Sunday, 25 March 2012

Duty and curiosity

The sudden chill was a reminder of a winter not yet gone. I shivered in my black merino Italian suit, wishing now that I had worn my long coat as well. But, it had seemed sunny when had arrived, and I always hated to be too warm …

“Too warm” would have been inappropriate, in any case. A certain chill is, I think de rigueur at a funeral. There had even been a few crows pecking around on the grass outside – or were they ravens? Death may be the one certainty facing us all, yet few of us care to contemplate what it conventionally involves. If we are lucky, it will be friends and relatives gathered for a brief service of remembrance: homilies said, tears shed, then off to the reception for sausage rolls and little triangular sandwiches.

Who would come to mine, I wondered? I was the youngest of my family, and so assumed I would outlive my siblings. There were my children, of course, and they would hopefully (assuming the unhappy event was sufficiently distant) have wives and children of their own by then. The Screaming Banshee? Probably only if she were allowed to dance on my grave. Then there were my friends, some of whom at least would be bothered enough to make an appearance, and (being optimistic) some really important people I hadn't met yet – the imaginary grieving widow? Think positive! And, being 20 years younger than me, there was also the possibility that Charlotte would still be looking pretty hot even by then. Black always suited her, too.

All things considered, then, I could see that Eleanor actually had a pretty good turn-out. Naturally, I didn't know a lot of them – I wasn't really close to the woman, and certainly not for the past 15 years – but I guessed that was the sister from Wales who used to get mentioned, and various friends from various stages of her life. Including my mother, of course, who was the main reason I was there – Eleanor Morrison had been one of her closest friends, and I knew she would want to be at Eleanor's funeral to say goodbye. I also knew that my mother would not have wanted to come alone, and so there I was. A son's duty.

That was not the entire truth. It was reason enough, to be sure – but I did have another incentive for making an appearance at Eleanor Morrison's funeral. An incentive which owed more to curiosity, and to my own past.

I'd known the Morrisons only vaguely while growing up. They no longer lived nearby; my family had moved away shortly before I was born. But, prior to that, the families had been close, and my elder siblings and the three Morrison girls were of a similar age and had a lot of shared memories.

Not my memories. But, fate can play the strangest of hands. Scroll forward to the 1990's, when I was living in London, with my career on a high and the single life treating me well. Perhaps not that well – I remember a succession of fleeting relationships that, while fun at the time, left me feeling dissatisfied and longing for something more. But, it was the high summer: I was young, I was going places, I had money in my pocket, a flat in one of the nicer parts of town, and a white Porsche 911 that I loved more than all the women I'd ever had rolled together, if that were possible. And, I also had my mother pop down for a visit, coincidently while Eleanor Morrison was visiting her middle daughter Anna in the south-west of the city.

So, it was natural to meet up at the daughter's house one evening for dinner. And, it was natural, thereafter, for me to keep in touch with Anna, as a family friend who lived just down the road, and completely unremarkable for Anna to invite me along to a party at one of her friend's houses a couple of weeks later.

It was a dull night, so I went, despite it being held in one of the outer London suburbs and my misgivings about probably being the youngest person there, allied to that fact that I wouldn't know anyone apart from Anna Morrison and her taciturn boyfriend. Although, Anna had informed me that
“Jenny will be there, and she's really looking forward to seeing you again”.

Jenny. The youngest of the Morrison girls, who also lived in London somewhere, but who I was straining my memory to remember. Anna was at least vaguely familiar from family weddings and the like, but Jenny I could only place through things that had been said about her. Jenny the rebel. Jenny the bohemian. Jenny the great worry on her mother's mind. Jenny who had run off aged 17 with a much older man, and who was then married and divorced before the the age of 25.

I didn't remember ever meeting Jenny at all, but I suppose I must have done at some point in my childhood, when I was probably a lot more interested in what Doctor Who was getting up to.

I took the Porsche. It offered the prospect of a rapid get-away if the party turned out to be too unspeakably awful, without having the long, awkward wait for a cab. Plus, in those magical days before speed cameras multiplied like bacteria, and every road was “improved” to be as pleasant to drive on as a cart-track, it was an opportunity to let her out for a bit, and enjoy the banshee-wail of the flat six boxer-motor.

I was wrong about being the youngest person at the party. But it was pretty unspeakable all the same, as the guests consisted of two age groups: the 45+ squad that included the hostess, Anna Morrison and the rest of the adults, and an extremely awkward gang of young teenagers, aged 12-15, built around the hostesses son. I felt like some strange exhibition piece, in my Hugo Boss raw silk jacket and Ralph Lauren polo shirt – a piece of urban sophistication cast adrift in suburbia.

I was, in fact, contemplating a swift exit, when Anna tapped me on the shoulder and announced that Jenny had arrived.

“Hello Ben.” Jenny seemed to recognise me. The feeling wasn't mutual, but I didn't care. Rationally, I knew Jenny wasn't that much younger than her sister, and was therefore a lot older than I was, but she certainly didn't look it. She was tiny, barely five feet tall, with delicate, bird-like features and huge brown eyes. Shoulder-length, chestnut hair, and a sophisticated rock-chick ensemble of black jeans, black leather jacket and cropped t-shirt (oh, that midriff!) completed the picture. Suddenly, the prospect of spending the rest of the evening at that party didn't seem to awful at all.

Jenny and I didn't leave each other's side for the remainder of the party. The sexual attraction was intense, electric and overpowering. I drove her home at the end of the night, and she practically squirmed with pleasure in the Porsche's leather bucket seat. When we kissed, I was consumed with wanting her.

And so it began. There was, to be sure, a frisson of guilt about the whole thing, what with her being older and (in theory) an old family friend. But any doubts were soon cast aside once I had taken her to bed for the first time – the sex was terrific. And, Jenny was sweet, affectionate, and fun to be with, and certainly didn't act like a more mature woman. A bit scatty at times, in fact, but that seemed like no problem in the early haze of deep lust.

Eventually, we moved in together – a first for me at the time. Now, it wasn't exactly love's young dream – more a practical solution to Jenny's financial problems – but it seemed great at first. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn't coming home to an empty flat, with last night's detritus lying exactly where I had left it. I wasn't waking up alone on a quiet Sunday morning and feeling the day yawning emptily ahead of me.

But, after a while, problems began to emerge. Our families found out, and mine was distinctly disapproving. Also, the trouble with being a rebel and a bohemian in your youth is that you end up still working in a shop when you are in your 40's, and Jenny continued to take a very traditional view of male/female relationships when it came to paying for things. I started to resent the fact that I was paying for absolutely everything, not just the exotic holidays and expensive nights out, but the weekly shopping and the mortgage and the utility bills as well. I also began to question whether this was really it – didn't I want to get married someday, to someone with a similar age and education to myself, and who wanted to have children at some point?

There was another factor, too, which only really emerged towards the end of our relationship …

“Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end” - the movie Cocktail does include a few words of wisdom. After a couple of years, Jenny and I did end badly, and in a way that left me with a serious legacy of guilt. I was the one, after all, who called time and chucked her out.

And that was it, for some 15 years, during which I loved and lost, got married and divorced, became a father, moved out of London, saw my life hit rock-bottom and and then start to move forward again, although what it was now moving forward towards I had no idea.

And there I was at her mother's funeral, and there was Jenny with her sisters on the other side of the chapel, and I didn't know what the hell I was going to say to her.

Curiosity about Jenny, of course, had been my strong incentive for coming. I hadn't set eyes on her since that awful day, 15 years ago, when she had taken the last of her things (and quite a few of mine, favourite CD's in particular) and left my flat for the last time. One thing she left behind was a silly soft toy boa constrictor, which I had bought for her in a moment of high spirits on a day out somewhere. “You can keep the snake,” were her final, telling, words.

So, what was she like now? Had she got over me (oh, the vanity we all share that ex's never do!)? Had she found happiness? Was she married, content, settled? And, perhaps most of all, what did she look like now? She must be pretty ancient, I thought – I never did find out exactly how old she was, but she was certainly in her '40's when we were together, which must make her pushing 60 by now. And, no one looks good at that age.

Except for Jenny. Looking across the chapel, I was amazed how virtually nothing seemed to have changed. The long chestnut hair was now a cropped blonde bob, but it really suited her. She had certainly not put on any weight, and was elegantly clad in a black velvet suit and cream blouse. Her face had not changed at all – the delicate, bird-like features seem to have barely added a wrinkle.

It was later, at the reception, that we actually spoke. There was an initial, polite exchange: my expression of sympathies, her thanks for my attending. Jenny was upset, naturally, but her mother had been sick for a long time, so her death hadn't come as a shock. And, after the catharsis of the service itself, the general mood at the reception had lifted. After all, funerals share with christenings and marriages the common feature of people who have not seen each other for years becoming reacquainted.

After a while, I sought her out at a quiet table and we really talked. “I wasn't sure I should come,” I admitted, “But I wanted to ensure that my mother did. And, I did want to see you again. I just want to know that you're … all right ...”

Jenny was all right. She had moved on, as one might expect in 15 years. Oh, she wasn't married or settled or anything like that, but there had been other relationships. And, she said, when one of her sister's had shown her some of my wedding photos, “I realised that was the right thing for Ben.”

I allowed myself a short, bitter, laugh. “Well, it wasn't, I can assure you of that. Biggest mistake I ever made.”

“But you've got your boys, now, surely you don't regret them?”

Of course I did not, and that led to showing her some of the photo's on my phone, which she then reciprocated with shots of her dog – a little, black, squashed up thing with an evil expression on its face.

“That's Pugsly,” said Jenny, “I've only had him a few months, but he's absolutely lovely. He's a Pug, you know, and he's ever such good company”.

As the day drew to an end, we exchanged vows of friendship, and also phone numbers. And I found myself saying the fateful words: “It would be great to see you again sometime, Jenny”.

“Yes, Ben, yes it would”.