Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Ships that pass in the night aren't always sad

The expression “ships that pass in the night” has a pathetic ring to it. But sometimes it’s better to pass a ship, even without stopping, than be isolated on a barren ocean.

While I was a student, I enjoyed what I suppose one could only call an episodic friendship. It was strictly limited in time, and even more restricted in space: we met each year, for three years, at the annual get together of our college department, at a former royal hunting lodge in Windsor Great Park. That’s the park in which the Queen’s home at Windsor Castle is set.

Windsor Great Park: good place for a weekend
I don’t even remember the friend’s name, so I’ll call him Steve here. Our college – Birkbeck, University of London – taught degrees by part-time study, with lectures between 6:00 and 9:00 in the evening. It therefore catered for students I found particularly interesting: adults, many in the forties, people who were already in mid-career, who’d lived a bit and learned a bit. Or not, in some cases. The oldest student was a wonderful woman who, though English, revelled in a Polish countess’s title (through her late husband) and was the sprightliest woman in her seventies I’ve ever met.

Steve had left school at sixteen, sick of the whole education game. His father had found him an opening as a trainee borough surveyor (you may know the old joke, she was only the mayor’s daughter but she let the borough survey ‘er, but he wasn’t like that). By the time I met him, he’d been in his profession for a quarter of a century and become the youngest borough surveyor in London.

He’d then decided that learning was actually fun. He spent some years getting some “A”-level, school leaver certificates, and then decided that it would be fun to do a French degree. Birkbeck College was the obvious place. He was a year ahead of me, so our paths barely crossed in college, but we both attended the weekends away at Windsor Great Park. And each year we did the same thing: we met up in the evening and drank a bottle one or other of us had brought (or possibly the bottles we’d both brought) and talked the night away until the small hours. Alone: everyone else sensibly went to bed.

Steve was married but the relationship had grown sterile. He’d met a woman at Birkbeck and they had launched on a great love. A hopeless love, as it happened. She too was married, and each of them reached a point where they were ready to leave their partner for the other, but sadly not at the same time. I don’t know whether they ever ended up together, but certainly at the time I knew him, the prospects weren’t rosy.

His wife had given him a hard time over his behaviour, and he’d had to admit that he hadn’t exactly shone in the morals stake. On the other hand, he didn’t accept her accusation that he’d had casual sex – he’d fallen in love and focused all his attention on just that one woman.

One day he was looking for some college notes of his and, as he hunted through drawer after drawer, he came across a diary.

“You didn’t read it?” I asked, appalled.

“Of course I did,” he told me, “I wasn’t going to let curiosity gnaw away at me. At first I thought it was about me, but then I realised it wasn’t. She’d been having a pretty torrid affair for as long as I had. Worse still, she’d even had a one-night stand with another guy. Despite all that stuff about me and casual sex…”

“What did you do?” I asked increasingly horrified.

“Well, I went downstairs and found her. And told her ‘I’ve been reading this.’”

“Oh no! How did she react?”

“Oh, she wasn’t pleased.” He chuckled. “People never are pleased when you catch them out in their hypocrisies.

I wonder how things worked out for Steve. But I don’t really need to know. What I remember is three rather good, if slightly drunken, nights with a lot of laughter, spread over three years, nearly forty years.

Our ships passed in the night, but not without a little bit of a party as we drifted together and apart. And again. And again.

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