Part 1: Waterloo sunset’s fine
He’d agreed to meet Julie at 7.30 that particular Friday night. Just as he had the previous four since they had first met. She had been sitting alone on a bench in Hyde Park. That was thirty-two days ago. It was a crisp misty Sunday morning and the park was populated by people jogging, walking dogs, on horses. Everyone seemed to be in motion. Except Julie. And, having caught sight of her, him also. He was immediately struck by her posture. She was classically beautiful but he imagined her to be too self-conscious to be fully aware of it. She sat with her left leg languidly draped over her right, her elevated foot bobbing slowly up and down. Her left hand held a book close to her face while her right casually picked at the filling in a sandwich sat on the bench next to her. He recognised the book she was reading. Fahrenheit 451. He had recently read it. Although never a science fiction devotee, he’d completed it in a few days and enthused about it to his brother endlessly for the month that followed. He hadn’t seen last year’s film interpretation by Truffaut, and he had no desire to. Films rarely contribute to the appreciation of a great piece of writing, he thought; rehearsing his opening words to her. He sat on the bench and unfolded his newspaper to read about the three astronauts killed in the flash fire that had engulfed their Apollo I spacecraft. As he deliberated, Julie spoke first.
‘Hello. It’s a lovely morning, isn’t it?’ said this blond, British Helen of Troy; Newmanesque blue eyes looking straight at him. She wasn’t from London. She dressed as if the epitome of Carnaby Street chic but her subtle accent betrayed a Northern origin. He agreed with her summation of the day so far and with the knowledge of the book sustaining his confidence, asked her if she was enjoying reading it. She said she was but couldn’t believe a future society that censored and burned books which promoted critical thought would ever be allowed to develop. He suggested that he thought Ray Bradbury was trying to make a point about how television would destroy interest in reading and that the main culprit in the book was the people and not the state. Immediately he regretted it. He felt passionately about the book but wished he had just simply remarked that he had read and enjoyed it. She seemed amused by his passion for it and she folded back the page she had been reading. They both relaxed and a more general conversation started.
She had just started work as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital across the river in Southwark. She had an incredibly interesting and unusual background. Her father was a diplomat and her mother was an artist. She was born in India during her father’s posting with the British Consul at Assam. As youngsters, Julie and her elder brother had lived in Marrakesh, Guam, Cairo and Istanbul before her father’s illness became the catalyst for the family’s return to Wakefield when she was fifteen. Her parents had only recently moved to London and despite having had a job and a steady boyfriend in Yorkshire, she was keen to experience the excitement of a vibrant city universally accepted as being at the centre of everything. She giggled as she told him she’d hoped to bump into Paul McCartney. She was twenty-two. He was a year older. She spoke and his mind began to flirt with the notion of relationship. There had been other girlfriends – and friends who were girls – but none were as immediately captivating as Julie. He wanted simply to listen to the nuances and inflections of her dialect. To hear her tell of the exotic places she’d been to and to watch her run her long fingers through her pony-tailed blonde hair, twisting it nervously when she reached the ends.
Hours passed. They had more in common than he had dared dream possible. He hadn’t really travelled at all but he was an avid reader and felt that he knew many of the places she desperately wanted to visit. Her history and her mustang spirit indicated that she would probably not stay in the same place for too long. She didn’t have many friends in London. They went for coffee in Knightsbridge late in the afternoon and then agreed to meet for a more formal date the following Friday. Their meeting place was to be Waterloo Underground station.
That was a month ago and they’d met every Friday since. His obsessive personality made every gesture and every look more significant than it was but he couldn’t help it. He thought about her constantly on the days they didn’t see each other and he became terrified that this longing would manifest itself dangerously on the days that they did. She was flawless. Maybe time and her growing sense of comfort with him would see imperfections emerge as it did with all the others but for the moment he wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
She didn’t like the claustrophobic intensity that comes with the amorphous mass of people moving feverishly around such a major transport interchange but she loved sitting outside watching them and imagining the interlocking stories of their lives. Where were they going? Who were they rushing home to see? Were they happy? Were they meeting someone for the first time? She also loved the river, believing it to be the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. This dirty old river; constantly rolling under the numerous bridges which traversed it. He’d never before looked at the river the way she saw it but on this particular Autumn Friday, it was unarguably beautiful. Certainly not as beautiful as she was but graceful and magnificent, as the setting sun over the new Millbank Tower rippled along its length. When they crossed Waterloo Bridge last Friday evening, she kissed him and said she was so glad they’d met. He wanted to tell her that he loved her but didn’t. Instead they walked down the side of the south bank following the dark, dirty flowing water towards the distant red glow of the setting sun. They felt safe and sound. They are in paradise.
Part 2: Waterloo sunset’s mine
She packed a larger bag than would have normally been required for an overnight stay. She put it down to nervousness. Spontaneity remained a characteristic associated with her by almost everyone she knew. She smiled at the thought of them watching her now. This bag had been packed, unpacked and re-packed countless times in the days before they were due to leave. But now she finally felt ready. She had to wait for Terry. But once he got back, they’d be off, back to London. She sat the bag down close to the front door and laid her black coat over it. She went into the kitchen and put the kettle on.
She reminisced; back to the first time they met. Back to that glorious time in the park. To the excitement of the days and weeks that followed where she thought about little else other than meeting him. They would go back there, walking the same paths as before, when they were totally wrapped up in each other and disdainful of anything that interrupted those special shared moments. She recalled his enthusiasm about science-fiction, and allowed herself to smile at his certainty about the future. Cars which drove themselves, and telephones which you could carry around and use anywhere. He was an idealistic dreamer and she absolutely loved that about him. He made her believe anything was possible.
‘Right, let’s go. Come on.’ It was Terry, all child-like excitement about going to the city again. She flicked the switches, grabbed her keys and they were off, heading south towards the place that he used to refer to as the epicentre of the Universe.
The train was packed, predictably. She was so glad this trip had been pre-planned. Her old spontaneous self might’ve just turned up and hoped for the best. That was one of the main ways in which he had changed her. It had taken a while certainly, but she now looked forward. She anticipated whereas before, years ago, she just reacted. She went with the flow. For all of those initial eight weeks, she had been struck by his punctuality. Previous boyfriends – admittedly, there hadn’t been many – were regularly late when meeting her. Strutting peacocks, more obsessed by their looks than most women, but Terry was different in so many ways. He was handsome, but apparently unaware of it. He was also clean-shaven at a time when the emerging counter-culture was threatening to put barbers out of business. Her parents loved him too, and from the first time they had met him. The first time was before the weekend where it all changed, but in those few perfect days prior, it seemed to her that life could hardly be better.
‘I need a drink,’ said Terry and he got up to look for the buffet car which the conductor had told them was in the next carriage. He wasn’t sure which next carriage; left or right of their seats. She watched him squeeze between the group of youngsters all carrying balloons and Union Jack Jubilee flags, and then watched him disappear behind four tall punk rockers all wearing ripped t-shirts with the words ‘Fuck You’ scrawled across them. Paradoxically, they smiled broadly and politely stepped out of Terry’s way when he asked them to excuse him. Everyone else including the conductor had been eyeing them suspiciously since they had got on the train at Birmingham New Street, as if they were aliens intent on mass abduction.
With Terry away, she thought back to that weekend. They had been together for almost three months. She had decided to join a group of colleagues from work on a bank holiday trip to Blackpool. After deliberating for the week beforehand, and then confiding in her friend Katie, she had decided to invite Terry along. They hadn’t slept together yet, but although nervous, she felt ready to take that next step. And she was fairly certain he wouldn’t object on the grounds of principle.
She stared out of the window and remembered the tiny transistor radio, and the song. The radio belonged to a room on the first floor of a rundown boarding house called The Seaview. It was nearer the Fleetwood end of Blackpool than the Pleasure Beach one. It was very small and had no such view of the sea. In fact, its only window had obscured, patterned glass to prevent overlooking from the neighbouring building whose windows were less than six feet away. They had paid an advanced deposit for a number of rooms in the building on a room-only basis, planning to sort out the actual sleeping arrangements when they all got there. In the bed of the same room were two of the five girls who had travelled north from London, and one muscular seasider who had returned with them from the night before.
They were finally alone on the Saturday afternoon. They had sex together for the first time as ‘Pretty Flamingo’ by Manfred Mann played on the radio. He sang the words to her. She found herself mouthing them now, a decade later.
“Cause her hair glows like the sun, and her eyes can light the sky.”
Afterwards, Terry had made her laugh by bouncing on the single bed. It had folded down from a recessed housing in the wall. She found this very funny and when the tubular metal leg buckled at one end under the strain causing him to lurch forward and fall on top of her, he thought she was going to start hyperventilating. What she didn’t find quite so funny was the awareness that the condom had come off and was still inside her.
Terry came back from the buffet car. He had a massive, beaming smile, and a bottle of Coke in each hand. Half an hour later, and they were getting off at Euston. It was still early but they had a lot to do. She was certain they’d both be drained by the time they caught the return train home the following evening. They went first to Hyde Park. In contrast to ten years earlier, it was loud and bouyant; bunting-strewn and colourful. She felt uplifted. They went from there to all of the significant places that Terry had loved. The Trocadero, Leicester Square, the coffee shops at Covent Garden, Carnaby Street; and finally, to the river viewed from Waterloo Bridge. It was as beautiful as she’d remembered it. The sun glistened across its rippling surface as she looked west into the haze.
They joined the queue of predominantly Asian tourists for the small ferry. Terry was excited, but she was apprehensive. He took her hand. Twenty minutes into their trip she pulled Terry to the quietest side of the boat where they wouldn’t be seen, and whispered to her that it was time. He smiled. He looked so much like his father when he did. She reached into the bag and pulled out the container. Between them, they poured the dry white powdery ash over the side and watched as the dust that used to be Terry’s father drifted upstream. It moved in the direction of the hospital building where she used to work, almost ten years ago, before Terry was born. It had been a big decision to name the boy after a father that he would never meet. But she thought it important to do so, to help her cope with the guilt she felt but perhaps more for his parents. As she looked at him now, she was so glad she had.
They had parted back in London agreeing to meet the following Friday at Waterloo, as usual. Although they met and spoke on the telephone regularly during the following six weeks, it was becoming clear to both of them that something had changed. It was almost as though she had suspected late on that Saturday afternoon that she was already pregnant. The time since without the appearance of her period simply increased her anxiety and subtly altered her attitude to him. She might have known it early but it was seven weeks after Blackpool before Terry did. She was really calm when she phoned to tell him. He was initially speechless. She didn’t stay on the phone long, just saying that she didn’t know what she’d do and that her main worry was a new job which she was due to take up just two weeks later. He had nothing to say that was of comfort. He couldn’t really take it in. One furtive and furiously-paced shag, one pregnancy. A condom had been used. Precautions had been taken. Instructions had been followed. These various disorientating thoughts could be the only reason for the shameful and not in the least bit charming thing he said before the receiver clicked:
‘Are you sure it’s mine?’
She had picked this weekend to tell her son about his father, to show him the places which had once been theirs during a brief period in the sun. And to consign what was left of him to the river that had played a central part in their developing relationship.
He’d been killed that same night she’d called him with the news, and she’d only called him out of an irrational fear of telling him to his face. It was no-one’s fault; a complete accident. He had drunkenly stumbled from a pub doorway, in the darkness, straight out across a narrow pavement into the path of a bus. He’d died at the scene, under the front wheels. He was only twenty three.
Ten years had passed since his funeral. The devastating pain of introducing families to each other who would be forever connected by the child growing inside her hadn’t really passed. It was always there, sometimes under the surface, often – as on the previous nine anniversaries – too hard to contain. But as she took once last look at the river; this dirty old river, she knew it was time to move on. Terry and Julie; a dream which was always destined to be just out of reach, and forever, far from the madness of the crowds.
Into Creative Live review: Paul Weller (with Maxwell Farrington & Le Superhomard)
Große Freiheit 36, Hamburg
16th May 2023
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