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by Linda Mitchelmore

I was wearing a new dress that day. Cotton. Handmade on Mum’s old Singer sewing machine, because just about everything was in those days. The dress had a boat-shaped neckline which given what happened was more than appropriate. It was darted back and front to the waist, with a full skirt. Apple green penny-sized spots on a white background. With it I was wearing high heels – well, not very high at one and a half inches but the tips of the heels were like rapier points. The toes were only marginally less pointed. White leather from Freeman, Hardy and Willis. 29/6d. The whole ensemble was a world away from lace-up school shoes and navy serge uniform.

My Mum said I looked like a tart and surely I wasn’t thinking of going out like that. My Dad told me to ‘wash that muck of your face before you leave the house’. I ran a flannel over my lips which turned the pillar-box red lipstick to a more subdued rosehip, brushed out my jumbo-rollered hair into long, loose, waves – and left.

“Hello.” A man’s voice cut across the sound of waves flumping onto the shoreline, and the wind, and the screech of seagulls. I turned to see six sailors sitting on the sea wall. Two were wearing hats and I tried to read what ship they were from. Naval ships have always anchored in the bay from time to time. Sometimes the crew come ashore, sometimes they don’t.

“Don’t talk to them!” my friend Shelley said. “They’re foreign. Russian.”

“How can you tell?” I asked. I mean only one of them had spoken and only one word.

Shelley – who knew everything! – gave me a withering look and said, “Because that’s Russian letters on the hatbands. And…as you’re in the B set for Current Affairs, it’s probably missed your attention that we’re in the middle of a Cold War.”

“No it hasn’t. And anyway there’s a policeman over there, and he’s not arresting them, is he?”

I took a step nearer the sailors on the wall, but Ellen who was always joined at the hip to Shelley, grabbed my arm.

“Don’t Karen!” she said.

I shrugged her off.

“I’m only going to say hello back.” I turned my back on my friends and smiled at the sailors. “Hello.Welcome to Devon.”

“This dump!” Shelley snorted.

“Is nice place,” one of them said. The same sailor who’d said hello. “You like ice-cream?”

“Say no!” Ellen hissed. “They’ll spike it with something. Then they’ll drag you under the pier and…”

“In broad daylight? Don’t be stupid,” I said.

The sailor who’d spoken to us was talking in his own language to his mates now. Two of them slid off the wall. One of them counted up to nine on his fingers in English – six of them and three of us – and raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Yes, please,” I said. “A whirly whip with a flake in it.”

“Karen!” my friends said together.

“Oh, relax,” I said. “You can tell Mr. Strutt on Monday that you’ve been furthering Eastern bloc/British relations.”

The sailors came back from the ice-cream hut on the beach with fists full of cornets dripping everywhere and we shared them around, laughing as we tried to lick the drips before they dropped off. Even Shelley and Ellen were relaxing a bit now. I took my camera out of my bag and took a couple of snaps of the sailors on the wall and one of Shelley and Ellen with their tongues stuck out licking ice-cream for England.

The sailor who’d spoken to me finished his ice-cream and grabbed me by the waist and lifted me onto the wall. My petticoats sort of flew up around me and what with the ice-cream still in my hand, and trying to stop my hair flying all over the place in the breeze, there was a fair bit of stocking top that got flashed. I tossed what was left of my cornet to a seagull and frantically began flattening my petticoats.

Shelley grabbed my camera and began taking photos. I was in the middle, three sailors either side. No one was going to believe this – Karen Arthur who was just about the only girl in the class who’d never had a boyfriend with six potentials lined up. The sailor who’d said hello put an arm around my shoulder and I rested my head against his neck.

“I am Gregor,” he whispered.

“Gregor,” I said, rolling the name around my tongue. All his mates were talking in their own language. If they were Russian then it was a surprise to hear their speech not sounding like German as I’d imagined it would – all sort of guttural and hard, a bit sinister. The way they spoke sounded more flowing and French. “Where are you from?”

“Leningrad,” Gregor said.

“Formerly St. Petersburg. That’s in Russia, Karen,” Shelley sneered.

“I know that, thank you very much,” I said. Shelley’s know-all attitude was beginning to get to me.

“Yeah, and we’re going,” Ellen said. “Our boyfriends wouldn’t like it if they knew we were being chatted up.” She hoisted her bag halfway up her arm and sniffed haughtily. “Come on, Shell.”

Well, they weren’t being chatted up, were they? It was only me Gregor was talking to.

“You like walk?” he asked as Shelley and Ellen scurried off. I had a feeling this was the end of our little trio, but I didn’t care.

“Yes, please,” I said.

He made a V of his arm resting a hand on the waistband of his trousers, and I slipped my arm though his.

It was all very innocent. Girls were still virgins at fifteen in those days and intent on staying that way. We walked the length of the prom and back, me clicking along beside Gregor in my steel-tipped heels. Lots of people looked at us and smiled, because we must have looked amusing – Gregor well over six feet and so blond, and me five foot nothing with café-au-lait skin and raven-coloured hair.

“We go on sand?” Gregor said.

I didn’t think he meant as in lie down on it, so I slipped into the Ladies and took of my shoes and stockings.

Gregor jumped down from the prom to the sand and held out a hand to help me down. He didn’t let go of it either. The sand was warm and gritty between my toes and we giggled our way across the beach making funny foot patterns, still hand in hand. We made arches of our arms as we weaved ourselves around picnicking families and children bent over making sandcastles. The tide was coming in now and we paddled, the water warm as it slid over the hot sand. I couldn’t resist the urge to scoop up a handful of sea water and flick it over Gregor. He didn’t mind.

“I am sailor,” he laughed.

The sun was beginning to slide down the sky and I didn’t want the day to end. So, we went back up onto the prom and found a bit of space on a bench and sat squashed up together and shared a portion of fish and chips; Gregor with his arm around me, and me feeding him the hot, salty, vinegary chips. We wiped our hands on the chip paper and threw the wrappings in the bin beside our bench.

Then Gregor took some photos from the pocket of his uniform jacket.

“You live there?” I said.

He was holding a colour photo of what looked to me like a palace with gold onions and jewelled orbs on the top of ornate towers.

“No,” Gregor laughed. “This is Church of the Resurrection.”

He showed me photo after photo of beautiful buildings. And there was me up until now thinking Russia was all shacks in the woods and bread queues and bears and ice.

“Peter the Great Bridge,” he said, holding out another photo for me to look at. “In Spring big ice come down the river.”

“Like baby icebergs,” I said.

“When I no longer sailor,” Gregor said, “I will be artist.” From his other pocket he brought out a whole sheaf of photos of art work. They were wonderful. I was good at art but I never knew the Russians were too – they keep a lot of stuff from you at school, don’t they?

I sat looking at the photos, not saying anything for ages.

“Is beautiful, yes?”

“Very,” I said.

“You visit?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. My Dad worked on the lorries that tar the roads – fat chance of a holiday to Russia or anywhere else.

“One day,” Gregor said.

“Maybe,” I said.

A horn blasted then, and I could see a launch nearing the pier. Sailors seemed to be coming from all directions; some with girls; a few of them obviously the worse for a few beers in The Tembani.

“My boat,” Gregor said. “I go.”

“It’s been a lovely day,” I said. “Thank you.”

I had no illusions that this was going to be going anywhere.

“Tomorrow?” Gregor said. He stood up and stuffed his photos back in his jacket pocket. “I see you tomorrow? Here?”

“After lunch,” I said. Sundays were written in stone in our house – I knew I’d have lots to do before I could escape.

“My, my,” Mum said. “We are full of energy this morning.”

I’d cleaned the grate, and relayed the fire. I’d stripped the sheets from the beds and put them in the copper to soak ready for Monday’s wash. I’d cleaned all the vegetables for lunch even though I didn’t think I’d be able to eat a thing for excitement. And it was still only 10 o’ clock.

From the tone of her voice I had a feeling Mum had guessed I was going out.

“Well, seeing as you’re so far ahead with the chores you can take this bit of an apple turnover to Maisie Evans.”

I groaned. Maisie Evans lived twenty minutes walk away and I knew when I got there she’d find half a dozen things for me to do.

“You’re going, and no arguments,” Mum said.

So I ran all the way to Maisie Evans’ cottage, delivered the apple turnover, cleaned her grate, re-lit her fire, and helped her take down the kitchen curtains to wash them. And then I raced back again. I swear my feet hardly touched the pavement there or back.

Lunch was an agonizingly drawn out affair. Dad chose the time to quiz me about schoolwork and who my friends were and things like that. I wondered if he’d bumped into Shelley’s Dad in the pub and heard all about Gregor.

But eventually I got away. I was wearing the same polka-dot dress as yesterday, so that Gregor would pick me out easily in the throng of holidaymakers, and also because I didn’t have anything else pretty enough to wear on a date.

But there was a sea mist hanging over the bay and I could barely pick out Gregor’s boat. I couldn’t see him anywhere either. Perhaps he didn’t understand the word lunch and had given up waiting for me.

I sat down on the top of the steps that led up from the road to the pier and hugged my knees. The sea mist was making the air chill so I put my deeply unfashionable cardigan over my shoulders. I’d give him an hour to find me and then I’d go. The hour was almost up and the sea mist had begun to evaporate when I heard the putt-putt of Gregor’s launch. He came running down the wooden pier, his hat in his hand, his white-blond hair flopping over his forehead. His eyes were just as beautiful as I’d remembered them; there was a shade of blue in my water-colour box – cobalt – and I thought if I were to paint him that’s the one I would choose for his eyes.

“You wait for me,” Gregor said, holding out a hand to pull me to my feet. “I did,” I said.

Our hands stayed locked together and I said would he like to go to Fairy Cove, and he said anywhere would do if it was with me. I almost swooned when he said that.

Fairy Cove was my favourite place. Hardly any holidaymakers found it because you had to scramble down rocks to get to it, and be mindful of the tide so you didn’t get cut off.

I smoothed the pebbles away to make a softer place to sit in the sand below and sat down on my cardigan. Gregor asked if he could draw me in my polka-dot dress. Drawing was better than photographs he said – it had more feeling.

The afternoon was warm and I got quite sleepy sitting there – long enough and still enough for Gregor to make lots of drawings. I could tell he was good – very good. He said he would transpose the drawings to paintings when he got home. I didn’t think for a minute he would, but I hoped he might.

The tide had turned and was coming back in so we moved nearer the path we’d come down, ready to scramble up it at the last minute. We couldn’t be seen by anyone from where we sat, but Gregor didn’t try anything on with me – it was enough for us to talk and smile and laugh and touch hands now and then. Shelley said that every boy she’d ever been out with couldn’t keep his hands off her. Well, that’s probably because she let them.

Gregor hadn’t kissed me yet, but I knew he would soon.

The tide was almost up to our toes now when Gregor took a tin from his trouser pocket. Not any old tin but one that seemed to be encrusted with sapphires. When he opened it, it was full of tobacco.

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”

My Mum would kill me if I went home stinking of fags.

“Not to smoke,” Gregor said. “To have. For gift.”

He tipped the tobacco onto the beach, then blew in the tin to get rid of every last strand.

“I think you lovely girl.”

“Thank you,” I said as Gregor placed the tin almost reverently in my hands.

And then he cupped my face in his hands and kissed me on the lips. Shelley – who knew everything! – said I’d have to kiss a lot of frogs before I found my Prince. But, she was wrong – I’d found my Prince first time.

The kiss went on and on and I seemed to know what to do even though I’d never been kissed before. Oh, Shelley and Ellen where are you now? And then I thought – no, this is just between us, Gregor and me. It will be my secret, something to smile inside about during Physics or when Mum and Dad are rowing like mad, making the windows rattle with their angry words.

“In Russia we give decorated tins to lovers so they do not forget.”

“Lovers?” I said. That meant doing it and no way was I going to do it with Gregor, not even for a tin decorated with sapphires.

“Lovers is wrong word?” Gregor looked hurt at my response.

“No,” I said. “It’s a good word.”

Just the wrong time, I thought, but it would be too difficult to explain given the language difficulties.

Gregor gave me all the photos he’d shown me the day before and I put them in the tin.

And that was it really between Gregor and me because his ship left that night. I stood on the beach watching and waving until I couldn’t see its lights any more. Oh, and I gave him my address and he wrote something that looked like hieroglyphics down on the back of one of the photos. I wondered if I’d imagined it all, but I had my tin and my photos and the little warm spot in my heart as proof that I hadn’t.

Shelley and Ellen called me a slag and put it about that I’d slept with all six sailors. Word got back to Mum and Dad and I was grounded for months. The rows between them got worse and worse. And for a long time I really did think I was bad – I made a lot of bad choices after that anyway.

But in the darkest of times there has always been the memory of Gregor’s kiss and his kindness and the way he made that weekend special. It was the best weekend of my life.

But life gets in the way of love sometimes. For me that’s forty-five years, two marriages, and two divorces. And seven house moves, which means that Gregor and I have corresponded only sporadically; sometimes it was months or years before we were back in one another’s lives again. But it’s as though the thread of what we had that wonderful weekend couldn’t be broken, just frayed a little. I’ve kept every letter and card he sent because he paints beautifully with words and I’ve been there with him as he went to the theatre or the ballet. I’ve walked the banks of the river with him and seen the egrets and the pike. And I’ve sat down beside him while he painted the willows dipping their leaves into the water at sunrise and sunset. I rejoiced with him when Leningrad became his beloved St. Petersburg again.

So, it’s taken me a long time to get to where I am today….standing in the queue at Heathrow to get my passport checked. I’m flying to St. Petersburg to visit all the wonderful museums and the baroque churches and the bridges and the river at long, long, last.

A year ago I got a computer and I Googled Gregor’s name. I almost stopped breathing when it came up first time. He’d been very modest about his achievements in his letters but it seems he’s a well-known artist over there and his paintings are in lots of galleries. And I’m going to see them. He’s got work in museums too. Including one of me in the polka-dot dress.

Gregor’s widowed now. Me…well, let’s just say that despite my two marriages and a handful of relationships no one ever came close to Gregor for me.

My passport has been examined and I move toward the departures lounge. Getting closer. It may work out for us or it may not – but the fact Gregor has his painting of me in a museum must count for something. The tin he gave me is in the pocket of my jacket. I run my fingers over the decorated lid as though reading Braille – I know each stone, each shape, every pattern. They aren’t sapphires, of course – just coloured, faceted, glass. But they’re precious to me… and I’m taking them back to Russia with something that still feels like love.

At the time of this story, the early 1960s, liberty boats from foreign naval vessels often disembarked and picked up loads of sailors at the end of Paignton's well known pier, built in 1879.

Here's a present day view of this vast amusement arcade.

To return to Linda's home page click on the pier photo.