Earlier this week I had an experience in Sidmouth that brought to mind another incident long ago. The Sidmouth experience was benign and pleasant, I hasten to say, but the other was not. Let's begin with last Tuesday's happening.
It was a lovely late-September day. Sidmouth is the perfect place really: a wonderfully mild microclimate; an attractive sea front, with some inviting-looking hotels and no tat; distinctive red cliffs at either end of the seafront, with a cliffy bit halfway along, topped by lovely gardens; Regency buildings everywhere; remarkably upmarket shops of all kinds; plenty of places to enjoy a civilised tea or coffee, or to eat and drink; a much-used Parish Church; a Waitrose; and frequent buses to Exeter. There's nothing to dislike, unless you are riff-raff, or some kind of low life, when you will feel uncomfortable and out of place, and move on to Seaton or Exmouth. Sidmouth is for adequately-incomed lovers of neatness, tidiness, and immaculate lawns. It's much nicer than sprawling, impersonal Bournemouth. It's small and intimate, with much going on all the year round to interest those with a leaning towards history, art, and the finer things in life. It is saved from total fantasy by the odd corner of decrepitude, where rust or rotten gables or peeling paint remind you that this is a town that (for the genteel, and especially persons in delicate health) was supremely fashionable in 1825 - a seaside alternative to Cheltenham, much beloved of retired colonels and their wives - but has been fading ever since.
I'd just examined the Church, and was now sitting on a bench outside the Museum. An older lady asked if she could join me. She was smartly dressed in black - suede boots, tweed skirt, and a high-necked jacket buttoned up to keep out the slight breeze. She asked if she could smoke, and when I assented, we fell into conversation. I noticed they were cigarettes in a bright blue pack that I didn't usually see anyone smoke. Were they expensive? Oh no; in fact only £8 for twenty. (£8! And that was reckoned 'cheap'! I was well out of touch with the strange world of regular smokers) We discussed life in Sidmouth, her circumstances, mine. She said her name was Fiona - she was from Orkney, the island of Rousay, but now living in Sidmouth to be near her son. I said I was Lucy, from Sussex, where I had ended up in my retirement. We got on quite well. It was, thus far, an easy conversation. After a little while, she said she felt cold, and she asked me if I would like to come back to her nearby flat to continue our talking.
Well, I hesitated. If the invitation included a cup of tea, which I badly wanted, then why not? Why not, anyway? It seemed rude to refuse. What could happen to me? She was an educated, much-travelled, interesting older woman. I wasn't being lured into a man's den. All this took a second or two to think. Then I accepted.
The first-floor flat was in an old Regency building, and in every way nicely-maintained and elegant. We sat on comfortable, relaxing sofas in a sunny, beautifully-proportioned room with a view towards the sea. It was quiet. I saw a modern kitchen. Did she cook? No, she always ate out. The mantelpiece was full of 75th birthday cards, and I saw big boxes that had obviously contained the orchids in pots now on display. Presents, presumably. No tea was offered. Never mind. We carried on talking. She seemed in pretty good shape for seventy-five. She spoke about long-distance sailing holidays in the recent past, taking her half-way around the world, and her having a turn at the wheel in the Southern Ocean and the Pacific. It made my caravan trips seem very small beer. Even so, she seemed impressed that I caravanned alone, coping with every aspect. Always alone? What about my husband? This led on to some natural questions about my personal history. And not unnaturally I began to find this awkward, being unwilling to speak casually about my marriage to W---, and the subsequent years with M---. You see, I did not want to say anything inconsistent or only half-true to this lady, and certainly not fib to her. I respected her very much. Besides, she was no fool, and her shrewdness would detect anything that did not sound right, or at least not quite the full story. I'd best go as soon as possible. I'd already had an hour with her - could I decently depart?
I decided that I could, and I did. I managed it with grace and regret, with many thanks for her company, and I kissed her cheek. I'm sure she was disappointed that I hadn't stayed for longer. My intuition told me I had committed a mild faux pas, and possibly was snubbing her, not staying for at least two hours. For this lady had told me that she did not make friends easily. But I thought it best. I could not have gone much further without burdening her with some essential personal facts. I felt she would shrug and think nothing of it. On the other hand, she might not. No, it was best to go, and ponder ways of explaining my relationships more clearly in casual encounters to come.
But the hour with Fiona reminded me of that other occasion in 1976, when I was twenty-four, thirty-nine years ago. It was in Pinner, in North London, while I was attending a training course. It began in a pub that a colleague called Dave Koerner - a jovial Somerset man with an earthy sense of humour, someone I took to at once - had recommended if I wanted a drink and a good meal in the evening. He now worked in Southampton, but had lived in Pinner, and got to know the place well. He called it the 'Six and a half Men' because it was then named The Thirteen Balls, or very similar. Apparently all the regulars called it that. Today I searched for 'Pinner pubs' on Google Maps and found The Oddfellows Arms. I wondered whether this was the same pub, but renamed at some point to keep the old nickname vaguely in mind.
Anyway, one evening I got into my car and drove from the Spiders Web Motel on the A41 south-east of Watford - where I was staying - to Pinner, and found this pub. I was looking to eat, but even so a bit diffident about entering an unfamiliar pub. But Dave had assured me that they were friendly in there. I'd be all right on my own. Well, it was all right. As to friendliness, a couple in their early forties on the next table began talking with me. It was very welcome, having company like this. He was bearded, and did most of the talking. She was quieter, though very attentive all the same. After a couple of drinks, they asked me whether I'd like to join them for coffee at their house close by. I saw no snags, and accepted. The house really was nearby. I left my car where it was.
Indoors, it seemed OK at first. We had more chat, although by now I was starting to run out of things to say. I was too young to have done much. I had one relationship behind me, and that was really all so far. The husband said he'd get the coffee going in the kitchen, and disappeared. I was left alone with his wife, as it happens sitting next to her, where I had been placed on arrival. Within touching distance. Conversation with the lady flagged. She seemed to have lapsed into a trance. I began to wish that her husband would return. What was he doing? It was oddly quiet in the direction of their kitchen. Meanwhile, the lady stared forward with languid eyes and slightly parted lips, her body upright but submissive, as if she expected her clothing to be undone and her body caressed. Was she expecting me to do just that? I felt terribly awkward and embarrassed. Was this what sophisticated adults got up to in London suburbs? Was her husband waiting to see whether I was the right sort for a threesome in bed? Sex and the City, Seventies style.
What should I do? I felt like running away, but the conventions applying to invited guests kept me fixed in my seat.
At last the husband reappeared, and the spell was broken. We had coffee. I felt most definitely that I had been put to some test, to see whether I was alive to sexual temptation. For whose satisfaction wasn't clear. I hadn't responded. But they hadn't finished with me. They pressed their address and phone number on me. I supplied mine. I couldn't resist, but I was still living at home with Mum and Dad, and immediately saw that I'd have to tell them something about all this. They wanted me to get in touch the next time I was up - the following week - and we could meet up again. Yes, yes, of course. I was willing to say anything to get away.
I never saw them again. Once back home, I told Mum and Dad that I'd bumped into a couple in a pub, who had seemed fine at first, but strange later, and to escape I'd given them our home address and phone number. I said nothing about the wierd trance scene, and what I sensed was behind it - it was quite impossible to discuss sex with my parents. I think they got the impression that my 'captors' had dishonest plans for me, to do with money. I must break with them at once. I must tell them - phone them, and say that there would be no future meet-ups. There was no resisting this. I felt desperately awkward doing it, but I dialled their number and explained to the husband that my training centre visits had ceased, and I wouldn't be coming their way again. He sounded infinitely regretful. He said his wife had so looked forward to seeing me again. I squirmed at my lies. I felt exhausted after putting the phone down. I had obeyed my parents, but obedience entailed telling untruths. Yes, I was out of danger, the lies had got me out of a situation, but my personal integrity felt badly compromised.
Of course I got over it, really quite quickly. But there were two lasting effects. One was that all fibbing suddenly became much easier, not just fibbing to conceal things about myself, but fibbing to get out of unwelcome situations. The other was to erect a fence between myself and any offers from strangers. It may be that a little bit of my hesitation with Fiona at Sidmouth can be traced to that couple at Pinner.
And I have never returned to the Six and a half Men. But maybe I should make a point of it. Just to see what happens.