March 4th, 2009



Today I was reminiscing about the Colony Holidays that I attended in the early seventies. Thinking about my old girlfriend Alena, I looked her up on Facebook and learned of her death less than two months ago on 12 January 2009. I have been trying to trace her for years but I had forgotten that her given name was Alenka and that Alena was a contraction of that.

We first met in August 1971 at a Colony Holiday run near Chichester for members of the Puffin Club and we became frequent penpals. A few years later I went to stay with her at her parents' home on the edge of the tiny village of Eastbury near Lambourn in Berkshire. Her father was the painter Anthony Dorrell and Daphne, her mother, was a translator who was later elected a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

On my first visit I hitchhiked as far as Newbury but failed to get any more lifts and had to walk the last thirteen miles along country lanes through Boxford, Welford, and Great Shefford, where I stopped at the Swan Inn for the most refreshing shandy of my life having just walked ten miles in the summer sun.

The Lodge, a timber bungalow standing alone among fields, had been her parents' home for about ten years and was filled with books and mementoes of their travels throughout Europe and to China. I loved her father's study, which was entirely lined with books except for the window and the door. Every evening he would read to us for a while and I have never forgotten the words of Ben Travers' Rookery Nook, which was the play that he read on that first visit. Alena and I spent summer and winter days walking in the fields to the east of Eastbury, chatting among the books, and canoodling on her narrow bed. A few years later the family moved to Pinner on the outskirts of London and in 1978 they moved again to Cambridge.

Alena was often ill. She had been a sickly child and missed a lot of school but she read voraciously and had a vivid creative imagination. She had a fragile beauty; in a letter written some years after our romance had ended she described herself as "still having too many thoughts and too many red gold curls". Even now I cherish the memory of that golden hair and the soft freckles that covered her face and shoulders. She looked glorious and her clever funny world view was perpetually freshly entertaining to me. In the last letter that I received from her she was planning to go to drama school. I guess that that is what she did because now I learn that she became an inspirational drama teacher at the American International School of Budapest. Did she go to Dartington as she hoped?

In 1987 Alena's father succumbed to the emphysema that had troubled him for years as a consequence of his heavy smoking. I learned this a few years later but I had lost contact with Alena and could find no way to trace her at that time. In 2003 a website was created about her father but the webmaster replied to none of my emails and I let it slide. When I made enquiries about Daphne with the Institute of Linguists, I was told that she had died in 2004 [Since writing this, I learn that I was misled; Daphne is still alive]. And, as I type that, I remember that Alena's middle name was Daphne.

Alena's parents were enormously kind to me and they influenced me greatly. My plans for my basement library, which were thwarted last month by the shallowness of the house foundations, were based heavily on Tony's study. And to this day I yearn for a copy of the five-volume Mid Century edition of The Times Atlas of the World that Daphne described as 'an essential tool commended to any educated household'. They were lovely people and their daughter was a treasure. And so, here I sit deep in the night mourning the loss of something and someone already long lost to me; someone so nearly found; a prize missed by just seven weeks; and in a midnight voice, softer than a dove's, I hope I speak superbly of our lost loves.