24 August 2012

Finding Helen

I'm too much a scientist to give a moment's credence to the idea that coincidences have any significance; but human enough, at the same time, to enjoy (even as I dismiss it) the superstitious illusion that they might. A coincidence takes at least two components. This one has three: a place, an object, a book title.

I was last in this place, this city of absurd architecture, forty years ago give or take a week or so. I had come to visit a friend, but the hitching had been too slow to arrive at a time when I might still have reasonably knocked on the door. No lights were on, so I wandered down to the beach and curled up on shingle amidst the suck and blow scraping sound of surf beneath a jetty.

A coincidence also requires at least some element of unlikelihood, though this is subjective. Being in a place I have been before would, of course, score nothing at all for improbability; perhaps, though, the nearness to a four decade anniversary can be said to count.

The friend was Helen; I had known her since I was fifteen, though the friendship was maintained mostly through letters (our families were both peripatetic). Real meetings like this were infrequent though always natural and easy. It began as that preciously rare thing, at least for me (a boy at an all boys school): a friendship with a girl which didn't, at some level if only in subconscious and unrequited fantasy, involve any sexual dimension. Now, five years later, we were both students in different places a long way apart; this visit was one of the occasional renewals in person.

Next morning, when the sun had been up for a decent interval, I knocked at the door and, of course, both Helen and her parents scolded me for not having woken them. I spent a carefree few days there, then hitched out again. I saw Helen again, after that, but not here. She met a fellow student whom she would spend the vacations; I liked him, and he made me welcome in their home just as her parents had. Eventually she married, and so did I. She moved, and so did I. We lost touch. When I tried to find her again, through her parents, they too had moved and the trail had gone cold.

Now, forty years on, I sleep not on the shingle but in a comfortable hotel room. I shall, later in the day, catch an onward connection.

Wandering through the snaggle of little streets which make up what is a cross between hippy quarter and trendy tourist trap, I drift on impulse into a large premises containing a mix of small dealers on the scale from junk to antiques. A number of the displays contain significantly overpriced old cameras, which interest me, so I stop to look a them through their glass cases.

There are large numbers of old amateur folding bellows type portable cameras designed for 6cm roll film, though none of them is the fondly remembered childhood "sixteen on" Dalmeyer which might (despite the inflated price tags) make me consider buying. There are a couple of Ensigns: one in moderate condition and one, inexplicably more expensive, badly battered, corroded, decrepit. There are numerous Kodak Bantams, Brownies and Bullets, Ferrania and Ilford equivalents in Bakelite and plastic, Agfas and Arguses ... and, incongruously in their midst, a single spruce looking SLR: a Praktica LTL.

On that last visit here, forty years ago, Helen asked me to help her buy a camera. She needed one for her course, wanted it to be good enough to continue usefully into her subsequent career, but didn't know enough to make a confident choice alone. She liked my own Pentax Spotmatic, but couldn't afford to buy one of her own. The compromise we found was a Praktica LTL, which she carried home with an unrestrained delight that made my heart glow.

That the only SLR (indeed the only modern styled and technologically sophisticated camera of any kind) amid the dozens of older and simpler examples should be this particular make and model is, I think, as sufficiently unlikely to qualify as a component of coincidence.

Though aware, in the filing cabinet at the back of my consciousness, of the four decades old connection, it's not been on my mind and I have given it no thought nor attention. Looking at the LTL sitting there behind the glass of its case, amidst the worn and dusty relics, in perfect "as new" condition as if straight from the shop back in the summer of 1972, I suddenly feel the connection move from filing cabinet to heart.

The third element of today's coincidence is that this morning, before breakfast, I started reading a Colin Greenland novel. I am half way through it, and will finish it before the day is out. What is unlikely about reading a Colin Greenland novel? Nothing in itself, but I have only read one before: Other voices, from whose title I ripped off the heading for my blog roll on the left of this page. Despite being so deeply impressed by it that I have reread it at least a dozen times, and have for the past twenty something years been meaning to explore his other work, today is the first time that I have started another. And the one upon which I happened to alight when I bought it, picking from an Amazon list a week or more ago, is called Finding Helen.

The coincidence lies purely in the title, not the content, of the novel (though it's a powerful and engrossing novel; I recommend it).

Greenland's Helen is a petty, vindictive, malicious, self obsessed, narcissistic, life devouring monster. Mine was the opposite of all those things: warm, generous, funny, gentle, unselfish, with a ready smile for the joys of others and an impish grin always ready to break out at any of life's peaks or troughs.

Greenland's protagonist is a broken reed, abandoning his present life in pursuit of an illusory past. That's not me, either; I have no intention of chasing off on a fool's errand to track down and locate someone I used to know, half a lifetime ago when we were both different people.

And yet, through this three segmented coincidence, "finding Helen" is exactly what I have, inadvertently, done. She's been stored away too long in that dry filing cabinet; I'm very pleased to have found her, and to have her vivacity back in living mind where it can warm my world.

  • Colin Greenland, Other voices. 1989: Unwin Paperbacks. 0044403097 (pbk)
  • Colin Greenland, Finding Helen. 2002, London: Black Swan. 0552770809 (pbk.). [Amazon Kindle link]

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