So Long Marianne
We did love our Leonard Cohen! We’d sit around singing along to ‘Hey That’s No Way to say Goodbye’, or ‘Suzanne’, instead of sweating over essays or reading the next chapter of ‘Ethics and Education’.
“Why does she give him milk and oranges?” I’d always say. “It’s a horrible combination.”
We knew all the harmonies, even recording our own versions of the songs on her battered reel-to-reel tape recorder then shrieking with laughter at hearing ourselves on the playback.
When we went out we’d communicate in code, using pre-arranged phrases for unwanted attention from members of the opposite sex. At the never missed Thursday night discos we leapt around to the Rolling Stones or The Faces until a slow number prompted one of the lads to ask us to dance; then we revolved as couples, coming into contact with each orbit, when she’d make faces at me and whisper. “Double Gristle!” she’d hiss, meaning ‘Get me out of this’.
We lavished too much of our meagre grants on cheap wine from plastic barrels in the Union bar, resulting in puerile practical joking such as crawling back to our rooms on hands and knees or writing notices for all the doors we passed; the inevitable outcome of over indulgence being our failure to attend any of the following day’s lectures. We had endless discussions analysing budding or fading relationships, boys we liked, boys we wanted to be rid of, whether we had, whether we hadn’t, wishing, regretting.
When, in the second year I was forced out into a depressing bed-sit with a repressive landlady I missed her so much I spent regular nights propped up at the end of her bed eating cheese and pickles, envying her for having the foresight to claim ill health and keep her room at the halls of residence.
Once it was clear I’d have to undertake some work if I was to gain a qualification that would lead to employment I began to knuckle down, completing mediocre essays, attending lacklustre lectures, keeping appointments with disapproving tutors and applying myself to placements. As the lucky recipient of a modest income from some shares, Marianne did not feel the pressure to strive for academic success and continued to maintain a hectic social life, made all the more pleasurable by the acquisition of a small car. She continued to live in her tiny room, spend her days shopping in ‘Chelsea Girl’ or ‘Top Shop’, date hapless men and leave a string of lovelorn boyfriends in her wake. Her health issues, a useful weapon in the defence against obligation or duty, morphed slowly into hypochondria and each time we met she regaled me with some new symptoms she’d noticed, or tests or treatment she’d been undergoing, difficulties that prevented her from completing the course.
With no other option than to join the grown up world, at the end of the three years I became a career woman with a flat and a boyfriend I’d picked up along the way. I still met up with Marianne, though less often. She’d found another tiny room, a bedsit in a shared house that eked out the modest income she still had. She spent her days attending hospital appointments, researching alternative therapies and taking courses in obscure, esoteric fields. Our lives began to diverge. I was promoted to a new and better job, split with the boyfriend, moved to a different, leafier part of town. She took a course as a ‘holistic’ healer and did freelance astrology readings in between courses of treatment for various ailments. She moved to a small flat, subsisting on benefits to augment her income, inconsistent now that the shares had crashed.
In another ten years I’d married, moved away to the coast, taken a career break and had two children. We corresponded, letters documenting lives that seemed to be led on separate planets. I was mired in the minutiae of domestic triviality; she was taking to the stage in her debut as an exotic dancer whilst continuing in her quest to find the perfect man, though available men were becoming scarcer and more selective.
I resumed my career, became single again and sought to rekindle friendships that had foundered in the wake of my marriage. When I began a long distance relationship with a London man I contacted her and arranged to visit her at her Streatham flat during one of my metropolis weekends.
I got to her road. I stood on the pavement opposite her house and gazed up at her window; but I didn’t cross over, didn’t ring the bell. I turned back and made the long trek back to Hampstead. She rang me, later.
“Where were you?” she said.
“I rang the bell and no one answered” I lied. She was angry. I felt tearful. There would never be another chance.
I continued to send letters and cards for a couple more years with no response. I look at the photos she sent me of herself posing in a leopard print bikini against a background of tropical plants on a night club stage and I wonder what she is doing now, but the clock is set firm in the present; no going back. Here’s to you, Marianne. So Long!