Who can ever trace beginnings? What made me a boy whose thoughts invariably turned to desire the moment school broke up and the trees grew heavy with whatever? Clearly there are Biblical precedents for finding gardens erotic, but other boys at my school were able to read the Old Testament without it making them soft in the head about lawns and shrubberies. The Ritz, that was where they headed to find romance the minute term was over. Or the Plaza. Everly Brothers on the turntable, spinning balls of splintered light above your head, Gladys from Accrington's head on the shoulder of your school blazer, and love followed as sure as day follows whatever day follows.
But not for me. School broke up and I was out haunting municipal parks. What did I hope to find? Truth, if you really want to know. But if truth eluded me, company. Someone sweet. Someone who smelt like grass. Someone I could thread dandelions with, which meant someone who could show me what dandelions looked like.
I was always between girlfriends in the summer holidays - that's to say I was always between not having one and wanting one. And if nothing showed up locally, by the bowling-greens and duck-ponds of Cheetham Hill, then I travelled further afield. One of my friends, Malcolm Meggitt, carried lists on his person of towns that had the most girls in them: Leicester because of the hosiery industry, Aldershot for the reason that all the men were in the Army, Dagenham on account of the all-girl pipe bands. I have no idea where he obtained this information or whether any of it was genuine, and we never got around to testing it - not in each other's company, anyway - I suppose because we didn't want to suffer the indignity of failing where sociology showed it was impossible to fail. Besides, Dagenham and Aldershot sounded altogether too inorganic for my taste. And the people of Leicester were notorious floricides.
I had my own preferred list. Chester, where the Dee tinkled like fairy bells and the riverbanks were grassed like carpets. Harrogate, which threw year-long flower-festivals and where even the main roads were laid to lawn. Buxton, where the fainting daughters of the northern aristocracy went to take the waters, and where the earth was so rich in health-giving minerals, you had only to suck on a stick of hay - or however hay came - to be cured of every ailment. But Malcolm no more fancied Buxton than I fancied Leicester. So he went where his list took him, and I followed mine.
In order to compensate for the inherent ponciness of looking for love in orangeries and allotments, I wore dark glasses, a maroon hand-me-down smoking jacket, a yellow Paisley cravat from Austin Reed, and lovat-green suede shoes. Since I was wearing a smoking jacket, I thought it behoved me to smoke. Stuyvesants in the squashable packet. Two a month in term time, but one every five minutes in parks. That my face blazed hotter than a blacksmith's furnace goes without saying. It's embarrassing to be an outcast in nature. Even the flowers know you've come to the wrong place.
I must have been a fearful sight. It's a long time since I made a public apology in this column, but I make one today to all those women - they will be grandmothers now, if they've survived at all, in-patients of sanatoria all over the north of England - who were unlucky enough to be surprised in a parterre of geraniums by a creeping, red-faced boy with a voice as husky as the Boston Strangler's and smoke coming out of his ears.
"Excuse me, I don't suppose you've seen a short fat man with ginger hair go by recently, have you?" That was my line. Don't ask me where it came from. It's possible that I was making an unconscious connection with Cain, the other wanderer, whose hair was reputed to be red.
But I have no idea what advantage I thought would accrue to me, however they answered. "Yes, I have just seen a short fat person with red hair." Then what? Would you care to lie down with me among the sphagnum and swallow my smoke rings?
Mainly, the unfortunates I approached didn't answer me at all. I suspect they were too shocked by my demented appearance to know what to say. That some suffered seizures I don't doubt. That others would have miscarried on the spot, succumbed to hysterical blindness or gone instantaneously mad, I am also prepared to believe.
Perhaps I exaggerate the dreadful spectacle I presented. I was only 14. How dreadful can anyone look at 14? But it was the unwontedness of my presence that was so shocking - black desire suddenly showing up, like the carrier of plague, in the quiet of a late-July rose-garden. The invisible worm that flies in the night, except that I was visible. The Devil, stripped of all disguise, breathing Stuyvesants in Eden.
And maybe that's all evil is: alienation from nature. Had I only known what trees were heavy with, I might never have turned bad.Reuse content