In fact if I studied anything during these months it was the popular counter-culture of England and America that was then penetrating even the shuttered middle class living rooms of suburban Brussels. For Elsie had acquired LP records that were unknown to me at home, and that opened doors of perception where previously there had just been more unscalable walls.
The records were kept in a metal holder like a toast rack, on a table overlooking the tall windows that gave on to the street, and next to the Hacker portable record player. No doubt there were many LPs in the collection, but the one piece of music that still conjures my life as a child in Brussels was an album by the California rock group who called themselves Love.
The very presence of this record in our front room was remarkable. The album Forever Changes had been released in America late in the previous year, selling few copies and immediately descending into an obscurity where it would remain for a decade or more until its eventual resurrection as an almost sacred work of popular art. For me it was just a record that I had never seen before and that happened to be in the rack. But it entered my mind and imagination instantaneously as something known even before one had known it, something that had always been and always would be.
All music attaches itself to past experience in the mind of the listener, like an adhesive fixing the free elements of a certain moment. 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 conjure a flood of morning sunlight streaming into the upper ground floor of the house in Avenue de Septembre, the limitless map of the city extending in every direction, the smell of new bread coming from the kitchen. “Oh yes! Let’s have Forever Changes!” Elsie would call as she swept into the room.
What I did not grasp at the time is that the lyrics of the album are actually a scrapbook of depression and cynicism. Perhaps there was a suspicion – 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 a tang of the north-east of England in her voice, even in her fluent French when she took me to the Woluwe primary school and talked the head teacher into accepting me as a temporary student, no refusals accepted.
Elsie had a halo of wiry reddish hair and big sensual liquid eyes. When we returned from school she would often be sitting alone at the kitchen table, smoking in front of a full ashtray.
Then Elsie would snap out of her dream state, and there would be tea, and sometimes errands to run. 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 used as the secret ingredient in bullet-proof glass.
The long summer of 1968 was ending in a final rush of heat and sunlight. I knew I was supposed to return to England soon, although I did not know exactly when that would be and I don’t think anyone else knew – we were awaiting instructions. 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.”