At meals I worked hard to keep conversation flowing. I planned my openers and remarks and then toned them down to match Mike’s swift insightful responses. I quickly deduced that he was smarter and better informed than I and, in addition, at twenty three, was more experienced and worldly. I saw myself in contrast to this knowledgeable person as someone who, at twenty-one, had lived a boring, mundane, protected, middle-class, English life. Using this realization I told myself that I could let his intelligence sharpen my senses and that if I inserted a few words and then followed his lead our mealtime discussions could be exciting. As time went on I got the uncanny impression that his very presence was honing me into something better, someone more alert, more alive. Looking back I wonder if this is what love is made of.
Either at this meal or the next one we exchanged brief histories about why we were there. Mike told me more about his year in Paris. He told me about his Parisian friends, who called him, “Mon très cher.” His description gave me an image of a large Louis XV salon with exotic French ladies swooning over this delectable young man.
I countered and told him about my 1964 six months in Versailles. I told him about the painting atelier, and painting nudes in a studio heated by a pot-belly stove. I told him about the Lycee des Beaux Arts where I spent a whole month on one drawing of a head of Voltaire. I told him about La Sorbonne and my Diplôme de la Civilazion Française. As we talked I felt a growing rapport with him especially when we discovered our joint fluency in the poetic French language and our joint love of literature. Now I wonder whether he still speaks French or if he, like me, has let his fluency lapse through disuse.
The National Union of students had arranged a series of lectures for our entertainment. I don’t remember what all the topics were. They were selected to accentuate our appreciation of American and European cultures. Our first lecture might have been one about T.S. Eliot who had died the previous year. We might have been told about his life and introduced to some of his poetry reading excerpts from the ‘Wasteland.’ His writing suited Mike’s quick intellect but I found it hard to squeeze meaning out of the beautiful words. When I got home I indulged in a ‘Faber’ paperback edition of “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.’ To this day I enjoy reading this simpler poetry ranging from “The Naming of Cats’ to “Macavity: The Mystery Cat.” It was that lecture and others like it which broadened our companionship first from dinner table to lecture hall and then on to joint activities on deck.
It is from the times which we spent on the deck together that I carry my most cherished memories. There was that wonderful evening when we went and talked in the warmth of the engine room door. We stood in the open doorway and Mike rested his strong hand lovingly on my neck and we talked and talked. As we talked the erotic sensation of his hand partially distracted me while drawing me to him with a hypnotic pull. That was when he told me of Ezra Pound, New York Literature, La Grande Vie en Paris, Les Sciences Peau Theater and more. Even then I wondered why Ezra Pound interested him so. Did Pound’s unconventional life play to Mike’s sensitivity to the unique? If we ever meet again I shall ask him if he is still drawn to the unusual thinkers, those who rock mainstay value systems. Ask him, if, old age has mellowed his outlook, or if he has further developed his insights into the unconventional.
Another special moment, a few evenings later, was when we stood at the stern of the ship and gazed out to sea. That time Mike stood behind me with his arms on either side protecting me from the wind. Then he suddenly spoke in French, a flow of pure French poetry coddling me as tightly and lovingly as his pose. It was warm talk, talk of companionship, talk of love and the uniqueness of our being together. His words flowed around me with the wind and yet those loving words were as protective as his body acting as a wind shield. I felt them fondling my mind and then flying away out over the ship’s wake. It was an ecstatic moment for me never to be forgotten.
One odd moment was the day on the deck when I asked “Why?” and he shrunk back and turned away. Now of course, I don’t remember why I asked “why?” but at the time it was an unanswered question. Later, I remember that we stood in each other’s arms and he told me how, “It is intense and lovely to be twenty-one.” His comment, a reference to my age, made me feel ecstatic and yet it saddened me. I loved his warmth but somehow the comment distanced us as I analyzed it to be another indication of how superior I felt him to be.
I treasure the afternoon which we spent lying on our tummies on the deck reading, or when we sat reading behind the life rafts. We were always looking for warm places on deck, places where we could rest in the cocoon of our closeness away from the hustle of the rest of the passengers. The bulk of the life rafts created a warm spot where Mike could tell me of his mad youth, Speed, Holy Cross, his family, and my countryman Tolkien. I think that he had just read “The Lord of the Rings” and was awed by this wonderful work. At that time I had only read “The Hobbit” and so could not keep up with his discourse. He expounded on Tolkien’s creativity and the language which he had invented to enrich his tale.
Now, looking back, I wonder whether the artificial environment of the ship’s enclosure and her deck stimulated our romance, or whether we could have connected in any setting. After all ship-board romances are common, subjects of many a story and here we were falling into a hackneyed cliché. I wonder if the sea has something to do with it. It is constant, yet variable, and very beautiful; surely these characteristics create a backdrop for love.
Certainly Mike and I spent many hours as, together, we studied the different colors of the sea. We saw so many. Sometimes it is an intense dark blue, calm, yet assertive gently rocking the ship as she goes. Then, at night it is inky black with white horses rolling in the distance like strange fish emerging from the depths. When it is rougher the larger waves fling themselves into the side of the ship and break forming white foam with rising bubbles. But the best color is the iridescent turquoise green which comes up out of the patterned foam. It is a transient beautiful color which ought to be able to be reproduced but which is so fleeting that it evades capture. Was the beauty of this color as transient and yet as precious and unique as our nascent love?
We had been nine days at sea when we reached land and made our way down the US coast to New York. That was when the ship’s crew frantically demolished the dining room ceiling and threw it over board. No-one ever officially explained what was going on but my recollection is that we somehow gathered that it didn’t comply with the New York harbor safety / fire rules and had to go. I was naturally excited to arrive but also very sad as I knew that my days of bliss in Mike’s company were about to end. That evening we stood by a window as he explained the coast to me and he stared at me and told me that I had a “perfect profile.” Late into the evening we danced, holding each-other very close. In those idyllic moments I knew that we were both happy, creating memories to treasure for a lifetime.
That night, before we docked in New York, the air was heavy with a warm off shore wind. From about 11:30 pm onwards the coast of Long Island and then gradually the City itself drifted into view, a panorama of glowing lights rising from an inky sea. Then the great narrows bridge with its huge suspension span loomed ahead and we went nearer and nearer and passed under its green lights and starry span. We stopped and waited in the neck until 5:30 am when the sun rose in a rosy glory to the right of Manhattan Island. The man-made structures are so high that one is tempted to imagine a hilly terrain not the flats which it was originally. As it got lighter the scene became more and more precise and perhaps more impressive. We sailed grandly past the Statue of Liberty with its green form lit by the dawn sun’s oblique rays. Everyone ran to the stern to take photographs. Then on and in with Manhattan island to the left. I had the impression of a mass of stalagmites gradually giving way to the realization that these gothic sky-scrapers are New York.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, January 2014