With the news about the Coronavirus pandemic so bleak and threatening, my mind returns repeatedly to thoughts about staying safe, about the welfare of family and friends and about the future of society at large. My wife, Rohan, and I talk together about all of these issues but, we also feel the need to reminisce. After over fifty years together, some events have become family folklore and the reminiscence in this blog (and there will be more such stories as confinement continues!) is about the day I dressed up in disguise in a venture that could so easily have gone wrong.
It was December 1965; I was a twenty-three year old medical student in London and Rohan a twenty-year old philosophy student at the Sorbonne in Paris. She was in London for a Christmas break and we had both been invited to a party given by mutual friends. Neither of us much liked partying and, to escape the hurly-burly in a darkened living room, we sought the calm of the kitchen. I was in a world of my own leaning against a cupboard nibbling crisps and the like. When I looked up, standing alone by the wall opposite was a most striking young woman. Our host appeared from nowhere and introduced us and, by the end of the evening I had fallen in love – Rohan ticked all my boxes. It was as quick as that!
Over the next week we had a Christmas Eve dinner together in the flat where she was staying, had Sunday lunch at my family home with my parents and some of their friends, and finally we went to Trafalgar Square where, holding hands we saw in the New Year.
All too soon Rohan was due to return to France and the prospect of never seeing her again felt dreadful – I feared that when she got home I would be forgotten and my dream would end. Something had to be done. Rohan had booked a seat for Paris on a bus leaving from London’s Victoria Coach Station. I discovered her departure time and decided to go and wave her goodbye. Then I had my idea. Surely she would not forget me if I arrived at the coach station waiting room in disguise, only to reveal my identity at the last moment.
I phoned my mother to tell her of my idea and to ask for help. To be convincingly disguised I would need the assistance of a professional and my mother, who at the time was an actress working with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), might be able to put me in touch with one of the company’s top make-up artists. At our family lunch Rohan had made a strong impression on my mother, who was now both encouraging and happy to do what she could. She was soon phoning the RSC’s make-up department and making the necessary arrangements – to become an old tramp would take an hour and I had to promise to sit still!
By late morning, a normally clean-shaven me left the Aldwych theatre with a pale and grubby complexion, smudged glasses, an unkempt beard and moustache, an ill-fitting hat and a shabby coat. I was also armed with a battered briefcase. Once outside it soon became clear that my new persona was ‘authentic’ – street people I passed on my way to the Coach Station gave me nods and even winks; I was now part of some brotherhood.
At the Coach Station, apart from Rohan, the waiting room was empty. I sat down on a bench opposite and was studiously ignored. As the room filled, I moved over to sit near her. When the announcement was made that the coach for Paris was ready for boarding I dipped into my suitcase, brought out a bunch of violets and presented them to her saying “They’re for you Miss McDougall” (Rohan’s maiden name). Being alone with a tramp had been worrying enough, hearing him speak her name “freaked her out” as she put it. Terrified that my venture was about to backfire I quickly took off my hat and glasses, explained who I was and apologised. In response, she relaxed, smiled, took the bouquet, thanked me and kissed me goodbye. For my part, as I waved her off I stood tearful and worried.
Rohan did not forget me and after an eighteen-month cross-channel courtship she moved to London and a year later we married. Interestingly, when we reminisce our feelings are very different. When I hear it I am reminded how awful it would have been if the prank had gone wrong such that my over fifty years with Rohan might never have happened. For Rohan, however, it is a reminder of how my eccentricity was the hook that drew her in.
Reminiscing with Rohan is the perfect remedy to the stress of living with the Coronavirus pandemic; roll on our next escape.
The illustration comes from a page in our family photo album; it shows me at Victoria Coach Station dressed as a tramp in Christmas 1965 and Rohan a few weeks later at her flat in Cachan, a suburb of Paris.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Vanessa. Rohan and Vivien.