Once, after a particularly difficult day with Mum, Dad told us the story of their first Union Ball. It must have been 1963, at the end of their second year at Cambridge. There is a photo of them together that night which I know well. I used to pore over it, as though it held the key to understanding my parents, seeing them in the first flush of love. Look at them! They are both so happy. So young! This was before the time for mourning or weeping. This was their time to laugh; their time to dance.
The black and white of course lends the photo a certain glamour. But I imagine that even in harsh, unedited, high definition colour, my mother would still look like a film star in that wonderful ballgown, created by my talented grandma.
Their eyes have the sheen of a couple of young people who have drunk more alcohol than they are perhaps used to. Dad’s bow tie is askew and there is a slight tipsiness in his leering smile. Even so, there is much to be gleaned from this picture. Dad can’t tear his gaze away from Mum, while Mum is looking out of the picture, towards the photographer or a group of onlookers, perhaps. I have always thought how this photo encapsulates their relationship: Dad ever the loving protector, unable to drag his eyes from Mum; Mum always looking away, never quite inhabiting the moment, looking for something else – something better?
I am being harsh, and yet, when Dad talks of that evening, it makes us think, my sister and I.
‘As we left, your mother became quite over-emotional. She was sobbing her heart out. I was worried that I had hurt her or offended her in some way. I asked her what the matter was and she said, “I am just so happy. Tonight was so wonderful. What if I am never this happy ever again?”‘
We were silent as we watched him sigh and shake his head. ‘I suppose I should have known then, shouldn’t I?’ he said.
How could he? How could he have known, in the exuberance of youth, in the magic of a heady summer night when he was only twenty years old; how could he have had the faintest idea that the woman he had fallen in love with suffered from mental illness, from depression and anxiety which would go on to cripple her in later life? How could he have separated out the extreme highs and the beauty and excitement that went with that, from the lows and the agitation and seen this for what it was: a medical condition – something which needed professional support and careful handling? How could he have been so calculating when the very reason he had fallen in love with her in the first place was because she was so sparklingly different?