call it. Her ears get very cold if they're not covered, then
she gets a little wax inside which you can see if you're looking for it.
In six months I haven't found one girl with wax in her ears.
The optimistic fool thinks that one woolly pull-on pokie hat makes a
Christmas. Come out of Redruth station (buses to Penzance, Falmouth and St
Ives) turn left down to the road junction and then right: cross the road
and you can have a cup of tea in the fish-and-chip cafe where Cornish
housewives in their anoraks sit nursing their shopping. Sometimes the reunion is here, the door opening, the rain coming
in, the little double-whistle.
"Hulloo!" she sings. And I never met anyone who sings "hulloo". I have to
admit that she doesn't talk in Scottie dialect except in
my pieces, nor has she ever said "the noo" unless I asked her to.
"Why do you make me talk like a bumpkin?" she used to ask. Now she asks
me where the car is and I have
to break the news - it was her air fare or the car.
Still, the first time we hit Cornwall
it was without a car. We were still shocked from our police station
ordeal, relieved to be pedestrians, waiting along blowy country roads for
derelict country buses. One day a small fat boy tucked Poodle under his
arm and played her like a banjo as he sang to his schoolmates:
"Dibber dabber dibber dabber dibber dabber dib..."
The holly, food, decorations we can get in Redruth's steep High Street,
then the bus to Portreath and Mrs Bennet will have the harbourside flat at
the top of the stone steps friendly and warm.
"Good morning, Mrs Tangye" the villagers called to Maggie after the first
few visits when they thought they knew us - and the gull on our roof.
Last things now from the village supermarket, crossing the green in the dark, the stink from
the ebbing tide in the stagnant harbour, a few bottles collected from the pub. No friends, no telephone, no radio, no television,
separate beds in separate rooms, probing towards each other like new flatmates.
"Are you going to be warm enough?" she asks.
We laugh together for the first time.
Friendship instead of the suffocation of being lovers or
married. The past, the experience, the backlog of relationships she
always felt was missing in her life and present in
mine - she now has. What I now
have is her strength of character; I can tell people who offend me,
particularly when they offend the Maggie in me, to piss off. I find myself
fighting to preserve her standards all the time. I don't mind being
unpopular. You grow up through your woman if you're ever lucky enough to
meet the right one.
"I wish you'd brought the poodle," she says, bored already. It's nice to
be bored when you've waited six months for it. But dogs are sentimental
hooks; I didn't want to do anything that might keep her with me, make it
hard for her to return to her home.
So it's Christmas Eve and we sit side by side and tie up our presents,
pile them in candlelight either side of the electric fire. Outside the
harbour is filling up again...
"If there's any hope I'll let you know," Aunty said (she flies on Sunday).
I had to stop that one quickly. There's nothing worse than a spy for
The optimistic idiot
(didn't I say somewhere?) spends Christmas alone, working, happy, leaving
the cage door open. Somewhere outside on a twig his bird is whistling but not to anyone in
particular. She knows that her poet is available and
meanwhile she's wearing his
woollen pokie hat to keep her ears warm.
"Dear Baby," also says Saroyan, "remembering
you is the only truth I know. Having known you is the only beauty of my
life. In my heart there is one smile, the smile of your heart in mine when
we were together..."
(The Guardian, Saturday 2 December 1972)