Annecy, September 1982
I was expecting a visitor. The first, perhaps, in years. I can’t remember. I had a tidy up in recognition of this momentous occasion – threw away newspapers that should have been thrown away weeks, if not months, ago, cleaned the toilet, pushed the vacuum cleaner around. At five minutes past one, the doorbell rang. He was five minutes late. Not that I blamed him – trying to find this address in this backwater French provincial town near the Swiss border is no mean feat. And he’d come some distance – over 500 kilometres, all the way from Paris.
He’d phoned me a few days earlier. His name was Henri Bowen, a Frenchman with an English name, a journalist from one of the nationals, I forget which now. He’d said he was writing an article about people who’d made a name for themselves during the sixties but had since faded from public view. A sort of ‘where are they now?’-type piece. I had hesitated and told him I would consider it and ring him back. And I did think about it – in fact, I thought of nothing else all day. I was tempted, of course; it appealed to my vanity, a trait I thought I’d repressed years ago. Obviously not. For I was once a very vain man. But I was comfortable with that – to be a leading light in one’s chosen profession, a degree of vanity is a necessity. But since my downfall, no, let’s call it retirement, many years ago, I’d been content to fade into obscurity. Did I want to be remembered? Of course I did. The chance may never present itself again. The following day, I phoned up this Monsieur Bowen and, as I knew I would, told him yes, I’d be happy to be interviewed. He seemed delighted.
And here he is, sitting in my living room, the place smelling of air freshener. Good-looking fellow, slicked-back hair, positively shiny, tall, very pale, wearing a dapper cream-coloured suit, firm handgrip. ‘It’s lovely to meet you, Maestro.’
‘Oh please, Monsieur Bowen, less of the maestro. I’m a plain old Monsieur now, and happy to be so.’
He refused my offer of tea and biscuits, and, at my invitation, sat down on my settee which sucked him in, leaving him looking slightly awkward. He took in his surroundings and, I have to confess, despite my efforts at cleaning up, I felt a prick of shame. There was no denying it – I lived in such a mundane place. The chintzy carpets, the turquoise curtains, the squashy settee, the old-fashioned radio – nothing wrong with any of it but it must have seemed very ordinary to a thrusting young man like Henri Bowen. Given my former fame, given the respect I used to command, he must have expected a lot more. I could see the words written all over his face – ‘how the mighty have fallen’. He tried his best to cover up his embarrassment. ‘My parents had all your records,’ he said, almost falling over his words. ’They loved everything you did. I think the Richard Strauss was their favourite.’
I sat down opposite him, crossing my legs. ‘Your parents had fine tastes, Monsieur Bowen.’
He laughed politely. ‘As far as they were concerned, if it had your name on it then it had to be good.’ So, what happened? He didn’t say it – but from the expression on his face, he might as well have done. ‘Do you have any of your own records?’
‘No.’ His reaction obliged me to explain. ‘One’s musical direction changes all the time. What I felt was right twenty years ago, now makes me cringe. With age, I look back at my cavalier approach, and at the liberties I took, and I feel, well, if not embarrassed, then certainly a little bashful. I fear my younger self had a rather inflated opinion of himself, thinking he knew better than the composers he was trying to interpret.’
‘Do you listen to much music now?’
‘No, not often. I prefer Moroccan music nowadays.’
‘That surprises me. Do you mind if I take notes?’
‘Be my guest. Tell me, Monsieur Bowen, I don’t mind, but how long do you think this’ll take? It’s just that everyday at three, I like to pop over and visit an elderly neighbour. I like to make sure they’re OK.’
‘Plenty of time.’
As he organised himself with pad and pen, rummaging in his briefcase, he mentioned a photographer. ‘It’d only take a few minutes,’ he said. ‘She’s very good. Based locally. I’ll get her to give you a call.’
‘I used to have my photo taken every few minutes. This will be the first for many a year.’ I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Part of me was, for sure, thrilled, but the idea of the whole country seeing me, as I am now, a shadow of my former self, perturbed me.
‘You look different from the photos.’
‘We all get older, Monsieur Bowen.’
‘No, it’s not that – it’s something about your nose, I think. Sorry, that sounds rude.’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘Would you mind if I smoked?’
He took this little setback in his stride. ‘I read about you in the papers. I know, before your success as a conductor, you were a hero of the resistance.’
‘A hero? I may have exaggerated a little.’ Drumming my fingers on my knee, I tried to explain. ‘The words resistance and hero are too often merged together, as if by merely being in the resistance automatically made you a hero. Yes, I was in the resistance, as you know, but I never did anything remotely heroic.’ Bowen tried to speak. I cut him short with my hand in the air. ‘Yes, if I had been caught it would have been unpleasant but I was, how do you say these days, small fry. I was not on any list; I knew nothing. Occasionally, I’d be given an errand which might have carried an element of risk but that was about it. I would do my task, without fuss, and go home again.’
‘Yes, I read about what you said. Nonetheless, they must have been difficult times.’
‘Oh yes. One had no control over one’s life. I’d always wanted to conduct. Before the war, I had secured myself a place at a music college but the Germans invaded before I had chance to take up my place. After that… well.’ I waved my hands in the air. He understood. ‘Instead I was forced into conducting invisible orchestras while I played Vivaldi or Elgar, or whatever was that week’s favourite, on my father’s gramophone player. Before the war, we listened, as a family, to concerts on the radio but once the Germans took over, radios were banned.’
‘In case you listened to the BBC, or something like that.’
‘Precisely that. We had to hand our radios in. That was a sad day for me. But, really, Monsieur Bowen, about my war years, I have nothing to say that could be of interest to you. Except perhaps…’
He sat forward, his pen poised over his pad. ‘Go on.’
‘I met a woman once.’ He raised an eyebrow, a sort of man-to-man acknowledgement. ‘No, no, nothing like that.’ I laughed inwardly. If only it had been that simple, I thought. But no, this woman was to have a far greater impact on my life than any wife or mistress could ever have had.
‘Ah yes, the woman on the train. Of course, this is what our readers want to know – how you feel about it now, all these years later.’
‘It’s strange, isn’t it, how an innocuous meeting can have such repercussions, in this instance, many, many years down the line. She was much older than me for one thing. It was the summer of forty-two. I was just twenty years old. Still a boy really, although at the time I thought of myself as a man.’ I paused.
‘Are you OK, Monsieur?’
‘Yes. Just give me a moment.’
He leant back in the settee and gazed round the room, pretending to show an interest in the landscape paintings I have framed on the walls. Obscure paintings of no value by forgotten artists. Placing my fingertips against my temples, I tried to think. Did I really want to share this story with, in effect, the huge readership of a national newspaper? I had lost everything, pride was all that remained, and now I seemed on the verge of losing that too. I knew that for many people of my generation I was one of those ‘Whatever happened to…’ personalities. Was it not better for it to remain that way; to allow my former achievements to speak for themselves? I would regret it, I knew I would, but that vain streak was too strong to resist. I had had my years in the limelight followed by many more in obscurity. I thought I was old enough, mature enough, not to be tempted by the lure of fame any more. Could I resist one last passing shot at being at the centre of attention, at being the name on people’s lips? No, sadly I couldn’t; this was my one last grab at the chalice of infamy.
‘Maestro?’ He sat up, trying unsuccessfully to hide his enthusiasm.
‘You’re right, somehow my whole life has been influenced by, as you call her, the woman on the train…’
Read the rest of The Woman on the Train.