BOBBY SHAFTO Part 2 of 2

Ten years passed during which time the ditty continued to spread. From County Durham, it spread into the neighboring counties. It was passed on by word of mouth by both rich and poor. It quickly reached neighboring county Yorkshire where the mythically wealthy Anne Duncombe lived. Along with many others, she sang it in her youth. By the time that she reached marriageable age she still harbored a secret desire for this bonnie man with romantic silver buckles. The song continued its popularity slowly spreading across the land. It even made its way across The Irish Sea to as far away as Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland[vi]

Thus, it was that when Bobby Shafto returned to England, he found a land replete with women hankering for him. Each hoped that Bobby Shafto’s “silver buckles” meant he was rich and the promise ‘He’ll come back and marry me,” applied to them. He enjoyed his popularity and outlaid the small sum that he had managed to accumulate during his travels to set himself as the desirable bachelor he had become. For the following three years, he moved from place to place wooing women and enjoying his eligible status even though he began to find that once his true net worth became known most of his targeted women’s families told him to move on. Anne Duncombe’s family were different as the size of their fortune immunized them from financial concerns. Bobby liked Anne’s youthful innocence and told her that he was in love. They became engaged.

During Bobby’s absence, Bridget’s parents died leaving her an independent heiress. She felt happy in this state as she was now mistress of her own destiny. She kept up her vigil for Bobby’s return and continued to sing her song. Every day she rode to the glade where she, and Bobby had always met. Here she dismounted to sit and wait. When she heard rumors of Bobby’s return, she increased her vigil. Her doctors advised her to stop lingering in this damp dell. They told her that it was probably the cause of her consumption and most certainly aggravating it. She refused to move to a warmer dry climate to treat her ailment for she knew in her heart that her Bobby would return as he had promised and wanted to be there to meet him. When she heard that Bobby had been seen in Yorkshire wooing Anne Duncombe, her resolve faltered, and she arranged for a trip to London to seek treatment.

Meanwhile, Anne’s youth and fortune reminded Bobby of Bridget. The closer they came to their wedding date the more his old memories of Bridget intensified. He decided that the only thing that he could do was to see Bridget. He traveled north to County Durham, and on the day after his arrival at Whitworth Hall rode out to their meeting place. She was not there so he continued on to Brancepeth Castle. On hearing that she learned of his engagement and had left for London, he followed her with urgency. It was the speed which he now knew he ought to have used on the day of his return to England.

It was here that Bobby Shafto and Bridget Belasyse reconnected. She lay decoratively on a couch and gasped when she saw him. His years in India had aged him, giving him, mature good looks and he still wore his silver buckles. He was in for a greater shock for he hadn’t been prepared to find her pale and thin. They sat together talking until one of her coughing spells exhausted her that her nurse suggested that she ought to return to bed. Bobby swept her up in his arms and carried her to her chamber. When she was in his arms, he was amazed how light she had become. Now his feelings for her intensified, and he knew that he had always loved her.

“Let’s get married.” He suggested.

“Yes.” she responded, “But you have to know that I am dying.”

“But you are not going die.” He shook his head “We’ll help you get the best treatment.” He smiled weakly as he gently stroked her icy cold hand.

“If we did get married …….’ Bridget paused, “if we did, and I died, you’d get everything.” She attempted a smile, “It’d be my gift to you, and I’d much prefer it going to you than to my cousin.” She sank back on her pillows and closed her eyes.

Bobby turned to the nurse, his eyes asked, “What now?”

“She needs to rest.” said the nurse, “Come back tomorrow.”

Bobby stood and lent over to kiss her damp forehead “My only love.” He murmured. “I’ll be back, I’ve learned my lesson I promise; I’ll be back.”

The next day, April 6th 1774, Bobby returned. He was greeted by a front door sporting a black wreath. Bridget had died during the night. The cousin had already materialized and taken over the household. He met Bobby at the door and told him that he was not welcome.

Bobby mourned for a couple of days and then pulled himself together and returned to Anne. On April 18th 1774, two weeks after Bridget’s death Bobby Shafto and Anne Duncombe were married. Their union, by all accounts a happy one, was blessed with children and greatly improved the Shafto holdings for decades to come. They played Bridget’s song at the wedding. Bobby let Anne believe that it was in her honor.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.


[vi] Some believe that the Bobby Shafto song relates to a Bobby Shafto who lived in Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland and died in 1737.

BOBBY SHAFTO Part 1 of 2

Recently I heard about a question on a game show which went: “Who wore silver buckles on his knees?” The answer, which I was proud to know, was: “Bobby Shafto.” The question made me think about the Bobby Shafto ditty which goes as follows:

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

The still popular song dates from the early 1700s and is now played as a nursery rhyme. It has several conflicting explanations. I delved into these and offer this story as my interpretation of what might have happened. I give it in two installments.


Bridget Belasyse[i] lived in Brancepeth Castle[ii]. She sat gazing out of her window while her maid combed and braided her long blond hair. It was a crisp north of England morning. Birds sang, and light mists tinged with pink hung over the verdant surrounding fields. Her window faced east toward Durham City. city with its ancient castle and cathedral hidden from view in the valley of the River Wear valley. To her left was the village of Brancepeth and if she turned right and strained, she could see Whitworth Hall across the rolling countryside.

Bridget knew that the castle had been purchased by her warring grandfather and often wished that she had been born a man so that she could partake in this kind of gallantry and adventure. The closest that she had come to war was in 1745 when she was ten, and the English army led by The Duke of Cumberland raged through the countryside on their way north to Scotland to annihilate ‘The Jacobite Rising’ led by the romantic figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie[iii]. What took Bridget’s imagination was not the ruthless defeat of the rebellion but the romantic story of Flora MacDonald, a Scottish highland lass, who had aided the Bonnie Prince to escape abroad. Bridget knew that in the same situation, she would have done likewise.

It was now spring of 1760, and Bridget had just turned twenty-five, rather too old to still be unmarried, but she was headstrong and insisted that she wouldn’t marry “just anyone’’. She pointed out that her idol of feminine achievement, Flora MacDonald, hadn’t married until she was twenty-eight. She said that there was still plenty of time. Those who knew her agreed that, with her fortune and astonishing good looks, there probably was, plenty of time.

Her hair finished. She donned a bonnet and called for her velvet cloak. She went outside and walked with a resolute stride to St. Brandon’s church. Her ostensive mission was to welcome Thomas Goodfellow Shafto, the new rector. When she entered the church, its cool presence reminded her of her belief in God. She hastily curtsied and took a pew to kneel and pray. Beside the altar she could see two men conversing. Their voices echoed but strain as she did, she could not make out their words. She deduced that the one wearing a cassock must be the new rector and the other? The other, tall blond with a relaxed easy stance – surely that was Bobby, his brother. She knew that Whitfield Hall which she saw from her window was their family home, but she had never met the brothers. They had been raised in London where their father had served as politician and Member of Parliament[iv]. When Bridget began to feel uncomfortable in her strained eaves-dropping stance, she slipped out of the church unannounced. The two at the altar heard her retreating footsteps and smiled as they watched the church door close behind her.

“I hear that’s a feisty one” remarked Thomas.

‘One of the Belasyse from the castle?”

“The Belasyse, – If I’m not mistaken that was Bridget. She is monied – no other children – Her parents are elderly, she will get the entire estate when her parents die!”

“Worth a visit?”

“Yes indeed!”

The following morning Thomas and Bobby paid a visit. For some reason, Bridget blushed when her butler announced their presence. She wasn’t sure whether it was something about their voices in the church, or the easy self-assured way that Bobby had stood in the church which had intrigued her and now made her blush. She was still pink when the two entered her drawing room. She served small cakes and tea, acquired, she explained, through her father’s trading with the East India Company. They exchanged pleasantries. She mentioned that she liked to ride. Bobby was quick to follow up on her comment with an offer to accompany her. For the first time in her life, Bridget was attracted to a man. She heartedly accepted. The attraction appeared to be mutual. The young couple quickly fell into a routine of riding together every morning. They adopted a wooded dell, half way between Brancepeth and Whitworth Hall, as their meeting place. The place was damp and beautiful. That spring the ground was carpeted with blue bells. Their brilliant color spread in wonderous beauty under the trees giving the place an ethereal smell of damp earth and blossom.

Both Bridget’s and Bobby’s parents disapproved of their bludgeoning romance. Bridget’s because they wanted Bridget to marry a titled man of good means, and Bobby’s because they wanted Bobby to parley his good looks and charm into a relationship with an heiress to a fortune larger than Bridget’s. Both sets of parents agreed that a separation was required, but by the time they took action Bridget and Bobby had exchanged troths. Bridget gave Bobby a pair of silver britches or knee buckles and Bobby had sworn eternal love and marriage. Bridget’s mother called on the Shaftos at Whitworth Hall and requested that Bobby leave her daughter alone. She offered introductions to enable him to go to sea and ‘shape up’ as she put it, by engaging in meaningful work.

Bobby was attracted to the idea of getting rich quickly and agreed to join the East India Company and to ship out to India. He and Bridget met under their meeting place trees and exchanged a long farewell during which they repeated their vows of constancy and eternal love. They knew that they faced a long separation for the voyage to India alone, around the Cape, took about a year.

In order to thwart her parent’s attempts to pair her off with other suitors Bridget created a comforting song. She took an older north of England tune (circa 1690) and set her own words to it. Every morning, rain or shine, she opened her window and gazed east while she sang her catchy ditty.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

During the day her parents and servants often heard her singing to the ramparts of the castle. She sang to the woods and dells around Brancepeth until everyone knew her refrain. Soon the servant girls took up the song. Some sang of upcoming nuptials, others of temporary separations. The song gained in popularity as it gradually passed from village to village. No-one changed the essence of the first verse for perhaps they liked the ring of Bonnie Bobby Shafto or maybe preferred anonymity for their loved ones. Some added verses to suit their particular circumstances.

There was this verse dedicated to a tall lover:

Bobby Shafto’s tall and slim,
He’s always dressed so neat and trim,
The ladies they all kick at him,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Others with shorter beaus added this verse:

Bobby Shafto’s fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He’s my love for evermore,

Bonny Bobby Shafto.

To be continued.


End notes associated with this part.

[i] Belasyse, pronounced ‘bel- asis’.

[ii] Brancepeth Castle, originally constructed in Norman times, was purchased on April 7th 1701 by Sir Henry Belasyse, Bridget’s grandfather. He used funds accumulated during his military career.

[iii] In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II of England, landed in Scotland to lead a catholic claim to the throne known as the Jacobite Rising. The rebellion was defeated by William Duke of Cumberland. Bonnie Prince Charlie, as the ‘pretender’ was affectionately called by his followers, escaped with assistance of a local highland lass, Flora McDonald.

[iv] John Shafto Member of Parliament 1729-1742.

[v] Some believe that the Bobby Shafto song relates to a Bobby Shafto who lived in Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland and died in 1737

The train flirtation

 Amelia loved King’s Cross station. Even in her present state of mind, when she approached the ticket gate at the train platform entrance, she paused and looked up at the giant vaulted roof with its wide double span. As always she marveled at the structure’s functional decorative ironwork and ancient glass roof, which bathed everything in daylight. Then she looked to the long side walls to admire the intricately detailed red-brick walls of the outer enclosure. They rose in Victorian majesty. 

When she brought her gaze back down Amelia noticed that her homeward, Durham-bound train was already standing at the platform. She saw passengers milling around searching for their assigned cars. This concerned her because she didn’t have a reserved seat. She walked briskly down the platform looking into each window as she passed.  Towards the front of the second/standard-class coaches, she found a few empty unassigned seats in groups of four separated by tables. She stowed her small suitcase in the luggage rack at the end of the coach and walked down the center to select a window seat facing the direction of travel. She would have preferred the relative privacy of a seat without a table even though there was always a risk that she might be hemmed in by an unwelcome fellow traveler, an obese person who would spread into her space or worse someone who talked incessantly or someone with bad body odor.  She placed her purse and cardigan on the seat beside her. She hoped that it might look as though the seat was taken. Then she opened her iPad and began to read in a futile attempt to block out her surroundings and also, perhaps, deter anyone from asking her to clear the seat next to her.

Amelia had just turned twenty-one and glowed with health. She wore an op-art navy blue and white dress. Its swirling skirt and tight waist accentuated her figure; while its color harmonized well with her sun-tan achieved during her vacation with friends in France.  Her hair was cropped short and streaked golden by the sun. Her nails were beautifully manicured and painted a vivid red. She, and her French friends had treated themselves to manicures and pedicures in Nice the day before she flew back to London. She should have been completely happy, but instead she felt sad, dejected and inadequate. When the train pulled out of the station, she put down her iPad and looked out the window. She congratulated herself for having no immediate fellow travelers in her foursome of seats, and indulged in a faint self-congratulatory smile. Then, as she watched the London suburbs whirr past her mood changed. She took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. When the train emerged from the second tunnel, her unhappy reverie was interrupted.

“Are these seats vacant? May I sit here?”

Amelia glanced at the speaker. She resented his intrusion on her private reverie but when she saw his bewitching smile, she could only answer,

“The seats are not taken, feel free!”

She pretended to read on, but surreptitiously watched him fold his jacket, take out a book and slide into the seat opposite hers. She liked what she saw, well built, slender hips, broad chest, and handsome face. He gave her a winning smile and seemed to fumble with his hands for a moment before he spoke, his voice lilted with friendly mockery,

“It’s nice to be watched by a beautiful woman!”

 “Well, I …” she stammered as she blushed.

“No excuses necessary; I’ve made you blush. We’d better meet.” He stretched his right hand.

 “Name’s Michael. Pleased to meet you! By the way you enchant when you blush!”

Amelia felt her whole face glow, and although the rising blood made her hot and embarrassed, it eclipsed her sad reverie. She wouldn’t normally have opened up to a strange man, however good-looking, but somehow this was different. She stretched out her hand,

“My name’s Amelia, how do you do, Michael?”  His hand was soft and warm, his grasp firm. She tembled as they shook hands. “That’s better,” he said, “now you should tell me why you are so sad! But, no, on second thoughts how about first having a cup of tea and some breakfast?”

“No, I ….”

“It’s OK. I insist, it’s on me. It’s not every day that I am with such a lovely woman! I’m sure that you haven’t eaten today and a cup of tea always cheers one up!

“Well maybe a cup of tea would be nice.”

“Sure it would; and we are right next to the buffet car.” Michael was already on his feet. He moved with ease down the coach. Amelia watched him go. She admired his figure and easy walk. When he returned he carried a tray loaded with scones and tea. Amelia marveled at so much food until he sat down and passed her a laden plate.

“Now let’s see you eat something.” His voice was solicitous and kind.

Amelia thanked Michael and ate, suddenly realizing how hungry she was. As they ate they talked about the weather, a favorite topic for all English persons. Then they talked about the recent Brixit vote and speculated on what its ultimate impact would be. While they talked, Amelia further assessed Michael, she estimated him to be somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-five, hair thick and brownish red and eyes. Oh his eyes, they were a perfect sky blue. Amelia’s family all had brown eyes, which meant that blue ones always mesmerized her, and Michael’s were intense. His open-necked shirt was exactly the same color which further accentuated their impact. When they had finished their food and conversation lagged Amelia rose.

“That hit the spot, thank you, Michael. Now I think that I’ll go to the toilet; wash my hands.”

His blue eyes sparkled and he leant forward and gave her an intense look, “Going to powder that cute little shiny nose,” he joked.

Amelia blushed again although up until he suggested it; she had not thought of powdering her nose.  She walked slowly up the coach conscious that he was watching her and sure that he liked what he saw. The toilet was small but had a tiny mirror and so Amelia took the time to redo her lip liner and lipstick and to add a little more liquid make-up to her nose, powder being a thing of the past for her. She brushed her hair and came out, feeling like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.  As she walked down the coach toward him she enjoyed his welcoming smile and returned his gaze with one of her own. When she reached their table he stood up and reached forward to assist her into her seat.

“Thank you,” she said “You are such a gentleman!”

“When an alluring young woman with a secret sorrow, captivating blush and freshly powdered nose approaches I couldn’t do otherwise!” When she was seated he leant across the table and took her hands in his. “Now tell me why you are so sad, perhaps I can help.”

Amelia didn’t think that he could help but the warmth of his hands and depth of his gaze inspired her into confidence. She told him how she had met Charles when she was in high school, how they had dated for several years, how they had maintained their friendship through college even though they were attending different universities.  Then she told how she had returned home to Durham at the beginning of the summer to see him with her best friend and how they had quarreled.

“So you still love him?”

“Yes, of course I still love him, but after the things I said it is all over!”

“You still love him and yet you talk to me. Might he not be equally jealous if he were to see us together?

“Yes, but….”

Michael paused letting several minutes pass and then he asked, “Didn’t your trip to Nice help?” Amelia told him that she had hoped that it would but it had had the opposite effect because she had always been the outsider “ as “l’anglaise”. She told him that, even though she spoke good French, she had a hard time following the subtleties of the group’s discourse. Over the month they had paired up leaving her alone. The experience gave her a sense of unworthiness and made her feel unattractively gauche. On  her return she had spent the previous night with a friend in a Baron’s Court flat only to be further depressed when the friend gave  her a key and left her alone while she went out to dinner  with  her new boyfriend . Michael told Amelia that she had allowed her break-up with Charles to cloud her judgement. He urged her to re-establish her self-esteem. His words comforted, but his presence and actions did more. She kept trying to get him to talk about himself but all she could get him to disclose was that he lived in Edinburgh and had been to London on a business trip.

After Amelia’s confession Michael guided their discussion to the books that they were reading and from thence to general topics. After York and then Darlington, getting closer and closer to Durham Amelia became increasingly excited and then she grabbed Michael’s hand,

“Michael, look” she pointed through the window, “there is Durham Cathedral – how I love that view”

Michael followed her instruction, “It is stunning, like the little lady who lives there! It’s a pity but I suppose that it’s time to get your bag.”

A few minutes later, the train slowed down and stopped at Durham station. Amelia was so excited at arriving in Durham that she momentarily didn’t think about having to say good bye to Michael or even to try to establish a way that they could meet again. Everything happened so fast Michael opened her door, she stepped out. Instead of her parents on the platform, she saw Charles. He was there to meet her, which could only mean one thing. A wave of joy pulsated through her body, but she didn’t run into his arms. She paused to look back at Michael. He waved to her from the window of the moving train. As he waved the mid-day sun silhouetted his head in a halo of light. Charles put his arm around her; she stood and let him hold her while she continued to watch the train disappear around a bend in the tracks.

Michael smiled when he saw Charles hug Amelia. Then he turned and pulled his wedding ring out of his pocket and slipped it on.

An Unanswered Letter – part 5 – Conclusion – a short story.

New York was still hot when I got there. I had timed myself to arrive by overnight bus so that I gave myself most of the day to find our meeting place on MacDougal. Of course I arrived early. I carried a small square travelling suitcase which I set upon the sidewalk and used as a seat. As I waited I watched the crowds on the sidewalk – the place teemed with activity. I marveled at the extraordinary mix of people with their unconventional clothing and seemingly carefree demeanors.

I saw Mike before he saw me, but I almost didn’t recognize him. Gone was the pale youth of our transatlantic passage. The young man I saw now was bronzed and muscular and exuded health and vitality. What a difference two and a half months had made! I stood up as he approached and greeted him unsure whether we should hug or shake hands. We indulged in a quick embrace which didn’t express any of my pent-up emotions. Mike was a little preoccupied because he had hoped that we could stay with Chris, one of his friends, in Greenwich Village. This friend turned out to be away on vacation; so, as it was getting late, we found a nearby hotel.

I shall always remember our approach to the reception desk. Mike asked about vacancies and when the clerk inquired whether we needed two rooms or one Mike turned to me. I quietly said, “Two rooms.” My motivation was driven by shame and anguish. I didn’t want Michael to discover my dark secret.

Yes, I had a dark secret. It was that, although I was twenty-one years old, I had still not reached menses. Yes, this is a medical anomaly, but is easily explained. My menses had been delayed by my long years of anorexia. By this time in my life I had overcome anorexia but the hormones of normal development had still not caught up. My chest was as flat as a boy’s although I disguised this fact by wearing a bra padded with bean bags. Of course I didn’t want Michael to discover my secret and, being premenstrual, I knew that I didn’t have the right hormones for intercourse. So here I was, a prim virgin, in the middle of Greenwich Village having to deny the man of my dreams. It was an act to hide a secret and an act which probably affected the direction of the rest of my life. I often wonder what would have happened if I had said, “One room.”

We didn’t spend long in the hotel and were soon out on the streets of Greenwich Village. Our walk was directionless as we wondered among the crowds on the street. Mike seemed to be perfectly at home in this sea of activity but I was unaccustomed to seeing so many unconventional people. We watched a spontaneous concert in Washington Square and eventually found a small restaurant where we ate. When we entered the restaurant Mike turned to me waiting for me to select a table. I looked at him. That is when he told me that American girls always select where they are to sit in a restaurant. It appeared to me that he did not like this custom but was determined to make me do likewise. I think that he liked making me choose, not because he approved of the arrangement, but because it amused him to see me doing so.

The following morning Mike called Barbara who had a flat on East 56th. She told him that she would willingly put us up and so we checked out of the hotel and made our way to her apartment. Barbara impressed me immensely with her long blonde hair and elegant thin body. I got the distinct impression that she disapproved of our liaison as she hardly spoke a word to me. I even wondered if she had one been one of Mike’s girlfriends, for her distaste was undisguised. I soon discovered that she worked for Time Life Magazine and had aspirations of becoming a novelist. She made us laugh with her descriptions of life on the magazine which centered on cutting, cutting and more cutting. She explained that this is the key to good writing.

Mike spent the next two days whisking me around New York. We visited the East Village with its small art galleries and even attended a discussion about art in one of them. We visited Sheridan Square with its famous bookshops, brownstone houses which reminded me of England, the Seagram Building, Lever House, and the Lincoln Center. At the Lincoln Center we saw some Calder sculptures which Mike liked. We wandered into many art galleries, the one which I remember best was the Frick collection with its calm interior courtyard and famous art including Vermeer’s Laughing Girl, JV Eyck’s Virgin and Child and El Greco’s Clearing of the Temple.

Mike made contact with his friend, Chris, who, although still away on vacation, gave us permission to use his flat as a pied-a –terre. I found the ferocious untidiness of his abode in stark contrast to the expense of the furnishings and world class art on the walls including a Chagall. Mike and I adopted it as a good place to hang out and enjoy each other’s company without the watchful eye of a hostess, as was the case in Barbara’s apartment.

My last memory of Mike is of the Sunday afternoon which we spent in Central Park. That’s when he told me that he felt that he had squandered the weekend and that he felt depressed. He told me that girls of my class are cold, and that American girls attack the male. It was obvious from this comment that he did not like the attacking woman but somehow seemed to wish that I were more sexual and did just that. Perhaps this was the moment when I should have come clean and told him about my dark secret but I didn’t. Pride is a terrible thing.

When he made his declaration of love, I did not understand what he was saying. His declaration came in a riddle which I pretended to understand but didn’t. He said that the new Beatles song ‘I’ve just seen a face’ summed up his feelings and made him think of me. I, of course, had never heard the song, and so did not know what he was telling me. But again pride took hold and I didn’t say anything. When I got home I bought the record and cried bitterly when I heard the words. Even now years later those words ring my heart and bring tears to my eyes.

‘I’ve just seen a face
I can’t forget the time or place
Where we just met
She’s just the girl for me
And I want all the world
To see we’ve met
Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm mmm mmm

Had it been another day
I might have looked the other way
And I’d have never been aware
But as it is I’ll dream of her tonight
La, di, di, da di di

Falling, yes I am falling
And she keeps calling
Me back again
I have never known the like of this
I’ve been alone and I have missed things
And kept out of sight
For other girls were never quite like this
La, di, di, da di di’
‘Oh, falling, yes I am falling
And she keeps calling
Me back again’

Calling I may have been, but after we parted I spent a few more miserable days in New York and an equally sad nine-day oceanic crossing before taking up my next year at university. I don’t remember if we exchanged letters, I rather think that we didn’t or if we did they were few and far between. Certainly, on my side of the ocean, the demands of everyday life including my mother’s illness and death eclipsed any thoughts of trying to stay in touch. By the time that my menses occurred two years later and I became a full woman we had already lost contact. That’s when I wrote the first version of the letter that was never mailed. That’s the letter which I have now rewritten and have nowhere to send.

I add this conclusion to my ‘Unanswered Letter’ in the second edition of my anthology of short stories. It wraps up Mike and my encounter of 1966. When the first edition came out in 2013, I undertook an extensive promotion tour to assist with sales. I orchestrated the tour so that it followed the path which I had taken forty years earlier. It was a nostalgic decision which gave me pleasure but I was not so wrapped in the past to travel by Greyhound. No, this time, I travelled in luxury in an RV camper. Moreover, I didn’t travel alone as my son, now a freelance photographer, accompanied me acting as chauffeur and companion. He helped fill the vacuum left by my husband’s death and used the trip to chronicle America on film. We stayed in good hotels, and ate well. I enjoyed this chance to travel with him and was thankful that he was beside me to soften the sting of loss and provide companionship.

I developed a routine in which I would read excerpts, always the same excerpts, answer questions, and then sit at a desk signing books with a blue felt tip pen. At each venue I scanned the audience in the hope that, perhaps, I’d see a face that I recognized. Well, actually, I didn’t care about just any recognizable face all I wanted was that one face, the reason for the story, which I did not explain to my audiences. Each time I rationalized my disappointment with the consolation that the more people who came, the more the book would be read the more likely it was to draw the response which I craved.

By the time that we had been on the road for two months we were both ready to go home and headed south from New York with only one stop planned in Fort Worth. Here, the second signing was in a boutique store. As usual I scanned the audience without recognition. I gave my reading, answered questions and settled down to signing books. When I thought that the last book had been presented I looked up at the room to see if my son was close. That was when I felt a warm hand on my neck. I experienced an erotic wave of excitement. Only one person had ever touched my neck in this manner causing such a tremor of desire. A clipped voice spoke, the sound transported me back four decades, “Hi Susan, it has been a long time. How are you?’

I didn’t have to turn. I knew. I said, “It’s you Mike, isn’t it?”

I didn’t have to ask how he was I could feel strength and health in his touch. It was the same vitality of 1966. Slowly, enjoying every precious moment, my heart pounding, every second in slow motion I turned to look into his face. The rest of the room became a blur as I looked at him. In those long nanoseconds I saw beyond aging skin, beyond graying hair, beyond creases around the eyes and mouth, into the depth of the blue eyes. Their color was unchanged and they still shone with intelligence. I wanted to plunge into their blue, to swim in their pool of intellect. As I faced him I felt his hand still warm and caressing, touching the erotic places on my neck. I sensed his strength and lost myself in the ecstasy of the moment.

Slowly, ever so gently, he bent over and brought his lips to mine for a kiss. It was to be that sweet kiss which we had never exchanged.

© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, January 2014

An Unanswered Letter – part 4 – America – a short story

Now that we were in New York harbor, Mike again took the role of guide and observer. He kept asking me how I felt and what I thought about what I saw. I recall that I had nothing profound to offer. New York was in the midst of a heat wave and the air was hot. I had never experienced such air. It was like putting one’s head in an oven. Over and over I commented on the air but Mike had experienced such torpor before and I don’t think that my comments impressed.

Looking back I think that he wanted something profound relating to an awed response to the Statue of Liberty and the symbolism of New York’s harbor welcoming immigrants into its arms.
The morning of our arrival he wore a crisp blue cotton shirt the exact color of his eyes. The sky blue hue accentuated their depth and picked up a glimpse of color from his class ring. During our voyage I always loved how he looked in blue admiring the old blue sweater which he wore when it was cold, the one he was wearing when we first met. I’d also seen him in greens and light tan clothing and thought this suited him well but not as well as the blues.

At this point I was desperate and almost paralyzed by a deep sadness which I attempted to disguise. In accordance with my upbringing I thought that if we were to ever meet again the initiative had to come from Mike, the man. I kept telling myself that such romances aboard ship were commonplace and that I should not spoil it by asking for more. I tried to appear distant and not engaged, ready for my American travels. He, doubtless, was waiting for me to be ‘American’ and to give him some encouraging comments.

The State Department employees with their passport booths set up in dining hall. They were set up to process us on board with a barrier between the US citizens and everyone else. Our parting was hasty as we separated into our appropriate lines. As I stood in my line I mused about everything that I had heard about ship board romances. Ours certainly fit the description. But we hadn’t made a rendezvous not even an exchange of contact information. We had just parted with, no meeting in a few months on the Empire State Building, just a fleeting hug, no memento, no promises, no exchange of addresses, no souvenir. I thought that we were to become strangers again separated by time and tide.

He was, of course, in the short fast moving line of Americans while I was swallowed up into the long slow moving line of Europeans. When I emerged I paused at the top of the gangplank and looked down to scan the crowd for one last glimpse. That’s when I saw him moving quickly towards his Mom and Dad. His Mom waved frantically and his Dad stood beside her. I could just see him taking his Mom in his arms and then his turn as he gave a man-hug to his Dad. They patted each-other on the back. By now I was on the pier and lost sight of them in the throng of people.

They had told us that our quay was New York’s newest (ergo “best”) but I found it grim and grimy perhaps because this was where Mike and I separated. I paused beside the ship which loomed above me asserting its presence. I looked up at it letting the experience of the last nine days race through my head. My heart pounded, at the pain of saying goodbye. Then I saw him again. He was running upstream towards me, his face anxious. I thought that, perhaps, he had come back for an address. The address which I, desperately wanted to ask for but didn’t because girls of my upbringing don’t make the first move. Looking back I am sure that he wanted me to respond as an American might and to ask thereby saving him the first step. But I remained mute. He took me in his arms and pressed us together in a long embrace. “Good bye,” he murmured in my ear, “good bye. We had a great time didn’t we?”

I nodded, “Yes, it was a great pleasure.” He seemed to wince. I’m sure that he was thinking, as I thought afterwards, what a stupid understatement I had just made. Those were probably the words which finally severed and sealed our parting.

He kept his arms around me and said, “Good bye. Have a great trip!” not the words which I had hoped to hear “I love you and want to see you again.”

But, this time I was able to respond with warmth, “Good bye, Mike, meeting you has been very special, Thank you for everything- have a good life.” My voice trailed off as he turned to see his parents coming back up the quay. The crowd swelled thicker as he left me and ran towards them to be lost in the milling mass of people. He didn’t look back but I stood and watched until I was almost alone on the wharf. Then I took up my bags and walked slowly into New York.

Outside the docks I took a taxi to a preselected hotel. It turned out to be a ghastly place, a grey gloomy hole which matched my mood. Its only redeeming feature was a lovely “blue room” reception hall. I changed into light clothes and quickly left my dismal room, to brave the heat and walk the city streets. The streets which I trod were garish, streets of bargains and food, of neon signs, of questionable businesses, of people, of rubbish or trash as Americans call it, and of heat so torpid that it radiated up from the sidewalks,. The building rose almost unconnected, grey and grubby, into the hazy air, only their tenuous bases planted in the street podium of garnish activity. I walked for hours trying to find peace in this jumble of humanity and dirt but eventually returned to the hotel to sleep. The City had done nothing to improve my mood.

I was dejected and sad even though I arrived with two fantastic deals in my pocket. Through the National Union of Students for $99 I had purchased a Greyhound ticket which was good for anywhere, any ride, for the next 99 days. I also had invitations from four People to People families with whom I was to stay. I had already set up the stays so that I could start in New Jersey and travel in an anti-clockwise motion, up the New England coast, across the north via the Great Lakes, then eventually get to the Pacific where I could turn south through California and then back east to take in part of Texas and round up the Atlantic coast back to New York for another nine day cruise back home. Call it an American sampler designed to give a taste of America of 1966.

The next day another cab took me to the Greyhound station where I began my ninety nine day travels. My recollection of my travels has faded over the years; that is all, except those relating to Michael. I vividly remember my day in Boston which I spent in an anxious state of morose anticipation, not looking at Boston, but looking for Michael.

I remember that the bus arrived in Boston in the middle of the night and so I found a place in the terminal ladies toilet where I lay on the floor, undisturbed, and slept. I slept the soothing slumber of youth until I was awoken by the cleaning crew who seemed none too pleased to find me curled up in this public place where people are not supposed to sleep. I won them over when I apologized and humbly asked directions to the river.

I knew Boston to be Mike’s home town and that he was somewhere in this city. Naively, I thought that I might run into him but didn’t know where to put myself for this chance meeting. Indeed, I had no plan or thoughts on what I’d say if we did meet. I spent the day looking for him and then saddened, but not surprised, returned to the Greyhound station to continue onwards to Chicago.

From Chicago I went on to Cleveland then across South Dakota to the Black Hills and on to California. My People to People assignment in California was in the Central Valley with Dr. Guy Grenier and family. From the father’s name I expected a French speaking medical doctor. I was surprised; Dr. Guy Grenier was neither French speaking nor a medical doctor, his link to me was through architecture. He, and his family, had selected me as their student because he worked as a coordinator between architects on one side and educationalists on the other, and felt that this created a special rapport. Initially I judged him authoritative and proud, but as I came to know him I saw much to admire and dismissed my first impression. He had a spirited persona and could talk knowledgeably on many subjects including literature, music, lingos, and people. At the hosted People to People picnic I amused him by telling him that my father made a mean “Martini”. I gave the recipe as; one third gin, one third Italian Vermouth, and one third French Vermouth mixed with a drop of Angostura bitters, a twist of lemon and cube of Ice. He was delighted by the recipe and, grinning from ear to ear, introduced me to his ‘boss’, Dr. Garsy, so that I could tell him the recipe. Dr. Garsy smiled with equal amusement and thanked me adding,
“A national capable of perpetuating that deserves to lose its empire!”

Of course the most important event which occurred during my visit in Modesto was my receipt of Michael’s letter. It arrived enclosed in a People to People envelope. He had written to them imploring details of my itinerary and information on how he could contact me. I wish that I had kept this precious letter but I didn’t; suffice to say that I remember exactly what I was doing when the letter arrived. As humans we seem to be blessed with the ability to remember what we were doing and where we were at the most pivotal moments of our lives. In my case I was outside on the Grenier’s patio sunbathing. They were inside discussing the axiom ‘Mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun’. Michael wrote that he needed to make contact with me and asked People to People to assist him. I immediately wrote back giving my address in Kansas as my next visit.

Soon I was traveling onward to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Grand Canyon, and finally Kansas. Here I found Michael’s next letter waiting for me. He proposed that we meet in New York August 12, 1996 at 8 PM at the intersection of MacDougal Street and Washington Square; half way long the section of MacDougal which borders on Washington Square Park. I wrote back that I’d be there. The rest of my travels into Texas, to St Louis, Philadelphia and Washington DC is a blur eclipsed by my longing for New York and my pending meeting on MacDougal street.

© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, January 2014

An Unanswered Letter – part 3 – The Voyage – a short story.

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