The Girl in the Shiny Boots

Richard Wollheim concludes his memoir

For as long as my parents still went on holiday together, which ended around my sixth or seventh year, there was nothing unusual in the fact that I should have been sent off with my nanny to stay in what was called a Board Residence in a seaside town on the South Coast. The first two or three weeks of the holiday were divided between long periods of routine and brief moments of terror, with, I am sure, some pleasure in the middle. I call the parts ‘pleasure’, ‘terror’ and ‘routine’ to mark the fact that for me in those years routine too was a kind of emotion. Pleasure erupted into my life when fine weather allowed me to arrive on the pier, and I was allowed to walk up and down the row of black and silver boxes, which were arranged along the broadwalk, until I chose the peepshow I wanted to see, and for this I was allowed to divert a penny from the buying of a comic. There were, I believe, peepshows for all tastes, and there might have been some that were unsuitable for children, but I did not spare a thought for them because I was interested solely in the historical dramas, and supreme among them was the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle. The momentous event, the inevitability of which was conveyed in a way that no history book could rival, unfolded in distinct tableaux, in the third and last of which Mary, who had already faced her accusers and said farewell to her ladies-in-waiting, was found kneeling with her neck on the block. At a signal from the man with the long auburn beard, who was the sovereign’s emissary, the masked executioner stepped forward, the axe rose and fell, and the head rolled. The great portcullis descended, and then there was a click, and the scene went dark. By the time the next person stepped up to the box, and another penny dropped, and the portcullis rose on the first tableau, the head was back on the young queen’s shoulders, and she was ready to meet her stern tormentors once again, to pit in vain her beauty and her freshness against their heavy, grown-up authority. Sometimes, amid the protests of my nanny (‘Isn’t it a waste of money?’; ‘Isn’t there something you’d rather spend your money on?’; ‘You won’t be able to sleep tonight’), I would insist on watching the drama a second time through, for I needed to know that Mary could have life restored to her, even if only to lose it again, and as pathetically. I deeply resented the presence of the holidaymakers standing behind me, looking over my shoulder, waiting for their turn, but I told myself that they could not take anything from me, because, while they were condemned to stay put among the crowd on the pier, eating ice-cream or candyfloss, breathing in the salt air, listening to the waves lapping at the metal struts below, wrapped in noisy laughter, I could, through the power of concentration, slip out of the present and escape back down the centuries to the scene of death and a woman’s courage. Such experiences were what I meant by a holiday.

I try now, through the mists of time, to make out the precise tugs of sympathy that the death scene of Mary, Queen of Scots, animated within me. As far as the central drama was concerned, I was wholly on the side of Mary, and wholly against Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a recurrent figure of loathing, occupying a place in my historical animosities on a par with that later to be filled by Churchill. I had my reasons. First, she was a patriot. Second, as I was to learn from various novels, she was an enemy of love, and she oppressed it and its faithful devotees whenever she could: one victim of her destructive rage was the impetuous Essex, another Amy Robsart, who was later to become a favourite of mine. But, worst of all, there was the permanent imputation, never properly laid to rest, that the Virgin Queen was a man. But, if between Mary and Elizabeth my loyalties were clear enough, and if, as far as Mary herself was concerned, it was my deepest loyalties that were engaged, what to think about the executioner caused me great turmoil. It was easy to think of him as the agent of badness, and there was some strand in my religious thinking that led me to entertain such thoughts only too readily. But I did not like this harsh way of thinking and, in this particular case, I saw the man who wielded the axe as himself a victim, a victim indeed of that fate which claimed the young queen as another victim. And that he should live to see another day, whereas she could not, was not so obvious an advantage since, as every new penny proved, the day that he lived to see was only another day on which he was obliged to take a life; and whether it was another life, or the same life another time, was immaterial.

Terror, for the most part held at bay during the hours of daylight by sheer forgetfulness, settled in as the daily routine wound down, and I had said my prayers and been settled into bed. Physically alone at last, I would be caught unawares by the sudden sight, through the net curtains, and over the slate roofs, of the stubby, grey gasometer, which, as summer progressed, grew larger and larger inside its metal frame. If it reached the top ring of the frame, it would, I had been assured in the car on the way down, explode, and, if it did, it would carry everything away with it: the little houses, and the corner shops with their supplies of comics and boiled sweets and cheap fishing-lines, and the giant cats who slept on the garden walls, and the men in overalls who walked the gangways of the frame, checking pressure gauges and tightening screws with gigantic spanners.

In 1943, when I was in the army, at an officer cadet training unit at Heysham, every Wednesday or Thursday night we would walk the two or three miles into Morecambe, and go to the dance in the Floral Hall. From about eight to midnight, several hundred men and women, nearly all in uniform, were packed in under a pink and gold dome, and wandered round in a haze, searching for a partner. I danced badly, and I was convinced that I alone of everyone under the great dome could think of nothing to say when the music stopped. I did not really like the routine of the dance floor. I was apprehensive of the greedy looks, given and taken, which served as introductions. It, the whole thing, was something for which I was too little prepared, and the trains of thought that ran through my mind in rapid succession amazed me with their absurdity. I never believed that any girl wanted me, but I was terrified of being entrapped. Desperate for the mere recognition of my existence, I felt that anyone I danced with completely owned me, both in her eyes and, for the duration of the dance, in my eyes, too. My feet were not free to dance as I would have liked them to, my mouth was not free to form the words I wanted to utter, my eyes were not my own to turn in whatever direction they were drawn. My only desire was to please the girl I was with, but, inside the body which my arm lightly, gently encircled, I could feel waves of scorn rising and crashing against the ribcage.

Looking back on those evenings, I find one thing that delighted me, and that was the sudden, poignant moment when a group of girls, fifteen or twenty of them, irritated either with the attention they had received or with the lack of it, fed up with the flirtatiousness that was first expected of them and then resented, banded together in a great anarchic ring. Girls of a 17th-century prettiness, and girls with dark, angry blotches spreading across their faces, and little nondescript girls levered out of their fathers’ corner-shops and now with corporals’ stripes on their sleeves, put their arms around each others’ waists, and swept round the floor in a large, defiant circle, kicking up their legs, their high, sing-song voices breaking out into a chorus of ‘Run, rabbit, run’, or ‘Hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line’, or ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag’, the cracked vowels rising up to the ceiling, and then, when they could bear it no longer, the conspicuousness, the isolation, the dependence on each other, they dissolved in laughter, and slowly merged back into the vast supply of complacent partners. And all the while I lived with this terrible premonition: that, were a girl in uniform, through what I recognised would have been an act of random kindness on her part, actually to have taken it on herself to initiate me into the pleasures of upright sexuality, fully dressed, one eye kept open for the military police, the cries of soldiers revelling in the distance, the rough salt air blowing off the Irish Sea, I would have responded by falling so desperately in love with her that, as likely as not, my feeble sense of what being a soldier required of me would have crumbled, and the next night, and the next night, and the night after that, would have seen me standing under her window, a common deserter, shouting out her name through my tears.

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