Chapter 16 Valentine
All through that first Christmas holiday, home from boarding school, I keep vigil for the invitation. No-one, of course, knows why each morning I rush to the front door as soon as the clatter of the letter box is heard, followed by a thud or rustle on the doormat. Even my monthly ‘Trains Illustrated’ does not draw my usual rapt concentration; I am searching, longing, anticipating something else. Yet I pretend to myself that I am not expecting anything. Why should I? Ever since I’ve left Surbiton, I’ve had no connection with the place. I have not written to Uttley or Miller; have sent no message; have made no attempt to seek them out during the vacation, or spend time together.
Christmas itself passes. I have ceased to hope for any contact, it is too late. I lie in bed in the morning now, covers pulled over my head to ward off the frantic cold which waits in ambush for me the moment I expose my skinny frame to the frigid air of my unheated bedroom. It is Jill’s eleventh birthday. The torrent of letters that spatter on the doormat are all hers, cards and postal orders; I feign no interest.
“Oh, David,” exclaims my mother when I put in a belated appearance, “this one’s for you.” She has already slit open the small white envelope and hands me the neatly printed card with its scrawled inky writing. “It’s Robert from Esher; he wants you to go to his party again this year. Isn’t it good of him to remember you this time?”
My heart leaps. I feel dizzy for a moment and clutch the invitation without focusing on it. When I’ve overcome my surprise, I read the details and realise that my sister has been invited as well. My relief at being invited surges into a need to share my feelings, without disclosing how anxious I’ve been not to have been forgotten; not that I was aware that this party was an annual institution - it was just a sort of vague hope drifting into an assumption.
“Look, Jill’s been invited as well.” Excitement penetrates my voice, I feel good that they are enlarging their contact to suck my family into the liaison.
“That’s nice of the Millers, David, very considerate of them. You’ll have to thank them for thinking of her.”
“Why, isn’t she going to come?”
“Well, no, it’s her birthday party on Saturday, have you forgotten? And in any case, she won’t know anyone there, will she?”
“They’re very friendly, she’ll soon make friends.” Then, as I suddenly realise the import of what my mother has just said,
“Oh, I forgot; I can go, can’t I, mum? I haven’t got to stay here for Jill’s party? There won’t be any boys here, I don’t want to be the odd one out……”
“Don’t worry,” interrupts my mother, grinning to herself, “we’ll not make you stay here. I’m just pleased you’re so keen to go. We had to talk you into it last year, you know!”
I grunt. I am betraying my eagerness and belatedly try to rein in my elation. As I think about it, I begin to feel relieved that Jill will not be there. She would tell on me; I would have had to disguise my feelings for her sake, do nothing that would trigger her into dropping some careless and indiscreet word that would hint at the reason for
my uncharacteristic enthusiastic response.
My mother makes the necessary phone call, slipping down the road to the bank of booths by the chemist’s shop. While she is gone, the hideous thought cuts through my relief and rouses all my anxieties once more. Perhaps Topsy will not be invited; during the year Jane has made other friends and dropped her. Perhaps Topsy has moved away. Or is ill. Or can’t come because she has another party or is visiting relatives, away for Christmas. I want to ring Robert myself, ask him, a propos of nothing, whether all the same people will be there as last year. Only I don’t, of course. That would mean explaining to my mother why I am so eager when I have to ask her for money for the call box. And if I jump that hurdle, how would I justify my call to Robert, when my mother has only just rung my acceptance?
For five more days I have to conceal my mounting tension. I am not explicit in owning to myself why I feel this way. I put down my lack of hunger to a slight queasiness following all that rich Christmas food. I am looking forward to an enjoyable party. I am not pinning my hopes on seeing one person, at least not admitting to myself that I want to see her again, just once more, one particular girl.
So the fearsome taskmaster of anxious anticipation takes me in its grip. Will she, won’t she; the daisy petals drop. I will know soon. When I arrive at the front door of my friend’s house, I know that within fifteen seconds a week’s fraught anticipation will be fulfilled or dashed to dull disillusionment.
When the buxom Mrs Miller answers my timid knock and beams at me, standing there shuffling from one foot to the other on her doorstep, my eyes flit straight past her impolitely searching for an immediate clue. She is saying something to me. I grunt noncommittally, I don’t heed what either of us is saying. I can hear laughter. Can I pick out the distinctive bell-like voice I have remembered?
Cedric, Robert, Jane and others surge around me all talking at once.
“What’s it like?”
“Is it like you read about?”
“Is it very different?”
I try to answer, but my attention is elsewhere. My eyes have scanned the company and the message is already in my brain. She is not here. She hasn’t come. A great surge of disappointment overwhelms me; I answer their questions in monosyllables. I play down my opportunity to be centre stage and try to disguise my crestfallen frown. The lights in my eyes are going out. Vaguely I hear another knock at the front door, there are voices and commotion in the hall. The door to the living room where the party is taking place, swings open and bangs into Cedric who has his back to it. Dr Miller’s bespectacled face peers good-naturedly over the throng, drawing the children’s eyes from the slim figure who has just slipped in. For a moment she hesitates, then her eyes find Jane and she begins to sparkle, bouncing over and throwing herself into an animated banter. She has not acknowledged the others, except for a meagre glance. Her gaze has not dwelt on me at all; why should it, she probably hasn’t even remembered that I was going away to boarding school?
On the other hand, my eyes are riveted on her face. Topsy is here after all. I breathe a great sigh. What is more, my initial glance tells me she has not changed much. Perhaps she is a little taller, but it is her eyes and mouth that I have held in my mental picture. She is wearing a pink and white gingham dress; her hair is held in position by a deep maroon velvet band, tucked behind her pink ears. Her skin glows.
“Hi Robert, hi Cedric, David!”
Belatedly she recognises us, greets us equally. I get no special look, but then, I think, searching for signs, she has remembered my name.
The television is on, the room is in darkness. This year there is no need to squash up on top of each other, the girls are squatting on the floor whispering to each other in hot giggles that I cannot decipher although I strain to catch their words in case they are talking about me. I am content that she is here, even though I can’t make out her silhouette.
During the party meal, the boys are at one end of the table and the girls at the other. While I eat, I can see Topsy as she is on the opposite side. Her smile is broader, her laughter is lighter, even her hair-band has eschewed the pastel shades of the others; the wine red velvet contrasts with her fine golden brown hair which clusters around the nape of her neck. My fussiness is gone. I am hungry, I attack the food with unaccustomed alacrity.
Candles have been lit. The other lights are doused and for a few moments magic prevails. Shadows flicker on the wall, a coil of waxy smoke eddies from one of the wicks. And the glow from the farther candle is illuminating Topsy’s profile, picking out her high cheekbones, the silhouette of her dainty retroussé nose. I do not want this moment to pass; I hang on to the image, fixing it in my memory like a carefully constructed snapshot. I frame it in my mind, an oval, with a faded sepia image, gently discolouring over years to come.
When the lights burst back on, I blink as though I’m coming out of a trance. I stare at Topsy until I realise that my look is being noticed, then I hurriedly turn my eyes away from her in some confusion. I look at the others then in the harsh light. Susanna has a new hair cut for the occasion, her dark locks have been brutally excised, the rigid clarity of her thirties style bob framing her pale neck. She has gained a pair of spectacles since last year as well. Not the round pink-framed national health variety, but a pair of delicate fashion glasses which must have set her parents back a pound or two. Next to her, on my side of the table, sits Annette, gorging a piece of chocolate cake. I haven’t seen her before, I don’t know anything about her. Like Susanna, she has carefully made up her hair for the occasion. Her waist length brunette pig-tail has been meticulously curled on top of her head and pinned into place leaving her neck free, tall and elegant. She moves in a poised conscious way, unnaturally erect, which seems to emphasise that of all the girls, she is nearest to physical maturity.
Jane, seated next to Topsy, has sought to emphasise her precocious sexuality. Her blond hair hangs loose, her flared skirt draws eyes to the length of her bare thighs; she has been allowed to apply some judicious make-up to her cheeks and cherry red lips. She constantly appraises the boys through her grey eyes. She has fixed me with a stare that has drawn me away from Topsy.
I’m not really looking at these girls as I describe them now - it’s a sort of remembered rationalisation of my impression at the time. Even after my prolonged stare has been diverted, I am more conscious of Topsy’s mobile face, flushed and bursting with energy. Her hands dart about constantly to emphasise the points she is making; she tosses her head and her hair flies, then falls naturally back into place. Her arms are bare and brown. If I shut my eyes I can reproduce her as accurately on my eyelids as if I am staring at her openly.
Now I’m conscious of the boys. Familiar chunky Robert, stolid and comfortable, reassuring. Cedric, closer to myself in temperament, befriended when he moved from Yorkshire halfway through the first term at Surbiton, is wiry and agile; a match for me in quick-wittedness if not in purely academic terms. Yet I’m never totally at ease with him, he can be sarcastic and I don’t really trust him under pressure, not since the snowball incident. And Gordon, unassuming nondescript Gordon, shorter and thinner even than me? Why is he here? What stake has he? He is Susanna’s younger brother, that’s why. The Millers know the family well, they are neighbours.
Eight children, four boys, four girls. Are we matched into natural couples? Hardly. In this cauldron of nascent sexuality, Cedric seems to be sweet on Jane; Jane has her eyes on all the boys, even appearing in cahoots with her own brother, but letting her roving eye fall on me, thus discomforting me further. Susanna seems to crave Robert’s attention and cool Annette, when dropping any hints at all, is seen appraising Cedric. But then Robert likes Annette best; her sophistication is attractive to his homely style. Last year he seemed to make a bee-line for Topsy; is he leaving the field clear for me now? Gordon doesn’t count, of course. He is the younger brother.
What may be clear in hindsight now was not so obvious at the time. At the age of twelve or thirteen you do not reveal your feelings for the opposite sex - at least you didn’t in the 1950s - without laying yourself wide open to teasing and ridicule. The looks, the urges, are codified. The glances which catch another’s eye; who sits next to whom, when it is not determined by the adults. The eagerness, being stifled by the boys for fear of teasing, when Postman’s Knock is on the menu once again; the prodding and poking of the paper slips determining the tell-tale signs that reveal the concealed identity. The faces pulled, the eyes rolled when a wrong choice is made; or the grimace made to bluff the others, to throw them off the scent, when the partner of one’s preference has, oh surprise, by chance of course, been chosen yet again.
What are Robert’s and Jane’s parents doing? Are they aware of the fire they are stoking, are they tainted by the undercurrent of lust that they are unleashing, albeit in masked form? Does it give them a vicarious thrill? Reawaken early passions from deep within themselves? Whatever the reason, they pander to the badgering to devote the hour after tea totally to the game. It is just as well, perhaps, that Jill is not here. And I blush to think of what my parents would conceive of such innocent debauchery. And Mr Knight, that stalwart of moral rectitude, nay rigidity? Even I, who am somewhat limited in my capacity for the light-hearted things of life, can scarce suppress a smile, when the thought crosses my mind. But the atmosphere permits me to throw off the moral block to full participation; to others it may appear to be quite normal, I’m not sure. Anyway, I’ll enjoy it while I can.
I trust you, dear reader, are not identifying with the Millers, poised to watch pruriently every hand touch, chaste kiss, giggly slobber or not so innocent probe that Cedric might just try on and Jane might just allow. Jane has picked me. On purpose? Who can
say? I’m trapped; we are in the hallway, the door to the others firmly shut, where Dr Miller is restraining the clambering voices of six eager participants all willing on their next turn. Mrs Miller is in the kitchen; crockery is in the sink, the door is ajar - is this surreptitious supervision? It is alright, no-one is looking. Jane whispers to me. While I hesitate at the brink, Robert’s sister has no qualms. She grabs my shoulders and glues herself to my lips making sucking noises through her half open mouth. I find myself peculiarly detached. I do not resist her, nor do I return the kiss with the same vigour. I am overwhelmingly aware of the feel of her lipstick, I want to back away and wipe it from my mouth; it is cloying, greasy. I am sort of pleased, intellectually at least, that I have experienced a proper kiss. My overriding feeling is one of surprise that a girl finds me attractive enough to want to kiss me in that sort of way. And even as she plants a second kiss on me, I find hope welling within me that perhaps Topsy will let me do this too.
When we part, Jane’s eyes are glistening, as she chortles, one hand holding me back as I move towards the door:
“Wait a minute, David. Let me wipe the lipstick off your face. You can’t go back like that!”
After several false attempts, I at length find myself partnered with the lovely Topsy. Now that all my wishes are fulfilled, am I enjoying the experience? On the contrary, I am reduced to jelly. I am meant to give her five kisses. I’ll settle for just one, if only she will let me. I am making a half-hearted attempt to persuade her. I am nervous, stammering, serious. She is nearly doubled up with laughter, giggling helplessly. Is she laughing at my efforts? Or just imbued with the spirit of unbridled jollity? Or is there a twinge of hysteria in her reaction? I do not know but fear the first. When she can finally bring herself to consider what I am saying, she squirms a bit, blushes and says ‘no’. I don’t know what to do then, should I persist, does she really mean it? I hesitate for too long, fatally. She slips past me, back into the living room, untouched, leaving me rooted to the spot, still trying to articulate my request.
A few minutes later I get a second chance, although my first attempt has raised a hurdle in my mind that will not easily be overcome. Six kisses the playful dice awarded me. I want to claim my prize. And she is there before me, alert, watchful, smiling even; but one false move will disturb her, send her scurrying for cover.
She gives me a look. A tremor of a smile, a sensitive sparkle, playful or fickle, enigmatic. I summon all my courage and with superhuman effort, thrust out one avid palm to grip her shoulder while I lean towards her fragile face. I clutch at thin air. She feints as she sees my lumbering fist, eludes me easily and scampers up the stairs, popping her head, ‘kilroy’ fashion over the banisters while she eyes my self-conscious breathless clambering after her.
“Please, Topsy, please let me kiss you. You let the others do it.”
“How do you know?” she tosses back at me, good-humouredly. If she thinks I’m bluffing, she has hit the nail on the head. I say no more but try to block her escape from the landing. She crouches like a trapped bird, waiting for the enclosing palms to relax a moment, then, catching me off guard, she swoops and pushes me with a little shriek of shrill laughter and is scampering down the stairs again. She could carry on straight through the door into the sanctuary with the others, but she is more sportive than that. She has found the narrow cloakroom under the stairs and darts inside pulling the door to, behind her. I have seen her, of course. I am after her, my adrenalin flowing freely now. I can’t really see her, it is pitch dark inside. The full length coats swing and wobble over her suppressed mirth; I trap the living garment with both hands, but miss her with my lips as her peering tomboy face shoots behind rough cloth at the ultimate moment. For a few seconds I wrestle with a chunky overcoat, then a muffled voice prepares to negotiate for peace.
“Wait a minute, David. Will you promise not to do anything if I come out?”
I hesitate, waiting for a better offer.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Let me out and I’ll blow kisses to you through my fingers.”
I’m already getting fidgety; I have overrun my allotted time, the doors to the living room keep opening and closing; any moment now I’ll have a whole audience to witness my failure and resultant embarrassment. I relent and step back. Will she trick me, even of my consolation prize?
Not a bit of it! She solemnly, with laughing eyes, spreads her fingers over her mouth and blows kisses at me. I copy her, the high and low point of the party; beyond my initial expectation, but it was nearly so much better.
At this point Dr Miller comes to fetch us back. The other children are becoming impatient, the horseplay must cease, others have their turn. My face is on fire as I re-enter their presence, fearing saucy comments that will assume too much. In the event, they are too preoccupied with their own entanglements and infatuations to be bothered to tease me. While I adjust my clothing and wipe the sweat from the back of my neck, Robert joins Topsy outside and all becomes silent. She is not running away from him. She is letting him kiss her; I feel a surge of jealousy, of bitterness even.
I don’t get another turn. While endless couples go to and fro, I am brooding on what might have been. Why wouldn’t she let me kiss her? Didn’t she like me? Was I too serious, too eager, when she only wanted fun? Has she whispered to Robert’s dad that she doesn’t want to be paired with me again, in case I try to force her? Surely not, she didn’t seem angry or frightened, but it couldn’t be chance that every name is being called except mine, could it? I cling to hope a little longer; just one more, please, I plead - but only ‘sotto voce’ to myself.
“Enough,” Dr Miller is announcing, arms akimbo as the doorbell shrills above their clamour. “Come on, pack it in, someone’s being called for.” Does he not want to let another adult see what he’s enticed the children into? It is Gordon and Susanna’s father; the party breaks up swiftly, the closet door swings open once more and warm winter mackintoshes are retrieved.
The remaining children cluster in the hallway while other parents clump around in the kitchen exchanging pleasantries with the Millers. Jane, Annette and Topsy are in a huddle, excluding all the boys. I watch wistfully, standing apart, nothing to say at that moment. Then suddenly, without warning, Topsy detaches herself from the rest and darts up to me, and before I can react to what is happening, she has kissed me, briefly, on the cheek. The other girls shriek in merriment and I gaze at them, vulnerable. Then I look at Topsy. She is not laughing. Her eyes are large and bold; and kind. A pinkness is even suffusing her face, but then her mother emerges from the kitchen and they are gone, without farewells.
A hush descends on the household. I’m left with the two resident children. I’m clutching my bus fare, I need no chaperoning.
“Glad you could make it, David. Keep in touch, won’t you. Don’t let that posh school change you.”
I shake hands solemnly, in a grown-up self-conscious way. Robert’s mother bustles from the kitchen, is going to embrace me, then thinks better of it and clasps the proffered hand.
“Do you want to know her real name?” whispers Robert as he stands at the threshold of the freezing night. It’s Anna…..”
“No, it’s not, it’s Anita,” interrupts his sister.
“It’s Anna and she lives at number eighty eight just down the road beyond the bridge, backing onto the railway embankment.”
In the following months, at the beginning and end of each term, I stand in the train corridor as it passes the row of terraced houses sandwiched between the railway and the racecourse. I had worked out which house was hers - it had been distinctively washed in white and the window frames and doors were a vivid sky blue. The back garden was but a small square at the foot of the railway embankment. Every time I stare at that little house, to see a sign of her, anyone. But every journey, up and down, I never catch a glimpse. The white walled house grew grubbier, the paintwork faded, the little lawn grew more untidy, but there was never any sign of life.
I presume her family was not particularly well off, not like Robert’s parents anyway. I would have liked to ask her what her father did, where she went to school, how and when she had become friends with Jane, what her hobbies were. Later, I realised that I knew absolutely nothing about her at all; only what was revealed by her expressive face, her laughing eyes. Why was she nicknamed ‘Topsy’? Who had first called her that? Why had it stuck? Unusually the adults used that name without exception, even her own mother.
It was too late now to ask these questions. Perhaps, next year, an opportunity will
In fact, I never consciously saw her in my life again.