Image courtesy of Metro magazine
As the train sped through Groenendael and headed into the thickest part of the Forêt de Soignes, George reflected that, even then, he understood deep down his nature was to look beyond what he later came to refer to as ‘the inanity of categorising individuals by class distinction.’
George knew no other way than to speak, to anyone he met, on equal terms. If he felt any divide was opening up, he would immediately fill it with an anecdote to try to bring things closer once again. This was where his reputation came from of over-elaborating a conversation, with elements that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the topic under discussion.
His experience that evening with Finula, all those years ago, had been a good case in point.
“What can I get you two lovebirds?” called out the elderly barman with a lilting East Anglian twang.
George looked over to a stout, bearded fellow behind the beer pulls. “What’s your best?” replied George, “I see you don’t have any Ridley’s on tap!”
“Nah, mate. We don’t serve any of that Chelmsford dosh here. You’re in the Fenlands now, mate, where we brew real stuff.”
“Give us a mo’,” said George, turning to Finula to ask her what she preferred.
“I thought you didn’t drink,” said Finula, surprising George with the incisiveness of her observation.
“Oh, well, I enjoy a beer every now and again. I just don’t drink wine and spirits,” he answered, a little taken aback. “What would you like, then?”
“A tonic, with ice and lemon thanks.”
With the drinks paid for, George could settle his eyes on Finula, who’d put a bit more make-up than the previous Saturday night, which George found gave her eyes an extra, welcome sparkle. She was also wearing the same fragrance, which stirred George’s senses.
Their conversation picked up where it had left off at the party, when Finula had been telling George how much she disliked sports at school. “Especially that damned game of lacrosse,” she blurted out. “Cold, wet, muddy pitches and bitchy girls elbowing each other to catch a blessed ball in a net on a stick!”
They found the topic of sports – or rather their mutual antipathy towards it – another unexpected point in common. While George was no strongman, his parents, from an early age, had inadvertently toned him up over the years by roping him into the family business, loading the delivery van with all manner of boxes. At school, however, George had shied away from too much sport. For him, the physically competitive edge was some sort of proxy to conflict, which, by inclination, he avoided. If there was to be rivalry, he preferred intellectual challenge and attributed his success in mental arithmetic and chess competitions to his restricted meaning of the word ‘talent.’ Whenever the matter came up, he would tell the story of how often his headmaster at school would quote William Barclay’s essay on the ‘Parable of the Talents’.
“I became so familiar with the sub-text of the Parable,” George would conclude each time he recounted the story, “that it has become second nature to me to treat my abilities as a sunk cost. Somehow, sometime before, someone invested in me, and they can’t recover their investment. But I can freely acknowledge their foregoing as something I am grateful for, and just have the common decency to share the benefits.”
Finula smiled sweetly through George’s digression, oblivious to the implications of what he was saying.
George didn’t, however, linger too long on such a digression. He knew that if he was to stand a good chance of getting Finula past the warden at the college gate, he would have to do it during formal dinner, between seven and eight, when there was only one guard on duty.
“Let’s go,” he suddenly announced, catching Finula unawares. “Back to my room, I’ve got some grub in for us.”
Finula beamed at the thought of the proposition, quickly finished her drink and reached out to grab George’s hand as they stepped out into the cold, drizzly rain falling on St Edward’s Passage, direction King’s College.
George’s plan worked. By entering into the porters’ lodge, pretending to check his pigeon-hole for his mail and drawing the warden’s attention with a question about the dismal weather, the way was clear for Finula to slip through the gate and meet him in the staircase to his room.
Entering, Finula could see George had placed a couple of tasteful side lamps and laid colourful drapes over the two armchairs, which gave a homely look to the place. She couldn’t hold back her admiration for the way George had decorated his room.
“But didn’t you say you were no sportsman?” she asked gesturing towards the copy of the ubiquitous poster of the bare-bottomed blonde in a short tennis dress he had stuck above the mantelpiece.
“Oh yes, that,” mumbled George, immediately seeing for the first time the crassness of the image and vowing under his breath to remove it as soon as Finula was gone. “Here” he quickly added, opening the fridge in the corner of his living room, “what would you like to eat?”
“I got us some nice liver pâté, and olives, and a bit of cheese, and French bread,” he explained. “And some sparkling water. I hope you like it.”
Finula nodded with a pleased grin and George set out some plates and cut the bread.
The conversation continued with George recounting more about his schooldays in Chelmsford and his passion for economics; Finula, responding, as well as she could, about nothing in particular.
George’s stories inevitably included an element of inconsistency, which, to George’s disappointment, she kept picking up on. For her part, Finula, who began to feel an unusual closeness to George, couldn’t help letting show the empty sense of longing she almost constantly experienced, yet found so hard to express, whether she was in the company of others, or alone.
“What this country needs,” piped on George “is a greater commitment to education. It is the mainstay for a happy and prosperous people.” He was now well into the conversation, which he had mostly dominated. “And I just don’t see that happening under Thatcher.”
Finula looked perplexed. She hesitated, not wishing to interrupt George’s flow. “Then why did you come to King’s, of all places?” she eventually interjected.
“Er, what do you mean?” George replied, struck by the incisiveness of her question. “Cambridge is one of the best universities in the world.”
“Yes, I know,” said Finula, timidly.
“Well, I guess I wasn’t really thinking about applying to come to Cambridge, until my teachers started telling me I had good enough grades to be able to sit the entrance exams, if I wanted to.”
Finula’s face remained expressionless. She had heard scores of versions of the story of ‘how I got to Oxbridge’ from so many of her schoolmates who, unlike herself, had ‘done so well to get in.’ She often reflected that they talked like there was some sort of Golden Gate, by which they had accessed a future full of happiness and opportunity. The more often she had this thought, the more it made her feel she couldn’t even find a door to knock on. “Not that anyone would ever think of letting me in,” she would repeat to herself.
George had shown excellent taste with the food he had bought in and, before long, he was offering Finula a portion of tiramitsu he had chosen at the same delicatessen up the road. The evening was going well.
“I reckon we could have a glass of this stuff,” he announced next, in an enquiring manner, holding up a bottle of vintage port. “It’s the thing to do here. Everyone has a bottle in the cupboard in case anyone comes round,” he continued, showing a naivety in these matters that Finula find quite fetching.
“George,” began Finula, with a confused look once more, “you assured me you only had a beer once in a while. And now this?”
“Well. Special occasion, eh?” he replied, fumbling to open the bottle in such an awkward way that Finula could finally conclude how inadvertent some of his social gaffs were.
The warm, sweet fruitiness of the port liqueur instantly had a soothing effect on Finula and she found renewed confidence to speak more openly, about herself, and her thoughts.
“I was really worried about this old gentleman” she ended one of her hospital stories. “I could tell from what Henry had let out over the three weeks he was with us that there was nothing and nobody waiting for him at home. He had told me more than once that he had no real reason to staying alive.”
“Oh, come on Finula,” George interrupted, sensing the way Finula had mapped her own feelings on to her patient Henry. “I’m sure he’ll be OK”, he added, not quite believing himself what he was saying. “You know, you shouldn’t let these things get to you.”
By now George, trying to jolly the evening along, had resorted to pouring glass after glass of port for them both, till the second bottle was already halfway through and he and Finula were well ensconced in their little tête-à-tête. As George began to let his mental faculties slip into the stupor produced by the large amount of alcohol he had drunk, he had become quite incapable of focusing on the need to get Finula out of the college, before midnight, when the college gates closed.
“What the heck,” his frazzled inner voice whispered to him. And so the conversation, however disjointed it had become, continued, Finula showing no signs of wanting to leave.
Then, in that peculiar way inebriates can suddenly shake themselves on to a parallel track of thought, without warning, George stood up, announced “I need the loo” and left the room. His hurry to get back was interrupted by the college bells striking twelve. “Oh well” he sighed and stood looking blankly at the wall, peeing for far longer than he had expected.
As he entered the room, his head rocked backwards and he smiled to himself as he spotted Finula’s clothes strewn across the middle of the room, her face peeking at him out of the top of the duvet.
“I hope you don’t mind,” said Finula, smiling as endearingly as she could.
George grinned, sheepishly. “No, no, fine. I mean, yeah. Like, it’s too late now, the gates are closed anyway,” he stuttered.