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.
19 thoughts on “A Mysterious Man in the Waiting-Room”
Wonderful story Joe.
We were in the same class as twelve year olds and did folk dancing together, but at that age it you did not associate with the opposite sex not that you did not notice them.
I remember reuniting with Rod as a senior student at a rather boozy party – well I was not drunk. Rod remembered me and gave me a very passionate kiss. We never looked back.
Our virus control seems to be going a bit better than UK. No new cases in the South for nearly a week. The government is easing up next week but not for over 65 year olds.
Dear Heather, I expect most couples will remember their first meeting; it is my very risky behaviour that is so indelibly fixed in my mind. Yes, New Zealander’s are lucky – the virus is causing havoc here. Love, Joe
It’s lovely to see the photographs Joe!
I have heard this story many times and I had visions of you looking like Fagin, but you look quite dapper and not too ‘tramp’ like; my memory of this story is that you dropped the violets into Rohan’s bag. I think Rohan was really brave to meet your family so soon after meeting you… it’s a true love story and writing your stories in this blog provides us an insight to your eccentric ways and allows us to share some special moments.
Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comment. The story is a family favourite and in the telling, versions might well vary. The current blog best fits our memories at the moment. I suspect it was Rohan’s thoughtful braveness that was actually one of the things that attracted me to her when we first met. Love, Joe
I remember Rohan telling me about the disguised event but I have an other memory that you probably don’t know about.
It was probably during your to an fro London Paris courtship
Rohan was living in rue Monge and I remember her in tears after you had to go back and I remember thinking That must be the one!
Dear Sauliac, Thanks for your comment. Every six weeks or so we would take it in turns to cross the channel. I think we both felt tearful when we parted. Love, Joe
What an amazing story. It could be part of a rom-com film. I’m reading biography of George Orwell at the moment – he liked to dress as a tramp. You look quite a smart one!
What a romantic – lovely story. I have to say when I saw the photo I thought how smart you looked – and of course how beautiful Rohan was as she still is today.
Looking forward to our daily tea party !!
Dear Kaye, Thank you for your kind comments. It was Rohan’s looks that first attracted me, but it was her mind that made all the difference. I had never met anybody like her before. Smart or not, Rohan saw me very much as a tramp when I entered the waiting-room. See you for our distanced Avenue tea . Yours, Joe
Hi Joe, lovely story! In fact I had that story from one of my interviewees for the Patience book, Kenny Lintott: here is what he said – from my notes – KL remembers disguising Joe to better enable him to propose to Rohan! Was at dinner at no 23 when P said Joe had met someone of whom P approved and with whom he might settle down, but didn’t know how to propose. P had the idea that he should disguise himself and got K to transform him. They met in P’s bedroom to work it out. K transformed him into a kind of middle European traveller/tinker, aged him with a beard/moustache – and at some social occasion, he fell on his knees to R… Kenneth Lintott was one of the finest make-up artists of the RSC and later of many hit films too. Very nice chap who lives, as I recall near the river at Twickenham, I think.
Love to you both, Vanessa
Dear Vanessa, Thank you so much for these extra insights. It was, as you rightly say, Kenny Lintott who did my transformation. His memory that I would become a middle-European traveller fits the picture well. As to the role of my mother as instigator and my request for help in proposing both rely heavily on poetic licence – not uncommon in the theatrical world!
Kenny came to our wedding and whenever we have met since I have thanked him warmly.
Thanks again, Love, Joe
Dear Joe, what an amazing story. These could be scenes from a rom-com film. Your look is less tramp, more European traveller, which I’m sure would have been more appealing to the lovely young Rohan!
Dear Andrea, Thank you for your comment. How very perceptive of you. If you read the comment by Vanessa, a European traveller was exactly the image Kenny Lintott, the makeup wizard had in mind. Love, Joe
Really enjoyed your latest blog Joe! Cheers, Mark
Dear Mark, Many thanks for your kind comment – your first of many perhaps. Yours, Joe
Just a thought Joe, I think of you as an funny, eccentric, mysterious and wonderful man… so I think your ‘tramp’ photo could be the photo you use on this blog!
Dear Carolyn, Now that is a real challenge but it does not sit easily with me. Love, Joe
As others have remarked – what an elegant tramp! Is that an Old Harrovian tie? And how beautiful Rohan is, and still is. And the violets were the ace card – no dreary old roses. So glad the trick worked…
Dear Merrily, You will have to ask the Royal Shakespeare Company about the origin of the tie. I agree with you about Rohan; am not sure about role of the violets; I am more than glad that the trick worked. Love, Joe