The meaning of life inside a holiday paperback

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THIS IS a tale of how a book, a piece of real literature, can change the way you look at things, make you appreciate the significance of an odd event in your own life for the first time.

To explain: I was sitting on a chilly beach in Cornwall, reading Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Latin-American Nobel Prize winner who also wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was one of a clutch of paperbacks I had chosen casually for my summer reading. Set in a tropical Caribbean town ruled by heat, storms, passion and fever, it seemed at first like an ideal escapist read, as one grey, grizzly day followed the next.

The book tells the story of Florentino Ariz's lifelong obsessive love for a once-beautiful young woman, Fermina Daza. After she jilts him he spends his entire life secretly waiting for her; despite a highly successful business career he never marries. And when her husband, the town's leading doctor, dies aged 81, after falling from a mango tree trying to catch a parrot, Florentino acts.

By now bald, toothless and plagued by a bowel disorder, he rushes to Fermina Daza's house just before the burial to declare his vow of everlasting love to her.

Fermina, bereft on the first night of widowhood, is stunned by his dramatic reiteration of a love that for her never existed. She thinks her life is finished. Now an old woman, she writes him an outraged letter.

It was at this point that I sat up in a state of shock. Marquez was writing fiction and truth, something I had witnessed years ago in an English suburb but never fully understood.

My uncle, newly retired, had died suddenly, leaving his devoted wife quite bereft. An elderly man of 78, a former acquaintance and work colleague of my uncle, then told my aunt of his lifelong love for her, and proposed marriage. His long, courtly letter arrived at breakfast time as she was preparing to go to church for the funeral. It was as much a surprise for my aunt as for Fermina Daza. She had only known this man, who now lived 200 miles away, as an occasional friend. She read the letter in astonishment and was apparently upset.

To those of us watching in our stolid English way, it seemed an extraordinary breach of both manners and protocol. An intrusion into grief. But reading Love in the Time of Cholera, I suddenly understood how old age can make a person impetuous, desperate to gamble and express the truth. Pent-up desire can last a lifetime and is not extinguished by age.

In the book,a gentle courtship starts, which mellows into letters, then weekly visits: Fermina's son and daughter-in- law act as chaperones while making up card games. It ends with the couple holidaying together, but outside society, on a riverboat isolated from the shore and the world beyond by cholera.

And so to my aunt. Her outrage gave way to letters. Letters were followed after several years by a round of decorous Edwardian-length holidays on the Isle of Man, at Sidmouth, Bournemouth, Torquay, Weston-super-Mare - all the sorts of places where elderly people go and where hotels still had single rooms. They ended up finally sharing a small cosy house in a village between their two former homes. My aunt refused to contemplate marriage because she was true to the memory of her first husband.

My aunt's friend died peacefully the other month, in bed, aged 97, perfectly content. The beautiful young woman he had secretly fallen in love with in his youth had turned into a plucky matron who cooked him roast dinners. They had fussed over each other into extreme old age. Both had benefited greatly from the flowering of a late love.

But it always seemed a relationship that the families concerned had smiled at and perhaps belittled. Those of us who had known of the original letter had remained unsure how to deal with the clear signs of passion in old age.

Then, when I read Love in the Time of Cholera, I finally understood I had witnessed something special and touching. Thank goodness there are novelists around to show us the true meaning of things. Do take care with your holiday reading.