I bought the red tulip dress one bright June afternoon, in a daze of passion and sunshine, on a street that opens out to the sea, East Street in Brighton. The dress was white, with a pattern of large wine-red tulips; sleeveless, fitted, with a slightly flared skirt which swung as I walked. Summer 1989 – the hot weather seemed to have set in permanently, and southern Britain had taken on Mediterranean hues and modes of living. I was a student again, this time more seriously and more capably than at Oxford.
I studied that year in London, at first sagely, completing my essays on time, attending all my classes, and scurrying home after class while the other students lingered in the bar. After the years of school teaching I could hardly believe my luck in having time to think and read and learn again, so I immersed myself in my studies.
Until, that is, I noticed one of my fellow students. Frank was an escapee from school teaching, like me, and like me, funded by the local authority to do the MA. We were probably the last teachers in the country to enjoy this privilege. Frank travelled down from Birmingham every Monday morning, stayed overnight in a basic Bloomsbury hotel, and travelled back late on Tuesday, usually after a pint or two in the bar. He had been an art teacher, and his interest in colour manifested itself in the carefully and interestingly co-ordinated outfits in delicate shades of purple and green, or brown and mustard, that adorned his slender form, and set off his chestnut locks. He spoke with a slight Birmingham accent, the kind of accent you have if you hail from the Midlands, but have had your native speech educated out of you. He wrote all his essays long hand, a strong and neat hand, which merged with his reflections on German Expressionist cinema to such an extent that as I read, I realised the content was passing me by, I was only seeing Frank’s shapely letters. I had fallen in love with everything about Frank, from his green jumper to his handwriting, but it was probably the accent that was at the root of my affection, with its promise of a return to my origins, but in a more genteel, and above all intellectual version.
I knew nothing of Frank’s life, beyond the fact that he lived in Birmingham, and had done all his life, that he liked good food and fine wine, and knew a lot about art. One night we talked in the bar about our Midlands origins; his father had been a toolmaker, in a neat symmetry with mine, a pattern-maker. Frank and I got into the habit of walking back to Euston together, talking non-stop all the way, then saying goodbye when I headed south on the underground to Victoria, and he boarded his train to Brum. I imagined him returning to his solitary abode, a slightly untidy flat, full of art books and papers, in the city centre. I imagined the weekends I would spend there with him once my love was declared and reciprocated, the visits to art galleries, the sex on the study floor, the wine, and the walks round the city late at night. I hoped to be able to combine all of that with the occasional visit to my parents, who would be delighted that I was no longer completely exiled in the South. Quite how I would manage this transition was never explored in these fantasies, where I would return to my home town in a golden glow of new love.
In February the whole MA group went to Ronnie Scott’s one night, and after the jazz we danced in the disco upstairs till the small hours. I discovered that Frank was a neat dancer as well as dresser. We jigged about to the Gypsy Kings, with such energy and excitement that the rest of the group commented ‘Who would have thought Frank could do that?’. As we went downstairs at the end of the evening, Frank stumbled, and I held out my arms to catch him, ‘as if in an embrace’ as he said later.
In May I invited the whole group down to Brighton for the weekend, carefully designing the sleeping arrangements so that Frank was in the room next to mine. The first night we talked till 2am, and I waited in vain for him to make a move. But no, chaste insomnia was my lot. The next day the rest of the group drifted away, back to London, apart from Frank and one other woman, Kath, who I liked a lot. That night the three of us started the evening with gin and tonics in my back yard, then went out to eat, or mainly drink some more. When we came back I realised I had forgotten my key, but fortunately Frank was agile and slim enough to climb in through the lavatory window. We continued drinking in my front room, or rather Kath and Frank did. Perhaps that was why, when I left the room momentarily, they were kissing when I came back in. I was horrified, and I made no attempt to conceal the fact, blurting out all the months of repressed passion. ‘Oh so that was why you started staying behind in the bar to drink G and Ts instead of rushing off’, said Kath, while Frank, warming to the subject, insisted that the last thing they wanted to do was exclude me. So I was included, until, finally Kath retired to bed, and Frank and I found ourselves alone. Then, at last he said the words that extinguished the images of that untidy Birmingham flat: ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, I live with someone, and I love her’.
The next day, they both had terrible hangovers, and they left early. I listened to Vivaldi and lurched between the new fantasy material the night had provided, and the resolve to walk away from this ménage à trois, or even à quatre, if we counted the unknown woman in Birmingham.
My resolve lasted exactly two weeks. The group went to Ronnie’s again, but I stayed out of trouble in Brighton, working on my dissertation on Desperately Seeking Susan. Then one night, after a seminar, we went to the pub, and Frank was wearing the green jumper again. He and I walked back to Euston together, but we never got there. Instead we jumped into a taxi and went back to the room I was renting in a friend’s house in Queen’s Park. After that, we spent our London afternoons in that room. On the way we would buy tomatoes and mozzarella and then pick basil in my friend’s greenhouse. The heat of the greenhouse, the scented leaves, and the red, green and white on our plates were the prelude to the afternoon’s pleasures. Sometimes Frank would stay the night, and the next morning too. I never went to his hotel, as if that was part of the territory he shared with the woman in Birmingham, even though she never accompanied him, and I had the impression she knew as little about his London life as I did about his Brummie one.
There was an end of year party, at the house of one of the foreign students, Aleksi. It was a lunch party, but Frank and I arrived at 3pm. Our friends met us with a camera, filming our red-faced arrival, and providing an ironic commentary. We had betrayed the spirit of the group by becoming a couple, and an illicit one at that. Even though I begged for a copy, my wish was not granted, and I saw the film only once: there I was in the red tulip dress, trying to look nonchalant, while Frank was clearly horrified to be the centre of attention. That night we parted as usual at Euston, and Frank said the dark red tulips made him feel heavy, intoxicated. I liked the dress even more.
In September I started a new job in London, teaching French at a Polytechnic. I still had my room in Queen’s Park, and it was there that I broke it off with Frank, the first time. My friend soothed me with brandy and comforting words, even though her mind was by then on her own passion, which was to have a happier conclusion than mine. That Autumn she and I spent cosy evenings by the gas fire, watching Brookside and the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV, and encouraging each other to pursue passion in her case, and forego it in mine. I had acupuncture, and eventually psychotherapy. Nonetheless, the following spring I resumed contact with Frank. For four years we telephoned each other every week, and saw each other when we could, unless I was breaking it off, again.
I asked endless questions about his relationship and the woman. She was different from me in every way: small, dark, not English, a cordon bleu cook. Once he told me about their evenings – how he would wash up from the night before, so that she could cook, then they would eat, and drink wine, and he would make the coffee. On one occasion she stabbed his leg with a knife she was using to peel fruit, no doubt sensing his betrayal. He told me because I noticed the scar.
I knew I was behaving badly in relation to this woman, but I just wanted him to leave her, and I wrestled constantly with Frank’s consistent statements that he never would, and that he loved her.
In November 1993 I got chicken pox. By this time I was living alone in a flat in Kilburn. My mother came down to look after me, as I was in a pretty bad way. Frank was due that weekend, and when he phoned I realised that in my pock-marked and feverish state he was the last person I wanted to see. This was my punishment, I thought, for what I had done to her. Perhaps, after all my Oxford studies had left some traces – this was the Liaisons dangereuses, late twentieth century style. I wrote Frank a postcard, telling him of my new, and firmer resolve. This time it stuck, and a year later, I began a relationship that endured and was not rooted in betrayal. When I moved back to Sussex to live with this man, I gave Frank my address and phone number. He had asked me always to let him know where I was in the world. We spoke on the phone, and flirted a bit, and I knew it was impossible to see him.
But I did see him, once more. I was in Paris with my new partner, dining in Les Fontaines, rue Soufflot. I turned round and saw Frank at a table a few yards away, sitting next to a woman who answered the detailed descriptions he had given me years before, and opposite an older couple, almost certainly her parents. When we left I waited by the bar while our coats were brought to us. Frank was steadfastly ignoring me, clearly terrified that I would say hello. I did not. We went back to our hotel, and I spent the night writing a long letter to a French writer I knew, about lost love, and this strange rendez-vous manqué. The letter was never sent.
Several years later, I got a phone call one night. ‘It’s Rebekah’, ‘Rebekah?’ ‘Yes, I’m ringing to tell you that Frank has passed away. He was very ill. Please don’t write, or send anything’.
I don’t know why she rang, but I imagine somehow he asked her to, thinking he had better keep his side of the bargain, and let me know where he was, or rather, was not, in the world. And she respected his wish, treating me with more generosity than I had ever shown to her.
I grieved for Frank silently, in the midst of my happiness and security. In Bloomsbury squares, to this day, I think of him, of that summer, and my red tulip dress.