Falling in Love
With RosemaryI discovered that there was a way by which I could get out of the army earlier than I had expected. Shortly before I had joined up in 1942 I had taken a scholarship exam for Balliol College, Oxford; I had done little work for this knowing that I would be going off to war. But Balliol had said I had done well enough for them to keep a place for me if later I wanted it. And now it seemed that if I chose to take up this offer I could be demobilised by October 1946 rather than almost a year later. This I did. I wanted to read philosophy --- to continue in a more disciplined manner my efforts to understand, amongst other things, why humans seemed to be at home in war, but to refuse to acknowledge this and thus to be able to deal with it.
Then when I got to Oxford I was told that this was not what philosophy was about. The ancient Greek tragedians, yes, had been interested in such questions, but they came under the heading of Classics. The Existentialists? Nietzsche? They did not do these at Oxford.What did they do? Descartes, Hume, Kant: Epistemology, the Theory of Knowledge: what do we mean when we say that we "know." But was not this what Nietzsche was on about? Was it? But I had always felt that I would have to work things out for myself.
I stayed at Oxford for just the year I would otherwise have been in the army. Then I left to write my first novel. If academic study insisted on dealing with only the bones of theory, then surely it was up to novels to portray the flesh of life. Also I left Oxford to marry Rosemary, my eventually chosen rose from the rosebud garden of girls.
I had first noticed Rosemary at one of the innumerable fashionable dances in London. It seemed she had noticed me. But we had been wary: if one pounced conventionally, surely any quarry worth catching would have to try to get away? So how in fact, when it came to it, did one pick and choose? One waited for some sign, some singularity; some jungle-test like that of a smell?
I bumped into Rosemary again some months later in a coffee-bar in Oxford. I said "Do you remember me?" She said "Yes." I said "Good." She said "I thought you were that murderer." There was a murderer on the loose at the time who was said to chop up women and dissolve them in the bath. I thought --- Well this indeed is a singular signal that one cannot precisely explain; but could it fit into a novel?
I took her out to dinner. She hardly spoke. I rattled on. After a time I said "What are you thinking?" She said "That I could send you mad in a fortnight." I said "Why wait a fortnight?" I went out to where my car was parked and I gave her the keys. I lay down in the road where she could run over me. She said she did not know how to drive. I got up to show her. Then we drove back to her lodging. By the end of the evening I think we both thought we might marry.
The next weekend I suggested we go in my car for a drive in the country. She asked if we could visit her old grandmother who lived in Hertfordshire. I said --- Of course. I had the impression that Rosemary's family must be hard up, for in spite of another presence at London dances she appeared to have no money for bus fares and to possess no smart clothes.
On Sunday we drove through country lanes and eventually came to the gates and lodge of a drive leading to what must be a large country house. An old lady came out from the lodge to open the gates: I wondered --- This is her grandmother?
The old lady waved us through. We drove through what seemed to be endless acres of parkland and came to a long low house like a battleship. We went in through a back door and along stone passages where all life seemed to have stopped; then through a baize door to a small sitting room outside which Rosemary asked me to wait for a moment. Then when I went in there was a very old lady in a wheel chair who, when her granddaughter had introduced me, said "And I was such a friend of your grandfather's!"
I still had no idea who this lady could be who had been a friend of my grandfather Lord Curzon. (I managed a bit later to glimpse an envelope lying on a desk addressed to "Lady Desborough.") She asked Rosemary if I would like to see what she referred to as "the paintings."
She gave Rosemary a huge old-fashioned key and we went down a central corridor of tattered grandeur and into a long high picture gallery where, when Rosemary had opened a creaking shutter, there appeared --- through cobwebs --- a Van Dyke? An Italian renaissance Holy Family? A huge portrait of a soldier on a horse that could be --- surely not! --- a Rembrandt? (Rosemary said --- Yes, they say it is.) I thought it important that I should not appear to be bowled over by all this. Why should it not be as natural as anything else? But it seemed more likely than ever that we would marry.--- From Time at War
©2006 Dalkey Archive Press