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It all began sometime in the last century, in an age when lovers wrote letters to each other sealed up in envelopes. Sometimes they used colored inks to show their love, or they perfumed their writing paper with scent.
41 Plough Lane,
Monday, June 2nd 1980
I'm sorry about the smell. I hope you've opened this somewhere private, all on your own. You'll get teased to distraction otherwise. It's called Rive Gauche, so I'm feeling like Simone de Beauvoir and I hope you're feeling like Jean-Paul Sartre. Actually I hope you aren't because I think he was pretty horrid to her. I'm writing this upstairs after a row with Pete and Hillary. Ha, ha, ha! Pete and Hillary, Pete and Hillary, Pete and Hillary. You hate it when I call them that, don't you? I love you so much. If you saw my diary you'd die. I wrote a whole two pages this morning. I drew up a list of everything that's wonderful and glorious about you and one day when we're together forever I might let you look at it and you'll die again.
I wrote that you're old-fashioned.
One: The first time we met, you stood up when I entered the room, which was sweet, but it was the Hard Rock Cafe and I was coming out of the kitchen to take your order.
Two: Every time I refer to my mum and dad as Pete and Hillary, you go pink and tighten your lips.
Three: When you first talked to Pete and-all right, I'll let you off-when you first talked to Mum and Dad, you let them go on and on about private education and private health and how terrible it was and how evil the government is and you never said a word. About your dad being a Tory MP, I mean. You talked beautifully about the weather and incomprehensibly about cricket. But you never let on.
That's what the row today was about, in fact. Your dad was on Weekend World at lunchtime, you prolly saw him. (I love you, by the way. God, I love you so much.)
"Where do they find them?" barked Pete, stabbing a finger at the television. "Where do they find them?"
"Find who?" I said coldly, gearing up for a fight.
"Whom," said Hillary.
"These tweed-jacketed throwbacks," said Pete. "Look at the old fart. What right has he got to talk about the miners? He wouldn't recognize a lump of coal if it fell into his bowl of Brown Windsor soup."
"You remember the boy I brought home last week?" I said, with what I'm pretty sure any observer would call icy calm.
"Job security, he says!" Pete yelled at the screen. "When have you ever had to worry about job security, Mr. Eton, Oxford, and the Guards?" Then he turned to me. "Hm? What, boy? When?"
He always does that when you ask him a question-says something else first, completely off the subject, and then answers your question with one (or more) of his own. Drives me mad. (So do you, darling Neddy. But mad with deepest love.) If you were to say to my father, "Pete, what year was the battle of Hastings?" he'd say, "They're cutting back on unemployment benefit. In real terms it's gone down by five percent in just two years. Five percent. Bastards. Hastings? Why do you want to know? Why Hastings? Hastings was nothing but a clash between warlords and robber barons. The only battle worth knowing about is the battle between . . ." and he'd be off. He knows it drives me mad. I think it prolly drives Hillary mad too. Anyway, I persevered.
"The boy I brought home," I said. "His name was Ned. You remember him perfectly well. It was his half term. He came into the Hard Rock two weeks ago."
"The Sloane Ranger in the cricket jumper, what about him?"
"He is not a Sloane Ranger!"
"Looked like one to me. Didn't he look like a Sloane Ranger to you, Hills?"
"He was certainly very polite," Hillary said.
"Exactly." Pete returned to the bloody TV, where there was a shot of your dad trying to address a group of Yorkshire miners, which I have to admit was quite funny. "Look at that! First time the old fascist has ever been north of Watford in his life, I guarantee you. Except when he's passing through on his way to Scotland to murder grouse. Unbelievable. Unbelievable."
"Never mind Watford, when did you last go north of Hampstead?" I said. Well, shouted. Which was fair I think, because he was driving me mad and he can be such a hypocrite sometimes.
Hillary went all don't-you-talk-to-your-father-like-that-ish and then got back to her article. She's doing a new column now, for Spare Rib, and gets ratty very easily.
"You seem to have forgotten that I took my doctorate at Sheffield University," Pete said, as if that qualified him for the Northerner of the Decade Award.
"Never mind that," I went on. "The point is Ned just happens to be that man's son." And I pointed at the screen with a very exultant finger. Unfortunately the man on camera just at that moment was the presenter.
Pete turned to me with a look of awe. "That boy is Brian Walden's son?" he said hoarsely. "You're going out with Brian Walden's son?"
It seems that Brian Walden, the presenter, used to be a Labour MP. For one moment Pete had this picture of me stepping out with socialist royalty. I could see his brain rapidly trying to calculate the chances of his worming his way into Brian Walden's confidence (father-in-law to father-in-law), wangling a seat in the next election and progressing triumphantly from the dull grind of the Inner London Education Authority to the thrill and glamour of the House of Commons and national fame. Peter Fendeman, maverick firebrand and hero of the workers, I watched the whole fantasy pass through his greedy eyes. Disgusting.
"Not him!" I said. "Him!" Your father had appeared back on-screen again, now striding towards the door of Number Ten with papers tucked under his arm.
I love you, Ned. I love you more than the tides love the moon. More than Mickey loves Minnie and Pooh loves honey. I love your big dark eyes and your sweet round bum. I love your mess of hair and your very red lips. They are very red in fact, I bet you didn't know that. Very few people have lips that really are red in the way that poets write about red. Yours are the reddest red, a redder red than ever I read of, and I want them all over me right now-but oh, no matter how red your lips, how round your bum, how big your eyes, it's you that I love. When I saw you standing there at Table Sixteen, smiling at me, it was as if you were entirely without a body at all. I had come out of the kitchen in a foul mood and there shining in front of me I saw this soul. This Ned. This you. A naked soul smiling at me like the sun and I knew I would die if I didn't spend the rest of my life with it.
But still, how I wished this afternoon that your father were a union leader, a teacher in a comprehensive school, the editor of the Morning Star, Brian Walden himself-anything but Charles Maddstone, war hero, retired Brigadier of the Guards, ex-colonial administrator. Most of all, how I wish he was anything but a cabinet minister in a Conservative government.
That's not right though, is it? You wouldn't be you then, would you?
When Pete and Hillary both got it, they stared from me to the screen and back again. Hillary even looked at the chair you sat in the day you came round. Glared at the thing as if she wanted it disinfected and burned.
"Oh, Portia!" she said in what they used to call "tragic accents."
Pete, of course, after going as red as Lenin, swallowed his rage and his baffled pride and began to Talk to me. Solemnly. He Understood my adolescent revolt against everything I had been brought up to cherish and believe. No, more than that, he Respected it. "Do you know, in a kind of way, I'm proud of you, Porsh? Proud of that fighting spirit. You're pushing against authority, and isn't that what I've always taught you to do?"
"What?" I screeched. (I have to be honest. There's no other word. It was definitely a screech.)
He spread his hands and raised his shoulders with an infernal smugness that will haunt me till the day I die. "Okay. You've dated the upper-class twit of the year and that's got your dad's attention. You've got Pete listening. Let's talk, yeah?"
I mean . . .
I arose calmly, left the room, and went upstairs for a think.
Well that's what I should have done but I didn't.
In fact I absolutely yelled at him. "Fuck you, Pete! I hate you! You're pathetic! And you know what else? You're a snob. You're a hideous, contemptible snob!" Then I stamped out of the room, slammed the door, and ran upstairs for a cry. The President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had finished his sport with Portia.
Poo. And more poo.
Anyway, at least they know now. Have you told your parents? I suppose they'll hit the roof as well. Their beloved son ensnared by the daughter of Jewish left-wing intellectuals. If you can call a part-time history lecturer at North East London Polytechnic an intellectual, which in my book you can't.
It wouldn't be love without opposition, would it? I mean, if Juliet's dad had fallen on Romeo's neck and said, "I'm not losing a daughter, I'm gaining a son," and Romeo's mum had beamed, "Welcome to the Montague family, Juliet my precious," it would be a pretty short play.
Anyway, a couple of hours after this "distressing scene," Pete knocked on my door with a cup of tea. Precision, Portia, precision-he knocked on my door with his knuckles, but you know what I mean. I thought he was going to give me grief, but in fact-well no in fact he did give me grief. That is exactly and literally what he gave me. He had just had a phone call from America. Apparently Pete's brother, my uncle Leo, had a heart attack in New York last night and was dead by the time an ambulance arrived. Too grim. Uncle Leo's wife Rose died of ovarian cancer in January and now he's gone, too. He was forty-eight. Forty-eight and dead from a heart attack. So my poor cousin Gordon is coming over to England to stay with us. He was the one who had to call the ambulance and everything. Imagine seeing your own father die in front of you. He's the only child, too. He must be in a terrible state, poor thing. I hope he'll like it with us. I think he was brought up quite orthodox, so what he'll make of family life here, I can't imagine. Our idea of kosher is a bacon bagel. I've never met him. I've always pictured him as having a black beard, which is insane of course, since he's about our age. Seventeen going on eighteen, that kind of thing.
The result of the day is that peace has broken out in the Fendeman home and next week I shall have a brother to talk to. I'll be able to talk about you.
Which, O Neddy mine, is more than you ever do. "Won a match. Played pretty well I think. Revising hard. Thinking about you a great deal." I quote the interesting bits.
I know you're busy with exams, but then so am I. Don't worry. Any letter that comes from you gives me a fever. I look at the writing and imagine your hand moving over the paper, which is enough to make me wriggle like a lovesick eel. I picture your hair flopping down as you write, which is enough to make me writhe and froth like a . . . like a . . . er, I'll come back to you on that one. I think of your legs under the table and a million trillion cells sparkle and fizz inside me. The way you cross a "t" makes me breathless. I hold the back of the envelope to my lips and think of you licking it and my head swims. I'm a dotty dippy dozy dreadful delirious romantic and I love you to heaven.
But I wish wish wish you weren't going back to your school next term. Leave and be free like the rest of us. You don't have to go to Oxford, do you? I wouldn't go to any university that made me stay on through the winter term after I'd already done all my A levels and all my friends had left, just to sit some special entrance paper. How pompous can you get? Why can't they behave like a normal university? Come with me to Bristol. We'll have a much better time.
I shan't bully you about it, though. You must do whatever you want to do.
I love you, I love you, I love you.
I've just had a thought. Suppose your History of Art teacher hadn't taken your class on a trip to the Royal Academy that Saturday? Suppose he had taken you to the Tate or the National Gallery instead? You wouldn't have been in Piccadilly and you wouldn't have gone to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch and I wouldn't be the luckiest, happiest, most dementedly in-love girl in the world.
The world is very . . . um . . . (consults the Thomas Hardy textbook that she's supposed to be studying) . . . the world is very contingent.
I'm kissing the air around me.
Love and love and love and love and love
Your Portia X
Only one X, because a quintillion wouldn't be anything like
7th June 1980
My darling Portia
Thank you for a wonderful letter. After your (completely justified) criticism of my terrible style of letter-writing, this is going to be completely tricky. It just seems to gush out of you like a geezer (spelling?) and I'm not too hot at that kind of thing. Also your handwriting is completely perfect (like everything else about you of course) and mine is completely illegible. I thought of responding to your little extra (which was fantastic, by the way) by spraying this envelope with eau de cologne or aftershave, but I haven't got any. I don't suppose the linseed oil I use for my cricket bat would entice you? Thought not.
From the Hardcover edition.