But as we drove back from our outing to Westkapella and followed the signs for Brussels we began to wake up. 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.
We passed the Zavantem intersection to the east of Brussels and saw the turn for Tervuren, where we had 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 had 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 very 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, helping to clear the last of my late grandparents’ effects that had survived their several moves after leaving the house in Leigh.
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 the house was not revealed.
Elsie sat at our 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 that little girl who visited one day and who would only drink Coca-Cola and who was said to have no teeth? 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 recognise me. My mother gamely tried conversational openings, but Elsie did not respond. Instead Elsie 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 even here 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 buttoned 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 what news editors call the kind of story that is 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.”