OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
EMBROIDERED CLOTHS: First Act
"I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."
From "He wishes for the cloths of heaven" by William Butler Yeats (1899).
The little boy sat alone in the big black Jaguar saloon car parked on the gravel in front of the great house. He was just 5 years old and impatient because his father's absence seemed interminable. As the local consultant surgeon, his father was frequently asked by local GPs to visit special patients to help in deciding diagnosis and treatment. The little boy loved to roam the countryside sitting beside his father in the big car and today something very special had been promised. Most often these outings involved visits to poor farmhouses in the more remote and desolate parts of southeastern County Derry. But this time the patient was one of the local aristocrats, Lord Charlemont, who lived in a great mansion atop a hill on his Drumcairne estate in northeastern County Tyrone, not far from the village of Stewartstown. His estate stretched away for miles, allowing a spectacular view of the great lake, Lough Neagh, just a couple of miles to the east.
The little girl at Drumcairne. With Mum and Dad.
The little boy retained almost no memory of that special day. In fact he would have no memory whatsoever, were it not for the fact that he was fascinated by model railways. And Lord Charlemont had built a spectacular model railway in a Quonset hut near his great house. After the medical consultations were completed, his father and Lord Charlemont emerged from the great house and led the little boy to the Quonset hut for that very special treat. Years later all he could recall, apart from the thrill of seeing the train trundle around the track, was the section of track across the doorway that could be lifted to allow passage into the hut. For many years the memory of that model railway stayed with the little boy (though he did not remember where it was located) and many times he strove to reproduce it. There is little doubt that his visit to Lord Charlemont's railway strengthened an emerging interest in things mechanical, an interest that formed his later career as a professor of mechanical engineering.
But that was the lesser of the two important things that happened that day. Though the little boy's memory of the day is slight, another person remembers it very clearly indeed. Hiding in the bushes near the great house was a little girl, curious about what was going on. She had been on one of her regular visits to the great house to have tea with Lord Charlemont and had been sent home early because "the doctor was coming". Home was a cottage behind the great house called Green Cottage where she and her mother lived while her father was off fighting in the Second World War. Lord Charlemont was childless and had been enchanted by this lively and intelligent little girl whose company brightened his life. They had struck up an unusual friendship, the great lord who, before retirement, had served as Minister of Education for Northern Ireland and the little girl who loved to explore his house and gardens. He had lost two wives, one to an early illness and the other to the London blitz; she was waiting for her daddy to come home from the war. And so she received regular invitations to tea, properly typed on the Lord's own stationery. Sometimes she behaved and listened to the stories of the china tea set that belonged to Napoleon or of the island in Lough Neagh where all his ancestors were buried. At other times her childish enthusiasm overflowed as when she "played" the grand piano too violently or when she toppled one of the garden statues into the adjacent pond.
Indeed, she was beginning to feel at home in the great house and so, on that day when sent summarily home, she was a little resentful and very curious. Instead of going straight home, she hid in the bushes in order to try to find out what was happening. She could see the little boy in the big black car though he did not see her. Starved for the company of other children, she would have liked to meet that little boy. But the doctor and the Lord emerged from the house and she had to hasten home. Thirteen years later she would finally meet that little boy and sixty years later, after forty years of marriage, the little boy and the little girl would still smile when they recalled their first encounter.
Flash forward those thirteen years, to a day in 1960 when the long economic aftermath of the Second World War finally seemed to be over and the teenagers of the day were breaking with the past, in their activities, their music, their broadening perspectives and their independence. The little boy was now a stylish high school senior assured of a place in university for the coming fall and enjoying the interlude of leisure before his departure to a new, albeit temporary, home. It was a time when the Saturday night dances in the town halls and sometimes in the high schools formed the focus of youthful social life. The high school dances were much safer and normally chaperoned; the town hall dances could be rough and occasionally violent. Both involved young people jivving to the latest rock and roll music, sometimes from records but often from live bands. If you were really cool you had a girlfriend, a driver's license and a car in which to take your girlfriend to the Saturday night dance. The boy had not quite managed this. He did have a driver's license and even a beat-up old Ford. But, despite several high school romances, on the night of the story he did not have a girl. Though he had yet to accept the fact, his latest "romance" was already over for the girl had found greater attraction elsewhere. Indeed, on this night he and a male friend were touring the dance halls trying to find where she was and with whom. They had depressingly little success. Finally, in desperation, they decided to check out the Cookstown High School dance.
The little girl had matured into a stunningly beautiful young woman with luminescent blue eyes, and still with the liveliness and charm that had captivated the old Lord. But she was carefully chaperoned by her watchful parents. On the night of the story, she and two of her friends had been delivered to the Cookstown High School dance by her father. There, with the approval of their parents, they met with several male peers from their hometown of Dungannon. Her uncle Bobbie would collect them from the dance at 10.00pm sharp. Till then they could enjoy their friends and the music. The now-mature little girl was having fun twirling and swinging to the music, her fashionable dress flaring out all around her and her necklace of beads clicking as she swirled. Not completely preoccupied however; between numbers she did notice the boy who came through the doorway, dressed fashionably in a black shirt and jeans, a three-quarter length trench coat hanging casually from his shoulders, the collar turned up. But soon the music began again and she lost sight of the boy.
Despite his preoccupation, the whirling dervish had caught the eye of the trench-coated boy and he had moved to a seat nearby to take a closer look. She whirled by several times and he was entranced by the blue eyes and the smile. She seemed so much fun, so different from the dour girl who had abandoned him. And the young man she was with seemed to be more an acquaintance than a boyfriend. She swirled by again. Suddenly the bead necklace broke and glass beads were bouncing everywhere at his feet and under his chair. Dismayed, the girl stopped and tried to recovered the far-flung beads. The boy stooped to help and, in doing so caught the eye of the girl, now close to tears over the scattered necklace; clearly they meant much to her (her father had brought them from North Africa at the end of the war). As their eyes met, the boy connected with the girl in that moment of loss. But soon the crowd closed in, the music lurched and they lost contact with each other. Minutes passed before he caught sight of her again, standing by the door with a gray-haired man. And seconds later she was gone. By the time he got outside there was no sign of her. It had all flashed by so suddenly and so unexpectedly that he had not had time to absorb what had happened. Though his mind returned to his previous, hopeless quest for a lost girlfriend, the image of the whirling dervish and the flying beads kept flashing back through his mind - and continued to do so in the weeks and months that followed. He had no clue who she was or where she came from - and could think of no way to find out. Regret crept over him as he began to feel the full impact of the lost opportunity - regret that he had found no way to speak with her, no way to find her again.
Months later the girl had sought and received permission from her parents to take a summer job in a bakery shop in Portrush, a summer resort on the north coast of Ulster. Those were the days before foreign travel was within either the financial or conceptual scope of the young people of Northern Ireland. Instead they gathered in one of a handful of summer resorts like Portrush where they could enjoy the company of their peers under a little less supervision than pertained the rest of the year. In these northern latitudes, the sun does not set until well into the evening and it was during these twilight hours that the teenagers congregated along the main street of Portrush, walking up and down its length, promenading for their friends and peers. Here was a rare opportunity to meet a girl or boy from a different village or town. Rather than going with the crowd, maybe you could even find a special date that you could take to the dancehall by the beach. Called the Arcadia, the dancehall was the center of social life after dark when it teemed with jivving teenagers. Each evening after work in the bakery shop, the girl and her friends would dress in the most fashionable outfit they could find (often borrowing from their friends). Then they would spend the early evening alternating between strolls along the main street and visits to one of the many amusement arcades or to Forte's, the fashionable ice-cream parlour. This evening, she and her friends were bound for the Arcadia, but somehow she had been left behind and found herself walking along the main street all alone.
Though still a lost soul the boy was closer to accepting the need to start afresh. Only weeks remained before he would travel across the Irish Sea to begin university life in a very different culture. During the summer he had been unable to find any female companionship. Portrush seemed full of pretty girls but none that he found attractive showed the slightest interest in him. The one date he had managed to arrange had ended in disaster, when the girl mistook his intentions during a walk in the sandhills and ran away, telling her friends about this dangerous young man. Moreover, the boy had not quite given up hope of rekindling the old flame that still haunted him. He had seen her here in Portrush but, in his saner moments, he knew it was a hiding to nowhere, and he had avoided approaching her. This evening, he and his mate, fat Willy, decided to stroll the main street with a mission. When they saw an attractive girl approaching, they would pretend that they recognized her as an old friend and say with gusto, "Oh hello! How nice to see you again. Don't you remember, that great party....". If done with sufficient enthusiasm, this ploy might create an opportunity to engage the girl in conversation. At least that was the theory. In practice, when deployed the first few times, this strategy proved a complete failure and elicited only laughter. Still, it seemed worth another shot. Looking ahead of him, the boy suddenly caught sight of a beautiful young girl, walking alone toward him wearing a bright turquoise summer dress. She seemed distracted, perhaps looking for a friend. The boy's heart jumped but he suppressed his nervousness for one last try. "Oh hello! How are you. Nice to see you again..." She stopped and turned to look, expecting to know him, more trusting than the rest. "Hello.." she said hesitantly. Their eyes met. But belatedly recognizing her mistake, she soon turned and was on her way again. The boy stared after her, suddenly remembering a whirling dervish and flying beads. This time he need not chase her for he knew he could find her again. And perhaps be introduced to her in a more honest way.
That night and the next day his mind was consumed with a turquoise dress and luminescent blue eyes. His whole attitude had changed. He was no longer the shiftless boy of the preceding days and weeks, but a young man determined on a mission. Early the next evening he was out on the main street trying his best not to appear intent, while all his considerable powers of observation were trained to find her, to find a way to meet her. Then, as sometimes happened, a group of teenagers began a harmless and amusing diversion, in this case a chaotic search for "Milligan". A few may have been genuinely seeking a friend by that name, but the majority joined in just for fun and were having a great time running in and out of the ice-cream parlours and amusement arcades "looking for Milligan". The boy joined in and soon spotted the girl involved in the same high-jinks. Even better, he faintly recognized one of the young men that she seemed to know. As the chaos subsided and the young people broke into groups to catch their breath, the boy managed to fall into conversation with the girl's acquaintance. Suddenly, they were standing together, the girl and the boy. The first words were spoken though words rarely mean much in these circumstances. Their eyes met and their faces and their body language conveyed a mutual interest, perhaps even a chemistry of attraction. At least it was enough to want to meet again. But it was time for her to go for she and her friends were bound by a curfew imposed by their watchful employer. Trying desperately not to screw up again, the boy hesistantly and uncertainly mumbled a wish to see her again the following evening and she seemed to acquiese. Then she was gone. But now he knew her, her name and her spirit.
Even forty years later their memory of that moment would seem to both of them as fresh as if it were yesterday. He could picture her in her black sweater and grey slacks, standing in front of him as the neon lights of the amusement arcade across the street flashed through her hair. He could still feel the gentleness of her smile and the serenity of her composure. She wasn't like any other girl he had ever known or seen. She seemed to be both innocent and yet all-knowing. Most of all she seemed as beautiful on the inside as she was on the surface. He walked home completely gob-smacked, his mind in turmoil. For her part, the girl could picture the boy standing in the shadows on the sidewalk in front of her, his deep brown eyes conveying a serious interest in her. She did not know what to make of this intense young man that her friends had told her was "dangerous". She sensed that he was much kinder than that reputation or the cool exterior might suggest. At the very least she was intrigued by the flashing intelligence coupled with the friendly face. But she was very uncertain about what arrangement, if any, there was for the next evening.
Both approached the following evening with intense excitement coupled with a fear that the other would have lost interest or been visited by second thoughts. To support him at this critical moment, the boy leaned not only on Willy, his co-conspirator of a previous evening, but also on his brothers, Michael and Colin, as well as Michael's girlfriend Lesley. He persuaded them all to accompany him to the ice cream parlour ahead of the appointed time. Once they were all seated, he tried hard to appear nonchalant while watching intently for her possible arrival. The appointed time came and went and a dull ache began to invade him. Then, suddenly, he could see her through the large plate glass window. And she saw him. She stopped and turned to speak with her friend. And then his heart lept as she came through the door alone and walked over to his table. He rushed to his feet to try to reciprocate the brave commitment she had just made. Nervously and quickly, he introduced Willy and his family though now he wanted rid of them all as quickly as possible. But before he could manage this, there occurred one of those incongruous things that sometimes happen when people are nervous. In a gesture quite uncharacteristic of his usual quiet demeanour, Michael inquired of the girl "Do you have a handle to your jug?" It was something they would always remember, a slightly bizarre introduction to his family. But the boy was determined and he quickly ushered the girl out into the main street.
And so began hours and days and weeks during which they spent every possible moment together, getting know each other, falling in love though they may not have known that. They walked all the streets and beaches and sand dunes. They danced to the music in the Arcadia hardly recognizing that anyone else was there. They even played bingo for the one and only time in their lives. In his beat-up old Ford, they took trips along the coast, where he delighted in showing her many of the quiet little fishing villages that she had never visited. Usually those trips were taken in his old Ford that had to be parked at the top of a hill so that he could freewheel downhill to start it. But occasionally he was able to borrow his mother's car and then they would venture further afield. On Sunday, when she had the whole day off, he took her to the house along the coast that his parents owned and where he was spending the summer. It was their second, holiday home. There she met his mother and father and began to recognize and to fear the social gulf that lay between them. But now, in the classless but temporary teenage world of Portrush, this gap did not matter.
They would remember many moments from those days, some more special than others. They would both savour the memory of the night when they went for a walk around Ramore Head, the bleak and windy headland beyond Portrush. She remembered that he would not stop talking. As they turned for home, chilled by the Atlantic wind, they took brief shelter behind an old harbour wall. There he took her inside his woolen coat and they first felt the warm flow of mutual physical affection. Walking on they stopped again at a seat on the rocks by the sea. It was a place called the Blue Pool where locals often put on exhibitions of diving. This evening it was deserted though the lights of main street were just a step away. Sitting there on the rocks, the boy first told the girl that he loved her. Nervously, she laughed at him and told him not to be ridiculous. But he knew and he was right.
* * *
At our wedding in Oxford on Jun.22, 1963
After the reception at the Bear Inn in Woodstock
Katharine Doreen Kerr and I were married on Jun.22, 1963, in the Registrar's Office in St.Giles, Oxford. It was a typical, rainy, summer day only brightened by the presence of both sets of parents, my brother Michael, a group of my college friends and most of all by that spectacularly beautiful woman who had agreed to become my wife. I remember being suddenly struck by the enormity of the moment when required to say "I do". It was a lifelong commitment but I had no doubts that I would love this women for the rest of my life. After the brief official ceremony, we drove in convoy to the storied village of Woodstock about 5 miles north of Oxford, to the Bear Inn just outside the walls of the famous Blenheim Palace, residence of the Duke of Malborough and the childhood home of Winston Churchill. There we had arranged a reception and wedding lunch thanks to the efforts of my college buddy, Colin Weatherley, who had been my best man at the ceremony. In the years that followed Doreen and I would often remember with glee the large quantity of champagne that was consumed at the Bear Inn and the antics of my college friends, determined to put on a show to mark the occasion. For me it was most marked by the loveliness of Doreen.
Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen