Not The Food of Love
Sitting on the coalhouse the other night, I was reminded that when I was in love with Juanita St. Fortinbras, we both wore glasses, and for all I know still do. I know mine still keep dropping off.
Juanita St. Fortinbras! The daughter of an eccentric self-made design and outfit draughtsman with a fierce moustache, she went out of my life in the days of chocolate rationing, whispering, 'Don't look when I go,' not that I could, because my glasses had dropped off.
Kissing a girl when you're a bashful lad and you both wear glasses is not easy, especially when you have displaced biceps from badminton. 'Juanita…' I would breathe. 'Mind my glasses,' she would say.
Constant clashes of glasses wounded her sensibilities and a time came when, passionate after the badminton club, we tangled lenses yet again and my steel frames caught in her hair while her horn rims went up my nose. It seemed better to part. 'Goodbye, then,' I breathed. I breathed a lot in those days. She went home to her keyboard.
She and her five sisters, nurtured in luxury, had been taught music and knitting from an early age and frequently sat up until eleven o'clock, playing Brahms and Debussy on various parts of the piano, wherever they could fit in, while their father cursed on the hearthrug. She was an untamed girl, being her father's daughter, as they all were, and I felt she needed my steading influence, because there was already one leg off the piano.
I was sitting on her coalhouse one night during that aching wilderness of 1947.
'Wait there,' she had whispered. 'I shall call you in when daddy goes to bed.'
Her father, himself an obsessive accompanist, had advanced from his rug, dismissed the other girls to their rooms to knit, in their winceyette nighties, and was spending the evening leading Juanita in rather abandoned songs at the piano. 'One more chorus of Beethoven's Pastoral!' I heard him shouting. 'One more chorus of Mendelssohn's B Minor Quartet! If you don't know the words, my dear, la-la!'
At half-past eleven, Juanita said, 'Daddy, the fire is getting low. Shall I fill the scuttle?'
'Better not go out there, my love,' he said. 'There's a man on the coalhouse.'
My biceps had turned blue by then, but by way of compensation I kept getting glimpses at certain upstairs windows of winceyette nighties. It was midnight when her father took a wrong turning on a Liszt symphonic poem, jammed his moustache in the music stand and had to retire with an eccentric curse. Juanita hurried out, but I had gone home to my cocoa, because even for a bashful lad winceyette nighties can begin to pall.
I suppose I might have joined in the musical evenings, even if it meant filling the coal scuttle, but the only tune I knew in those days was Jerome Kern's What Depth is the Sea? which I've since learned was by Irving Berlin and entitled How Deep is the Ocean? Knitting I could have managed, because my old Aunt Emma had brought me up in the precept that every lad should be able to darn his socks and make cocoa in the event of the Apocalypse, rather than go to Armageddon barefoot on an empty stomach, and I had in fact knitted half a pair of mitts at the time when Juanita and I lost our last badminton match together.
'Please get your steel frames out of my hair,' she said, and when she had gone our separate ways, she to Brahms and I to my left mitt, I reflected that Rupert Brooke was right and it's as well to find a girl with glasses as wise but kindlier and susceptibilities as soft but true.
Mind you, she tried to teach me, on those rare occasions when her father went to bed, how to spell Liszt, without success. I almost conquered Donizetti one rapturous evening, but fell over the hearthrug when my glasses dropped off.
I loved a few girls after that in a few more aching wildernesses, but never another badminton player. As Herbert Mangle, the Wallsend poet, wrote of his own rueful affair with the greengrocer's niece:
When my feet are hurting and my head is bad
And my torso's badly dented,
I think of all those times we had:
Yes, I remember you,
As I hug my first aid kit.
It isn't just my chest and knee.
I've also got this broken heart,
For that is what you did to me.
Oh, I can't blame you
For my bout of 'flu,
But that apart, but that apart…
When you've got your backache and the human race
Seems acutely represented
By my remembered ugly face,
Recall you loved me too,
For a fortnight and a bit.
Nor did I ever love another girl with glasses. For me, a girl with glasses will always mean that wild badminton player I last breathed on in January 1948. Of course, Rachel Hocking came along to help me over it, and Diana Green and Nora Trannock, but they were respectively a tap dancer, a bell-ringer and a graphologist. I tried to ring bells with Diana Green, but she never understood why I brought my badminton racquet.
Not that I've let my falling glasses stand in the way of a fulfilled life. Apart from ringing bells, I've been secretary of the Homing Pigeons' Old Boys' Association, run after buses, walked the Pennine Way for nearly a mile-and-a-half, knitted another mitt and even learned to spell Bela Bartok.
When I last heard of Juanita St. Fortinbras, she had sunk further into Brahms and Debussy and without my steadying influence had even lapsed into Schumann. Her sisters had gone, eschewing winceyette and claiming their share of the piano legs. As for her father, he's long dead, and if it's true that Beethoven can hear in heaven, he'll not be very pleased with what a design and outfit draughtsman can do to the Pastoral.
Why, after untold years, do I find myself sitting on coalhouses? Well, memories refuse to die and it's still painful when I sing How Deep is the Ocean?, so people tell me. Some things you can't forget we you've got recurring displaced biceps. On the whole, the wound had healed, but she's got my chocolate ration.