Life began on a sunny day at an open air concert in a west London park. She was there with her best friend and it was the first time they’d been allowed to go to London on their own. They had taken the train up from Kent, clutching bags with squash and sweets, spam sandwiches, cheap eye pencils, lipsticks, small mirrors. Such traumas, checking make-up and hair without the other passengers noticing. The journey was long and slow, steam powered and loud. A flurry of hurried squeaks and whispers, and tangled groans beneath hunched and restless shoulders. Flashes of colour passing by, the warmth of the sun on the windows, noise and smoke. And being serious and grown-up in their carriage, not looking up and staring when the compartment door slammed shut and strangers with their curious scents sat down.
Not yet fifteen they were still, barely, the sort of girls who hadn’t yet forgotten that being a grown-up looked like a lot of trouble, like something best avoided. They had no need to hurry yet, no need yet for passion or anger, nor resentment, argument. They didn’t yet hate their mums or dads, nor yet seek conflict. Still just young enough to hold instead the threads of childhood, they knew not yet furies, nor nameless fears, or anger. Soon enough they would take this turn but not now, not today.
Arriving at Victoria station all grime and black specked, shuffling their way out of the train and stopping midspill on the platform, staring amazed, unaware of an unwritten story. Young and pretty and bewildered, floating on an ocean of hurried strangers. A young man turned and stared and the two didn’t notice him look away embarrassed for his thoughts and their youth. The girls saw him working through the crowd, narrow shoulders in a black leather jacket and darkish hair too dirty to be black or brown. He was in his early twenties and he disappeared.
The pair went slowly forwards, floating out of the station with the crowd. They had written details of what to do next. If they got too anxious for the tube the instructions said to wait under the clock for Evelyn’s dad coming up on the next train. Jostled in the crowd the paper clutched in a white gloved hand that was already grubby, no way would they wait. A sea of shapes and colours, unnavigable as they were moved along anxious, excited with frequent glances at the note. They found the District Line.
The tube monstrous big and openjawed and begging, as they hurried down the wooden escalator and scrambled into a carriage with the smoke and loud like the train, and hot and grimey. Watching as the darkness slides by, sudden halts and unravelling strangers’ tales, the chaotic mess of colours, shapes, alien forms and gazing into other peoples’ pictures. A world unfolding around them and it could never look like this again. The spell of the first time of seeing, first awareness of life passing along on the other side of a window. Strangers stinking and rumpled, the men watchful, the women with their eyes away. Shunted about for six stops, getting out and then following the hand drawn map to the little park. It took only half an hour from when the train arrived at Victoria for them to reach their stop at Parsons Green, triumphant, timeless and surprised to be there at all.
The concert was some sort of charity benefit for an aging musician friend of a friend of Ella’s dad. When he’d asked her if they’d like to go, Ella couldn’t believe he was serious. Up to London almost alone? It hadn’t much mattered what charity it was, the details were ragged remnants, crumpled and buried.
By the time the girls were going through the park gates, the first couple of acts had already been and gone. The crowd was buzzy, up for a good time, drinking and smoking, some dancing. The girls moved nervous, blushing by turns, weaving to get close to the stage, giggling when their bottoms were pinched and never seeing who did it. It wasn’t much of a stage because it wasn’t much of a gig. Meagre trappings with just a few banners, and tents with warm beer and cheese and ham rolls. A small London park and a small tribute concert to someone mostly long forgotten. Evelyn’s dad’s friend was already smiling out from the stage, watching as the girls inched their way forward. He was drumming to some slow jazz, musing on their prettiness, their youth and sweetness, wondering how he got to be so old.
The girls hadn’t even noticed there was jazz playing. They had had no idea about the music, pulling faces and rolling their eyes when it started up. But a steady beat, everyone bopping along, jigjiggily, cheerily, gentle afternoon contentment warming through the crowd. Mostly the people seemed to Evelyn and Ella to be ancient, but there were some teenagers there. Not many, and mostly girls just enough older than them to be in another, far more vigorous league. The song bumped along, and all around them even the teenagers were having a good time. The song ended and a young man ambled on stage. He glanced reluctant at the crowd, waving, smiling, leaning into the microphone to sing.
Years later the young man was famous, an international star, renowned, respected, rich, unreachable, but that day his fame glimmered only slightly. That day he looked everywhere else but at the audience, at the ground, at his feet, off to the side of the stage, everywhere else. But there was a sense of voice, of look that together would have much more to say. It shone from him. Like the girls the young man was on the edge of what comes next.
Ella didn’t remember whose son it was and nor did Evelyn, but they both remembered him for the rest of their lives. An edgy sharp memory tangled up with how the squashy warm sandwiches tasted and the sound and rhythm of the train, the roll and rumble of a dirty tube carriage. He sang a lazy, drawly song, dragging out the notes from phrase to phrase, idling along never out of touch, bar to bar. He was why so many young people were there. A bright young thing, a soon to be rising star, still playing with his dad’s friends, still waiting to pounce on a world he would own.
He asked for requests from the audience. Bold and brave Ella blurted out her’s in a sudden rush of brash unexpected excitement. She always remembered the moment and how Evelyn had taken up the shout more clearly and loudly. He refused unless she agreed to come up on stage and ask out loud into the microphone. She blushed and said no, but never forgot the echo of the repeated request, not just his but of the band all teasing, tempting her reluctant, growing courage. When she made her way towards the stage, her heart was pounding, knees shaking and suddenly willing to talk a strange man. To hear him teasing, laughing, flirtatious, in front of all those people she was suddenly willing. Such wicked delight, such power. Evelyn turned and faced the crowd and saw her dad waving at the back. Bold and loud “please sing Seven Golden Daffodils” and he smiled, heard the murmurs of approval from the band and cleared his throat, watching as she walked to the edge of the stage, climbed down and disappeared.
And much, much later he was much, much older, dying on some distant shore, career and seven marriages long since gone. Memories of countless children, grandchildren, and a life that was altogether too complicated, he still remembered that day, that moment. He remembered her long pale blonde hair, her grey eyes, the sullen scowl that turned suddenly into light. And he remembered the wondrous beauty of her youth, her luminous unguarded smile and the polite thanks. He could still see her relief, the wave of sudden trust and confidence as she thanked him for bringing her this moment in this wonderful day. She had turned and walked away, burning hot amidst shouting applause and raucous cheers, he smiling as she went and wondering how old she was. Too young he knew, and yet. She was gone before he could find her, but he too never forgot that day, that moment.
And for all the boys and men she would meet, for all the friends and lovers she would have and for all the worlds she was to pass through that he would not share, he knew they would all happen and they would all be to him as theft. Smiling as she went, he saw passing this theft he could not counter, could not prevent or undo. A moment history stole away, a moment fragile, glittering, shimmering forever on the edge of his powerless, endless sight. She stayed there always on the edge of his reality, waiting not for him, watching not for him, toying forever with only the promise of her own world. That theft and its memory remained with him always and could never be forgiven. The theft of promise untold, of love unknown.