It was one beautiful, sunny morning in the month of May of 1981 in the small and peaceful county of East Sussex in South East England. A young couple lay outstretched in the lush green, long grass that surrounded the lily-filled lake near the dilapidated, abandoned clock-tower building. The iconic tower still existed as a living proof of the military revolution that once took place in the county, except that its clock had probably stopped ticking more than centuries ago.
There they lay in each other’s arms, hidden from the painful gazes of the world, their souls laid bare to each other. He, obsessed with her impeccable natural beauty, wound his thick fingers around her golden curls while she, with her face buried in his fair, hairless chest, only shed tears.
“Oh dear! You’re upset again, aren’t you?” said he, his tone filled with concern and sympathy. He lifted her tender chin and looked her in the eyes. “You need not worry anymore. I will come and talk to your father soon. Don’t you trust me after all?”
“Of course, I do darling!” she said between muffled sobs. “It’s just that I do not want to lose you and moreover, I find myself now incapable of living without you!” she said now crying louder.
“Okay okay…I will come to meet your father to ask your hand in marriage this week itself. I know I have been quite a coward all this while.”
Suddenly the same rose-pink lips that had so far been damp with fallen tears, spread into the most beautiful smile he has ever seen.
“I love you” she said, kissing him gently on the forehead.
“Me too” said he, almost in a whisper. “Come, let’s get home soon, before your family notices your absence.”
The young lady in this scene was Miss Amelie Johnson, the only child of the gentle-hearted Colonel Johnson. Though originally American, he had chosen to settle in Britain years ago, after the death of his loving wife. His motivation to relocate was to be in the company of his widowed sister who lived in this part of Britain. Aunt Martha as Amelie called her was now the main woman in that otherwise dull household, a mother to young orphaned Amelie and a pillar of support for her widowed brother, Colonel Johnson.
Colonel Johnson was a man of virtues. A man with a tough appearance and a kind heart, he was not-so-difficult to please. His mother had been French and he had had the chance to spend some time with his grandparents in France as a young boy. The French-ness never really left him and his interest in that culture and language only grew over time.
“He is obsessed with the French language” Amelie had once told him. “You can use this to impress him” she had said with round black eyes full of cleverness and cunning.
“After all, you know that I am not the eloping types! I can never disappoint my father and so if you cannot impress him, there’s no way we can ever be together. Moreover darling, I want him to appreciate your virtues as much as I do” she had added.
The classic feminine ways to create pressure on the tender minds of young men, he had thought then.
The young man in the story was Bill, a young dreamy American man whose sense of ambition and good manners had brought him thus far in life. He worked at a local haberdashery in town, selling men’s clothes as a sales representative. He earned well and given his absence of bad habits that usually cost a lot of money, he saved well too. Neither alcohol nor stimulants were his problem. There was just one problem that manifested itself in extreme nervousness – haste and over-smartness. He knew this about himself and had begun to prepare himself to avoid this panic particularly in his interaction with the Colonel. He could afford no mistakes.
Finally, the date and time for the meeting was decided. The Johnson family had invited Bill over to a high-tea on Friday at 4 pm sharp. The last word here was very important because a minute late could mean sure death. Bill had been nervous soon after the fixing of the meeting. There were just four days left.
He could neither sleep, eat nor focus on his work. At the store, when no customers were around, he would reach the nearest full-length mirror, raise his head high, draw his shoulders back, clear his throat and begin to practise his over-dramatic lines of expressing ‘poetic’ love. He had even borrowed a French dictionary that allowed him to convert English into French and vice-versa. This was all part of the preparation for his big day. Arrangements for his suit had also been made – he had persuaded his senior at work to secretly lend him the best black suit with a bow-tie and hat for the big day.
Finally, the day arrived. After his meeting with Amelie the day before, he had understood all instructions clearly. He had to enter the house with the big, black roof right behind the pharmacy on Winston Churchill street. The most important thing to remember for identification was the big garden at the entrance, full of pink and purple daisies. She would answer the door bell at the first ring, usher him in, introduce him to the family and then they would be, sitting and eating together, and singing songs like the most theoretically perfect family.
Women and their ideas of perfection, he had sighed then.
It was nearly 3 pm and the groom-to-be was all set for his ‘interview-at-tea’. He was dressed in the borrowed black suit, complete with the most perfect bow-tie and gentleman’s hat. His grandfather’s gold chain watch sat in his breast pocket, giving him the perfect look. His dark brown hair was brushed backwards and he made sure that not one strand left its designated place. His one-room apartment smelled strongly of the perfume he was wearing, almost in the same proportions as the clothes themselves.
“I must go now” he said to himself in the rectangular mirror of his room, as he dabbed his face once again with powder. He locked his apartment and self-consciously, set out towards Winston Churchill street. He had never felt so embarrassed before. It felt as if the world was out on the streets only to look at him. His cheeks felt red and hot.
May be I am blushing……But isn’t that normal? It’s my first time after all, he thought as he kept walking.
He looked at his pocket watch again. He had only fifteen minutes left. An unknown panic suddenly took grip on his mind. All this focus that he had been maintaining all this while seemed to have left him in an instant. He could feel his heart race and his nerves throbbing with palpitation.
He was near the house, which he knew for sure, but now, the clarity of the instruction so meticulously imparted was gone! He remembered the big house and the black roof. Pink and purple daisies, oh yes. He had found the house. Inhaling deeply, he rushed towards the entrance.
He rang the doorbell, in anticipation of seeing Amelie’e pretty face and forgetting about the last-minute panic. There was no answer. Anxious, he rang the bell again. Finally, he could hear footsteps. The door was finally answered, though not by Amelie.
A woman with large, shiny eyes, dressed in a long white dress answered the door. She must have been at most in her late thirties.
“Yes” she said, a tinge of fear in his voice.
That must be Aunt Martha. But she looks so scared, for heaven’s sake. That nasty Colonel must be giving her a hard time. Anyway, once I marry Amelie, I can try to improve things.
“Hello Madam! My name is Bill and I am here to see the esteemed Colonel.” He said with enthusiasm and chivalry.
“Of course. He is in his study. Does he know you are coming?” she asked again in a troubled voice.
“Of course he does!” he said beaming “and you do too!”
His humour went unnoticed. All she said was “Follow me please.”
He followed her in the rather dimly-lit house that looked more like a movie set for a horror movie. There were half-lit candles everywhere and rusty, old-smelling books.
Looks like she is not a very organised woman, he thought to himself. But Amelie ought to be more careful about these things. Where is she, by the way? Still getting dressed? These women can never stick to timelines!
“You have a visitor” she announced softly to the Colonel, as if too scared to meet his eye. The grumpy-looking Colonel, sat on the generous black couch, reading a thick black book with his horn-rimmed glasses resting at the tip of his nose. A smoking pipe dangled rather carefully from the corner of his mouth, giving him the appearance of a victorious soldier who had just come back after an open-fire. The already dark study with rings of smoke from the Colonel’s pipe almost sent a chill down the young man’s spine.
He could have at least use one of those useless half-lit candles! This man looks twice as scary as Amelie had ever described. But the point is, these girls do not associate the word’ fear’ with their darling fathers. Ask men who come to ask for their hand in marriage!
“Bonjour Monsieur!” he said in a fake and pompous tone, removing his hat and bowing down low rather poetically.
My first French attack!
“Hello” was all he received. Plus the tone in which it had been delivered was so full of irritation that he almost squirmed. Probably the Colonel had not appreciated being interrupted in the middle of his reading.
These old men often seem to act moody. He could have waited before he started reading that chapter! Couldn’t he? But that’s nothing Bill, keep going.
“Comment allez-vous? Je vais bien…..merci!”
“Mr. Gentleman! I would appreciate if you could speak to me in English and English only. Is that understood?” came a voice like the unexpected roar of a hungry lion.
My accent probably blew him away. He may have lost touch with the language. But that’s OK, his memory at this age might be failing him. I will continue to impress him till Amelie arrives.
“Sure. I am here with a purpose that you Sir, in my humble opinion, are well aware of.”
“Really? You appear more confident than you should be young man! Just tell me what you want and then get the hell out of here!” said the Colonel, his eyes almost popping out of their sockets.
How rude! Makes me sick! But you’re my woman’s father. I will pocket this insult for her. Go on Bill, don’t accept defeat.
His voice re-energised with confidence, he started again “It’s about Em you see! Your Em, now my Em, the love of my life.” As he said these words, he closed his eyes and placed his right hand on his chest in a fake gesture of romance.
Here I use my trump-card Colonel! I call her Em. Doesn’t that give you a sense of how much I treasure her, how much she is already part of my life?
“What did you just say?” came an angry voice, that seemed to have been controlled after much effort. “Say that again! Is that understood?”
“The Em who you have so far considered yours and yours alone, is the love of my life. She is the wind in my sails and the sunshine in my frozen world. She is the only ray of hope in my otherwise dull existence Sire. I come here, at thy footstep, to ask for her hand in marriage with me…”.
In the middle of his overly-poetic lines, his eyes fell on a pair of eyes that were looking at the two men in conversation, from behind the kitchen counter. The eyes were that of a scared woman, scared to death.
He had barely finished his sentence when he realised that the almost hulkish figure of the Colonel was on top of him, his thick, rough hands holding Bill’s tiny neck like a dead pigeon. The Colonel was trying to strangulate him with all his energy.
“What did you just utter from your profane mouth you shameless scoundrel? You youngsters have lost all shame, haven’t you?” he said as he pressed harder and harder. Bill’s eyes had almost left their sockets as he found it difficult to breathe. All he could think of was a method to escape – he kicked with all his might. That kick landed on the Colonel’s groin and he yelled out loud in pain. He fell like a lump of mass in a corner of the study, yelling in excruciating pain. Bill heard him yell, curse and to his sheer misfortune, rise again, except that this time, he had something like a rusted rifle in his hand.
Bill ran out with all his might, forgetting all about the flashy borrowed hat he had left on the couch in the study. He ran for his life, only to hear loud gunshots behind his back. On his way, a frantic Bill notices something unusual. For an instant he thought he saw Amelie in the balcony of the house right next to the house from which he had been running to save his life. It was no less of a surprise to find the house uncannily similar to the previous house. It had pink and purple flowers in the garden too.
“Amelie” he yelled with whatever energy he had left in the body. His gaze still on her, his feet were still in motion, running away from the man with the vintage gun.
Amelie noticed him running frantically, her neighbour next-door after him like a hound.
“Daddy daddy…” she yelled in panic, calling out to her father for help.
Hearing her daughter’s frantic cry for help, another not-so-grumpy-looking Colonel stepped out, running after the Colonel with the gun, trying to calm him down.
Amelie ran after Bill, trying to figure out what exactly had gone wrong. First, he had not appeared on time for his meeting with her family and worst of all, here he was, being chased by her eccentric neighbour for something he had said or done.
The thought of her father’s harsh words brought tears to her eyes again. “I pity your choice Amelie” he had said, shaking his head in disappointment. “A man who does not respect time is not a man at all.”
She was brought back to the present by another gunshot. She ran after Bill and finally managed to catch up with him. She looked behind to find that her dear father had finally gained control over the furious Colonel Wilson, her neighbour.
“What happened dear?” she asked with concern, placing a hand on Bill’s forehead. “Calm down, calm down please.”
Bill just kept panting as if he was still running. The fact was that he was stationary and lay, almost dead, on the grass right at the corner of the street.
“Don’t worry anymore. Daddy is taking care of Colonel Wilson.”
“Colonel Wilson. Who’s that?” he asked, his faced contorted in confusion, and his breath as heavy as lead.
“It’s the man who was running after you with the gun. He’s my neighbour.……but tell me, what happened with him? Why was he chasing you like that?”
He didn’t answer for few minutes. The questions from the curious young girl started again.
“Where were you all this while? Didn’t you realise the importance of being on time for asking for a girl’s hand in marriage? Do you even know what daddy had to say about you……?”, she had almost begun to sob.
“Hold on a second please” he said, absolutely breathless. “I had come to your house, couple of minutes before 4 actually! I met your father and Aunt Martha too. But it was you that was missing! Where were you?”
“Where was I? No you didn’t come at all! I was there all along!” she thought for a minute and gasped. “Oh dear! I think you entered the wrong house. Why do I feel that you happened to meet Colonel Wilson instead of my father today?”
“What? I had gone to the house with the pink and purple flowers….hang on, hang on….even if what you say is correct, why did that crazy man try to choke me?” he said, holding his bruised neck with caution, crying out in pain.
“I know not. What did you tell him?”
It took nearly a minute for him to recall. “I started by speaking to him in French based on what you had suggested. He looked upset when I did.”
“Oh my poor baby! Uncle Wilson has the highest level of hatred for France and its people. One of his ancestors, also an army officer, was killed in the American uprising for independence against Britain. As we all know it, France supported America in this revolution. Unfortunately, his grudges have only grown with time. I’m so sorry for you….”
“But if he doesn’t like French, why did he try to kill me for God’s sake? All I told him was that I loved you and wanted to marry you!” he said with tears in his tiny eyes.
“What did you tell him exactly?” she asked in unconcealed curiosity.
“I will tell you exactly what I said. I told him that Em, which is you, are the wind in my sails and other random things, only to impress him.”
“Oh my!” she exclaimed, cupping her face in her pink palms. “It was a blunder darling! Em is his wife’s name! She is twenty-one years younger than him and that already makes him feel awkward! To make matters worse, in the last couple of months, things have been rather rough at the Wilson’s. He suspects her of having an affair with a younger, better-looking man, and she, the lovely, timid women that she is, is so heart-broken at her husband’s doubts about her character. Poor woman! He must have thought that you are in fact, her lover, asking for his wife’s hand in marriage!”
There was another gunshot fired in the air. Bill fainted.
Image taken from Google images.
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