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U3A Writing: Brief Encounter With The Lid Off

Patrick Hopton re-tells the tale of a Brief Encounter. Patrick’s version provides much more fun than the original story, which. so they tell me, ended up on the big screen.

You must have seen Brief Encounter. Surely everybody has seen Brief Encounter. No? Incredible! Well, I suppose I'd better explain it to you then, otherwise the subtleties of my little tale will be lost on you.

In the England of the mid nineteen-forties, Laura, a very proper middle-class housewife meets Alec, an idealistic doctor, in the refreshment room of the local station. She says to him, 'Oh, I've got something in my eye.' He says to her, 'Here, let me look. I'm a doctor.' The consequence is that they embark on an affair, an affair never quite to be consummated - oddly much of which takes place in the station buffet!

It all gets too much for them: Laura returns to her boring husband, who lifts his eyes from The Times crossword just long enough to say something like, 'Anything bothering you old girl?' Alec goes off to Africa to do something noble there. Between times trains rattle by, Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto swells in and fades out of the soundtrack, and Laura wears some dreadful hats.

There you have it! That's Brief Encounter in a nutshell. Sounds corn, is corny . . . and gets me every time.

But that was not the true story. Bound by the conventions of the time it was how the tale had to be told back in 1945. In our more enlightened times I am now able to reveal what really happened. Well, it went like this . . .

* *
Alec sensed Laura's eyes burning through the glass of the refreshment room door and into his retreating back as he hurried for the safety of the ramp that led down to the subway and out of her vision.

Ahead on Platform 4 his train was hissing in anticipation of departure, promising him escape: escape from Milford, escape from Laura. It was time to cut his losses and renew the hunt in fresh terrain. Not in Africa. Most certainly not in Africa. He was grateful to the continent, though. It already provided him with a place of escape - purely as the mythical refuge he had conjured up to head off the credulous Laura.

No, it was Madeleine and domesticity for him . . . at least until next Thursday, when he would move the scene of his weekly sexual safari to Bradford or Leeds. The prey was always more plentiful in the cities. Women seemed to lose their inhibitions in the crowds.

He settled himself in the seat of an empty First Class compartment and stretched out his legs to rest his feet on the seat opposite. He smiled. Africa! She had certainly swallowed that one! But then the most endearing thing about Laura had been her gullibility. As a car salesman of long experience (a master of a trade well practised in the arts of trickery) passing himself off as a doctor had been almost too easy.

It was a source of profound irritation, though, that his expertise had failed to land the ultimate prize this time; it had never let him down before. Oh his doctor routine had won her heart all right; but her body had remained stubbornly beyond his reach. That was the only thing that hurt him about leaving Laura Jesson - unfinished business

Poor Laura! She possessed the unhappy knack of collecting the most appalling people about her. Yes, Alec cheerfully admitted to being one of them, but, cad though he might be, he at least was not boring. The same could not be said of that misery of a husband of hers, judging by Laura's accounts of him. And if the husband wasn't bad enough the poor woman then had to contend with their two quarrelsome and demanding brats!
And as for her friends! Well, Laura's taste in friends was on a par with her taste in hats: a comparison that said it all. Even so, Alec found himself uttering a prayer of thanks to that ghastly creature whose interruption in the refreshment room, minutes before, had saved him from an embarrassing and potentially dangerous goodbye.

Other equally awful friends of Laura's had not been so welcome: for example that pair of busy-bodies in the restaurant a few weeks back. The chance encounter with those two scandal mongers had been the point where his scheme to bed Laura had begun to go awry. They had fuelled the spurts of guilt that Stephen Lind's untimely return home last Thursday had fanned to a flame.

It was Lind's own apartment, of course, and at any other time he would have had every right to be there. But Alec had carefully negotiated the loan of the place for the night in exchange for a generous discount on a new Austin 10, and had prepared it as a love nest in which to entice Laura. The prize had been almost within his grasp and had been wrenched cruelly from him at the last by his host's inopportune return. Curse Lind! He could whistle for his discount now. And curse those two gossiping old bats before him!

Still if such friends had been the catalysts of Alec's downfall, at least the ghastly Dolly Lessiter, back in the refreshment room, had in part redressed the balance. Her sudden appearance had spared him from a ghastly scene of final parting on the station platform, where he was sure that his insincerity would have shone through at the last. God knows what terrible fuss might have ensued. Good grief, Laura might even have made trouble for him at home!

Of course Madeleine knew only too well what his Thursday excursions were all about, and was tolerant about them as long as they were carried out at a discreet distance. But if her reputation within her own circle of stuffy friends were threatened then dire retribution would be brought down on Alec's head. Yes, God bless you, Dolly Lessiter . . . just keep talking.

He looked at his watch. The train should have left minutes ago. A shrill whistle blast from the platform outside dispersed his moment of anxiety. It was answered by a strangled shriek from the engine up ahead and the train stuttered into motion. Alec blew an imaginary kiss in the direction of the refreshment room. Goodbye Laura with your cow eyes and dreadful hats. May you find solace in your hideous domesticity.

*

Fred Jesson treasured his Thursday afternoons, with Laura out of the way in Milford supposedly at the pictures. Ha! Who was she kidding? Stephen Lind had alerted him to that little charade by recounting the farce of his unexpected return to his flat. He had even returned the hat and scarf that Laura had left there in her subsequent flight. Poor, stupid Laura! She was doubtless suffering agonies of conscience over her pathetic little affair with that car salesman acquaintance of Stephen's - a smarmy devil and a right Lothario by all accounts.

Fred prayed that his wife's conscience would not get the better of her, however, and that the affair would continue. He prized his Thursday afternoons when both his wife and the maid were out of the house. Their departure was the opportunity to grant himself leave of absence from the office and to return to a home that was his alone, free to indulge in his fondest fancies - at least until the children got back from school. Thankfully that was several hours away yet. And even then they would not be inflicted on him for long; soon afterwards Laura would be home to get the tea and put them to bed. An evening of contentment would ensue in which he could smoke his pipe in his favourite armchair and attack The Times crossword.

He frowned at the thought of the habitual threat to this cosy prospect. Unless he could head her off somehow, once she had finished the washing up and ironing, Laura would dig out that sewing box of hers and insist on joining him. Then he would again be subjected to that infernal music of hers. Oh God, not Rachmaninov again! Please, not Rachmaninov! He promised himself silently that one of these days he would take a sledgehammer to that damned radiogram and smash the thing to pieces. But not today. He had plans for it today. Just that morning he had purchased a new gramophone record of his own . . . and he had someone in mind with whom to share it.

He reached for the telephone.

'Stephen?'

'Yes,' drawled a voice at the other end of the line.

'It's Frederick,' (He used the name he reserved for his special friends. 'Fred' was an abomination that Laura had concocted.) 'Frederick Jesson.' A stupid exchange this. He knew damned well it was Stephen Lind and Stephen knew damned well it was Frederick. It always was - every Thursday afternoon. 'I thought you might like to come over for a spell.'

'I don't know,' said the other voice doubtfully.

Fred was not deterred. This hesitancy was normal too. Stephen was waiting for an inducement. He dangled him one.
'Laura's got a new frock you can try on. And I've got this new Carmen Miranda record we can dance to.'

Game, set and match! Basking in contentment at the thought of the beckoning encounter Fred opened the lid of the radiogram to savour his new purchase. This was real music - none of Laura's classical rubbish!

'I yi yi yi yi yi yi like you vairy much,' he sang in unison with his South American siren. Taking a couple of apples from the fruit dish and holding them on his head, to simulate one of her outrageous hats, he wiggled his bottom in Samba rhythm around the room.

*

Oh God! Would Dolly Lessiter never stop? Laura could cheerfully have tossed the dregs in her teacup at the bloated, garrulous creature opposite her. As if barging in uninvited and depriving her of those last precious seconds with Alec wasn't bad enough, now she was gabbling on and on and on. All Laura wanted was some silence in which she could wallow in her suffering without the need to feign normality; some silence in which she could ruminate on her broken heart and the process of her dying could begin in peace.

From the platform outside the refreshment room an unintelligible loudspeaker announcement came to her aid.

'That's our train at last,' Dolly proclaimed. 'We should be going, my dear.'

'You'll have to go without me, Dolly. It's too, too silly but I feel a little faint. I'll stay here until the next train. I'll be feeling better by then.'

'Nonsense, my dear. I'll help you to the train.'

Irrepressible anger welled up within Laura. 'For God sake go,' she snapped.

'But . . .'

'Go, damn you!' To hell with the consequences!

'Well, really!' Dolly spluttered. She rose to her feet and gathered her belongings. Of course it must be Laura Jesson's faintness making her behave so . . . but to be talked to like that! Thank God for it, actually. She did not want to stay with the insipid creature anyway. It was simply that, in the light of Laura's indisposition, she had felt compelled to offer assistance - any Christian woman would. But the thought of two more hours of her company in this ghastly refreshment room was too dreadful to contemplate. She was delighted to grab the chance of escape.

The brassy attendant at the counter had been a witness to the exchange. 'Don't think you can wait in here for your next train,' she called out to Laura tartly, after Dolly had departed. 'I'm closing up now.'

A biting wind was sweeping the platform outside. It permeated even the chill of Laura's state of abject wretchedness, forcing her to seek the shelter of the waiting room. It was just the place for her. The peeling paint-work and general shabbiness of the dimly lit room matched the drab emptiness within her. This was a suitable place to begin her time of dying.

She settled herself down and invited welcome misery to envelop her. Outside a distant shriek, increasing in volume, heralded the approach of an express train. Soon it would thunder by just a few feet from where Laura was now sitting. All she need do was step in front of it to attain oblivion and the end of her sufferings. Yet oblivion would not suffice. She needed the solace of wallowing in a slow death. She had left it too late anyway. A thud exploded against the waiting room, shaking the door and rattling the windows, as the express rushed past. Then it was rumbling away into the night, leaving Laura with her pain and the ticking of the waiting room clock. Soon that train would overtake Alec's, granting its lucky passengers a fleeting view of him. Oh Alec! she sobbed inwardly.

A chill shaft of air disturbed her. The door had opened and a man was entering, the collar of his raincoat turned up against the wind.

'Christ it's cold out there!' he announced, dropping a suitcase to the floor. Then he remembered he was in England, and they didn't use language like that in England: not before ladies anyway. 'I'm sorry for the language, ma'am,' he said cheerfully. 'I was forgetting I'm not back home . . . Chicago, Illinois,' he added by way of explanation.

'Oh!' she said absently. Why didn't the wretched young man go away and let her get on with dying?

‘Yes, ma'am. You've heard of Marshall Aid; well that's me - part of it anyway.'

'Oh,' Laura said again.

He had heard about British reserve; well here was living proof. Something of a challenge. But James liked challenges . . . and this one had nice legs and big sorrowful eyes. Pity about the hat!

Laura needed fresh air and solitude. She had to escape. 'I'm sorry, I need air,' she told him, blundering for the door.
In her confusion she failed to notice the suitcase on the floor and stumbled over it. The collision knocked her off balance causing her to hit her head on the door frame. 'Oh!' she gasped in pain. She put her hand to her forehead. She could feel blood.

'Ma'am I'm real sorry,' the man said. 'It's all my fault. Here, sit down and let me take a look at it.'

'No, it's nothing. I'm quite all right. Really I am.'

'Please let me,' he insisted. 'I'm a doctor.'

There was something about those words. It was as though she had heard them before in another lifetime. Obediently she sat down and let him tend to her. Producing a crisp white handkerchief from his breast pocket, he dabbed gently at the cut. Looking up into soft, caring eyes she was conscious of strains of Rachmaninov filtering through from an adjacent room - or was it merely in her head? The music swelled to an overwhelming crescendo sweeping Laura along with it and blowing all thoughts of dying out into the wintry night.

'I'm Laura Jesson,' it compelled her to say. 'You've been very kind Doctor . . . . Doctor?'

'Kildare,' he offered in reply. 'Doctor Jim Kildare. It's a real pleasure to know you, Laura.'

It would be a pleasure indeed!


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