Monday, 19 February 2018

A brief encounter, a long friendship

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot, but he'll remember with advantages what feats he did that day.

My wife tells me that I've reached an age where I should start writing my memoirs. Or at least my memories: my life so far is, in many ways, made up of a series of pieces. So what better way to account for it than in blog posts?

The day in question was in September in 1964. My parents, my brother in I were on our way back from a memorable holiday in a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia. Two events in particular stick in my memory.

Plitvička Jezera: an extraordinary place
One occurred at an idyllic spot, called Plitvička Jezera, a glorious mountain lake. I took a rowing boat out on it alone although I was only eleven - perhaps because I was only eleven - and once well away from the shore, I dived in over the side and then swam back to the boat. It was bracing and exciting: bracing because the water was far colder than I'd ever dip more than a toe in today, exciting because there was always a chance that a current would whip the boat away from me and I'd be left confronting an interesting challenge.

My mother knew nothing about my little joy ride and I count on you not to tell her now. After all, nothing happened. I got safely back and if she hasn't worried about the event for 54 years, what's the point of her worrying about it now?

The other event that left a particular trace in my memory stronger than many others involved my brother Nicky, after whom my younger son is called. In a coastal town called Sveti Stefan he managed to get separated from the rest of the family and, after having searched for him fruitlessly for nearly an hour, we went to a café on the other side of the causeway that links the island to the mainland and waited for him to reappear on it.
Sveti Stefan and the causeway that saw the confrontation
between my brother and my mother
Since there was no other way off the island, he inevitably did come into sight, an hour or so later. The image forever ingrained in my memory is of my mother stalking down to the bridge to greet him. She was looking highly business like, about as business like as I've ever seen her and, while I couldn't hear her words to him when they met, I think few were of a kind generally associated with the notion of endearment.

The odd thing is that my son, the one called after him, also managed to get spectacularly lost on more than one occasion in his childhood. So whenever I hear people using the Shakespeare line, "what's in a name?", I'm inclined to reply, "if it's Nicky, then a tendency to get disastrously lost as a child".

At the time, my family lived in Rome. On the way home, we stopped in Perugia. I imagine my mother took us to see the Raphael frescos, but I have to say that, wonderful as they no doubt are, I have practically no recollection of them. At 11 - my brother wasn't quite eight - my fascination for the great elements of our cultural heritage wasn't quite as powerful as I believe my mother imagined.

What does stand out was the arrival in our camping site of an Austin mini-van with a hand-made wooden box lashed to the top, and crammed with people: two adults in front, two children and a six-month old in a carry-cot behind. What made it even more remarkable that they'd travelled in such a confined space, was the realisation that both adults were unusually tall.
A 1960s Austin Mini van of the kind our friends showed up in at Perugia
Though theirs had British plates and a wooden box on top
"Good Lord," said my mother, "how did they all get into that?"

"They're Brits," said my father, who'd spotted their registration plates, "and they look hot, bothered and dusty."

So as one put the kettle on to boil, the other wandered over to suggest they might like a cup of tea. That's the offer no Englishman can resist, especially in their state.

This was the beginning of a friendship that has endured over half a century. Over that cup of tea, my parents issued and they accepted an invitation to come and see us in Rome. A week later they showed up and we got to know them better: Hazel and Michael, the parents, Richard, Charles and William the children - the last the six-month old in his carry cot.

Later, when my brother and I joined a boarding school in England, Hazel and Michael agreed to be our legal guardians, adults resident in Britain who agreed to take charge of children with parents abroad in case they were orphaned.

We were close through many years. While I was a student in London, I saw them regularly, and I was a student there for ten years. As often as not, Michael and I would have long debates on political, social or philosophical matters which at my age I found fascinating though ultimately frustrating - he was good at dodging my arguments, shifting his ground or slightly deforming my words and throwing them back at me - and I'm sure everyone around us, not least long-suffering Hazel, found them immensely dull. However, once children came along and in particular after work took us into Continental Europe, we drifted apart to some extent. We never lost contact entirely but it became infrequent to the point of sparseness.

But then we returned to England. Not long after, we got back in touch with Hazel - I rang her to wish her a happy birthday, and easy one to remember since it had also been my father's. It was then we learned that Michael was dying. It's a relief I feel to this day that we were back and in touch soon enough to see him one last time. It was a moment of warmth and also of poignancy: he could say little and had trouble staying awake but it was easy to see he was as happy as I was that our paths had crossed again.

Since then we've seen each other several times. It's amusing that the baby in the carry cot is now a man in his fifties. Well, not that amusing: it reminds that for me too over half a century has gone by.

Still, we're back in touch with some close, warm friends. And it's invaluable to have such friends. Proving that a random encounter in an Italian campsite can have wonderful consequences.

As it demonstrates a truth that will come as no surprise to an Englishman: the offer of a cup of tea can be extraordinarily potent.

No comments: