25 MARCH 2000, Page 56

Singular life

Come back, Matthew

Petronella Wyatt

Iused to dream about the French For- eign Legion. I used to yearn for some char- acter from P.C. Wren, who resembled Gary Cooper and spoke like Charles Boyer, to say he was throwing everything up because I didn't love him. He would make a wistful exchange of the pristine terraces of London for the darkened labyrinths of the murder- ous Moroccan souk. He would pound the desert sands, crying my name to the lucent night while sulphurous women whispered lewd entreaties.

No one enlists in the French Foreign Legion any more. The newspapers said the other day that a student was going to give it a go for his gap year, but not because he was unhappily in love. In the past, men did splendid things when they were spurned. They founded great expeditions, they went to search for the source of the Nile. At the very least they took Holy Orders. It was only polite. If your heart is genuinely bro- ken you can't carry on as normal, taking the dog out.

But when people these days are unhappi- ly in love, what do they do? If they join up with anything it is usually with Max Clif- ford. Or else they go into expensive reha- bilitation clinics like the Priory and drink tumblers of wheat grass juice. What ever happened to getting out of those wet tears and into a dry Martini?

Unhappiness isn't what it used to be. The style and panache have gone out of misery. Suffering has become so bland. Where are the loaded revolvers, the lone walk off Waterloo Bridge, the single pas- sage to Australia? A Hungarian friend of mine remembers a woman who, when tak- ing guests round the dining-room, would point upwards to the ceiling at a cluster of purple dots and remark, 'You see that dark stain up there? That's the mark that was left when Stainslas shot himself over Ewa. We leave it there as a memento.'

For the last few weeks I have been think- ing of shooting myself. I too have been unhappily in love. Bursting like the first canticles of spring I could no longer con- tain my girlish secret. So, four weeks ago, I confessed everything in this column. I was in love with Matthew Parris. Deeply, tor- ridly, hopelessly. I waited breathlessly for a response from the object of my affections. I had risked everything, my honour, my rep- utation, maybe even my salary. But noth- ing. Nothing. Not even a teasing note or the briefest of billets-doux.

But then. Yesterday morning I went to my pigeonhole in The Spectator's office. There was the soft insistent flutter of a manuscript. It was Matthew's column. I picked it up. Suddenly I read my name, or a fond abbreviation of it: Petsy. (Please don't call me that, Matthew, if our relation- ship is to have any future.) Imagine my astonishment, nay astounded delirium when I read on. He did care. He had spent hours of the day hoping, waiting, listening for my telephone call.

It was like one of those fateful love sto- ries, so tender and triste. For it is too late. In his torment, Matthew had decided to do something even more desperate than join- ing the Foreign Legion. He is leaving for the sub-Antartic. I have driven him to this. The Territoire Austral et Antartique Frangaise has invited him to join a danger- ous and interminable scientific expedition and he has agreed. No one has ever done this for me before. I am moved to the quick. Oh, Matthew, if only I had known before. He writes that the climate is terri- ble, the wind gale force, and the whole place is shrouded in a freezing fog. That's even better than throwing it all up for the Foreign Legion. The trouble with those Foreign Legion Johnnies, come to think of it, is that they all seemed to be having too good a time. They always ran into Marlene Dietrich or Hedy Lamarr; their sleeping quarters looked far too sumptuous for truly ascetic suffering. But Matthew will be in a Portakabin. I can see him, lying there, shiv- ering, as the hail pounds mercilessly against its tinny walls. Greater love hath no man. Please come back, Matthew. Please. You can even call me Petsy.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's got the best face-lift of them all?'