Brief Encounter by Chris Green
It is 7th June 1977, the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It is a public holiday, to all intents and purposes, a Sunday. Everything is closed. Although it means a day off work, I feel downbeat. It has been a stressful few months. I am only twenty-five, but I am in the middle of a divorce. Unusual circumstances behind it, but it is by mutual agreement. Maggie and I were never suited. But this doesn’t make it any easier. Emotionally breaking up is always hard to do. On top of the separation, there’s the anguish of all the legal squabbling and the arrangements necessary for dividing up everything.
I have nothing on my agenda for the day. Nothing I need to do, no-one I have arranged to see. I am going with the flow, hoping each day that something will come along to pull me out of my malaise. Perhaps I have always gone with the flow. Maybe this is the problem. Other people appear to have plans, ambitions. They are motivated. They mark out their destiny. They know where they were going. This is what they told me to do at school, advice that I subsequently ignored, along with all the other helpful guidance Mr Masters offered.
It is sunny, so at lunchtime, I make my way along to the Beer Gardens on the Promenade. Other than a change of scene and a leisurely pint, I have no expectations. My friend Reuben is there, sitting at a table with three attractive young girls. He introduces me. Amy (with a y), Charlotte and Hannah. Reuben is a technician at the local college, a bit of a tippler if the truth be told. He is recognised locally as a colourful character. He can talk the talk. He is holding forth on this and that, and the girls seem to be listening. In between his commentary, I learn that Charlotte is taking a vocational course at the college where Reuben works, hence the connection.
The girls are all around eighteen. They all attended Cheltenham Ladies College, one of the most select schools in the country. Charlotte finished a year ago. Amy and Hannah have just left. Charlotte and Hannah live in Cheltenham. They were both day girls at the Ladies College, but Amy was a boarder. She lives in the stockbroker belt in Surrey, where her father is the CEO of the nation’s biggest housebuilder. As school is out, she is staying with Charlotte before she goes off to summer camp in Italy. She is tall and slim and has a winning smile. She is stunning. She could easily pass for a movie star or a model. I can’t take my eyes off her. Opportunities to hang out with beauties like this don’t come my way often.
After half an hour, Reuben goes off to the Bayshill Inn to catch up with Chadwick Dial. Chadwick owes him money, apparently. Perhaps Reuben needs to call in the debt to continue drinking through the afternoon. I am left in the company of the three girls. This is not a situation I am accustomed to, but it would be churlish to complain. I have the hots for Amy. She does not seem not averse to my attention. She laps it up, and appears to reciprocate. She keeps flicking her hair back. She maintains eye contact and smiles at me even when we are not speaking. This is more than just a polite smile. Her smile lights up her face. She moves her chair closer and leans in to me when she is talking. She even touches my arm once or twice and addresses me by my name. Flirting maybe, but it feels like it is more than that. How can I build on this rapport? I have never been one to make the first move. An innate shyness, I suppose. My past relationships have always just somehow happened. How should I play this one? In my experience, it is not easy to separate a group of close-knit friends.
When the Beer Gardens is about to close, I invite the girls to The Dobells, a pub that is scheduled to stay open all day. We have a drink or two, taking in the party atmosphere of the busy bar. Later in the afternoon, when it really becomes noisy to hear ourselves speak, we go back to my house for a smoke. I have some good quality hash. Three different types. I have dependable supply lines and always keep a little extra in case any of my friends want some. You wouldn’t think it with well-bred young ladies, but this hint of underworld activity seems to give me added status in their eyes. Perhaps when you have lived a sheltered life, you have a burning desire to break out. To discover what else is out there.
Why am I looking back on all of this over forty years later, you may wonder? Ernest Hemingway once said the secret of short story writing is to write one true sentence and take it from there. To make something believable, he said, all you have to do is write one true sentence and you are on your way. Write the truest sentence that you know. The story will come. As a writer, I am always looking for new plot ideas. When on the back of the one true sentence, this memory came flooding back to me, I guess I got carried away with Hemingway’s idea. Before I knew it I had written a true paragraph. Once I had started, I wanted, in some way, to relive these moments. The sweet bird of youth and all that. Perhaps I ought not pass it off as fiction, but what the heck! It’s going well. It’s easy enough to just change the names. OK. That’s done. Nyki (with a y) need never know. Let’s get on with the story.
There are lots of evening Jubilee events taking place, so I suggest we all meet up at The Cotswold Inn to start the evening. Then we can choose which of them to go to. I am not confident that any of the girls will even turn up. Hannah is the only one with a car, and she seemed the least keen of the three. The way things have been going lately, I find it difficult to imagine things will suddenly change. The default setting is pessimism. But my luck is in. Amy arrives looking radiant.
I buy her a long cool drink and we make easy conversation. After a while, I feel sufficiently relaxed to explain a little about my current situation. Rather than being put off, she seems quite excited by it. Not many people get divorced when there’s a baby on the way, she says. I suppose not, I say, but that’s the way it is. Amy hopes to go to university in Newcastle in September. An odd choice, I’m thinking. Does she realise what Newcastle is like? It’s a far cry from Camberley. But anyway, September is a long way off. Meanwhile, Amy tells me a little about her background and about family holidays in Juan-les-Pins. I tell her about the time Maggie and I got caught up in the Greek-Turkish war and were stuck in Athens for weeks, unable to leave. And how I dabbled in the occult and once lived with a wizard and his wife, well, mostly his wife and how this did not end well. Is my flippancy the right approach, I wonder, or am I messing up big-time?
Ricky Teacher joins us and asks if I have anything for him. After we’ve done the business, he asks us if we’d like to go to the extravaganza in the grounds of the Reservoir Inn. All the top local bands are playing, he says. It seems to be a ruse for him to show off his new Lancia. But why not? Amy and I decide to take up the offer and not to wait for Charlotte. She can catch up with her later.
At the event, we walk around arm in arm like a proper couple. As I introduce Amy to friends and acquaintances, they take us to be an item. I am able to help out Dewi and Alex with their usual quarter and in the back of Greg’s big Rover, Matt says he’s glad I’m here, there’s been a bit of a shortage of good gear lately. Amy takes all the commerce in her stride. A new experience perhaps. She even seems to hang on to each joint longer than one might expect. When I show surprise, she tells me the Ladies College had plenty of places where the girls could share a spliff.
We have a fabulous evening and later move on to a street party back in Cheltenham. There is more music and dancing. Amy is a great mover. She is clearly someone who enjoys life. Exactly what I need. At midnight, Amy feels she ought to phone Charlotte to let her know what she is doing. She thinks Charlotte will probably be back home by now. As she is in, Amy invites me back to come back with her and the two of us take a cab. We arrive at an imposing Edwardian villa along a private road on the outskirts of town. It has a tennis court and a swimming pool. Charlotte says she doesn’t know if her parents are home, but it doesn’t matter as she has her own private suite.
Charlotte comes up with some well presented nibbles and the three of us chat freely and listen to music. Charlotte doesn’t have a great selection. Amy has more sophisticated tastes than Charlotte. More of a rock sensibility. David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones. Steely Dan, Steve Miller, Stevie Wonder. And she likes reggae, and not just Bob Marley. I have all of these and much more. My record collection is something I treasure. It is not going to be open to negotiation in the divorce settlement. I may not be able to hang on to the house and Maggie will probably get to keep the car, but the records are staying with me. Might I use my music as an enticement now? At around 2 a.m. when Charlotte goes to put the kettle on, I suggest to Amy that we could go back to mine. We would be more comfortable there. With a glint in her eye, she says she would like that. Why didn’t I suggest this earlier? This way we can get to know one another better.
Sliding through the silent streets in the back of a cab in the middle of the night with a beautiful babe seems like a scene from a Hollywood movie. I have to pinch myself, but this is what is happening. Amy whispers in my ear that she has never slept with anyone before. The boy she has been seeing has wanted to, but she has never felt the same way about him. I have no view on this one way or another, but I cannot help but be flattered that she is choosing me. Perhaps it is because she has only ever been out with boys and given my age and experience, she sees me as a man.
Following a momentous night, I take the rest of the week off work to be with Amy. It’s a question of priorities. A brand new love affair is a beautiful thing. Something that must be treasured. I might only experience half a dozen epiphanies like this in a lifetime, whereas work is at best a means to an end. No contest. Amy over work every time. For several days, we are inseparable. We spend a lot of the time in bed getting to know one another but also manage to take in the town, a walk on Cleeve Common, The Cotswold, The Night Owl and King of Dub Records to buy some new reggae. One rainy afternoon, we settle down in front of the TV and watch an old black and white film called Brief Encounter. Only later do I find out that it was one of the classic British movies of all time. Impossible to watch that film now, or even to see any reference to it without thinking of Amy.
The following Monday, having arranged for Amy to come back the following weekend, we say or goodbyes. I go back to work and she catches the coach back to Camberley.
Hemingway’s other advice for writing short stories is to be concise. His stories are on average less than three thousand words, so I will aim for this figure. To move the narrative along, I will stick to the point. I won’t bring in unnecessary details of my complicated, eventful, haphazard life around this time. Sticking to his one true sentence rule, this is all to be related exactly as it happened forty-three years ago. I’ll have to counter the argument, but is it fiction with, does it have to be? It is what it is, a story.
Amy comes to stay with me several more times before she goes off to summer camp in Italy. Our relationship blossoms and it feels more and more that we are a couple. People at work now ask me, how is Amy? We go to The Cotswold or see live music at The Plough. We have friends around after the pubs close. There are quite a few late nights. We go to a couple of gigs at the Art College. Punk is taking off locally and we see The Slits, but are underwhelmed. The Clash and The Stranglers are OK, but the others, forget it.
Sometime towards the end of July, the day before Amy is due to arrive in Cheltenham, I come home from work to find that Charlotte has somehow let herself in. She is cooking a spaghetti bolognese. She hopes I don’t mind, but she has brought a bag and is planning to stay the night. She wonders if I would be good enough to do the same for her as I did for her friend. She too is a virgin. I could, of course, turn her down, but I wonder how many men in my position would do that. While Charlotte may not be as stunning as Amy, she is by no means unattractive. And it is flattering that she has chosen me. Into the bargain, she has sacrificed a certain amount of dignity to do so. Anyway, she is bubbly and outgoing and has always been good company.
In a word, I do the deed. It is very nice, but the earth doesn’t move. Perhaps neither of us expected it to. It feels odd though when the two of us go along to meet Amy from the coach the next day. Although she does not mention it, I get the impression that Amy thinks something is strange too. Did Charlotte intend to cast some doubt in her mind? Who can tell? The feeling is there in the background for the duration of Amy’s stay, a mixture of guilt and apprehension of her leaving for the summer. I am going to miss her. While the past few weeks have been like a dream, reality may at last be knocking at the door. The divorce court hearing is imminent and then, of course, there’s the cost of it all, emotionally and financially. And how will I react to becoming a parent? It will be puzzling for the tax office, someone in the pub says, when you change your code from married with no children to single with one.
My birthday is September 11th. Yes, I know. But that isn’t until years later. Amy is back from Italy and is coming to help me celebrate. We haven’t seen each other for five or six weeks, although many letters have gone backwards and forwards. While Amy was in Italy, I finally became divorced and I also became a father. Although a reconciliation is out of the question, a sea change has occurred. Under pressure, I have moved out of the house and am temporarily renting a room from Reuben. My life has changed.
I am overjoyed to see Amy again, and despite everything, it looks as if we might continue where we left off. We have a beautiful weekend. We are back in our bubble once more. But perhaps this is to ignore the reality of our situation. The obstacles to a relationship may need to be faced. Firstly, what about the distances and the impracticality? Secondly, there are our respective commitments. Thirdly, we never know what is around the corner.
The following week, Reuben drags me along to the beginning of term dance at his college. I am puzzled by his insistence. I am entirely unaware of what is waiting for me. Reuben apparently isn’t. He has something up his sleeve. He has promised another Aimee (this one with an i and a double e) that he will make sure I come. Aimee is also stunning. She is intelligent and witty, has long blonde hair and soft feminine curves. She is a great mover. More importantly, she is here now, and she has already booked her place in my bed for the night. Without me even realising it. She has brought an overnight bag and a change of clothes. Through availability, if nothing else, she trumps the other Amy. Like the Chet Baker classic says, perhaps I fall in love too easily, but I am destined to be with this Aimee for the next three years.
I have one final telephone conversation with Amy, this from work one evening as I do not have a home phone. She tells me she is getting ready to go off to university. The summer is over. Our summer is over. The train has left the station. It’s turned into Brief Encounter. Although neither of us knocks it on the head there and then, the distance between us seems to have palpably grown. When I tell her I will call her again, I wonder if I actually will. The longer I leave it, the more unlikely this becomes.
I think about Amy now and then. With a touch of sadness, but always with great fondness. Another time and another place, who knows? I wonder how it all turned out for her.
© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved