granada la bella
where anything is possible
FROM: 1969. A YEAR IN A LIFE
Below: 1. The Norwegian cutlery Britt was wild about. 2. Britt's fjord-side home town. 3. King Edward VII Sanitorium. 4, Sanitorium grounds.
I was on the night shift at the British Airways Air Terminal in Victoria, London on New Year’s Eve, 1968 ... Within an hour or so, the arrival coaches had all been met and our job was to prepare the flights for the following morning. It was boring paperwork and gradually my elation wore off as I dealt with the grim routine of office duty in the 'duty office¡. From then on it was just a question of getting through the night. We had the chance to sleep for a while before preparing for the morning shift take-over and at seven we were released into the chilly early hours of the New Year, 1969.
When I got back Britt was already asleep, the revelries had ended for her quite early. She was not at the peak of health, I knew. But I was alarmed when she asked me to accompany her to Westminster Hospital the following day for a chest x-ray.
Why? I asked helplessly.
Why do people go for chest x-rays? I can still hear the exasperation in her voice. She was more than usually irritable, irritated by me, as she so often seemed to be of late. I remembered once how she got extraordinarily angry with me when I didn’t take her question about the right way to treat frostbite seriously. Warm the affected part, of course, but how? Rubbing? Are you crazy? Rubbing is likely to make it worse! Rubbing can cause ice crystals that have formed to do irreparable damage to the tissue. So what would you do? I was losing my patience, we were both losing our patience, and I was also embarrassed by my ignorance. It was obviously something I needed to know if we were going to live in cold Norway – which I really didn’t think was all that likely. Britt persisted. OK, warm the affected part, but how, quickly or slowly? The answer was as quickly as possible but with lots of provisos, but I got it wrong. Sorry, the correct treatment of frostbite, just like political exile, was neither in my field of experience nor that of acquired knowledge.
Just as it simply wasn’t in my field of experience for people to go to hospital, for any reason, never mind for something as ominous-sounding as a chest x-ray. Then she told me the news she had been holding back the previous evening. She had been diagnosed as having TB, tuberculosis. It was, they conjectured, the result of a visit to the west coast of Norway we had made the summer before. They told her there was a high incidence rate of the disease there, a proposition I found astonishing in view of the evident purity of the air there and scarcity of anything like heavy industries. The incidence of TB was associated with the pulp and paper industry, they said, the presence of which I had noted nothing in the part of west Norway where we were.
Be that as it may, Britt could be assured that she would receive the best possible treatment at the chest clinic. She would be ok. They had discovered the infection early and it was curable. In my case, there was a chance of contagion, as I understood it. It had to be checked for, more as a precaution than anything else. We would be all right. I’m sure I haven’t caught TB from you, I told her. How do you know? she asked angrily, aggressively. We bickered about it for a bit and I ended up saying that I bet she would feel disappointed if she had not infected me. Where did it come from, that petty malicious thought? Why did we always argue over trivialities? How long had it been going on?
Meanwhile, I was working on A-level exams with a view to getting a place at university as a mature (ha-ha) student ... Britt had encouraged me in my academic aspirations from the start, hoping to see me as a potential husband make something more of myself. She saw me as a state school teacher in a small fjord-side town on the west coast of Norway. She saw us living in a spacious and comfortable house with a modern utilitarian design and a view across the fjords. Enjoying high status in the local community. She showed me photos of typical state school teacher houses. One of Britt’s obsessions, one that I never understood, was to choose a set of cutlery for our future matrimonial home.
Britt had very clear ideas about what this cutlery set should be like and it was evidently very important for her. It had to be of a traditional Norwegian design, with intricately decorated handles, and none of this plain functional modern Scandinavian stuff, which was actually Danish, she said. Decorative retro designs based on popular rural art styles were very much in vogue among the middle classes in 1960s Norway, so Britt was able to show me catalogues with a wide selection of different styles, only they all looked pretty much the same to me.
The styles were all a sort of Norwegianised baroque, or rococo, I can never remember the difference. Which is the very busy style, with a lot going on at the same time? Baroque? Well, these were baroque then, with lots of ornamental scrollwork and complex interwoven geometrical elements and plant-inspired flowing patterns. Rosemaling-influenced, if you know what that is. Many of them were, it suddenly occurred to me, a micro two-dimensional equivalent of the lavish carvings you might see in stave churches, if that makes sense.
‘Which ones do you prefer?’ Britt asked me. I sensed it was important for her that I choose, and choose right: the same design that she liked. Choosing right would help demonstrate our compatibility and go some way towards cancelling out our frequent differences of opinion and attitude. More than that, our joint choice of cutlery would symbolise our standing as a respectable teacher family in her fjord-side home town. This was all so tiresome and unreal for me. For one thing, I did not want to become a teacher even if I could, which I doubted, and certainly not one in her remote fjord-side home town; that is, the town where her father was from and now lived. Secondly, I was British Airways groundstaff with a couple of scraped-through A-levels, and it was not certain I would ever get into university, or teacher-training college for that matter. And thirdly, I did not speak Norwegian, which seemed to be a weird and wondrously put-together and impossible-to-learn variant of a mythical north European language with roots that went straight back to the Middle Ages, if not to the Vikings.
But I did want to go to university and make something more of myself, and the deeper motivating drive for me came from the feeling that I was missing out on something, not having gone to university, being deprived of an experience some of my friends made sound appealing and rewarding. University life would make me a more complete person. And increase my social status, sure. It would be, in itself, both rewarding and fun.
When Britt got moved from the chest clinic in Westminster to the King Edward VII Sanatorium in Midhurst, on top of the South Downs, it was less easy to get to see her. Visiting hours were restricted. I used to get a train at 12.50 from Waterloo to Haslemere and spend a couple of hours with her after lunch. I’d get a bus from the train station and then still have a fair way to walk through the grounds to the sanatorium building. The grounds were always fabulous, a perfect melancholy park landscape in late winter. It was February and the weather always seemed to be sunny and crisp and cold, you could feel spring just around the corner. In the air, at least; if not in the heart.
Apart from that longish walk from the bus stop to the sanatorium, I rarely spent any time outside Britt’s bedroom. Patients were encouraged to take daily walks through the grounds and there were a number of picturesque walks laid out through the woodlands. Once or twice I remember we sat in the shelter of the forecourt at the north front of the hospital, to enjoy some sunshine, or we strolled in the gardens adjacent to the wards. But for most of the time I was confined to sitting next to poor Britt’s hospital bed in her bare hospital room, which she rarely showed much inclination to leave; at least, while I was there.
I caught that train to Haslemere four times in February and three in March, and that was about it. During this time my position as Britt’s lover and indeed her fiancé was gradually undermined and usurped by a rival, Philip, who she had known from a time way back before she met me. He was the son of friends of Britt’s father, from the time he served in London supporting the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Norway. Philip was from Surrey, a Home Counties boy, so he didn’t have so far to come to visit Britt, and he had a car, a sports car, a Morgan, that he had gone himself to collect from Malvern. Otherwise, he would also borrow his dad’s Bentley for special occasions, no doubt.
He was from Godalming or Weybridge or somewhere there along the River Wey, somewhere in that hilly, thickly wooded part of the green commuter belt round London, living in a much desired, parent-owned, large-gardened, detached piece of real estate, so typically English in that attractive and appealing, privileged, high-quality, historic and expensive sort of typically English way that we love, or, as in my case, hated.
Philip had long but kempt, wavy blond hair, which, from my northern provincial point of view, struck me as effeminate. And he wore good clothes, though I can’t remember what they were, you know, trousers and shirts mainly, but quality, not Carnaby Street fashion, more made-to-measure impeccably fitted and subtly textiled Savile Row. He was there all the time, the creep, winning her round with his suave Home Counties manners. On the last two or three occasions I was there he dropped in shortly before I left and stayed long after I had gone. No rushing off to catch buses and trains for him. The timing of his visits was obviously by prior arrangement with Britt, and deliberately arranged to tell me something. In the end it was blatantly evident even to me that I had lost Britt to this smooth Wey valley boy. I was only too aware that there was a rivalry between us that I was losing hands down. I was losing sweet long-suffering Britt in the course of a sort of proxy class war, waged between the commuter belt beau and the inept left-hander from up north that was me: I didn’t have a chance.
I had by now got so used to Britt’s increasing criticisms of me I hardly noticed them; I thought they were a part of normal relationships, or a normal part of our relationship. It wasn’t until Tania and Mick visited her in my absence and she spent the hour they were there moaning about me that I got to realise from what they reported back to me exactly how the land lay.
She wouldn’t have spoken like that if she really loved you, Tania warned me. I protested at first. We love you, she said, meaning Mick and her, and it would never occur to us to think let alone say the things she says about you. They’re completely untrue, of course; maybe we can put it down to her illness. In any case, Tania went on, and bless her heart for it, what she says ignores the purity of your thought, the kindness of your spirit, and the generosity of your heart. It is as if she had never even glanced through the open book that is your soul. She does not see what is there for everyone to read. I continued to protest weakly, not recognising myself in Tania’s unconventional use of words, though flattered by them, and not wanting to see it was the indelible writing on the wall of comfortless reality that counted rather than the faint scribblings in the open book that may or may not have been my soul.
One obvious forewarning of the imminent break-up of our relationship came to light over a number of photographs I had taken of Britt on holiday the previous summer. I had only just got round to getting them developed. That’s how it was in those days. You had a film of, say, 36 shots in your camera and when you had used them all up to your satisfaction, you handed the film in at the chemist’s to have them, in due time, processed, revealed, or whatever you called it. What happened was that sometimes you had a few shots left over on the film and it took weeks or months to find an occasion to use them up. I had used up the last takes on this particular roll of film at the get-together in my flat on New Year’s Eve and so, some time in those first weeks of the new year, I finally got to see them, those photos from the previous summer.
During that summer holiday Britt took to objecting to me taking photos of her, saying her nose was red, her face was red, and the sun had brought out the freckles across her little snub nose and broad cheeks. She didn’t want anyone to see her in such a state. So I took a number of photos of her from the neck down. Some of these headless photos were pretty erotic indeed, honing in unapologetically on her slim waist and well developed breasts, down to the curve of her hips. One in particular, just of her torso, as she lay not quite naked on a rocky ledge at the water’s edge, conjured up for me a sort of Scandinavian Henry Moore Aphrodite, recently emerged from the waters of an ice-cold fjord, like a sculpture, only in flesh, so tempting in how the lure of the soft warm flesh contrasted with the repellent chilling dark waters and hard stone bed that cradled her sensuous form. These photos were really quite good, but they had disappeared when the pack of 36, now at the most 30, was returned to me after I had left them with her to show other visitors. I accepted the censure gracefully, acknowledging her right to her own image. I dare say she tore them up and did not show them to anyone, not to Philip, that’s for sure.