I WAS HAPPY
A couple of weeks ago a school friend sent me some letters I had written to her from when I was living in Paris, on the Left Bank, at the ripe old age of sixteen.
Paris. Independence! Think beautiful avenues, the sound of the accordion, Montmartre, the Opera House, delightful food, watching the chic couples go b y from cafes and restaurants. Of course it was all there, but in truth it was not a real part of my student life. I did not have very much in the way of pocket money, and anyway I was only too happy to stay in the student quarter, browse the book shops, and lead a disarmingly simple life. My parents had rented a room for me in an old apartment on the Left Bank. It was very narrow, with a sloping floor, and yellowing paint, but it had a radio, a bedspread – I seem to have a great attachment to this - also a chest of drawers. I was enrolled for a course at the Sorbonne towards which I walked down the narrow streets of the Quartier Latin to attend lectures, but my letters reflect something more was happening I was leaving my childhood behind.
‘This evening before supper I fell asleep. I didn’t have a strange dream complete with angels, but when I woke up I had changed. I felt as one does when you leave a house after the furniture vans have gone. It looks suddenly lonely, and defenceless, waiting for the armies of strangers to scramble over it, and criticise it – it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been very happy there, or if its hideous, you feel treacherous, and you drive away feeling as if a door has closed behind you and suddenly you have changed – that’s how I felt when I woke up, as if I’d left somewhere and was on my way to something else, and I suddenly wanted to go back to my room at home in Kensington and savour its prettiness and the happy sort of life I’ve always had in it. I didn’t feel homesick I just knew it would never be exactly the same again: now it’s all got a purpose to it and I and I’m always happy but in a sort of expectant waiting for something else way– like ‘Mary Rose’ if you ever saw the play listening for the beautiful music! Last term and the term before I was happy enough but I was always waiting for the days to pass – and now I’m happy they can’t go slow enough, and they seem to slip away so fast, and you’ve got that bitter sweet pain, and a sort of desperate contentment because it’s got to end.’
I daresay we all like to remember ourselves in a certain way, but perhaps there is nothing like the passage of time, and the re-reading of letters written so very long ago to bring back that essence of what it is like to be sixteen and living on your own for the first time, and in Paris - just across from the Pont des Art, where painters could peacefully pursue their calling, and we were allowed to stand behind them in awed silence as they struggled with what lay just beyond, a scene so tantalisingly familiar, and so determinedly evasive. Back then we seem to have had so much. Not glossy, not rich, not grindingly poor either; perhaps it was just enough to make us that elusive word - happy. I always thought it was so, but when I read these letters I realised it was so. There they are, the letters that my friend sent me, proving that my joyous memories are not the stuff of fiction, or of getting older, or of a cheap desire to make things appear as they most definitely were not. Of course I will send my friend back these letters, they are after all hers, but what I can’t send her back is what they brought to me, a confirmation of something I had always suspected.
I was happy.