A Day of Rare Beauty
1

It was a day of rare beauty.  The spring sun shone through the leaves of the trees on Whiteladies Road with a warming light and the blueness of the sky made it worthy of the attention of a watercolourist.  Ralph was not aware of these artistic possibilities but he knew that he was happy and if he had thought about it he would have recognised the contribution that the sunshine made to his positive state of mind.  But above all he was happy because of Madeleine Smith.  She was the prettiest girl in the school, or so many reliable and not so reliable judges thought, and she had kissed him.  He could still feel the thrill of the softness of her lips and every time he thought of her generous and imploring eyes he could not help but smile.  For Ralph the possibility of being kissed by Madeleine Smith was hardly to have been countenanced but when, in a stumbling way, he had asked her if she would like to walk home with him and she had readily agreed, a brief period of 'courtship' ensued which had climaxed last night in that kiss.

This 'courtship' would not be as surprising to the detached and wise observer as it was to Ralph.  Ralph was an intelligent and likeable boy, distinctly good-looking and an excellent sportsman.  He was by far the most talented footballer in the school team, although this was based on his ball skills rather than physical presence and so his ability was obscured in the rough and tumble of schoolboy football.  In fact, if I might be permitted to indulge some authorial omniscience, Ralph could have had a very respectable career as a professional footballer, but things never worked out that way and it was not really the kind of career that bright boys from middle-class families thought about pursuing.  So why then should not this quiet, intelligent and universally popular boy be chosen by one of the prettiest girls in the school, who had already become irritated at being groped at every available opportunity by the more sexually predatory of her male schoolmates?  Ralph was a very safe bet.  He would command respect from her friends but he would also respect her.  And, as chance would have it, they liked each other.  They had literature and an enjoyment of physical exertion in common, so it was not difficult for them to find each other enjoyable companions.  Which is not to say that everything was perfect.  Ralph sometimes thought that Madeleine dressed in a rather tarty manner which made him feel uneasy.  Madeleine also wished that, sometimes, Ralph would be more assertive, more sure of himself.  She was afraid, in a rather unfocused way, that he was not the kind of alpha male of which her successful and aspiring family would approve.  Yet also it was his very timidity that attracted her to him.  In fact the truth is her family thought very little about Ralph, it seemed to them that it was perfectly normal that the pretty 13-year-old youngest child of the family should have a boyfriend.  They didn't expect him to end up as their son-in-law but they instinctively sensed he would cause little trouble.

So it came to pass that in the past few weeks Ralph had become a familiar presence in the Smith household.  Madeleine came less often to Ralph's house, the confines of his small but respectable terraced house could not compete with the comfortable expenses of her detached house with an acre of garden.  Here they could find a quiet corner to read together, play tennis and in the seclusion of the orchard share the tender excitement of that lingering, unsettling kiss.

This, then was the reason that Ralph was walking down Whiteladies Road full of the joys of spring, and many other things beside.  The bustling road was busy with life, a gaggle of small boys pointed excitedly at the window of the toy shop, a steady stream of people trailed into the Baptist Church for a coffee morning and students freewheeled down the long slope of the hill from their halls of residence in Stoke Bishop.  Ralph had not come out for any particular reason but he felt the need to re-engage with the noise and vigour of a world that was beginning to impress itself upon his adolescent imagination.  He soaked up the atmosphere and the warm spring sunshine but also found himself paying attention to small details.  Pigeons deftly wobbling amongst the pedestrians pecking at anything that look like food.  The old man seated on the bench outside the church reading The Times with a practiced skill which made Ralph feel he had access to a wisdom which he could only hope to acquire after many years.  Ralph found himself examining the man carefully.  The deep lines on his face fascinated him and reminded him of a photograph of WH Auden whose poems he had started to read (even though he could barely understand one line in ten).  He loved the old man's flat brown cap and imagined himself wearing one and the dignity it would give to his young features.  Then he noticed the small white terrier who had slipped in unobtrusively under the bench where his master sat and immediately Ralph craved such a dog.  He began to think of a time when he would be older and how he could have a small terrier that would accompany him everywhere, obediently making himself scarce but also bounding off excitedly after the ball that he always kept in his pocket...

Ralph was started from his reverie by someone calling his name.  It was a female voice and close at hand but it had in it a note of query and surprise

"Your Ralph aren't you.  Madeleine's boyfriend"

Ralph looked at the voice and was startled by the young woman who addressed him.  Madeleine's boyfriend?  Yes he supposed that he was, although no one had ever called him that before, certainly not in the middle of Whiteladies Road as he was indulging a fantasy of what life would be like when he was grown-up.

"Yes... that's right.  Madeleine's boyfriend..."

"You don't recognise me do you?"

"Yes... you're... " Ralph did recognise the young woman but couldn't place her

"Yes I'm Carol.  Madeleine's sister"

"Of course" thought Ralph.  He had seen her once before when she was home from university wrapped up in a dressing gown and are not looking anything like this glamorous young woman who was sitting at a table outside a cafe drinking a small dark cup of coffee.

"Well sit down.  You must have a cup of coffee with me.  You do like a coffee don't you?"

"Yes, of course" said Ralph uncertainly

"Well what will you have?  A cappuccino?  Or perhaps a latte?  I really must get to know you, I can't have my sister going out with boys who I haven't vetted, can I?  So it is to be a cappuccino then?  Much the best choice, only the Italians know how to make proper coffee"

"Yes please.  Thank you"

"Well you are a very obedient boy.  I see that Madeleine has chosen well.  Always yes, please and thank you.  A very good start.  O don't worry, I'm only teasing you, if an elder sister can't tease her younger sister's boyfriend I don't think life is worth living.  Don't you agree?"

"Yes... I mean..."

The two young people laughed and Ralph immediately warmed to this vivacious and friendly young woman with whom he was amazed to find he had an immediate connection.

Carol ordered his coffee and then immediately launched off again "You must tell me everything about yourself.  Madeleine has been very cagey she's only said that you're very good at football, and of course I can see for myself that you're very good-looking"

"Yes, well.  I do play football but I'm not that good"

And so Ralph proceeded to tell Carol 'everything' about himself.  He never remembered telling anyone so much about himself before.  No one had really asked him.  Well aunts and uncles and the like but not any one you can actually tell anything to.  He told Carol about football and school.  About his family and that he was an only child and about his cousins who lived nearby and were like his brothers and sisters.  He even told her about going to church, something he kept very quiet at school and he admitted that he believed in God.  Carol did also, although she wasn't 'religious' and they had a conversation about the philosophy of religion which Carol had been taking a course in at university.  It quite took his breath away.

"... of course the logical positivists thought they were very clever and had everything sewn up and all that was left for philosophy was to play language games.  But they never realised that there was no evidence for their basic assumptions whatsoever, logical positivism was not itself a verifiable statement.  It was all stuff and nonsense!"

"Yes, of course.  I see that" said Ralph not that he really did but he was very interested and was bright enough to be able to ask good questions "So what do you believe in?"

"Well I suppose I'm an existentialist.  But a theistic one.  They are, of course, the most stylish philosophers.  You can't imagine AJ Ayer smoking a Gauloise on the left bank of the Seine can you?"

Ralph couldn't, but only because he didn't have any idea who AJ Ayer was or what a Gauloise was, although he supposed it must be the French word for cannabis.

"Well it has been very pleasant speaking to you Mr... but I don't even know your surname"

"Lansdowne"

"Mr Lansdowne" said Carol affecting a Jane Austen style of delivery "We really must do this again.  You are a very sweet boy and you have my full blessing on your relationship with Madeleine.  You may snog her behind the shrubbery any time you like".  With this she stood up and leaning over kissed Ralph French style on the cheeks.  Then she walked off pausing briefly to turn her head and wave to her little sister's boyfriend.

It was the kiss that did it.  The pressing of her cheek to his cheek.  The smell.  The proximity of her breasts.  It was nothing like as intimate as the kiss he had shared with her sister but the effect was scintillating.  Ralph had been thinking for a little while how gorgeous Carol was.  It began infiltrating into his mind even as it was grappling with the intellectual concepts that Carol was introducing to it.  He tried to keep them at bay and focus on the cerebral discourse but it was not possible.  For it was not as if his sexual feelings were disconnected from his intellectual engagement, they were entirely wrapped up in each other.  It was the intellectual discourse which opened him up and made him vulnerable to Carol's innocent charms.  Now as she walked away he was overwhelmed with what could only be called lust.  He had always been aware of pretty faces.  Madeleine's face was extremely pretty with its sparkling eyes and perfect cheeks but until this time he had only been dimly aware of women's bodies.  Now the shape of them struck him with full intensity.  Carol had a very pretty face, of course, but perhaps without the sparkling brightness of Madeleine's, yet her body was something else altogether.  As all her girlfriends admitted she had a 'figure to die for'.  And her natural charms were alluringly accentuated by her sense of style, so different from Madeleine's adolescent tartiness.  Ralph was completely hooked.  Every fibre of his young body desired her and he almost shook with the sensation.

And it made him absolutely miserable.

He had thought that Madeleine was the summit of his desire.  He was a gentle soul and not predisposed like his more sexually predatory schoolmates to talk relentlessly of getting inside a girl's knickers.  He just liked Madeleine and felt committed to her and the thought of being attracted to another female -- least of all her sister; someone who might at any time appear at that comfortable spacious house, simply horrified him.  The world had become complicated and distressing.  The sun had lost its radiance.  Ralph wandered off disconsolately to the bookshop in Cotham Hill where he hoped to lose himself in the safe world of books and ideas.  But he found himself drifting towards the popular potboilers where he and his friend Adam searched for saucy passages and, in despair, he traipsed off home.

2

The bright June sunshine filtered into the spacious sitting room of Madeleine's family's house in Coombe Dingle.  Ralph and Madeleine lounged on separate sofas reading.

"Has your family made any plans for your 18th, Mads?"

"O I suppose they'll arrange a big family trip to London or something.  Something ridiculously expensive where Dad can show off to everyone.  You would have thought your 18th birthday is one day when you could do what you'd like"

"What would you like to do?"

"I don't know.  How's a girl supposed to know what to do with her life?  That's what boyfriends are for"

Ralph threw a peanut, hitting Madeleine just beneath the eye

"O you pig!  At least you'll enjoy spending time with Carol.  Having more of your intellectual conversations which no one else understands a word of.  I seriously think you make it all up and that you don't understand half of what you're saying".

"I don't know what you're talking about"

"Don't know what I'm talking about?  Everytime Carol comes home you hardly talk to me, you spend all your time discussing Wittgenstein or theistic existentialism or something equally dreary.  Anyone would think you're going out with me just to give you a chance to get inside her knickers"

"Oh don't be ridiculous Madeleine.  Sometimes you're just a spiteful little bitch"

At this Madeleine leapt up.  Her eyes flaring

"How dare you say that!  What makes you think she'd be interested in you?  You have as much chance with her as you have with Debbie Harry!"

Ralph rolled his eyes and picked up his book again.  Madeleine picked up a magazine and smashed the book out of his hands

"For God's sake of Madeleine.  Calm down..."

"Don't tell me to calm down.  You always say the wrong thing"

"And what is the right thing to say?"

"I don't know.  You're just such a jerk.  I know you're not interested in Carol.  It's just you're so... cool, so rational".  Madeleine was beginning to cry

"Oh come on Madeleine.  You know I'm not interested in all that rational stuff.  You get better marks than me at school..."

" What's school got to do with it?!  You just don't understand.  You say stupid things"

"Okay I say stupid things.  Aren't I allowed to say stupid things?  You say things I don't like all the time.  Prodding and needling at me, I'm not allowed just to be me.  I have to explain myself, reveal my darkest secrets.  Tell you everything that's going on inside me even if I don't understand it myself"

"What are you talking about?  I just want you to stop being a jerk.  You hurt me and I want you to say sorry"

"I know..." said Ralph uncertainly "I have said sorry already"

"No you haven't"

"I have... I said it"

Madeleine looked at him disbelievingly

"But why should I say sorry.  You hurt me"

"O forget it.  Live in your fantasy world if you like.  I'm sure your philosophers could explain it to you".  Madeleine left the room slamming the door

"Madeleine" Ralph called out "I don't even know what you're talking about".  He stood up.  Slumped down.  Buried his head in the sofa cushions and bit them screaming as inaudibly as possible "I hate being angry".

3

It looks as if they will be a good day.  The fog is clearing even as I wait and it is warming up to be an August scorcher.  Ralph and Madeleine have taken an age to get round to it but it is good to see them getting hitched.  I've been Ralph's friend as long as I can remember, we had a good childhood together -- cycling over Clifton Suspension Bridge for a day's riding in the Somerset countryside, searching through the cheap novels in second-hand bookshops for the pornographic bits and then sharing the struggles of exams, work and girlfriends.  Not that Ralph had any other girlfriends.  Him and Madeleine were pretty much a permanent fixture.  But we were all surprised when they started going out.  All the boys in our year fancied Madeleine like mad but she was only ever interested in Ralph.  They came from very different backgrounds; Madeleine's family had loads of money, her dad is some kind of management consultant and I think her mum's family was wealthy -- it was always horseriding and holidays in the Caribbean, that kind of thing.  But Ralph never had anything.  His dad is a strange one, a lecturer in a College of Further Education but very serious and intense -- intelligent and extremely rational.  I think it came from his fundamentalist upbringing, his dad, Ralph's grandfather, was some kind of preacher.

Strange to think of us fancying Madeleine so much back then.  She's good-looking, certainly, but she's grown quite dumpy.  She's a lovely person, though, passionate and lively but the something quiet and gentle about her too.  I've never told Ralph about it but I think I've been in love with her for most of my life; sounds like a pop song doesn't it -- in love with your best friends girl!  Not that she ever showed the slightest interest in me, I suppose I'm glad she didn't -- that would have made life really complicated.  There was a time when Ralph and Madeleine split up.  They ended up going to different universities and it seemed as if their relationship was petering out.  Ralph got very depressed.  I think Madeleine's family put pressure on her to 'sow her wild oats' but although she can come across as a bit of a wild child, at heart she's a home bird.  Not like her sister!  Carol really is totally gorgeous and quite brilliant, she was studying for a PhD until she became ill.  I hear stories about her, boyfriends, debts and incredible adventures but whenever I meet her, which isn't very often, she always seems fantastic.  But I'm meandering.  Ralph and Madeleine got back together again, eventually, and they've really gone from strength to strength. Well it seems like that, to me, but I had a strange conversation with Ralph last week.

We were both back in Bristol and went down to our local to catch up and discuss wedding plans.  It was a good time talking about football, old friends -- all the superficial stuff guys talk about.  But then Ralph got that cagey look about him.  Sometimes he turns inside himself and goes quiet.  Not moody, exactly, just distant.  I asked him if he was okay and he said 'I'm scared Adam'.  'Of course you're scared', I said, 'you're getting married everyone is supposed to get scared before they get married -- they've got you tied down now, there's no escape!'.  But Ralph looked irritated 'No not that' and he told me two stories.

Apparently the difficult time he and Madeleine had during university started when they had a big row the summer before.  Ralph said he got really angry and felt like he wanted to hit her.  He never did.  I said, 'so what's the problem, we all feel like that sometimes, the important thing is not to do it'.  But it still bothered Ralph he said his anger made him scared.  He wondered if it was his dad, so controlled and rational but then suddenly exploding with anger.  He said that's why his dad left, 'he just couldn't cope with living with anyone any more'; although how anyone couldn't live with Ralph's mum is beyond me, she's the quietest, gentlest soul you could imagine.  Ralph always says I lack imagination but I must say I didn't understand it at all.  We all have all kinds of feelings but they're not important, they just come and go, if you think about them too much you go mad.  What's important is what you do.  But I suppose I don't feel things as intensely as Ralph.

The second story I understood better.  Ralph said they had a big party at Madeleine's family's home -- jazz band, buckets of booze, swimming in their new pool, all the usual Smith trappings.  As usual Ralph and Carol had got into one of their philosophical discussions.  They are both quite interested in religion although Ralph stopped going to church years ago, Carol knows a lot about Hindu philosophy and they always have plenty to talk about.  Ralph said she spends a lot of time in India and likes visiting ashrams... but I'm meandering again.  So they were having their usual discussion about philosophy and religion and Carol put her hand on his knee.  Well I didn't think there was anything unusual in that, Carol is always touching everyone, she's that kind of person and I don't think there's anything necessarily sexual about it.  But Ralph was convinced she was trying to seduce him so he scarpered pretty quick.  Well, personally, I wouldn't mind being seduced by Carol but I can see why Ralph didn't want to get involved.  You don't want to be playing around with two sisters, there's almost no way of keeping it under control.  Anyway Ralph got very concerned and he says that he's worried about what Carol will do.  I asked him if he fancied her and he said he didn't, but I don't believe it's possible for a heterosexual man not to fancy a woman like that, and if he doesn't what's the problem?

Frankly I still reckon it's just the prenuptial wobbles but there is something about Ralph that is timid.  I always wondered why he didn't make more of his football.  I suppose he's a pretty good proof reader, or whatever it is he does, but he was a marvellous footballer -- his passing made the whole team sing.  Really, everyone else seemed twice as good a player when he was on the pitch.  But he never wanted to pursue it.  He's timid, like there's something fearful deep inside.  But he gets by, he manages and what with Madeleine's money he's not going to have any problems.

So here it comes.  Whiteladies Road is as busy as it ever was.  The church is packed and, fear, or no fear he's about to descend into the abyss of marriage.  Good luck to you, mate!