Briefly encountered, moments that can last a lifetime - Ian McMillan

I’m a big fan of that classic British film Brief Encounter, where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard meet on a railway station between trains and something powerful almost develops between them but in the end they both go back to their lives without ever really exploring the emotional connections between them.

There’s something persuasive and, yes, seductive about the idea of the brief encounter, the stolen moments, the strangers meeting each other with the possibility that they might become more than strangers.

I’m also interested, however, in the idea of the briefer encounter, the accidental meeting between people who almost certainly may never see each other again but who linger in the memory for years, indeed decades.

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Two of my briefest encounters spring to mind, one in France and one in Maine. They both happened in hotels, but not in a Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson kind of way.

Ian McMillanIan McMillan
Ian McMillan

The French was in Roscoff in Brittany, where we’d booked into a place at the end of a holiday that was near the ferry back to Plymouth.

My children were small, so it was at least thirty years ago, but I can vividly recall the sad face of the bearded man who checked us in and seemed somehow distracted, as though we were interrupting his reading, or possibly writing, of a great French novel.

We parked in the tight and tiny car park and because we had to be off very early to catch the ferry I became very worried that someone might block us in and we’d miss the boat.

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This meant that at regular intervals through the night I’d creep out of bed, trying not to wake the sleeping family in our huge room packed with the kind of heavy wooden furniture you used to get in French hotels, and look out of the window to make sure we weren’t hemmed in by a Citroen 2CV; amazingly, each time I looked out of the window the sad-faced man was there, gazing up at the stars, still (in my head and possibly in his) composing his novel.

And of course we didn’t get blocked in and of course we caught the ferry but I often think about that man, and whether he ever wrote the novel, and whether I feature in it at all, my head framed in a sash window.

Years later, when we were all a little older, we went to America on a fly-drive holiday and we found ourselves in Freeport in Maine, checking into a hotel on a bright afternoon in July.

It turned out it was the receptionist’s first day and she was a little nervous; we handed one of my eldest daughter’s blouses in to the hotel laundry and somehow it got lost and then somehow the nervous receptionist found it and brought it to our room.

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A few years after that we revisited the same hotel in Freeport and there she was, the same receptionist, more confident now, and in charge of the bloke who carried our bags.

I said to her ‘We came here before, a long time ago, and it was your first day in the job’ and she smiled and said ‘Yes, and I found your daughter’s blouse’ and it turned out that that tiny encounter had resonated with both of us down the years.

And in my head I wondered if she’d read the novel that the man in the hotel in Roscoff had written. If he ever wrote it, of course. And if she reads French novels in translation.

Those encounters, eh? I’ve got something in my eye.

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