MANDY’S SECRET WORLD – a short story

The next post will be on or before Sunday 2nd September

MANDY’S SECRET WORLD – a short story

My wife Rona said of Mandy Brown and the men in her life, that she was a bad picker, which you might say was an altogether homely, anecdotal way of putting things. Rona was a gifted therapist who had practised for over twenty years, so was used to more subtle formulations (projection, introjection, splitting and so on) which arguably saw the person concerned as a victim of protracted psychological process. But to suggest that Mandy often made bad choices in her love life, inevitably put the responsibility squarely on her shoulders, not on inscrutable biographical accident. She did not say it to her face sure enough, but she went further in her no-nonsense approach and said to me and another friend as we ate dinner together, that she would have done well to go after Sam Anderson, a friendly and amusing neighbour of ours long without a partner. For, added Rona, Sam was not all that bad looking, and as bonus, and alliteratively, was sane and sound and solvent…in fact damn near rich with his massive barn conversion and his salary as a factory manager. At the time Mandy was pining painfully over the faithless Hamish after a recent debacle they had experienced together, in India of all places, and everyone wished to help her but of course everyone was too polite to tell her that Hamish really wasn’t worth the candle.

“What the hell does she see in him?” was the general restless murmur, as everyone for some reason felt instinctively protective towards Mandy Brown. “With all her talents and with all her commonsense when it comes to everything but him?”

I first met Mandy in the early 1990s on market day in a small town close to both the Scottish and Northumbrian borders. I had lived in the area for 4 years and she for longer, but this was the first time I had set eyes upon her. We were introduced by Patty, a friend of Rona’s who talked more than anyone I have ever heard in my life, as if even a moment’s silence would have made her ill or caused the world to fall apart. I was struck by Mandy as she was one of those people who look like absolutely no one else in the world, not even remotely. She had small eyes, small features, a small face and was thin and shy looking. But her eyes had some quaint oriental cast, and her cheekbones were assertive and finely expressive. Her hair impressed me too for it was shaped like theatre wings at either end and was neatly fringed. I thought she was beautiful in her own unique way, and it was only years later I realised that possibly I was the only person who thought as much. Others termed her plain and she herself thought nothing of her looks. The other thing I have to stress is she gave off the subtle aura of some small and delicate animal such as a timid squirrel or a careful dormouse (I put that gingerly at the end of this cameo, so that you aren’t led off on false trails with the like of Beatrix Potter, who was after all of the same geographical region we are talking).

Mandy was then in her early thirties and had been divorced from a Frenchman called Tom Pasquier for three years. Tom was a lecturer in French language and literature at a university near Newcastle and his English was so flawless several people assumed he was a well-spoken native until Mandy informed them otherwise. Tom was tall and handsome, but often looked impenetrable and aloof, though he was a conscientious father to their two small children, and drove the fifty miles to Mandy’s cottage every weekend to pick them up and then return them on the Sunday night. After the divorce she and he rubbed together after a fashion, though he was finicky about petty amounts of money and also had a Gallic fastidiousness and fussiness about all sorts of improbable things (the ideal salad dressing, the ideal paper clip, handy tips re remote recordings done by video machine) which irritated Mandy despite her best efforts. She had had no partner since Tom, but had a busy job as manager of a Resource Centre which provided subsidised printing, photocopying and computer lessons to the rural community. She was also a keen and accomplished amateur artist specialising in rugged often melancholy North Pennine landscape, and at weekends she tended the gently rambling garden of her tiny rustic cottage, or went in for strenuous cycling and hiking with various women friends. During the week I saw a good deal of her for I discovered it was cheaper to print off at the Resource Centre what I had written the day before, than it was to empty my ink jet every week or so. I arrived as the Centre opened and after I had done the printing would usually stop and chat with Mandy and can say with sincerity and wonderment they were some of the most significant conversations I have ever had in my life.

It is hard to say exactly why this was so, but the thing to stress is that despite her shyness Mandy held up almost nil barriers nor strategic defences when it came to genuine as opposed to token communication. She was one of those people you could tell your remotest thoughts to, and if you were to indulge in colourful metaphor or far flown comparisons or impossible comically exaggerated fantasy, or if you attempted to express the inexpressible which I often did in her company, she did not bat an eyelid, neither outwardly nor inwardly. Indeed, I have only ever known two people like this in all my life, my wife Rona and Mandy Brown, and a further reflection is that I have always had far more sensitive women friends to whom I can open my heart, than I have any male counterparts. Up in the remote northern provinces the case with men gets far worse than it would in say London or Cambridge, and though there are to be sure likeable individuals up there I have as friends of a kind, if I spent a hundred years in closed conversation with them, I would still have not the faintest inkling of their inner world. Mandy and I were both addicted to cinema, and as she had travelled widely in South America and India and the Far East in her early twenties, we shared a passion for foreign movies. Many a time we would agree in advance to watch the same subtitled film on TV (necessarily remotely recorded in 1993, if only because Channel 4 always chose to put them on at 3am) and then the next day discuss what we thought about it. Mandy had a literature degree and a sharp analytic mind, whose only fault was it was never quite assertive enough. When she passed an opinion, no matter how acute it was, it was also somehow tentative and I could see she was mesmerised when I became eloquent about a complex character or an ambiguous plotline or a bit of unusual camerawork. I was no cineaste, but I was full of my unlearnt opinions and my own ideas and talking to Mandy I felt drawn on to push and dissect and formulate more than I would if I had been talking to anyone else. It was as if Mandy vicariously wanted me to go right to the end of the road and beyond, when it came to making any bold hypotheses or stating my own combative dogmas, and whenever the pair of us were talking movies there was a kind of rapture of support and confirmation, as we discovered our minds to be cooperatively together rather than in the competitive way usually favoured by two men arguing the toss about Bunuel or Fellini or the Coen Brothers.

Two or three years went by and Mandy Brown stayed patiently single, then to everyone’s surprise broke with polite precedent by suddenly stealing her best friend’s husband….

Which is of course to distort and sensationalise the truth, for Hamish McKay was not married to Georgina Wright though he did have a fetchingly bright-eyed little son by her called Billy, who at five was a best playmate of Mandy’s children Jenny and Des. It is far from probable that Mandy Brown did any guileful stealing i.e. that she was the wicked agent and the doer of the bad deed, and much more likely that Hamish with his track record of blatant if corny seduction techniques was the one to take the initiative. Georgina and he lived in another idyllic cottage about twenty minutes’ drive from Mandy, and Hamish had come and gone from the family home over Billy’s five years, unable to settle or commit as he preferred to put it. He had moreover a good excuse to be away a lot, as most of his jobs were short term contracts for community work projects involving those with learning difficulties or the physically disabled or the very old, and often these projects were a hundred miles away or even further flung. Georgina Wright came of moneyed family, had been privately educated and was a very gentle and hesitant woman wholly incapable of asserting herself or showing any mood or temper, much less rage. Doubtless she would have liked to scream her lungs out and pull Mandy’s hair from its roots when Hamish moved in with her, but she was one of those people, warmly encouraged by Hamish, who believed that anger of any kind was negative and destructive and to be avoided at all costs. She and Hamish both went in for regular meditation weekends which of course help to dissipate more than anger, and Georgina made some income as a jobbing gardener, a profession that allowed her perhaps not to meditate, but to daydream as much as she liked. Her customers occasionally compared notes and saw to their concerted surprise that she took an entire day to weed one square yard of border. It was immaculately weeded right enough, but at that rate would take at least six months to clean the garden entire.

Georgina was very handsome and Hamish was the opposite. The first thing to strike you was the size of his nose which was considerable, and then after that the quantity of freckles, the shock of boyish fair hair, and the ever present and seemingly innocent grin which was also excessively boyish. Chronology confirmed this, as he was twenty-nine to Georgina’s thirty-six and Mandy’s thirty-seven, scarcely a toy boy perhaps, had he not looked quite so much like a cross between a caulflower-nosed boxer and Just William as once portrayed long ago on BBC TV by a young Dennis Waterman. Hamish’s parents were Glaswegian but lived in exile in London so that Hamish had a strong Bermondsey accent and inevitably the metropolitan cadences, the carpet of freckles and the hefty snout made you think of a dubious car salesman rather than a principled community worker. Mandy told me he was very good at his various projects, for which he was usually badly paid, and I believed her, but assumed like several other compromised community workers I had known, he was split down the middle, selfless with the old and the weak and the vulnerable, but selfish and calculating, indeed merciless, with the sentient and sensitive, particularly those who were female and desirable to boot. His winning point for Mandy was that he was an outdoor fanatic like she was, and loved rough camping, cycling, hiking and arduous fellwalking. At weekends when Tom the Frenchman had Jenny and Des in Newcastle, the two of them would take a tent to the furthest reaches of the North Pennines, way beyond Nenthead and Garrigill, to the very end of the universe in fact, and both of them being on a budget would spoil themselves with nothing more glamorous than cheap red wine and handmade crisps.

After about a year, exhausted by running a sheltered housing scheme for the elderly demented, Hamish applied for and was offered the management of a project working with street kids in India, in Patna the capital of Bihar. Bihar is one of India’s poorest provinces, and the project was six months long and would be a challenge by any standards, as the street kids were mostly outcastes and Bihar has had more caste strife than most of the northern states. It worried Mandy that Hamish was far more excited about seeing India for the first time, than evidencing any anguish about leaving her for a full half year, but she swallowed her burgeoning unease and put on a brave face. They arranged that she should go out and stay with him in Patna for a fortnight half way through the project, and she packed up all her painting gear and took her expensive camera too. It was August when she went out, all fresh excitement and shy but intense passion, and Hamish had agreed to pick her up from the airport then take her to his Patna apartment. When they met, he and his freckles and his vast nose smirked as amiably as ever, but he seemed worryingly preoccupied and immediately she felt that she was getting in the way of something, and was thus superfluous, even an irritation. A cold fear gripped her in the stomach, for here she was possibly painfully on her own in Patna for the next two weeks, and indeed things did not improve once they reached his flat. He explained he was up to his eyes with the street kids project and so had called in Vinnie aka Vinita his thirty-year-old deputy who had some holiday and had volunteered to show Mandy round the city: all the Hindu temples as well as the Sikh gurudwara, the Golghara dome, the Bihar Museum, the botanical gardens, and the best rural landscapes for her painting. Vinnie was generous enough company and she took Mandy to some fine vegetarian restaurants where the food was delicious if stingingly hot, and that astringence somehow made her think of Hamish and his present behaviour.

“Hamish is a marvellous man,” exclaimed Vinnie with her shiningly excited eyes, as she offered Mandy succulent and novel vegetables such as lauki and tinda. “He gets on brilliantly with the street kids. They absolutely love him, Mandy. They see him as just like one of them, as a kind of grown up street kid if you know what I mean.”

At that point, Mandy told me, she had spluttered at the heat of the dhal, and was reminded not just of Hamish’s perennial youthfulness, but that of Georgina Wright’s newly acquired partner, Lester Perry. Lester aged thirty was a strikingly handsome friend or rather confederate of Hamish’s who was a self- employed sculptor and metalworker, and was the shyest and quietest man I have ever met. In fifteen years, I doubt I had heard him speak more than two sentences, and his blushing childlike timidity was such that my own daughter Dora aged six once asked me in all seriousness was Lester Perry really a man or just a little boy.

“Yes,” answered Mandy with a struggle. “Hamish was a playleader once in a very run-down part of Leeds, in the north of England. He was a legend, Vinnie, as all the kids there really loved him. He has a special knack. He has something that others don’t have, I suppose.”

And what exactly was that? Mandy usually only saw Hamish late at night when he was exhausted from a day on the Patna streets followed perhaps by a team meeting with the local workers. He was seemingly attentive and asked conscientiously about her adventures with Vinnie, but when she related them his eyes were busy elsewhere. Mandy was in any case getting tired of Vinnie’s repetitive table talk, for the Indian woman was crazy about HE Bates and over coffee or lunch liked to relate the plot of every single short story, every whoopsadaisy hilarity involving Pop Larkin she had read, so that Mandy found her coffee getting cold as she aped attention. In the end she was almost glad to go home, though on the plane back to Manchester she chastised herself wretchedly for her total incapacity to ask Hamish what on earth was wrong and what was going on inside his always smiling head and his elusive heart.

As it happened she never found out, for about a month after the project had finished and he was back in their cottage, the pair of them drank more wine than they usually did and before they knew it were both proposing marriage to each other…

Subsequently neither could remember who first suggested it, and Mandy reasonably enough assumed Hamish might well shudder and retract his offer the next day. But no, he didn’t, he stayed firm in an odd and frowning conscientious stickler way, saying oh yes they should marry, but just to make sure of it Mandy arranged things as quickly as possible and they were wed in the tiny village church with Hamish in a smart grey suit and Mandy as a divorcee in modified bridal regalia. In attendance were ex-husband Tom Pasquier who had his arms folded as if preparing himself for a no holds barred Gallic debate, the giggling children Jenny and Des, Hamish’s son Billy, myself and Rona, and another dozen friends and the only one conspicuous by her absence was Georgina Wright who pleaded illness in the form of severe hay fever. The reception was in Mandy’s beautiful cottage and prominent there were Hamish’s parents knocking back the wine and the quiche and the smoked salmon sandwiches. They were hectic working class Glaswegians with a raw patter and a great enveloping warmth, and needless to say there was a stark existential disparity between their boozing spontaneity and Hamish’s watchful and always considered approach to this baffling puzzle called social intercourse.

The marriage took place in September when the bride was forty and the groom thirty-four, and, bar the technicalities, it had ended by the following January, just as Mandy Brown turned forty-one. Precisely four and a half months their nuptial state lasted, and afterwards Mandy said how embarrassed she was by that humiliating statistic. In retrospect it can only have been that she wedded the always elusive one so impulsively, because she was so wounded by his bland indifference when she visited him in India. It is a common enough fallacy applicable to all ages and cultures, that one can make an unfaithful partner faithful by marrying them, and in some ways it is a kind of sympathetic magic, or even a child’s logic and perhaps the two amount to the same thing. Worse still, in those four and a half months Hamish rapidly demonstrated his sense of marital claustrophobia by going all out to find other potential liaisons, having done a hasty mental checklist of the likeliest candidates. One of Mandy’s colleagues in the Resource Centre was darkly handsome forty-year-old Hazel Bone, a single mother with a small son Dennis who was a friend of Billy, and she was later to inform me (though not of course Mandy) what had happened. One afternoon about a month after the wedding, Hamish took Billy round to play with Dennis and while they were outside on the swings, walked up and promptly threw his beefy arms around Hazel’s shapely shoulders. In a great rush he blurted out that he had just done a weekend’s training course in Body Massage in a South Scottish mansion, and that he was required to do a certain number of hours of practice before he returned for part two of the course.

Hazel who had very black hair and knowing, often baleful eyes, looked at him with raised eyebrows. “So why don’t you go and massage your wife’s?”

“Eh?”

“Mandy’s. She’s there on tap. She’s your wife, Hamish, remember? You can massage her for the twenty or thirty or hundred hours practice you have to do, and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your fireside.”

On autopilot, Hamish was absently rubbing away at Hazel’s shoulders as he mumbled, “We’ve been told we have to practice with someone not a partner.”

After she had given me the seedy account, Hazel added, “Give the old dog his due. He can lie on demand better than anyone I know. It’s a kind of expert skill I suppose. But not one I’d want to marry, if I were called Mandy. I will give them a year together at most.”

She was wrong by all of eight months. In the meantime, at a party I attended where Mandy was in one room and Hamish in another, I saw him paying zealous attention to a good-looking recent arrival to the area, an actuary called Anthea Parker who was beautifully dressed, amusingly incredulous about everything under discussion, and in her energetic mid-thirties. I saw him bombarding her furiously with questions about her job and showing phenomenal interest in its technicalities, and also noted her incredulity as she decided this pushy gent would never remember a word of it past the present feverish interview. He ended by shoving his business card into her stiffening hand and grinningly demanding hers in return. I noted on her face a frank wonderment as to why she might believe that Gene Wilder/Just William here would ever need an actuary, or that she would suddenly need the assistance of a project coordinator, given that she commuted by train to Preston every day anyway.

So it was that Hamish eventually moved out and rented a flat on the Scots side in a fetching little Roxburgh border town, and then made things final by taking a year-long project working with political refugees down in Wiltshire. That meant he only came home alternate weekends to see his son and otherwise stalked around both sides of the Border foraging for whatever was going on in terms of short-term passion and long-term non-commitment. He and Mandy had almost nothing to do with each other from then onwards, though she would doubtless have dropped all if he had waved his hand either inside of outside of Scotland, in that area known very aptly in their marital context as the Debatable Lands. It was ad hoc law had always ruled in their emotional entanglement, just as it had in the sixteenth century in the No Man’s land that was neither one country nor another, one devastated and incendiarised reiver-stricken wasteland or another. The word bereaved comes from the reivers who were murderous Border bandits, and though Hamish would never have murdered anyone nor done them the mildest physical injury, he spread grief around him very ably as both Georgina Wright and Mandy Brown would separately attest.

Then the strangest thing ever, and something I still do not understand and probably never will. It was a September weekend in the millennial year 2000, and Hamish was still in Wiltshire and Rona my wife was attending a conference of international psychotherapists in Bucharest, Rumania. That weekend there was a long-awaited musical event in the capital of the North Pennines, a small and infinitely beautiful township that reclines at a vertiginous angle very high up in market town terms, and which might explain what happened there. The concert was a performance of Cajun and Zydeco music, not performed by some black bean and pecan pie virtuosos from New Orleans but from Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, and when the musicians talked between songs they had beguilingly Geordie accents. The bulk of the audience had migrated up from London and elsewhere to North Pennine seclusion some thirty years earlier, and were you might say venerable hippies in their late fifties. They had bought remote ramshackle farmhouses for £1000 or less in 1970, and those places were now worth £300,000, so they were hippies or rather hippy plutocrats with admirable, nay quite miraculous assets in the year 2000.

I went along with Mandy and her friend Hazel Bone, and another woman friend called Deirdre Morton who chainsmoked, and was a mental health nurse. Mandy barely drank these days, so was happy to do the driving and she had to stop twice on the twenty mile drive to let Deirdre have an urgent fag. The venue was the town hall with a special bar and the band were sufficiently high profile to lure a capacity audience, much of it bearded, long haired and/or white haired, and looking as if marinated in patchouli for at least a decade or so. The lights were dimmed and had a gentle pink radiance and of course being Cajun most of the songs were fast and zestful, so that we four decided to dance together to the tunes en masse. But then towards the end of the evening, they chose to do a nostalgic and openly mournful number at which Hazel Bone looked sullen and sat down heavily, and Deirdre said she was fucking off as she put it for a fucking snout. Mandy and I looked carefully at each other and decided yes we  wanted to dance to this slow number and we stood perhaps a yard apart and gave ourselves up to its hypnotic rhythm.

What happened next is almost impossible to describe. I looked at Mandy under the serene pink light and saw that she was looking surprisingly happy, the happiest I had seen her since her four month marriage had humiliatingly ended. But no, it wasn’t something as fragile as happiness that I saw, but more of a profound and limitless tranquillity that stemmed from somewhere far beyond the dimensions of this quaint old town hall upstairs room. It was all there in her small and subtle eyes that seemed to be moving in response to an indescribable inner music, emphatically not the music that was coming from the band, though that slow and mordant song they played may well have stirred up the strange and mesmerising chords that were inside and orchestrating the human being that was Mandy. Mandy was my partner on the dance floor though she was wasn’t looking at me at all, but gazing fearlessly and with a serene and poignant joy into what must surely be the infinite and the beyond. She was communing with herself that is, in touch with some unsung and immeasurable depths which had likely nourished and even cherished her for her entire life. It was also obvious that in such a frank state of rapture she was inviolable, and no one could seriously hurt nor harm her, for somehow she had learnt the trick of returning to this remarkable starting point of infinite inner gravity. At that point I reflected that her farce of a marriage with Hamish might well have wrecked another woman, but raw as she had felt after his desertion, Mandy had battled on and had brought up her young children and had held down her tough job, and had kept on painting and had walked and cycled and gone camping in a July heatwave with Hazel Bone and their hectic and demanding offspring on the Galloway coast.

What I saw in her was surely something of the indescribable and sublime, but of course Mandy Brown was not religious, more of a standard liberal agnostic with token leanings, encouraged by Hamish McKay, towards various oriental gnoses as well as meditation and Hatha Yoga. What that meant was that though she was currently entranced and protected and beyond any possible hurt or harm from any man or any phantom, she was wholly unaware of it, as unselfconscious as an infant child who takes their natural birthright of innocent euphoria unthinkingly for granted. This vision that I saw in my friend and occasional confidante Mandy, went on for the length of the dance, and then the band promptly changed tempo and started a fast and furious Cajun tune. Hazel Bone instantly stopped sulking and even smiled, Deirdre relinquished the urge to dart outside for yet another B and H, and Mandy suddenly went from a depthless mystery of innocent rapture into an attractive and heartening and altogether comical little smile.

All of this happened nearly twenty years ago. I have never mentioned it to Mandy Brown nor have I told any of it to anyone else. But it seems to me the world should know of things like this, for it is very rare that they happen, and rarer still do we dare to think about what they might mean.

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