‘Englishmen are boring,’ I told my then boyfriend. It was his third phone call. He didn’t like that I was getting ready for a British Embassy cocktail party in honour of a Royal Naval visit to Helsinki. I was going as a favour to a friend from work, Maria. She’d been unlucky in love.
It was October 1980. My lectures at the School of Economics hadn’t started yet, and I was working as a summer intern at a bank in the centre of the city. One of the permanent ladies in the bank was married to a Finnish naval officer and organised an invite for Maria. She asked me to go along, ‘You speak good English, I bet.’ She was right. Languages came easy to me. I’d lived in Sweden as a child and studied English from the age of seven.
My rented flat, which belonged to the aunt of my boyfriend, was a little away from the centre, on an island, but still within Helsinki city limits. Maria lived in Töölö, in the Northern part, while the Embassy was in the South. Maria’d asked me to come via her flat, so she didn’t have to arrive at the party alone. Five minutes before I set off, the telephone rang.
‘I can’t go, I have nothing to wear,’ Maria said and burst into tears.
I glanced at myself in the hall mirror. After four outfits I’d chosen a black and white crepe dress which hugged my body. I’d lost a bit of weight in the last week (on purpose) and was fairly happy with what I saw.
‘Nonsense, I’m just leaving. See you in about half an hour.
Maria’s face was scrubbed clean, with no trace of make-up. At twenty, I was three years younger, but I became her mother and told her what to wear. She even made up her face again. After the fights about the party with my boyfriend, the two hours of preparation and the bus and tram journey to Töölö, I wasn’t going to give up on seeing the inside of the British Embassy now.
It didn’t disappoint. The chandeliers were sparkling, the carpets soft, the antique furniture gleaming. We were early – the invitation was for 18.30 and we arrived 25 past six. I didn’t know in England one must be late for everything, especially parties. In Finland tardiness was considered rude.
Maria and I were welcomed by the Ambassador and his wife, who to my horror wore a long dress. We settled into a corner of a brightly lit room and sipped sherry out of peculiarly small glasses. A few people in the vast room were talking in small groups. Some of the ladies glanced at us and smiled, but most were unconcerned with two Finnish girls, shyly staring at their shoes, trying not to look out of place.
After about an hour, and three sherries, we’d had enough and decided it was time to leave. ‘Do we have to say goodbye to the Ambassador and his wife?’ Maria asked nervously. It was then that a large group of men burst through the door, noisily crowding the makeshift bar. Suddenly the room was filled with laughter. We were pushed deeper into our corner.
A tall, slim man in a Navy uniform stood in front of me. He had the darkest eyes I’d ever seen. He reached out his hand, ‘How do you do?’ and gave me an electric shock. He asked for my name over and over, as if he wanted to memorise it. Though his language was foreign, his manners strange (he was extraordinarily polite), his laughter too loud, I felt I’d known him all my life.
At the end of the evening he said he wanted to see me again.
‘I have a boyfriend,’ I said.
But he insisted, even after I told him I was engaged to be married.
‘You’re too young,’ he persisted.
People were leaving, it was getting embarrassing to stay under the bright lights of the chandelier. But he wouldn’t let me go. Finally giving in, I scrawled my number onto a paper napkin with my lipstick. (We couldn’t find a pen anywhere).
Outside on the steps of the Embassy he kissed me to the cheers of the officers of HMS Newcastle. I was mortified. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow,’ he whispered as I stepped into the taxi.
Two days passed and I heard nothing.
I told my boyfriend, or fiance, I was ill, but I was really filled with fury. He’d been right, I should never have agreed to go to the cocktail party. Luckily he didn’t know what a fool I’d been, taken in by a foreign sailor. Thank goodness all he’d got out of me was a quick, stolen kiss.