MY PARENTS’ friends Elsie and Gerard lived around the corner. After school I used to go to their flat overlooking the estuary and watch Tintin cartoons on the TV with the children who were called Matthew and Laura.
And then they were gone. They didn’t exactly disappear but they did suddenly move to Belgium which seemed like the same thing.
About a year later my mother announced that it would be a good idea if I went to Brussels to live with them for a while.
“You will have to speak French,” she had warned. “Nobody will understand you if you don’t speak French.”
I was just old enough to realise that not everything an adult said should be taken at face value. Even at the time it seemed to me that the idea that I was going to learn French was fanciful. There was no evidence that learning French or any foreign language was something I was ever going to do. No doubt my parents had their own reasons for sending me into this exile.
Whatever these reasons were I did not care. I was eleven and I immediately fell in love with Brussels, and Belgium.
Elsie and Gerard’s new home at 17 Avenue de Septembre was a tall brick-built house in a Flemish style. There were three high-ceilinged stories, a garage with cellars just below ground level, and a steep paved ramp down from the street. On sunny days an ice-cream van would park in the street and sell home-made ices, the most sought-after of which was ‘framboise’. We would beg Elsie for change to buy framboise ices and then Matthew and I would show off to other children in the street by playing the garage-rollerskate game.
The game involved skating fast up to the ramp at pavement level and then executing a tight turn and tipping down into the garage space. The challenge lay in the raised kerb at the bottom of the ramp: you had to career down, jump over the kerb in your skates, then level out at speed, hands outstretched to manage the dead stop at the far wall. If you failed the kerb jump you went straight over onto the floor, usually cracking your head on the concrete. Laura refused to play because the game was ‘stupid’, but that was fine because it meant I could use her roller skates. It meant I could be part of the life of Avenue de Septembre, Woluwe St Lambert, part of the house that looked like something Vermeer might have painted, part of a story that was unfolding in a way that was rich with difference.
But I never did learn much French. I learned a few phrases and ready-made sentences that I still use to this day. I learned a French accent – accents are easy for me, requiring an ear but no study, no effort, no possibility of failure. At the Brussels primary school I attended with Matthew and Laura I got by without language.
IT WAS the beginning of the autumn term and all the talk at the Woluwe primary school was of a place called Overijise (pronounced over-raise) which is a small town about ten miles from Brussels, just over the provincial border into the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium.
Matthew explained that every year one class would go to Overijise every day for two weeks, and this year it was the turn of our class. It was a kind of recreational retreat and it was said that it meant two weeks of swimming and games and no lessons.
Every morning the school bus would take us to Overijise and then nose its way through the town towards an industrial zone on the outskirts, arriving at a place that looked something like a barracks or a young offenders’ institution. There were gymnasia and running tracks, and beyond the high wire fence there were vineyards where the grapes were hanging in ripe bunches. There was also a large assembly hall which doubled as a refectory for lunch. But before lunch there would be exercises and races.
Our form teacher had a special challenge for us all. This involved running a race around a small oval track but with the variation that the race had to be run while using a hula-hoop. It is not possible to run with a hula-hoop around your waist but you can run and simultaneously revolve the hula hoop on your forearm. At least, Monsieur Blanchard could do this.
Monsieur Blanchard was a wiry man with slicked-back hair who always wore tinted sunglasses. In normal school lessons he would move slowly, like a sort of forest predator, pacing up and down the rows of desks, turning the pages of pupils’ notebooks with an air of almost tragic disappointment.
At Overijise it was different. Perhaps Monsieur Blanchard was affected by the change of air. Perhaps the journey into Flanders and the sound of Flemish voices released something normally buried deep in his personality. Whatever the cause, once on the track Monsieur Blanchard was a man unleashed. He raced around the oval in his undervest – still wearing his tinted glasses – twirling the hula-hoop with something close to abandon, whistling and calling out for everyone to “Regardez!”
Then the task of emulating Monsieur Blanchard was left to us. But nobody could emulate Monsieur Blanchard. He was the king of the hula-hoop race and his subjects could only look on his works and despair.
On most days the organised games were abandoned before lunch and then we were led a short way down the road to the lake where there was an artificial beach and a designated swimming area. There we were left alone while the teachers sat in the café where they drank coffee and pastis served in bullet-like glasses.
The beach was grey, the tideless water never rising over the dirty sand. The lake was grey, stretching away into a colourless horizon.
There was something about this lake and its impersonal environs that seemed to release things pent up. We would lie on the grey sand and I would talk in English to Matthew while the Belgian boys gathered around and tried to communicate despite my almost zero grasp of the French language. Sometimes some of the girls from our school would sit near us. There was one girl, small with wispy short blonde hair, who showed particular signs of being keen to communicate, if not in words then in glances.
Perhaps I threw a pebble in her direction. Perhaps she threw it back. I don’t recall. Memory has discarded those details and left behind only the mood and inexplicable force of longing.
Then we would swim in the grey water. There was an area allocated for swimming, with ropes and floats marking the boundary. The lake had the property of being very small but seeming infinitely large; I asked Matthew why we were restricted to this small segment of water.
“Sharks,” he said.
And then we would return to the institution and take our lunch.
The food at Overijise was delicious. Several middle-aged women who might well have walked straight out of a peasant scene as painted by a minor Dutch master would serve us fat slices of aromatic ham with Belgian fries (so much better than any other version) and huge damp leaves of lettuce and sprigs of endive, to be washed down with fresh grape juice. I just accepted that this was how life was now, and that my former life had been exchanged for something different. I always asked for more and more was always available. Here food was considered a human right.
On the last day at Overijise all the pupils were given a large bunch of grapes from the vineyard to take home, in a brown paper bag. The grapes were very ripe.
As we crowded to get on the bus that would take us back to Woluwe St Lambert and the resumption of school someone seemed to push me from behind. I stumbled forward to collide with the small blonde girl and as I tried to stop my bag of grapes slipping to the floor I stepped on her foot.
This was cue for tears and a wave of scandalisation among the other girls who led the blonde girl away as she dabbed her eyes. I sat down next to Matthew. He looked at me and slowly shook his head.
“You’ve done it. You’ve done it now.”
“Tu as des problèmes.”
As he spoke these words in French I realised I had been abandoned.
The bus arrived at the school gates. Most of the pupils had parents waiting, but we walked. By this time my paper bag was beyond salvation so I abandoned it and carried the partly crushed grapes in my cupped hands. The sun was still hot and the juice ran down my arm and dried to a sticky treacle.
A car swerved in front of us and mounted the pavement. A man got out, came up to me and began to jab his finger. This was the father of the blonde girl who was looking through the back window with a blank expression. If I had acquired any French at all, at that moment I forgot it and said in English “I’m English. I don’t speak French. I’m English.”
The blonde girl’s father was in a state of fury. He harangued me in French at the top of his voice, occasionally turning around to address the empty street, then back for more finger jabbing and more abuse. Meanwhile the crushed bunch of grapes in my hands continued to run with juice which now seemed to be making its way on to everything I was wearing.
The harangue continued until it stopped, when the blonde girl’s father spat on the pavement and got back into the car slamming the door. They drove off, leaving a haze of blue exhaust.
I looked at Matthew, who shrugged. “C’est finis,” he said.
We waited for a moment or two, as if it would somehow be impolite not to watch the car disappearing down the long road. I continued to hold the grapes in front of me. Methodically the thick red juice dripped on to my socks and shoes.
WE RESUMED school. I continued to make half-hearted attempts to study French although the language seemed to me a wall without footholds, a barrier that could not be scaled. I wondered how anyone ever got to the top of the wall and into the boscage beyond.
But in truth I did not try very hard. I was not really studying French because I had other more urgent things to study, such as Elsie’s records which were kept in a metal holder like a toast rack that sat on a table next to the Hacker portable record player. No doubt there were many LPs in the collection but the one that even today still conjures my life as a child in Brussels was an album by the California rock group who called themselves Love.
At first Forever Changes was just a record that I had never seen before and that happened to be in the rack. But it also became something that entered my mind and imagination as if known even before one had known it, something that had always been and always would be.
Although I have listened to Forever Changes hundreds, even thousands of times in later life no amount of repetition erases the first impression. Any one of the eleven songs will still relight the morning sun streaming into the upper ground floor of the house in Avenue de Septembre, the limitless grid of the city extending in every direction, the smell of new bread coming from the kitchen. “Oh yes!” Elsie would call. “Let’s have Forever Changes!”
What I did not grasp at the time is that the album with its sunny melodies and high key orchestrations is actually a scrapbook of depression and cynicism. Perhaps there was a suspicion of some shadow beneath the light. The cover photograph is a strong hint: it shows the creator of almost all of the music, Arthur Lee, dressed like a bedraggled refugee and holding a vase containing dead flowers, a vase that has been broken into two pieces. Perhaps that is why Elsie liked it.
I see now that Elsie was a woman out of place. There was the salt of the north-east of England in her voice, even in her fluent French when she first took me to the Woluwe primary school and talked the head teacher into accepting me as a temporary pupil, no refusals accepted.
Elsie had a halo of wild reddish hair and big liquid eyes. When we returned from school she would often be sitting alone at the kitchen table, smoking in front of a full ashtray.
But then Elsie would climb out of her dream state, and there would be tea. The after-school hours were our own, and in Belgium homework was completely unknown. We could put Forever Changes on the turntable as many times as we liked. Sometimes Gerard would come home bringing samples of new technologies from the Monsanto chemicals company where he worked such as artificial food aromas in glass vials, or on another occasion a super-strong soft plastic material that he told us was the secret ingredient in bullet-proof glass.
This was the long summer of 1968 ending in a final rush of heat and sunlight. I knew I was supposed to return to England soon although when that would be remained a mystery. And then suddenly Gerard announced that we would take “a little vacation”.
The little vacation was exactly that – a two-day trip over the border into Holland. In my ignorance about everything around me I had no idea where Holland was, although Gerard’s briefing was that it would take “a few hours roughly” to get there.
And where would we stay the night?
“Oh, we don’t stay anywhere,” said Gerard. “We just sleep in the car.”
THE CAR was Gerard’s black Mercedes, a vehicle that seemed to be about a century old and as big as a barn. It smelled of leather and cigarettes.
The five of us loaded ourselves into the saloon – along with packages of Elsie’s sandwiches filled with saucisson or with Belgian jam which was nothing like the pasty English jam, and waffles from the bakery, and bottles of juice and wine, and biscuits and cheese.
We set off north for the E19 interstate and soon the Mercedes was sailing down the straight roads that led to Holland. Then we passed Antwerp and the roads became smaller.
In the afternoon we turned west and drove through the long Low Country peninsula that protrudes for miles into the North Sea, through towns with names such as Stationsburt and Middelburg, down roads flanked by Lego-like houses that all looked as if they had been built just the week before.
We sped on through this bloodless landscape. The very emptiness was of a sort that made you look behind, as if followed. Then the sun began to dip and we arrived at our destination which was the coast resort of Westkapelle.
Gerard parked the Mercedes just inside the levee that protects this coast and the low land behind it. We all got out of the car and walked on the table-flat beaches beyond the beach huts, and paddled in the shallow sea, and used up the time until it began to grow dark when Elsie broke out the packed dinner which we ate on the bonnet of the car while Elsie and Gerard drank wine and smoked cigarettes.
Gerard went to buy more cigarettes. With Matthew I explored the beach huts on the seaward side of the levee. At intervals there were wooden steps up the bank, but mostly we slid down on the sand, and then climbed back up, and then slid down again.
After a while I noticed I was alone. I called to Matthew but the sand seemed to deaden all sound. I looked behind the beach huts that stretched for miles in each direction but I was still alone. By this time it was quite dark with only the glow of street lights coming from the distant resort and the faint sound of waves stroking the sand.
Only, I was not alone. As I stood in the wider gap between two beach huts below one of the ladder-like wooden steps I saw that there was a bulky figure standing on the levee, looking down at me.
“Hello,” I said.
And then added my standard conversational gambit while abroad: “I’m English”.
The figure did not move.
I turned and walked in the shelter of the beach houses. I walked until I came to the next opening with steps up to the levee and stood on the bottom step. Above me the figure appeared from behind the huts and again stood watching me.
I turned to look at the sea. It was a distance away, hard to judge in the near darkness. I walked towards the sea, and then ran, the sand catching at my feet, the world seeming to become ever larger and my place in it ever smaller.
At the tideline there were waves although they heaved so slowly it was as if the water was merely breathing. It was slightly luminous out here in the cooler air, the sea drawing all the light towards it. I turned and saw that the figure on the levee was now following me down to the water’s edge.
Then I began to walk along the waterline, as if I had nothing better to do. I could see the outline of the beach huts and the sodium glow behind them.
The figure from the levee drew closer. By some effect of the weak light the person following me seemed to be becoming bigger and closer and ever more shapeless until it seemed like the substance of something that had been following me for all the years I had been alive.
And I recall – now, not then – that as a small child I often grappled with something that I could never have put into words. It was a vision that seemed to be about the bigness and smallness of things, the smallness yet immense significance of everything. At home I would lie in bed with these images revolving in my mind as I ran my finger along the stitched edge of a blanket that I was very attached to, each stitch shaping a cell of softness and warmth between the thick threads.
On the beach at Westkapelle I looked out at the sea and then turned with my back to the water. There was nowhere else to go.
The figure was not there. I looked all around me. I was alone, at the edge of the ocean.
Later when I had climbed the steps to the top of the levee I looked down and saw the Mercedes directly below, its interior light glowing. Everyone was in the car. Elsie was shaking out a blanket and Gerard was smoking with his feet propped up on the open door.
Apparently I had not been missed.
When I awoke the next morning Gerard was doing his exercises outside the car – squats and stretches, accomplished with the help of a cigarette – in his underpants and singlet.
“Hup!” he said with every repetition.
Our breakfast was what was left of the previous night’s supper and coffee that Gerard got from somewhere. Then we set off in the stringy grey light and I fell asleep again immediately as the car headed back southwards towards Brussels through the warm of early autumn.
At some point we began to wake up, and then we sang the Beatles songs we had learned from Elsie’s record collection, and of course we sang our versions of songs from Forever Changes. Then the heat suddenly gave way to the coolness of the sinister woodlands that surround the Belgian capital.
We passed the Zavantem intersection to the east of Brussels and saw the turn for Tervuren where once we had all visited the Africa Museum in the woods with its display of stuffed monkeys in a special room, the Salle Des Singes. That was when Matthew had warned me with great emotion to “never go to the Congo”. I promised that I would never go to the Congo – indeed I had no plans to do so, not knowing where or what the Congo was – although in later life I broke that promise.
In Avenue de Septembre we went to our beds early and slept so deeply that everyone was late the next morning, late for work and late for school. Being late was the most significant crime that could be committed in the Woluwe St Lambert primary school – for example the incident with the blonde girl and her father was never mentioned, proving as impactless as a summer storm – but for being late we were subjected to harsh words from Monsieur Blanchard, the meaning of which needless to say I was entirely ignorant. I did notice that Monsieur Blanchard was aware of this ignorance, and strangely it seemed to gratify him.
I THOUGHT again of Forever Changes on the day twenty years later when in mid-December someone knocked on the door of my parents’ house in a market town in Suffolk. I just happened to be visiting.
I opened the door. It was Elsie.
We had not heard from her for years, although we knew that there had been a divorce. How she had found the address or got to this obscure English town was not revealed.
Elsie sat at the kitchen table, wrapped in an oversized coat although the Rayburn behind her was belting out winter heat. She was recognisable, but only just. Her eyes were sunk in the sockets. Her hair was thin and dirty. She kept looking down at her mug of tea as if it was someone she did not recognise although she knew she ought to.
“Elsie, don’t you remember?” I wanted to ask. Don’t you remember the garage-rollerskate game? Don’t you remember the tartines you used to make and wrap in waxed paper for our walk to school? Don’t you remember when we went to the fair and won a live songbird in a cardboard box?
Don’t you remember Forever Changes?
But I did not ask any questions. At no point did Elsie meet my eye and I think she did not know me. My mother gamely tried conversational openings but Elsie did not respond. Instead she began a long and insistent story of her own about how somebody – perhaps Gerard – was working with certain associates to capture her and have her put away somewhere, about how these people had eyes everywhere, and followed her whenever they could, and had been following her today, and were here even now, in Suffolk, in the Old Market, waiting for her to make a false move.
Suddenly Elsie stood up. My mother offered her a bed, or a lift to somewhere. Elsie refused all offers and rebuttoned her coat. In a moment she was at the door. We did not discover where she went or where she lived, and we never saw her or heard from her again.
The story of the album title – Forever Changes – is possibly apocryphal but it is the kind of story that news editors call too good to check. The story is that one of the band members had a girlfriend who ended their affair.
“But you said you would love me forever!”
“Well,” she said. “Forever changes.”