I was in love when I was five. Or I may have been slightly younger. I can't remember precisely when I first met her. Her name was Marie-Clare. She was one day older than me.
Of course I wouldn't have called it love then. I didn't know what the word love meant. But she felt like an extension of myself. I was a part of her, she a part of me. So it was love.
Her father, like mine, was in the army. Hers was a lancer, mine an infantry officer in the East Surrey Regiment. We were in Malaya as it was then know, or Malaysia today. It was the time of the so-called troubles. So-called, I believe, because to have called it anything more accurate, like a war as in the war in Vietnam that was to follow, would have called into being treaty obligations that Britain couldn't face or probably couldn't afford at the time. It was in the early fifties and this country was still recovering from World War II.
My father had volunteered for the war and stayed on as a regular after. It was brave of him to return to Malaysia. Brave beyond belief. He had been captured at the fall of Singapore and spent three years as a Japanese prisoner of war on the infamous Burma-Siam railway. A situation made all the more painful by the fact he had grown up in Rangoon. His grandmother was Burmese, making him a quarter Burmese. Making me an eighth Burmese. My left arm is Burmese. Burma had held happy memories for him till he had to work on that railway.
My father should never have gone to war. He had a stone in his kidney, which, I believe, is one of the most painful conditions possible. It was so painful even the Japanese gave him pain killers. Or so I am told. Perhaps it is a piece of family mythology. The stone in his kidney wasn't. I saw the scar.
Marie-Clare. We breathed the same air. I don't think adults understand the intensity of feeling, the purity of passion, that small children experience. At that age emotion cannot be rationalised. It is experienced as concretely as a No 25 bus. There is no self-reflection, no analysis, no gnawing doubts. It just is.
I used to go to Marie-Clare's home everyday. She and her younger sister, Henrietta, had a governess, Miss Black. So I would join them for 'classes'. I cannot remember a single detail concerning Miss Black. Neither her age, height, the colour of her hair, nor how she dressed. Nothing. I just remember this warm snuggly feeling. A glow. An envelope. Somewhere safe. Someone who allowed us to be happy, who responded to us as children and encouraged us to be children. Not small adults.
I recall once making ice-creams out of the cone shaped receptacle of some flower for the fairies in the garden. This was Malaya, remember, so the vegetation was very exotic. Still is no doubt. As was the wild life.
Another incident I remember is of us children shrieking with delight and terror and jumping onto the girls' bunk beds because a snake had been found in the house. Snakes were commonplace. And also very dangerous, the most common being kraits, or bungarus, relatives of the cobra.
My mother tried to warn me of the dangers.
"Davey," she said, "if you ever see a snake you must run away as fast as you can."
"I can kill it easy," I replied, a macho four year old at the time.
It was not the response she wanted to hear. Sigh. However, I am still here.
Marie-Clare, one day older than me, and I were engaged. I can't remember when or where we agreed to get married. But we did. I vaguely recollect being with her under some building - lots of the older buildings were raised above the ground because of termites, snakes, etc. I am sure we were discussing our nuptials at the time. If I remember correctly there was a tiny but perfectly formed hornets' nest housing huge and perfectly lethal hornets dangling from the underside of the building. We didn't stay long.
And we never got married.
One day Marie-Clare told me she was going to Hong Kong. I had never heard of Hong Kong. It sounded like the noise of a cowbell to me. I didn't take her seriously.
But one day she was gone. To Hong Kong. Suddenly it shed its musical ring to sound more like a knell.