Strange how certain people can be associated in the mind with a particular task or activity. Onions always remind me of the German housewife who showed me an easy way of dicing them, and tomatoes call to mind the French madame who taught me to dip them in boiling water to remove the skins.
I have just been doing my ironing, which included some trousers, and as always when I iron trousers my thoughts went to my friend Elaine. It was she, no more domesticated than I was myself, who found me struggling with the legs of my pants on the ironing board in the kitchen of our university hall of residence, and showed me how she did it. We were eighteen at the time, freshers, each of us an only child away from home for the first time and missing the advice and practical help of our mothers though trying to act grown up and independent.
This may well have been the only practical domestic chore Elaine was familiar with, but she impressed me with her expertise and her trousers always looked fine with a perfect crease straight down the front and back of each leg, whereas mine were tending to veer in different directions, like dog’s hind legs. As usual in such cases, her method was simplicity itself, but produced excellent results. In return, I helped her with her literary criticism. She was reading English and I was reading French, but she was more interested in the linguistic aspects than the literary, and I was taking English literature as an extra subject so we overlapped.
A couple of years later, her father having died, I went to stay with her for a fortnight or so near Blackpool during the summer vacation while her mother was in hospital. The main purpose of this was to keep her company and ensure that everything ran smoothly during her mother’s absence. Her mother knew of me, but didn’t actually know me, or I think she might not have been quite so much at ease about leaving her house, daughter, cats and dog in my care. I wasn’t exactly feckless, just not a particularly practical person. As my cousin Val says, she got the common sense and I got the brains.
Leaving Elaine and me in charge was rather like leaving the goat to guard the cabbages, as the Germans say. However, we survived, as did the house, the cats and the dog, although my single recollection of our culinary exploits is cooking mushrooms – something else that always reminds me of Elaine. I have very pleasant selective recall flashes of that “holiday”: walking the dog, Hotspur, a beagle with a strong mind of his own, on the big sandy beach; coaxing the cats Cassius (“lean and hungry”) and Othello (big, baleful and black) into the house in the evening; listening to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s LP of “Beyond the Fringe”; an evening at a variety show in Blackpool, featuring some excellent and some unintentionally hilarious acts; long discussions on every subject under the sun; and two souvenirs that I brought back, things we had found together: a metal chain belt I wore for years and a large reproduction of one of Monet’s cathedral paintings that hung in my parents’ front room for a long time afterwards.
Elaine married immediately after graduation, and I went off to Germany where my life took a totally different direction from what had been intended, so our post-graduate contact became reduced to an annual summary at Christmastime. However, it was a regular and faithful correspondence, never missing a Christmas, and although we only met up briefly three times in the next 48 years, we remained good friends, kindred spirits, very much on the same wavelength. Our reunion in Malaga in 2009, exactly 50 years after we first met, is a memory that I shall continue to treasure. My only regret is that we spent only one week together, no more.
Dear Elaine, the only link with my daily student life, died suddenly as spring ended this year. There will be no letter from her in December. But each time I cook mushrooms or iron trousers, she will be there at my elbow.