Reflections on life


Photo – Military wedding photographer –

Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, 1967, I’m 21. I live in a row of imposingly tall houses dating from the 1700s, way past their former glory. A dark stone staircase winds up from the wide street to our front door, and through that another, this time carpeted, rises up into a large, square hall with roof lights. Four bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom all lead off the hall. Once elegant, the period decor is now faded and peeling, with picture rails, comfortable old mismatched furniture, an assortment of rugs, and everything decidedly lived in.

My flatmates are all older than me, each from different worlds, and it’s good to leave my own behind at the end of a day and hear about another. Sally is our natural group leader, she’s boldly attractive, well dressed with flame red nails, and is personal assistant to the editor at The Scotsman newspaper. She looks right at you and is direct to the point of outspoken, which often saves a lot of time.

Lavinia is her polar opposite, a gentle English rose, tall, fair and slender in tweed skirts and twin sets, kind and helpful, a secretary, and seemingly incapable of being anything but good natured. And finally Bronach, Irish, small and neat, waist length black hair, dark, dancing eyes and a lilt in her voice that I love. She’s a mature student, speaks nine languages, and is studying the Quechua tribal languages of South America, but from her light and laughter filled chatter you’d never guess.

I settle in easily and find my place in the bathroom rota, where there is no shower, and the old enamelled roll top takes an age to fill. I have a space in the kitchen cupboards where we each keep our own food, pooling it now and then for a meal together. Sharing the cost of very modest heating and hot water, a telephone in the hall and a tiny black and white TV which needs to be fed with sixpences, we each come and go, and chat, or not, and it works very comfortably. 

Bronach and I become good friends and I spend time in her room quite often, laughing, listening to her sing and play guitar, sometimes with her Indian boyfriend Rajev, who cooks with wonderful spices we’ve never seen before. And Sally gets engaged, sporting a pretty impressive diamond. We’re both admiring it when she asks me if I’m up for a blind date, her fiancé has a friend in town who would like an evening out. 

Ronald is on Territorial Army duty for a week in barracks on the outskirts of the city. My heart sinks a little to find that he is in his forties, small, neat, dapper, with a moustache, and he spends dinner telling me his life and times, at length. Well, it’s only one night, and I make the most of a meal I haven’t cooked myself. Then he says it’s still early, we’ll drive to the barracks and have a drink in the officer’s mess. 

There are maybe a dozen men in uniform sitting in comfortable chairs in what looks like a lounge bar, and as we walk in there is a sudden silence, a few of them stand up, and then conversation resumes. Ronald buys us drinks, then leans his back against the bar, talking to anyone who will listen. After a few rather uncomfortable minutes someone speaks behind me and I turn. A tall man in a midnight blue uniform, with a broad, tanned face and large, brown eyes introduces himself.

He asks lightly how well I know Ronald, and I tell him the story. Then he quietly explains that the rules are no ladies in the officer’s mess, which is why there was some surprise at my arrival, but it’s perfectly clear that I had no idea, and I’m most welcome. Staring at him I say “you mean…?” Yes”, he replies, “he knew.” I turn and look at Ronald, telling jokes now, and it floods through me that he used me like a trophy, brazenly breaking the rules to try and impress the others. My face must give this away for my new friend says with a smile “well, he may have brought you here, but you can choose how you leave.”

Brian, a captain in the Royal Marines, is also a visitor to the barracks, staying for a few days whilst leading a recruitment drive. He tells me that at any time I wish to leave he’ll drive me back into town, or of course I can go with Ronald, just as I choose, and there’s no hurry. My anger fades, this is a very different companion, maybe ten to fifteen years older than me, a world away from most male students my age, and a complete about turn from Ronald.

He asks me what I’m studying and I explain institutional management. He looks me in the eye and asks why, a good question, and I’m thrown off guard and flustered, trying to defend, because I haven’t yet admitted to myself that this is not what I want at all. “It’s great management training, and everyone needs to eat, and I’ll be able to cope in any situation that’s thrown at me, and pull a meal out of a hat if I have to, whatever work I end up doing… and…” Seeing me cornered he smiles and swiftly changes the subject.

We talk for another hour, easily, he’s intelligent, interesting, with a dry sense of humour and an air of quiet confidence. And he listens. Eventually he offers to drive me back to town, and we leave the officer’s mess without a backward look. Sinking into a large, very comfortable car I am home too soon, he opens the door, shakes my hand, thanking me for a very pleasant evening, and drives away. Lying in bed I re-play it all, excluding Ronald.

I’m home from college, telling Sally about last night, when the door bell rings and I hear Bronach calling up to me “there’s a boy scout down here asking for you”. Brian comes up the stairs, smiling at her irreverence, resplendent in a crimson and navy ceremonial uniform with flashes of gold, sword in hand rather than left in the car. He’s been on parade at the castle which isn’t far away, part of the pageantry for attracting recruits. Sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea and chatting, I’m so surprised and happy to see him, especially looking so dazzling, I think I must be beaming like a light house. He says he’s here for three more days, and asks for the phone number, maybe we’ll meet again.

When the phone rings next day I leap for it. “I’m coming for dinner, tonight, I’m looking forward to it, I know that with your training you can pull a meal out of a hat so it won’t be a problem, will it. See you at eight.” And he’s gone. I look at my watch, it’s six. I’m wailing “Oh my God, oh no…” The other three hear me, we gather at the kitchen table, and I explain my thoughtless bravado. Then whilst I sit there too shocked to think, they work out a plan. 

It’s the end of the week, we’ve hardly any food left, but Bronach gathers what there is and using Rajev’s spices begins to cook a vegetable curry which smells wonderful. Sally cleans and rearranges the sitting room, pulling out the dining table we never use, finding the best of the crockery, cutlery and napkins, polishing glasses, lighting candles. And Lavinia deals with me, running the bath, helping me choose what to wear, ironing it, calming me, telling me I look really lovely. I don’t think I utter a coherent word or do a single thing to make any of this happen. And by the time the door bell rings exactly at eight, each of them has slipped silently away to their room, and I usher in my guest, smiling confidently. 

He is appreciative, good humoured, well mannered, and I’m sufficiently at ease to confess that this was a joint effort, although I can’t bring myself to go as far as admitting that I actually did nothing. After eating we settle into easy chairs and talk, and when I ask him anything about himself he neatly deflects the question. It’s a little frustrating, but eventually I give way, and find that it’s a refreshing change being with a man who has no interest in talking about himself. There’s no trace of the rather patronising attitude to women that’s so familiar to me, he treats me entirely as his equal and expects nothing less. In fact he’s challenging and makes no concessions, and I like that.

Out of the blue he asks if I have paper, paints and a brush. It’s three a.m. and I’m intrigued, I bring all I have, an A4 notepad, a makeup brush, and a bottle of blue ink. He sits opposite me, sketching my head and shoulders in pencil first, his eyes narrowing each time he looks up at me, and then paints quickly and lightly in ink. I’m surprised to see myself captured with flair, it’s lively, he signs it Brian, gives it to me, and leaves. I feel sure it’s his parting gift, but it’s been such an extraordinary evening in every way, I go to bed immensely happy. 

I’m finishing supper when Lavinia calls me to the phone, smiling. Brian says “we’re going out to dinner, Prestonfield House, dress up.” I’ve just eaten like a horse. “It’s too late, I’ve just had supper!”  “Well you’ll have to eat again, I’ll be there in an hour.” This time I need no help, and find the long dress I love, a riot of colour with a high neck and small Elizabethan ruff. And I notice that the car has CD plates and ask why a captain in the Marines has anything to do with the Diplomatic Corps. Another question that is never answered.

The dining room of this beautiful old country house is aglow with soft lighting and candles, furnished with antiques, the deep pink walls studded with oil paintings, and soft, ripe wine is poured reverentially into large, crystal glasses. I eat as much as I can, revelling in every moment of luxury, and can’t help thinking that it’s the other three who should be here. Again we talk of many things, amongst them war, and I say something flippant about Winston Churchill. It’s the first and only time his face clouds, eyes narrowed, and I’m given a serious and eloquent summary of this man’s place in history. 

We’re driving home, playing a game we’ve just invented about famous battles, one I’ll never win, but we’re laughing so much it doesn’t matter. As we get out of the car he kneels with his back towards me, saying “climb up, and we’ll lead the charge!” I hitch up my skirt, he hoists me onto his back, and we gallop along Buccleuch Place, whilst I wave my sword shouting “forward, men!” He even carries me up two flights of stairs before stopping to let me go, and as he turns to me we are wrapped together in a whirl of laughing, breathless elation. And it isn’t the wine, it’s trust, being wide open to sharing the flow of our imagination in the magic of each moment, like children.

I’ve told him that on his last night I’m on duty, cooking for a college event all evening, and I can’t get out of it. It’s late when I arrive home, feeling weary and flat, still in my whites, and he’s there, waiting in the car. He has surprised me every day. We are quieter, reflective, looking at each other, touching. I don’t ask anything, neither does he. And then he’s gone. 20 hours together across five days, and they are as bright and shining fifty years later as they were then.

I read something a few years ago that I hadn’t found words for, but recognised immediately. I think it was Jeff Brown, and I’m paraphrasing –

You don’t measure love in time. You measure love in transformation. Sometimes the longest connections yield very little growth, while the briefest encounters change everything. The heart doesn’t wear a watch – it’s timeless. It doesn’t care how long you know someone. The heart cares about resonance that opens it up, enlivens it, calls it home. And when the heart finds that resonance, the transformation begins.

At twenty one, I couldn’t see as clearly as I can now. Brian had an air of command, was bold and direct, and looked right into me for the truth, not the cover story. He sensed I had that same unflinching courage, but that I concealed it, for it was never very popular in a woman. He alone in the officer’s mess didn’t stand by and let Ronald make use of me, he told me the uncomfortable truth and allowed me to choose what to do with it. He called my bluff and invited himself to dinner, but not without arriving for tea first to check out that the flat was sufficiently well equipped. He challenged me, lifted me up and would not let me be less than I am, but in a safe space, with absolute integrity. And I rose, and met him where he was, elated by the freedom that comes with being yourself. It was a gift for both of us, to be known and understood at levels way beyond words. 

And there was another gift – my flatmates each rising to the occasion, when they could easily have laughed, said – well good luck with that then – and gone out. It was the most wonderfully humbling and spontaneous coming together of good will, pooled skills, selflessness and support. I hadn’t yet learned to ask for help, I was one of life’s helpers, and hadn’t opened to the idea that it’s a two way street. And how beautiful it was to experience them take over, and prepare the best possible evening they could make for me. This too was love in action, in the moment, and both of these are precious memories that matter to me now more than anything I’ve ever owned.

Happily, I never did work in institutional management and instead moved sideways into hotels and restaurants for a few years, before being drawn into the family business. But I was right about one thing, it did turn out to have been excellent management training and the standards I’d been taught I carried through everything I did. Most of my working life was not what I would have chosen, if I’d allowed myself to let go of being dutiful and follow my heart, but at this distance, it doesn’t really matter, everything taught me something. It’s the simplest truths that feel the most significant now, not what I’ve been, or what I achieved, but what kind of human being I am, and for as long as I’m still breathing, how open I remain to learning, growing, and love.

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