Just that—a moment. Not a life resolving, world changing event. Trivial, you will think it. But for me, a just-turned-sixteen, raw, callow adolescent with little knowledge of the way of the world, it was a mind stirring, almost upsetting moment, recalled here from decades gone by.
Kate was my cousin, and I was one month her junior. She was the daughter of my mother’s sister, my Aunt Rita living in Middlesex. I still have a black and white photograph of the pair of us, in Fair Isle jumpers, three-four years old, together in her back garden under a small apple tree. It was just before World War 2 broke out and it was the last time we would meet until the conflict was over.
Peacetime and my Uncle Harry, Kate’s father made it a habit to drive Kate and Aunt Rita north to stay with us for their fortnight’s holiday. Uncle Harry was the only owner of a car in the whole family and that made him special.
Then my own parents, less well-off, would save up to travel occasionally down to their home in Middlesex, where one of the first things I noticed was how high the apple tree had become during the war.
That was how my relationship with Kate developed, fragmented meetings, through childhood, into early teens, we were simply playmates who became good friends, frequently visiting the cinema together, and enthusing about what we had seen.
So, what about that moment, you ask? I am approaching that. Some background was essential to indicate the emotions involved. My mixed emotions anyway.
For the years 1948/49 my Uncle Harry decided that he wanted to travel to Devon and Cornwall, so there was no meeting during that time. There were only the interminable phone calls between the two sisters, our mothers.
During one of these phone calls, they arranged a surprise for my sixteenth birthday. I was overwhelmed, to receive a return coach ticket to London, the implications overwhelmed me, especially when I learned that I’d be staying at Aunt Rita and Uncle Harry’s, and I’d be able to renew my friendship with Kate. But I did lack any real confidence in making this solo step.
My mother, apologising for the cost-saving coach, rather than the train, said, “A coach will take you through some lovely towns.”
Yes, I was delighted to have this opportunity to prove myself, but being sixteen years old then, was so different to what it is now. In many ways, I was a limited youth with little social experience. Consequently, I wasn’t able to join in the giggling discussions about schoolgirls in our age group.
The coach journey was interminable. My mother’s comment about lovely towns struck me as the coach stopped at every possible town on the way to London. After about twelve hours we did arrive, and there was satisfaction when I managed to interpret the bus and tube instructions perfectly, and I was soon knocking at their door and from there the magic began.
The first big surprise was Kate herself. Turned sixteen, she was both physically and mentally developed, with an applied air of sophistication. But she retained her bubbly, friendly, high-spirited outgoing nature.
It was an effort of will keeping my eyes upon her attractive face. There were early indications of how her intellect had far outstripped my own. We had often talked about books we’d read, or films seen, but now Kate would begin talking of the deep ‘nuances’ in a book or film. I would nod my head with a look of shared worldly wisdom and utter dumb agreements like, “Of course,” and “Very true.” Before scuttling away to plough through a dictionary to find the word ‘nuance.’
My seven days passed as though in a dream. Most days Kate was determined to show me parts of London that she knew most about. We spent much time on buses and tube trains getting to St Paul’s Cathedral, where Kate pointed out among others, the tombs of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson, with added history lessons. I was never bored because of the lively way she spoke of them.
More tombs in Westminster Abbey, where her knowledge of all persons literary in Poets Corner really impressed me. No tombs at Regent’s Park Zoo, but she talked about the animals as though they were personal friends. On to Soho, where I was shocked at her eagerness to tell me of the naughty things that went on there. Even the exotic plants of Kew Gardens were no strangers to her.
On my third evening, my Aunt Rita handed me an envelope, “Our birthday treat from your Uncle Harry and I,” she said, her eyes bright, “And even you didn’t know of this, Kate. So, you’ll be seeing it together. On Friday evening.”
Kate came and leaned, full of curiosity, over my shoulder. I caught an aroma of honeysuckle and lavender from her, as I tore open the envelope. Inside were two theatre tickets for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where the acclaimed show ‘Oklahoma’ had been playing for four years. “You’ll catch it before it closes later in the year,” my aunt said.
Kate’s applied sophistication vanished as she squealed her delight. “It’s a massive show. The music is great.”
She nudged me, “Huge on Broadway before it came here. I’ve read that it will change musical theatre forever.”
I knew it was something to look forward to. But our togetherness in touring London continued, until that fateful Friday evening at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. I had heard some of the songs on the radio, but from the moment the curtain rose I was enthralled by the sheer magnitude of how the stage was used; how the cast delivered their lines with such ease. Every little thing so slick. I could see that Kate was equally captured by it.
We came out of that theatre absolutely buzzing with enthusiasm. Kate was even singing, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Our joy at the whole performance made me determined that one day I would somehow be involved in such delight.
Of course, it never happened, but, as we stood on Drury Lane, and talked wildly about the show we had just experienced, everything seemed so good, shouldn’t the night be set for something special? It so nearly was.
“Should we walk a while?” Kate suggested, her first words other than what she’d said about the performance.
“Good idea,” I said, weakly, although for some reason my heart had begun an irregular beat as I sensed the end of something.
“Down this way, Savoy Street takes us to the embankment.”
We walked in silence for a few hundred yards, each tied in our own thoughts. Then, without any warning, Kate’s fingers suddenly entwined with mine and squeezed. “Hasn’t it been a super day?”
Almost struck dumb by her action, and the smoothness of her skin, I mumbled my agreement. “A good day.” My fingers squeezed back, amazed at my emboldened move. As youngsters, we had wrestled playfully, but this touching was so different. It was affecting my breathing. But despite my uncertainty, it was pleasant to be like this, strolling past other couples, who were also hand-in-hand.
Then, as we reached the Thames embankment a new scenario engulfed us. Well, it engulfed me, no doubt about that. First, I was sure I had never seen the moon so full and bright. Brilliant enough to light up Kate’s face when she looked in my direction. It even seemed to glisten in her tawny hair.
The air had a quality that gave a gentle balm-like caress on the cheek. The sluggish river wore sequins borrowed from the lamplight and the moon, and from somewhere on the opposite bank gentle music drifted across. And here I was, strolling hand-in-hand with an attractive girl. For me, that was way beyond any experience I’d had.
We walked in virtual silence, occasionally pointing out passing motor launches that broke the sequinned surface. Could this be called a romantic setting? The only romance I was familiar with was contained in the love songs my mother sang along with on the radio. ‘Moonlight Becomes You,” came to mind.
But I was strangely relaxed, more than I could ever recall. At the same time, as our hands squeezed each other, there was an equally unusual nervousness. I longed to ask Kate if she was aware of the atmosphere. But I never asked.
As we approached Westminster Bridge, heavy with late evening traffic, Kate suddenly repeated something close to what she’d said earlier, “It has been an extra special week, hasn’t it, Jim?”
“Very,” I replied throatily.
She stopped, and turned to me, moonlight brightening her face. And here it was—
Looking into her blue eyes, my mind replayed exactly what would happen if this was a film. Her lips were there, slightly smiling as though on offer, her eyes were wide, and questioning; her hand gripped mine. My breathing had stopped. How would our relationship change if I followed this unwritten script?
Was it only a moment that we stood facing each other? Maybe. I told you it would seem trivial. But the gentle smile dropped from Kate’s face, and she gave a little shake of her head. She moved away, tugging at my hand, telling me nothing, other than where we could catch the Tube. Saddened, I knew that moment, gone now, would never be trivial for me.
We were silent all the way back to Aunt Rita’s, where Kate’s enthusiasm returned with all the passion of earlier as she told her parents about the show. I stood silently, only nodding my head in agreement with her praise, while my mind still lingered on “what if?”
Next day I was on the coach heading homewards after a brief touch of hands in farewell. That long coach ride gave me plenty of opportunity to review ‘that moment’, and it continued to ask questions in my mind as months passed.
Life went on, and I saw Kate only rarely, as higher education and soon university claimed her time. It was two or three years before we met again, and she was as effervescent as ever. By now applied sophistication was perfectly genuine as she talked with her friends about writers like Dostoevsky and Camus. It would be several years before I learned more about writers of that calibre. No mention was ever made of that moment, and maybe it was only my mind that retained it.
Kate, armed with a first-class degree, took a teaching job in Kenya where she met and married Ken, a big, friendly Scotsman who was a water consultant. They married and after three years, when Kate fell pregnant, they moved home, and Ken purchased an old college dormitory attached to a bulk of land on the banks of the Moray Firth and converted it into holiday flats. A thriving business had begun.
I became very serious with the dear lady who I had known since I was fourteen. After we married, she remarked one evening how she had initially thought me as “rather forward.” When she queried why I smiled at her comment, she became the only person I had told about ‘that moment’.
Years went by and our respective families grew, and because Kate’s eldest son, Jack, was only four months older than mine, we had good cause to visit the Moray Firth coast. Kate and my wife always got on well together. And why shouldn’t they? They were two gregarious ladies, and my wife knew how close we had always been.
Seeing Kate again was a new experience. She was the same jovial Kate and we talked freely about so many things, and I was at least able to hold my own in the face of her increased intellect. Partly because I’d learned the meaning of ‘nuance’.
Over these fleeting years, I saw her grow from sophisticated to motherly, to matronly without losing her charm. She introduced me to the joys of single malt whiskey, and showed her lively ebullience whenever she offered, “A wee dram?” Indicating the extent to which she had been absorbed into the Scottish fabric.
One time, she showed a small section of the large grounds where she intended to develop a flower bed and asked me for suggestions of what might grow well there. She eagerly wrote down my ideas.
Entering our more mature years everything seemed set fair. Then, I had my last, brief conversation with Kate on my seventy-sixth birthday. She rang to wish me happy birthday adding, “I hear you are getting older,” her voice sounding as jovial as ever. “A typically foolish trick.” She gave a little chuckle which sounded forced, before she went on, “Jim, I need to tell you. I’ve had a little ticker problem. Nothing much but I must go into hospital tomorrow to have it checked. I’ll contact you as soon as I’m out. “
She hung up and that turned out to be closure.
Three days later, her son, Jack, tearfully rang me to inform me that his mother, my dear cousin, Kate, had passed away. A sudden heart aneurism. When I told my wife, she wept, and I joined her in her grief.
Driven north by my eldest son, we had a chance for condolences, shared memories, long meaningful pauses, and so many tears. Only the closest family went to the crematorium. Jack told us that, long before her illness, Kate had said, “I wouldn’t mind being buried under my flower bed.” Typical.
After the main funeral, a red-eyed Ken handed me a glass of malt whiskey, “A wee dram,” he said with a sad smile.
Without tasting the liquid, I carried the glass out to the small floral patch. There were dahlias, as yet unflowered, lobelia, dark blue around the border, geranium, godetia, and petunia as I’d suggested.
I raised my glass, and murmured, “Here’s to you, dear Kate.”
I took a good gulp at the whiskey, before a female voice behind me, speaking low said, “You helped Mom with that, didn’t you?”
I swung around, and for an instant, my heart leapt in my chest. Kate’s eldest daughter, Tess, was so much the image of her mother, especially at that moment, in her dark dress standing in that way, hands-on-hips, a kindly smile on her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I startled you.”
“No, you pleased me,” I replied nodding towards the flower bed. “Your mother left this looking excellent.”
Tess came to stand by my side and without being able to define why, it felt good.
“Mom always said this plot reminded her of you.”
“All I did was suggest which plants she might use. She placed them well.”
We were silent for a while, each locked in our own thoughts. For me, I was imagining Kate, hair greying, stooped over while diligently placing my suggested bedding plants.
It was Tess who spoke next, “You know, Mom always spoke of you as the brother she never had.”
“Yes, I find that pleasing.”
“She said it more than once, but there was that one time- -” Tess gazed down at the flower bed.
“What one time?” I queried, not yet catching her drift.
When Tess faced me again, I saw, as clouds shaded the sun, her face had reddened deeply, “Oh, when you were—what?--sixteen. You’ve probably forgotten, and I don’t want to embarrass you.”
I tried to keep my voice joking, “Hey, I’m in my seventies, a little too old to be embarrassed by anything.”
She chuckled, relieved at my attitude, but then her face became serious, “Jim, you need to realise that Mom confided things to me that she told to no one else.”
“What sort of things?” I queried.
“Intimate things. Intended, initially to guide me when I was growing up. Like, how, by the time she was sixteen, she’d learned to fight off amorous boys.”
With some relief, I laughed, “Huh, she didn’t have that trouble with me.”
Tess shook her head, “That’s the whole point.”
Confused now, I said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Tess sighed and looked away to where the sea pounded the beach, before she continued, “One evening, after sipping an extra dram, she talked about you. I think because of a story you’d written. She was so proud.”
I did recall that because it didn’t happen often. “And?”
Tess’s eyes, her mother’s eyes, turned fully on me, “She spoke of some musical show, her mother, Granny had bought for your birthday.”
“Oklahoma,” I affirmed, something fluttered in my chest. Had Kate revealed how dumb I was?
“So, you do remember.”
How could I forget? “Oh, yes, I remember it well.”
Tess licked her lips and glanced away, looking uncomfortable, “I’m not too sure how to phrase this--,” Her hesitancy bothered me. “But I’m sure Mom wouldn’t mind you knowing her feelings from so long ago.”
“Despite knowing—" Tess drew in a deep breath, “-- that you were, her exact words, ‘rather shy and slow on the uptake.’
Definitely true at the time, but what had Kate said?
“As you came out of that theatre—"
This was only a memory pertinent in my mind, wasn’t it?
“Mom told me that having been with you every day as you toured London, she was already feeling very—'attached’—I believe that was the word she used.”
“We got on well,” I said weakly.
“That was always clear. But she told me, as you walked down Savoy Street, towards the river—"
Now, I was shaken as I expressed my surprise, “She remembered detail like that?”
Tess nodded, “Every detail seemed clear in her mind. I knew it wasn’t just the whiskey talking. She spoke of a strong impulse to hold your hand. But feared you might be upset.”
I had to say something, “She went ahead and took the chance, anyway. And I was both shocked and delighted. A stupid kid.”
“She told me how pleased she was when you returned her squeeze. But then came the embankment, and Mom went on about what she called ‘the magical aura of the night.”
The fact that Kate was alert to that special summer evening mood was startling.
“Moonlight becomes you.” The words, unbidden, escaped from my lips as a gentle whisper.
“What was that?” Tess was looking at me, her blue eyes really searching.
“Just passing thoughts,” I replied vaguely. So, Kate was having sensations that she hadn’t revealed. But it was all getting too close for comfort.
Tess’s face, her mother’s face, looked unsure. “I’d heard many disclosures from her--” Tess looked away again, before going on, “But none were as intense as this one. By the time you reached Westminster Bridge, she admitted to feeling, as she put it, cosily on edge. She said she had to stop and turn towards you.”
Once again, breathing became difficult, as the sky darkened further. I feared I was going to hear Kate’s version of my dullness in that moment that had once been so special to me.
“Mom knew you were inexperienced and nervous. Said she saw it in your face. She longed to kiss you herself but feared that would really turn you away.”
Did Tess hear my murmured, “Oh, God”? But I asked, “What did she think?”
The cupboard locked in the back of my mind for so long was now open and was revealing a revised picture.
“This is the revealing part,” Tess continued, “She needed the kiss to come from you but if you had kissed her, put your arms around her, in the mood she was in -- I really don’t know how much of this is true—but she swore that she would have backed you into the shadows under the bridge, longing for you to go further.”
“Further under the bridge?” I cut in stupidly, an ancient septuagenarian reliving an incident from sixty years ago.
Tess gave a slight chuckle, “You know what she meant.”
Just then, there came a distant rumble of thunder. Tess moved towards the house, “Storm coming. Best get inside.”
As she hurried away, I called, “Thanks for that, Tess. I think your mom would have approved.”
“I hope so.” And she was gone, leaving me to view Kate’s garden and at that moment the deep blue of the lobelia matched my mood. The rain had not arrived yet, so why were my cheeks wet?
All the scattered memories of more than seventy years came tumbling around me, most of them joyous.
And that moment? Until today, an almost forgotten moment, and although what Tess had told me of Kate’s feelings on that night was unexpected, I knew, whatever the outcome, nothing would have changed. I would have remained that immature, shy, lad, nervous of stepping into the unknown of a promised kiss.
Kate and I, ever good friends, had both aged gracefully and made successful life choices with partners who fulfilled us completely. But, right at that moment, was I so old that I couldn’t avoid that ubiquitous, “What if?”