SIRENS AND LOVERS

Time is not a healer of the old, thought James. He continued walking.

Past the angry shouting tramp, who blighted this spot each evening; past offices with lonely security men locked in illuminated splendour; past the piled rubbish sacks of a great city. He reached the square: his square.

Visible through tangled trees, beneath the elegant symmetry of a Georgian fanlight, stood the door to his first office. Behind those sculpted timber panels he had launched ideas which swept across Europe and captivated the speakers of a dozen languages. Prosperous businesses grew in fine edifices in Paris, Vienna, Rome and all the capitals of the continent.

James was troubled by the wail of an ambulance, broadcasting the helpless agony of an injured occupant. Sirens were too frequent: he frowned and pushed aside awareness, because, as usual, he was busy thinking. He turned and walked.

A broad pavement led away from the traffic to the darkened university, its plane trees and bicycle stands present, but the swarm of students absent. He could hear echoes of laughing girls, not from today, but from years gone by.

Three men and three girls became friends in the frantic maelstrom of student life, and kept up annual reunions into their forties. Everything changed once they left the playground of college life. Only then did they settle on pairings, prompted, he decided later, by the women’s need for an illusion of permanence.

Alan and Jenny were the first. Alan, a friendly puppy dog of a man, was James’s closest friend at college. James smiled at his enthusiasm for the comforts of marriage. Alan rejoiced openly at having his cooking and cleaning done for him, and encouraged his friend to marry too, so he wouldn’t have to die alone – not something of concern to James. Jenny personified sincere love: gentle, caring to all, seeking out the vulnerable to wrap them in the warmth of her kindness. She was a perfect wife, and a perfect mother to their two children. It was impossible to see Jenny fussing over her family without smiling affectionately. Yet, as the years passed, James looked at her more quizzically, sensing a neediness at the centre of the generosity, wondering if there were a compulsive element to her affections.

When, shockingly, Alan collapsed and died in the street, thirty eight years old, James worried for Jenny, but she responded marvellously. After the inevitable floods of tears, she redoubled her loving attention to the orphaned children, appearing if anything more fulfilled than before. Soon, she adopted more children to share the cosy blanket of her love. James moved to help her financially, without telling anyone. He managed to route money through a support agency, so she didn’t know who her benefactor was.


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He wanted to talk about Alan, but found Jenny unresponsive. He suspected she was preoccupied with the children, and so immersed in her current life that she simply wasn’t interested. James sought out the people who had tried to help Alan as he lay on a London pavement. He had lasted five minutes after collapsing, calling out the names of his children, terrified of leaving them unprotected. James still cared about him. At the last reunion, he’d studied Jenny, wondering if it mattered who she loved, or whether indiscriminate giving was enough for her.

James voiced these churlish doubts to nobody. Now, anonymous as he walked the damp pavements, he allowed them to become beliefs.

Gino and Fiona were the second couple. Great fun at college, Fiona was still both entertaining and trustworthy, decades later. Gino was a nice enough person, yet James always wondered why Fiona had married him. What was she looking for? Gino achieved success in business, although not on the same scale as James. He was respected in his field, well known on the conference circuit, photographed with the Lord Mayor at livery company dinners. The years progressed; Gino murmured reservations to James, who didn’t want to hear. Fiona was getting fat. James shrugged and pointed out that it happened: genes and gender more likely to blame than gluttony. Gino complained she did nothing to arrest her expansion: no diets, no exercise, nothing. Once her face grew plump she gave up the struggle, neglecting make up and hair. Gino held a position of status, and needed a smart woman beside him. Fiona, he complained, was letting him down.

James felt it could be reasonable to dump a woman for being overweight, but only if written into the marriage contract in advance. Then she’d understand what a commitment to unconditional love really meant.

James’s mind returned to the present as he stopped at the kerbside. A tall red bus swung round the corner, late survivor of the day’s migrations, returning the last travellers to where they started. Lofty eyes gazed down on his unimpressive person. He raised his collar against the serrated edge of the breeze, then took out his compass, held up a handkerchief, and tested the direction of the wind.

James married Helena before the third reunion. The intensity of her eyes when she looked into his, her admiration of his decisiveness, and the sensuous grace with which she moved her beautiful limbs, formed a powerful cocktail. He found her the embodiment of femininity, spontaneous and emotional as well as imaginative and intelligent. It was a brilliant marriage, as they jetted across Europe promoting his expanding business, making passionate love in the sensational surroundings of the world’s finest cities.

It was still a good marriage when Helena centred her attention on the children, and James travelled alone. Every homecoming was an idyllic experience. She was extravagant, but it didn’t matter: he loved her for it. She was unable, or unwilling, to manage any of the practicalities of life, but that didn’t matter either, because he loved looking after her.


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James smiled to himself, ignoring the chill in the night air, remembering the warmth of those days. His smile changed as he thought of the reason for their end. Money. His business collapsed, and his marriage failed when he couldn’t pay the children’s school fees, and the livery bills for the horses.

James struggled with the nightmare of a failing business, while Helena complained about the effects. The children adapted easily, but she protested on their behalf, with accusations of unfulfilled duty, and tearful descriptions of how hard her life was.

Five of the six friends made the reunion when they were forty. Only Alan was missing. They stayed overnight in a country hotel, to allow time for enjoying their close friendship. James and Helena were barely speaking. Gino and Fiona were not much better. Only Jenny seemed truly happy, her husband dead and buried.

On the first day, Gino told James his hard won social standing was threatened by turning up at public functions with a female who’d gone to pot. By the time they left on the second day, Gino had taken over James’s wife, who maintained her figure with exercise and diet, spent lavishly on hair, make up and clothes, and was more desirable at forty than she’d been at twenty.

James, too, found Helena more exciting as she aged, but less palatable. The appealingly capricious young girl, who fluttered her eyelashes and acknowledged she needed his guidance, was replaced by a self confident middle aged woman, determined to have her way however irrational. He was happy to cede her to another. James didn’t blame a cat for catching a sparrow. So why blame a man for taking the most attractive female, or a woman for cashing in her beauty?

Meanwhile, Fiona asked to see James. Filled with sympathy for an old friend who’d been badly treated, he met her for dinner during the week. He’d wondered what she was looking for in a man, and now he found out.

She wanted a man to stand up for her, right or wrong. She and her husband must be of one mind, agreeing what entertainment to enjoy, which religion to follow, what opinions to hold. Unified in their choice of dishwasher, they could hold forth jointly on the wisdom of their purchase. He wished her luck; he hoped she would achieve the match she wanted; but it wasn’t going to be him.

Helena, Gino, Fiona! You couldn’t turn your backs on romance. You pursued the ideal of love, but only when it was to your advantage. Jenny, you’re so busy giving love, you’ve forgotten who it’s for. Alan, you loved for your own comfort, but ultimately missed out.

Was James the only person to understand selfless love, abandonment to emotion? Yet a persistent doubt nagged him. Where were emotions if not within oneself? And who were they for? He hadn’t found the answer. All he knew was that six warm, friendly people had taken love and destroyed it. They had gone beyond breaking relationships; they had wrecked the concept of love itself. When he walked away, ostensibly happy to leave his woman to another, he wasn’t happy at all. Twenty years of college and reunions sent a searing pain across his heart any time he remembered, which was all the time.


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His thoughts were interrupted by the distant melancholy of another ambulance. In the married suburbs, you were defined by somebody’s love. They would sit in the vehicle and hold your hand. If the ambulance came for you in the city, there would be no-one. You could sleep on a person’s doorstep and they wouldn’t know you. And the siren sounded for everyone in the end, except if it was too late, as it had been for Alan.

A group of young people, boisterous and good humoured, passed by on the opposite pavement. He thought of the students who thronged this area during the day. They weren’t carefree – that was a nonsense, perpetuated by old people too stupid to remember the uncertainties of youth. But they were excited by the future, filled with optimism, wondering what it held.

The wind was a south westerly, so he knew which doorway to head for. His laughter echoed off the stonework as he laid down his bags. He knew what the future held: this was the future. He unwrapped his bedroll. A future without love, and a better future for that. He thought sadly of the young students who were heading for his past. Tough for them, but I’ll be all right. So long as those ambulance sirens stayed away.


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© Roger Woodward, 2013