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Summer of Love

San Francisco, June 1967

When the taxi dropped Connor in the centre of Haight-Ashbury outside a tall, thin Victorian terrace sporting bright yellow walls, he was as excited as a red setter chasing a stick. Once he had settled into his digs - a bed and bathroom but no kitchen - he left his bag and headed down the creaky spiral stairs and into a new world. At the front door, he bumped into Tony the landlord, from whom he had earlier collected the key, a giant, hirsute figure, like the singer from Canned Heat.

'Off to check out the Haight, man?' said Tony.

'Can't wait,' said Connor.

'Anything you need, just let me know.'

'I'm hungry,' said Connor. 'Any suggestions?'

'Sure thing. Down the street, turn right, follow the road to the intersection and look for Kosmic Kitchen. You can't miss it. The walls are painted sky blue, with orange flowers. And the food is the best in town.'

As Connor strolled southwards in search of lunch he felt that he had entered another world, a galaxy away from the furnaces of Sheffield. The rows of houses and shops were painted with all the pigments in the artist's pallet, while his hometown prided itself on its steely history of grey and brown. Sheffield was steeped in industrial tradition; the Haight was here and now in its lived experience and future-oriented in its hopes and dreams. He could feel it in his psychological bones: something important was happening, a challenge to the traditional order, a libidinal release that would topple the Law of the Father.

Connor observed this new world with the eyes of the anthropologist he hoped to be, Claude Levi-Strauss perhaps, exploring the culture of a strange land with its exotic language, rituals, and deeply held meanings. He observed a raw energy in the streets that he had not experienced before: a young man with shoulder-length blond hair wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt crossed the road in front of him, a dark-haired woman dressed in sunshine yellow dungarees carried a mandolin over her shoulder and parked opposite him a rainbow van took its rightful place in the Haight's star-lit universe. This was the most exciting place he had ever been.

When he arrived at Kosmic Kitchen, Connor couldn't find a seat, despite walking twice around the café. He was about to give up when his attention was captured by an ebony-haired young woman with arresting sapphire eyes. He glanced at her and she smiled.

'Hey, man. Come and join us if you want to,' she said.

'Thanks. That would be great.'

Connor sat in the spare seat opposite the woman whose angular beauty was unsettling, in an offbeat, A-flat kind of way, like a Picasso portrait. When he finally peeled his gaze away from her face, he shifted his eyes only as far as her psychedelic T-shirt that featured a golden woman surfing across a star-spangled purple sky.

'Hi, I'm Connor,' he said, breaking his trance.

'I'm Frankie. This is Jerry,' she said, pointing to the man sitting beside her. 'Cool accent, man. Where you from? Canada?'

'England.'

'Living here?

'Just visiting, I'm afraid.'

'And what's your bag back home?' said Jerry, who sported a long beard and wild spiky hair. Before Connor could answer, a waitress appeared at his side. After a quick glance at the menu, he ordered ribs with a salad and a beer.

'Something cool is happening here, right?' said Connor.

Frankie shook her damp, curly black hair, sending spray across the table.

'Oh sorry, man. Just back from the surf.'

'No worries,' he said.

'Yeah, there's a totally groovy thing here about living together in peace. And there's a free medical clinic and shops where you can pay what you can afford, even if that's nothing. And the music's far out,' she said.

'Free shops?' said Connor incredulously.

'Free shops, man,' said Jerry. 'And there's a shitload of acid.'

'Never tried it,' said Connor.

'Well man, it's far out, it really is, nothing like it. It'll change the whole way you look at life for sure. There'd be no summer of love without LSD. It'll liberate your soul,' said Jerry.

'Sounds a bit scary to me,' said Connor.

'It's a blast, man. You really have to try it,' said Frankie.

The waitress appeared with the biggest plate of ribs Connor had ever set eyes on, with a salad to match.

'Oh wow! I'll never eat all that. Are you lot hungry at all? Dig in if you want.'

'You sure, dude?' said Frankie.

He sipped his ice-cool beer. He needed that.

'In the spirit of the Haight,' said Connor.

'Which is about to be tested,' said Jerry.

Connor finished chewing his mouthful of rib and licked the salty juice from his lips.

'How come?'

'Too many people,' said Jerry.

'Meh, don't be such a doomsayer, Jerry,' said Frankie brightly. 'We'll be fine. And even if a truckload of kids do turn up, they won't stay long 'cos they'll have to go back to school.'

'Look,' said Jerry, 'the thing is, even if the scene falls apart, the vision will survive. It's all a big experiment with its ups and downs, man, and really, I believe the idea of the Haight will live on, like a kind of cultural myth.'

'I'll tell you what's gonna kill the spirit,' said Frankie. 'You getting all serious and using phrases like 'cultural myth'. Stop being such a bloody intellectual, Jerry, and just have some fun, really, man.'

'Alright, alright, I'm just saying.'

'Hey, let's go on a picnic,' said Frankie.

'Sorry, don't have time,' said Jerry. 'Some of us have a job.'

'Yeah, I'm cool. Where we going?' said Connor, eager to seize the opportunity.

'We could go to Mount Tamalpais. It's only about 20 minutes in a car. But it feels like you're way up in the mountains.'

An hour later, they unfolded themselves from Frankie's ancient Ford Dodger while the radio played Jefferson Airplane's 'Somebody to Love', and stepped into the warm sunshine at the top of the mountain.

'I know a great place away from the crowds,' she said. 'It's a bit of a hike, but it's worth it. Here, let's drop a tab and we'll be flying by the time we get there.'

'I don't know,' said Connor.

'Oh, come on man, where's your sense of adventure? I thought you'd be more fun,' said Frankie.

'Isn't it dangerous?'

'Only if you're afraid of stepping out of your little boxy world. You came here to explore, right? So just do it, man. I'll look after you.'

For a moment Connor wished that he was back in The White Hart in Sheffield pub. At least he understood beer. But what the hell. She was right. He had come in search of adventure.

'OK. I'll do it.'

They took the LSD and set off into the forest. As they strolled through the giant redwoods and Douglas firs that stretched upwards into the endless sky, Connor listened to the insects' chatter like a busted radio and glimpsed a red-tailed hawk hovering high in the blue beyond.

'Far out, isn't it? she said.

'Where are we going?'

'The Frog, which is like this massive rock that looks like a - '

'Frog.'

'Yep, a frog, smart arse. Overlooks the valley with a fab view across to the Bay. I love it. You can just chill while you listen to the stream rush by.'

They scrambled their way up the rough bush track that had been pressed into the soil by years of walkers passing through the redwoods, while woodpeckers drummed out their rhythms and a red-winged blackbird called through the treetops. Connor felt his body slide into a place of grace and ease.

The Frog was as big as a house and surrounded by skyscraper redwoods whose trunks had been blackened by fire. The drop from the Frog's head was sharp and the view clear all the way to the bottom of the mountain. They laid down on their backs and gazed through the trees into the blue yonder as a squadron of brown pelicans glides majestically by.

While they lay hand in hand, Connor became aware that the LSD was kicking in. The colours around him seemed stronger and the sunlight appeared brighter. The trees began to glow with a halo of light and time paused its forward movement so that he dwelt only in the stillness of the present moment. He examined a crumbling leaf on the ground beside him and every detail was so fascinating that he felt as if he had disappeared into the foliage. When he looked up, he noticed that the trees had begun to breathe and pulse in sync with his own lungs, as if he and the world were breathing as one. He was filled with euphoria and the world appeared so beautiful and magical that he wanted to laugh out loud without his usual irony or detachment.

'How you going, man?' said Frankie.

'Cool.'

All of a sudden, Frankie stood, looked around, and then as if driven by a burst of unrestrained energy she began to spin around and around with her arms spread wide like a whirling dervish in full flight, going faster and faster and faster until, ungainly and unbalanced, she tripped by the edge of the Frog. Connor's guts threatened to spill their contents as his mind filled with a vision of her headlong dive over the edge to a grim death on the boulders below. He grabbed hold of her as she picked herself up off the floor and studied her bloody palms.

'You OK?' he said.

'Kiss me,' she said.

As they kissed she slipped her hands under his T-shirt and when they had finished she pulled it over his head.

'Take your clothes off,' she said.

Connor's inhibitions fell away and he took the leap into her arms. Soon everything that he thought he knew about making love dissolved. He became aware of every muscle in his body, and every thrust and movement was enhanced until they became limitless sensations that engulfed him. They were Adam and Eve discovering sex in the garden of Eden. Every cell of his body was on fire and all his anxiety had fallen away.

As they lay together, Connor felt that he had been touched by the most graceful of angels. For once he didn't want to talk or explain or discuss or analyse: words were inadequate. All he wanted to do was be right here, right now, with Frankie. He was filled with love for her; but not just for her, for everybody. His love partook of an endless stream of goodness and compassion that he shared with all beings who were One in a universal love. In this moment he believed human beings were not just monkeys with guns but could cultivate their better nature. And that better nature was love. He didn't know how long they stayed on the mountain, but it must have been hours, and though the effects of the LSD faded, he felt that something had shifted in his psyche.

As the sun dipped, they drove to Ocean Beach so that they could admire the pink sky reflected in the blue sea and feel the soothing effect of moving water.

'Far out, man. So raw and primal,' she said as they stared across the bay while the seagulls circled above them, their laser eyes searching the waters below for the darting of their silver prey.

'The great mystery of the infinite,' he said as he took her hand and revelled in the sacred touch.

'I love the beach,' she said. 'It's my holy place. Don't laugh, but I've always dreamed of being a champion surfer. Like Phyllis O'Donnell.'

'Sorry, who?' he said.

'Australian. First woman's world surf champion. Paved the way for women. I love to swim out to the peaks and wait for that special wave and smell the salt and seaweed on the spray. And I'm right in it, man. Right there, in that moment.'

She looked at him and laughed.

'Damn, that was poetic!'

'Don't you ever get scared? There are some enormous waves around here.'

'No, man, I'm never scared, not in the water. Fear is the enemy. If you're definite and gave it your all then you can charge that wave full on. I just love it. It's the biggest high ever.'

She paused and gazed wistfully at the ocean.

'It always slips away, though,' she said, 'the moment, the feeling, the awe and wonder of it all. Even speaking about it destroys our glimpse of the sublime. Do you know what I mean?'

'Yes,' he said as he slipped his arm around her slim waist, 'I do.'

She reciprocated his gesture and he felt their bodies press against each other.

'You're amazing and I want us to be together,' he said

'Are you planning to stay in the US?'

'If you want me too.'

They stood staring at the ocean until she broke through the silence wall.

'All too much, man,' she said. 'I don't want to be pressured. Love has to be free.'

'Free Love Haight-Ashbury style, eh?'

'Which is not what you mean by love, I think.'

'Is it Jerry?'

'Nah. We're kind of on and off.'

'People can't handle a partner having sex with someone else,' he said.

'Cos they've gotten attached.'

'That's normal. That's human.'

'People just fall into a trance. They chain themselves to someone else as if they were a life raft. But they end up being swept along until they drown anyway. I dig you, Connor, I do, but I don't love you. I'm sorry.'

Connor felt his soul wither.

'I'd hoped this was our summer of love,' he said.

'How can I say "I love you" when I don't even know what it means?'

Connor dropped his gaze to the floor with the misplaced hope of a child who denies that he broke the precious cut-glass vase despite knowing that his mother had witnessed the calamity with her very own eyes.

'After what's just happened? It can't be true,' he mumbled.

'Go home, Connor. Find someone who can really love you.'

As they drove into the Haight they passed a block of partially demolished apartments. Two young men with dishevelled hair and the gaunt look of heroin had propped themselves against the wall as they shared a bottle and flung stones across the wasteland opposite. Connor could see the residue of paint and paper that had peeled from remnants of the shattered walls. In one room, a tall narrow dress mirror still hung from its hook and he felt as if he were peering into a giant doll's house abandoned in haste after an unimaginable catastrophe. Across what remained of the walls an enterprising graffiti artist had scrawled in bright red paint, 'Let's Pretend We All Love Each Other.'