‘Gone with the wind’—the line comes from a beautiful poem by Ernest Dowson, a poet of the 1890s, who died in London at the age of thirty- two. Most of his poems were dedicated to a young waitress in an Italian restaurant in Soho. He was madly in love with her, but she married another, leaving him desolate.
Her lips, her eyes, all day became to me
The shadow of a shadow utterly.
All day mine hunger for her heart became
Oblivion, until the evening came,
And left me sorrowful, inclined to weep,
With all my memories that could not sleep.
Poor Ernest! I could identify with him.
A spring and summer of love, an autumn and winter of longing and despair . . .
Vu-Phuong was her name. She said that it meant ‘like the wind’—and, like the wind, she came and went.
Gentle Vu, I loved you so and you were kind and loved me too.
She came from Vietnam, and she wasn’t a waitress, although her sister in Paris did run a small café.
How did I meet her? I really can’t remember. Chance brought her into my life, and chance took her out of it. We make friends for life—even when distant, their presence is felt—but love, even true love, is unpredictable.
It must have been Thanh who introduced her to me. He was a Vietnamese student who wanted to improve his English. He cultivated my friendship in the mistaken belief that if he spent a lot of time with me, he would acquire a posh British accent. By the time he realised his error— my accent being far from British or posh—it was too late, he had acquired an Indian accent!
Vu was quite happy with her Vietnamese-French accent and wasn’t particularly interested in mine. She seemed to like my company, and when she discovered that I knew something about trees and plants and flowers, she sought me out, for she had a fascination for parks and formal gardens, and of course, London had a great many green spaces if you looked for them: Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill, Hampstead Heath, Kensington Gardens, Kew Gardens! I’d been to most of them on some of my explorations of the city, and I was happy to take Vu around.
I still have a photograph of her. I did not have a camera; she gave it to me. Here she is, pretty and petite, well-turned-out, looking very composed. If I had to compare her to a flower, it would be a pale pink rose, a rose bud, just about to open—always on the verge of opening but never quite doing so.
On one of our walks, I plucked a daisy and placed it in her hair. Yes, she was made for flowers—a gentle wind in a field of nodding poppies.
We walked to the top of Primrose Hill and sat on the grass. I held her hand, and when we came downhill, we were still holding hands.
It did not take me long to fall in love with her.
Listen to Your Heart: The London Adventure by Ruskin Bond; Illustrations by Mihir Joglekar; Puffin Books; Rs 299
She took me to her room, cooked a meal for me and taught me how to use chopsticks. She taught me a couple of simple card games, and also how to tell someone’s fortune from the tea leaves and the pattern they made at the bottom of a teacup when the tea had been finished. We used tea leaves there, not teabags.
Most of all, I looked forward to our excursions, for then I could tell her the names of unfamiliar plants and flowers, and experience a feeling of being wanted.
For what else could I offer her? Her people, back in Vietnam, were fairly affluent, although that affluence was in danger of being swamped by the approaching prospects of a communist Vietnam.
On a summer day, we went down to Kew Gardens, south of the river. Vu was charmed by the spacious lawns and bluebells growing along the sidewalls. I felt at home in the massive greenhouses, walking amongst tropical plants. The warmth and humidity made me long for the land I’d left behind.
‘I feel homesick just standing here,’ I said. ‘It must have been like this in Vietnam.’
‘I don’t remember that home,’ said Vu. ‘I was very young when we left. I grew up in Paris. I don’t know if I would ever see Vietnam.’
‘Well, I will certainly go back to India,’ I said. ‘Home is the place of your heartiest memories — like these creepers, their fronds, these palms, these giant leopard lilies. Would you like to come with me?’
‘You come with me to Paris!’ she said, laughing. ‘I’ll teach you French.’
‘First teach me how to cook,’ I said.
And she did teach me how to cook, but I wasn’t very good at it, always adding too many spices, due no doubt to my Indian upbringing.
I wanted to spend every weekend with her, and felt terribly lonely and lost if she could not always be with me. It was a long time since I had known the companionship of a girl of my age, and I was afraid of losing it. I made the mistake of being too intense, too relentless in my desire to be with her. She needed her own space.
When her college closed for the summer break, she announced that she was going strawberry-picking with a bunch of students. They would live on a farm for a fortnight, gather strawberries and be paid for their efforts.
‘You don’t need the money,’ I said. ‘No, but it will be fun!’
Fun for Vu and misery for me.
I grew extremely restless waiting for the strawberry month to pass.
Beware of falling in love, my friend. Everything else comes to a stop. Stories don’t get finished. Friends are neglected. You are late for work and make mistakes with figures and balance sheets. You forget to have your beans on toast in the lunch break. You drink too much sherry in the evening. You stay awake all night.
Illustration: Mihir Joglekar
Finally, you buy a ticket to Kintbury, a village in Berkshire, where Vu and her friends are spending their holidays working for a farm.
You get off the train at Kintbury. No one else gets off; it’s a typical English village, the land where you meet Miss Marple in the only grocery shop. There is also an inn, an old-fashioned inn, straight out of The Pickwick Papers. Or better still, Surtees. On the walls are prints of horses and hounds, riders blowing bugles, and fleeing foxes. The hunt is on!
After a beer and a ham sandwich, I inquire the way to the strawberry farm. The landlord obliges, and I set off through the village — two villages, in fact — and a cluster of farm buildings, and a fallow field where I am chased by a bad-tempered bull.
I am surrounded by a gaggle of girls, some foreign, some very English—and there among them is Vu, happy as a lark, if indeed larks are happy.
‘What brings you here?’ she asked.
‘You, of course! I was feeling bored, so I came to see you.’
‘Well, here I am.’
‘Having a wonderful time. But you can’t join us; it’s only for students.’
‘No, that’s all right,’ I said. ‘I just thought I’d drop by. Phone me when you’re back in town. Bye, Vu.’
And I trudged back to the inn, had another beer and sandwich, and caught the next train that stopped at Kintbury. I was feeling more miserable than ever, but at least I’d seen an English village.
Listen to Your Heart : The London Adventure releases today from Puffin Books.