Politely, I knocked on his door and waited.
While You See a Chance, Take It.
Henry married me because of a hedgehog. I married him because of the recording artist, Steve Winwood.
I had long been cunning in my resistance to marriage, while believing all along that I wanted it. That contradiction was almost certainly inspired by watching my parents’ years of mutual unhappiness and sitting at the joy-free table of Sunday lunch where, no matter how good the food (and it was, it was!) there was constant emotional indigestion in the air. With middle-class angst, too much puppy fat and enough training in not showing off to make me dull as ditchwater, I believed no one worth
having would want me. I didn’t realise that my strategy of falling in love only with those who were unavailable was also an effective defence. I can’t say the men I languished over were commitment-phobes; most of them were seriously committed — committed that is to steam engines, amateur dramatics, their own reflection or their wife.
And yet, one day, at the ripe old age of 32, I found myself in the far reaches of China, being proposed to by an ordinary, unassuming, perfectly pleasant, grey-haired man, nine years my senior, whom I’d met just seven days before. He had never even kissed me and I’d not looked at him twice — apart from asking him to lend me the money to buy a live hedgehog which someone had bought at a market and was taking home for supper. I hired a taxi to take me out into the country to release the hedgehog back in the wild and Henry offered to come with me in total amazement at what daft and soppy things this woman was prepared to do.
We were in the north east of Jilin Province to make a television documentary and he had just been out late that night to record something known as ‘wild track’ — ambient sound for editing into the film.
I heard him come in at about 9pm and took him a mug of cocoa, because I was nice, that’s all. I’d have done it for any of the crew. It was sub-zero outside; there was no heating in the hostel and I’d travelled in China for long enough in the 1980s to know that sachets of hot chocolate were a survival aid, not a luxury. You could activate them with the constantly-present thermos of hot water left in every room for the ubiquitous tea.
I didn’t fancy Henry a bit, that honour was currently reserved for the (married of course) production manager.
He opened it, looked understandably surprised; accepted the metal mug and asked me in.
I went, diffidently. He asked me some questions about myself and indicated that I should sit down so I perched politely on the end of the single bed.
He said ‘thank you for the cocoa.’ And then said something weird that my brain threw into the trash bin before it could be presented to my consciousness. Something about the rest of his life.
I said, ‘What?’
‘I’m asking you to marry me,’ he said.
In north-east China in 1988, there were no mobile phones, no email, no social networks, not even normal telephones which I could have used to bolster up my defences by phoning a friend. I was as far out of my comfort zone as I possibly could be, filming a TV documentary with a herd of strangers who expected me to know what I was doing when I didn’t. I was cold, tired, terrified, disorientated, lost, lonely and out of barriers.
So I said, ‘Perhaps.’ That was because I was nice. It seemed rude to say ‘You must be out of your tiny mind!’ to someone who was either being very kind or who genuinely was out of their tiny mind.
‘Excuse me, I have to go now,’ I added, politely and got up.
He nodded, smiled and opened the door for me.
Yes, I did look back down the corridor when I got to my room to see if he was watching me. He wasn’t.
I didn’t have any experience of marriage proposals and I was more perplexed than anything. I slept perfectly well until about 6am and then was wide-awake for no obvious reason. It wasn’t the light; that morning was dull and overcast. It wasn’t the birdsong; you don’t get birdsong when the local population has eaten all the birds. I had politely eaten sparrows on many previous visits to China though I never managed to cope with sucking the out their brains bit which was, according to my interpreter, a delicacy.
It was murky and cold so I clambered into every layer of clothing I could find and went out, as bulky as the Michelin Man, for a walk in the birches and aspens of Jilin Province. We were filming at a forestry railway at Shan He Tung and staying in temporary rooms that the lumbermen and railwaymen used while they were chopping trees, replanting and extending the line. There was no town nearby so supper and breakfast had been brought up with us on the narrow gauge train; it was a wonderful excuse for our hosts to banquet and drink though we had all (at my warning) been very careful not to drink much of the firewater they call Mau Tai which could blow half your brain out without a detonator.
It was only very early autumn but already the trees were mottled with gold and we were high enough for the sun to be rising across the valley below me. It was not going to be a particularly dramatic sunrise; there was too much cloud and the sky was dull grey rather than silver. I walked, my mind full of that day’s filming and whether, as a first-time documentary director, I would be able to continue to fool the rest of the crew that I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking about Henry’s proposal — in the cold light of day, that was plainly ridiculous. But I did have my Walkman on, mostly because the aforementioned lack of birdsong was rather depressing.
Once I was warm enough, I stopped walking and sat down on a log to watch the dawn. I changed the cassette and the introduction to the first track of the often-listened-to Arc of a Diver by Steve Winwood began to sound in my headphones.
I put the previous cassette in the pocket of my anorak. And, as I did, I kid you not; a tiny sunbeam broke from the dark clouds and flowed across the fingers holding the cassette recorder. As I looked down at the unexpected warmth, it began to expand, widening until the light shone right into my eyes, making me screen them with my hand.
I stood up, the better to see the emerging dawn and, as I did, Steve began to sing:
‘Stand up in a clear blue morning, until you see what can be. Alone in a cold day dawning, are you still free? Can it be?
‘When some cold tomorrow finds you; when some sad old dream reminds you; how the endless road unwinds you. While you see a chance take it. Find romance, fake it. Because it's all on you.’
‘It’s not a clear, blue morning,’ said the critic. ‘You couldn’t be that stupid!’ it added as my thoughts turned to Henry Barley, still asleep in the basic accommodation below. But I knew, I knew that Nemesis had found me. I knew that I would go back down that hill and say ‘yes’ to marriage to a man I barely knew and certainly didn’t love. It was time. It was time to surrender: to learn how to love a real human being and to learn how to be loved in return.
Henry died one year and six days after our wedding — on 16th February 1990. It was a wonderful time for the first six months and a terrible time for the second after he received a terminal diagnosis. Those last months, a time when we were still falling in love, were gruelling as he suffered with malignant melanoma and finally died from chemotherapy. But even so, I have no regrets. I learnt how to love and be loved and, when I was ready was able to be loved again. And I was able to be there for the last year of a wonderful man's life to make sure that it was filled with love and as much happiness as possible.