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15 November 2016

Why does the person you fell in love with at 20 never seem to age?

My old flame still turns heads – sometimes you can actually hear neck muscles twanging.

By Nicholas Lezard

A call from my old friend C—. She mentions that it is her father’s birthday and that she has rented a house by the sea. Well, it’s sort of the sea. OK, it’s not really the sea at all. But you could say it’s sea-ish . . .

Anyway, paying close attention to her, I realise that she’ll be on her own there on the Friday, and she has been having a rough time lately, and I am always having a rough time, so when I say that I wish I could join her, it is partly in the hope that she will say, “Well, why don’t you join me?” And she does. I pack a bag with a toothbrush and a spare pair of socks and get on the train to [name of town redacted so as not to offend its inhabitants], where she will meet me, because unlike me, she is all grown up, with a job and a car and everything.

Perhaps at this point I should mention that many years ago, in the days of the first Thatcher administration, we went out together. She was the first girlfriend I had whom I was really in love with, and that means a lot, I think. As it turns out, we were somewhat incompatible, for reasons that need not detain us. Suffice it to say that the algorithms of a dating website would never have suggested that one of us should go out with the other.

Still, after a gap of about 17 years, we got back in touch with each other, and it appears that I have the honour of being someone she can turn to when she needs a touch of bucking up (which bucks me up somewhat as well).

So I find myself in what I am plausibly assured is the nicest part of ——, and the reason it is nice is, it turns out, that it’s full of sailboats, which obscure the view of ——. But then we go off, in unseasonably splendid weather, to Orford, Suffolk.

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I’m not going to say anything bad about Orford. There isn’t anything bad to say. The house that C— has rented is delightful. If it was any nearer the water, it would be in the water. It has a little south-facing terrace. It has a proper fireplace, which we have been invited to use. It has a well-stocked bookcase. (I realise I’ll not be there long enough to finish any of the Agatha Christies, so I pick up Spike Milligan’s Monty: His Part in My Victory, which I’ve never read.)

The town has two very decent pubs, one of which is called, unironically, the Jolly Sailor. The local beer is, as I’m sure you know, Adnams, which is delicious. The local store is a marvel (apparently it won a nationwide award a few years ago). There is a castle, and a magnificent church.

I have been suffering from insomnia lately, especially the past couple of days before my arrival, but how can you go to bed early when you’re in paradise? You’d miss out. After C— retires, I stay up, drinking whisky, giggling at Milligan, sometimes nipping out for a pensive starlit smoke, and, when back inside, fiddling with the fire, an activity that never fails to soothe.

For, yes, I need soothing. It can be hard, sometimes, seeing an old flame when there is no one else in your life you can warm yourself by. There is also the curious phenomenon whereby the person you fell in love with when you were 20 stays pretty much the same age, as far as you can see, for the rest of their life.

Maybe this is peculiar to me, and other people who once loved me now see me as a dreadful old wreck. Either way, I seem to have this condition, and it is not unpleasant, but it can make for almost unbearable doses of poignancy.

C— doesn’t like having her photo taken, but the Saturday morning is so staggeringly majestic that I have to take pictures of everything, C— included. I will brook no refusal.

“Don’t be daft,” I say. “You’re an area of outstanding natural beauty.” (This is not, and you will have to trust me on this, an exaggeration, or an act of chivalry. She still turns heads, and sometimes you can hear people’s neck muscles twanging.)

Being the preux chevalier, I’m not going to suggest anything. When you’ve been having a rough time, you need unwanted attention like a hole in the head, and anyway, what am I feeling? Nostalgia, perhaps, of a particularly intense kind. It is not to be confused with love, although it can feel a lot like it.

And maybe the landscape has something to do with it. It invites, like no other, bitter-sweet introspection. The huge, wide flatness, the enormous sky, the sad calls of the birds. 

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This article appears in the 10 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse