As I stood outside the flats, she walked down the road, on the pavement on the other side. It was a hot, sticky day and I was in the shade of the marble-faced canopy. She was in full early afternoon sun, but it didn’t bother her.
Behind her, where she had been, a fight that had started on the beach had spilled onto the road, cars stopped as police officers tried to pull apart two gangs of sunbaked, half-drunk teenagers. Bottles flew. She had walked through the middle of it.
She was tall, but not so tall she looked awkward. Her legs were long, but not out of proportion. She was wearing a summer dress in some light fabric that at once floated free, but also defined every curve of her figure. It had a long slash up the side, and with each stride there was a hint of muscled leg. Not the muscle of working out, but of good long walks and swims in cold lakes and riding a bike down country lanes or a horse across fields and over hedges. Apart from the tattoos on her ankles and calves, dark against her softly tanned but still pale skin, she could be one of those healthy outdoors women from the 1930s.
She had that kind of English beauty we associate with the 1930s, too. She had a firm jaw, straight mouth, good cheekbones, brown eyes with just a hint of some other indescribable colour, and just the right amount of freckles. Her hair was a slightly messy grown-out bob, a natural brown colour that spoke of countryside and haystacks and horseriding.
She was, effortlessly and easily, one of the most beautiful women in the history of the world. It wasn’t anything obvious, not a showy beauty, but was the result of everything being in some perfect balance.
She barely glanced at me, that first time, but in the following five years, as I grew older while she stayed exactly the same, she would quietly tell me her story. That, she had decided in that first short moment, in one glance across the street, was my role – to be her scribe, her storyteller.
She told me that, before history books were written, small wars were fought over which king of Kent or Sussex could have her, although none ever owned her. The earthworks on Cissbury Ring were built to impress her.
The first Roman invasion was led by an Emperor who had heard of her beauty. He built her a palace at Fishbourne, near Chichester. For 400 years, Emperors paid her tribute.
After his invasion, William the Conqueror rode straight to the castle in the Wealden forest where she lived. Her middle ages, her rebellious years, inspired the character of Maid Marion, in the Robin Hood stories.
She was in France, in 1848. In one telling, she was in the crowd outside the Palace, in another she helped Louis-Philippe onto the boat that took him to England. Either is possible, both are likely.
She modelled for Pre-Raphaelite painters – she is an Ophelia you will have seen, a Lady of Shalot that is a popular postcard, a Salome that was a best-selling Athena print in the 1970s – and she inspired a rambling laudanum-induced epic by Rossetti which he refused to publish and destroyed in the year before his death.
She distracted Prince Albert, if only momentarily, and later became Victoria’s trusted companion. She invented a small, portable steam engine.
In the sunny years before the First World War, at a garden party in the grounds of a famous theatre designer’s country house in the Sussex Weald, she so besotted a Prime Minister that he named a dreadnought for her. If you have read his diaries, she is ‘K’.
On a hot day in June 1914, she took her lover Gavrilo to Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen, for the best Börek in Sarajevo. He was supposed to be waiting a street away for an Archduke to pass by.
She gets a passing mention in the Bloomsbury set’s letters, books, and poems – sometime Kay, sometimes Kate or Kathleen, it seems they were all a little bit in love with her. There is a painting of her naked on the sitting room wall at Charleston farmhouse. They danced like flickering paper around her fire, rising into the air and crumbling into ash.
The Mitford Sisters, too, all reference her in their writing. Some biographers have her down as a cousin, some as a schoolfriend, some as the dalliance who defined Decca’s politics. But she was there, whatever her true role, to meet Unity at Dover.
She stands behind Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in a famous photo, the only woman, lazily assumed by male historians to have been a stenographer.
She rode with Elizabeth, and was Philip’s lover. When Britannia was built at the shipyard of John Brown & Co. on Clydebank, it had a special cabin for her. In a nuclear war, she’d have been onboard.
In 1956, she is photographed kissing a Hungarian soldier before the Russians came. She is pictured sitting on top of the Berlin Wall the night it fell.
Her tattoos, of course, echoed the stories she told me. She would step out of her dress and stand in just her black underwear (always black) to show them to me.
On her right shoulder, a line of runes left by a Viking warrior, in oak ink. Below her left buttock, a line of latin placed there by the Centurion of the 9th Legion, who had been sent to find her after she fled the approaches of an upstart Emperor. The Centurion had betrayed the Emperor, had become her lover.
The word ‘Peace’ in a handwritten flourish across her right hip had been written by a soldier she met working as a nurse in a Field Hospital on the Western Front.
The heart with ‘PAUL” on a ribbon, on the back of her right ankle, was from Memphis, a souvenir of a trip there with The Beatles who were visiting Elvis. On her left, an anchor, souvenir of a weekend with Blondie and the Television in New York, 1976.
All of these memories, and more – the smell of the Titanic, the taste of Marilyn Monroe’s lips, the sound of a continent at the exact moment European settlers arrive for the first time – are collected in the Moleskine notebooks I wrote in as she told them to me, and in some three hundred digital recordings of her voice. For five years, we met once a week, and I took notes in longhand as I recorded her voice on my phone.
Last week I met a publisher, but it came to nothing because her story is frankly unbelievable without her physical presence in the room. When she is there, it is so obviously real.
But she has gone again, and I am just a middle aged man with a strange story. She is somewhere else in the world now, which must mean that history is about to happen there. If I knew where, I might find an honest end to this story, or perhaps the perfect beginning for another.
At the moment, I’m running a series of online writing workshops for veterans with Company of Makers. One of the exercises was to write about a character, based on a real person. I wrote a few sketches of people, and then got carried away after listening to Sympathy For The Devil turned up loud.