It was the end of May 1975. I had come back early from my year abroad in Spain – specifically in order to vote to join Europe in the referendum of that year. And what a difference to all our lives that vote made. I came back at the end of May, the vote was June 5 and the following week I was engaged. The weather was beautiful, I had eighteen essays to write before I went back to Sheffield University in October, and it was the best of all possible worlds.
Or so I thought for precisely one week. The weekend was going to be sublime. I went with Stephen to his mother’s house in Aldeburgh. She lived in Cross House, the most beautiful cottage overlooking the sea, and took in the occasional paying guest to make ends meet. Sometimes Stephen’s friends were P.G.s and sometimes we were real guests. This time I was going to be a real guest – the future daughter-in-law. I was very excited and happy and in love. Or so I thought.
Saturday lunchtime we are sitting in her back garden – walled, sunny, full of gorgeous mature camellias and other plants – and I’m relishing every moment. When suddenly Naomi takes a ring off her finger and gives it to me saying I am to have it as my engagement ring. It was a beautiful ring – a large ruby, with two enormous diamonds either side, set in a fairly wide gold band. I took it – what else could I do? And put it on, and immediately took it off again saying it was too big. She took it back, saying she would get it altered. Meanwhile my thoughts were racing. I did not want to marry “Mummy”. I loved Naomi very much, but I did not want to be engaged to her! All I could think of was that Stephen should have given me a ring – any ring, not necessarily a family heirloom – and he hadn’t. it was at that point that I knew the marriage was not to be.
Two weeks later we were back in London – meanwhile I had gone to Sheffield to do some work, quite unsuccessfully, and Stephen had come up for a few days. We had quite a nice time I think, but it was awkward, my knowing what I knew and him wondering about our future too, as I later discovered – and we decided to meet in Daquise, our favourite café in South Kensington. Both of us were on edge. Both of us had something important to say.
“You first,” said Stephen.
“I don’t know how to say this kindly, but I don’t think we should get married. What did you want to say?” said I
You should have seen the look on his face. The relief, the joy.
Neither of us really wanted to get married at all. It had seemed the obvious thing to do to all our friends as we were and are really close and fond of one another. But marriage – out of the question.
We then proceeded to celebrate with coffee and delicious cakes (they don’t make them any more) and to have a disengagement party. All very sophisticated. And fun.
But I still had eighteen Spanish essays to write – I should have done them in Salamanca but I was too busy writing letters to all my friends, and now time was running out. A few days in Kensington library helped to break the back of my responsibilities – but the weather was still beautiful, and it was holiday time after all. Stephen was working in Gabbitas Thring Educational Trust and had to take a holiday. He didn’t know which way his life was going to go – definitely not marriage to me, but what? So he decided to go on a pilgrimage, to San Damiano di Piacenza in Italy where an invalid woman saw visons of Our Lady every day and was blessed also by Padre Pio. Stephen always liked the idea of visions – I not so much.
Yet on a whim I decided to go too. I wasn’t very excited by the pilgrimage part, but the journey was going to be interesting. We had to do it very cheaply as I had no money to speak of. My father was most helpful in that he arranged accommodation for us in Milan.