A few days later, Lady Mary and Olivia came down to Southampton for lunch at the hotel. The hotel food wasn’t very interesting by Liz’ standards, but it was what the English expected. More important, the waiters were punctilious.
Liz and Viv were at trackside when Olivia, golden and amazing looking, handed her mother out of the train. It was clear from the outset that they were delighted to be on vacation from their usual routines, and from the men. Lady Mary had on a large flowered hat, and that seemed expressive of the occasion.
In order to avoid scrambling around in taxis and having to deal with their drivers, Liz had brought a car and driver from the hotel. The man knew how to seat and conduct ladies in some style, and he drove smoothly, but with a certain zip. As they pulled up to the front door of the hotel, Barbara came out smiling. Viv often introduced people in the style of, ‘Hey Sam, this is Joe”. Liz, while better at it, didn’t really know how to do it properly. The procedure was a little ragged, but effective, and the mood conquered all.
It didn’t take long for Liz’ expectations about Barbara to be fulfilled. Southern ladies in England weren’t really considered to be Americans. More like the French. Except that their delightfully accented English could be more easily understood. Barbara, who had actually learned some regrettable Russian mannerisms and bits of speech, gave no hint of them.
Liz knew from experience that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing to have five women at a table. At worst, things got shrill and screechy. Even at best, conversation could be decidedly parochial. Fortunately, Mary was above that. At the head of the table, she conversed mainly with Barbara, on her left, but was careful to bring Viv, on her right, into the picture. Liz had heard that, at formal dinner parties, a lady talked with the gentleman on her left for the first half, after which she turned right. If all the ladies switched in unison, it must have been an impressive spectacle. That rule couldn’t be followed in this situation, but the principle that no one should be ignored seemed to apply.
Mary was probably fifty, or a little more, and it was hard to know how to classify her face. Not pretty. Handsome, perhaps. Nothing like Olivia. She certainly looked important and authoritative, which was counter-balanced by the fact that Barbara looked a decade or more younger. Liz suspected that, despite the asymmetry, business of some sort was going to be contracted between Mary and Barbara on the basis of a growing friendship. Perhaps that would be good.
Liz also felt that it was no accident that she and Olivia were out of effective earshot from Mary, and had their own conversation. Olivia had hung back when the table was approached, and had spoken to Liz in such a way as to detain her from the seating queue.
The talk, guided by Olivia, was about men, but in a curiously indirect way. There was, in the beginning, no mention of individuals. Olivia said, “I understand that Americans don’t like to recognize the existence of social classes and prefer not to speak of them.”
Liz laughingly replied, “The words ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ are forbidden in that connection, but we speak of ‘working people’, ‘professional people’, ‘the poor’, and the ‘under-privileged’.”
“I see. Are there rules about marriages?”
“Very much so. I never intended to obey them, but I didn’t shock anyone by marrying your brother.”
“Your stepmother approved?”
“In principle. But she wanted Viv and myself on hand to help manage Ivan.”
“We also have eccentric people of great intellect. Not usually easy to manage.”
“I think Ivan will probably turn up here shortly, so you’ll be able to see for yourself.”
Olivia’s conversation again zig-zagged, but it eventually came to the point. “I’m inclined to marry a working-class man and break all the rules.”
“A particular man?”
“And your mother?”
“She has no great regard for the men of our set. She thinks they’re brave and likely to get killed in war, but almost useless otherwise.”
“So she wouldn’t want you to marry one?”
“No, but she thinks the men of the lower classes are worse.”
“Is there anyone she does want you to marry?”
“Probably an academic scholar. But I’m not bookish enough or sedentary enough for that.”
“How about an upper class explorer and mountain climber?”
“A possibility, but the man happens to be Ian.”
Olivia thought herself to be in love, but she managed to be pretty objective. Ian had started as a shipyard worker, but, as a radical socialist and antifascist, had joined the International Brigades fighting in Spain. Olivia remarked, “If he ever meets Viv, they’ll stay up all night comparing experiences. Literally.”
“Ian was a machine-gunner. Then and since, he’s become an expert on every aspect of automatic weapons.”
“Is he now in the British Army?”
“They won’t have men who might be tainted with communism.”
“Is he a communist?”
“He might be, but he thinks that Stalin is just as bad as Hitler.”
“Viv is similar, and I’m rather left myself. But socialists and communists are lumped together in America.”
“Much the same here. But the army needs people like Ian, and he’s now what amounts to a civilian consultant.”
“He sounds a little like the people we work with at Supermarine. I don’t know what their social background is, but, as technical experts, they have quite a high standing.”
“There’s always the speech. What do they sound like?”
“I’m no expert on that. They just sound English or Scots to me. But probably not like you and Mary.”
“Mary might rather like Ian, but there are a thousand irritating little things that separate the classes, and I’m not sure that either could get past them.”
“So Mary hasn’t met him?”
“No. I’ve told her about him, and she didn’t explode. But she’s not terribly flexible, and it seems that she just wants not to think about the situation.”
“He has an active suspicion of the aristocracy. And he’s not terribly flexible either.”
“How did you ever meet?”
“I’m in the WAAF, the women’s auxiliary air force, and we prepare sites for AA guns at the fighter fields. Ian is one of our consultants.”
“We Americans could certainly meet him. That might even pave the way for something with Mary.”
“That’s what I was hoping. It’s a lot to ask of a brand new sister-in-law, but I thought you might not mind terribly much.”
“I’ll enjoy meeting him, and Viv will be delighted. Even Barbara can hardly tell a waiter in an expensive restaurant from a duke.”
After their guests had left, Viv said to Liz, “I’m not sure how Barbara does it. She doesn’t say anything profound or arresting, and she’s never charmed us out of her shoes.”
“She certainly has Ivan. I guess, really, we’re the only ones who aren’t charmed. And even we don’t find her false or insincere.”
“No. I’ve never thought that. Superficial perhaps.”
Liz was conscious of being more tolerant than Viv of Barbara, possibly because she was more tolerant of people in general. An amusing thought struck her, and she said, “I think Ivan wanted a good-time girl in bed who was also super-respectable and well-bred.”
“Do you think she’s a sex maniac in bed?”
“I bet her techniques are good. It’s too bad we aren’t intimate enough for me to ask for some instruction.”
Viv paused, apparently to consider, and replied, “You’d expect her to think it improper to discuss such things. But you never know. She might calmly lay it out, position by position.”
Liz replied, “I don’t think I’ll risk it. Anyhow, Mary and Barbara certainly got thick.”
“A good thing?”
“I don’t know. Anyhow, there was another plot at lunch.”
Liz then told Viv about Olivia and her boy friend.
Viv was impressed, and replied, “Among other things, it would certainly be good to have an automatic weapons expert in the family.”
That evening, Liz sat down to write to David. He had written from Baltimore, the next stop on his cruise, and had taken the train over to Washington on a visit. It was a good letter with interesting detail. She was amused that, concerning Washington, his tone might have been that of Stanley, writing from deepest Africa. At the end, there were some fairly conventional endearments, but she had hardly expected him to write that he wanted to tear off her panties and ravish her.
Liz herself had a good deal to report. She didn’t reveal any secrets in a letter, but talked of their flying. Concerning their meeting with his family, she said only good, rather bland, things. She certainly wasn’t going to ask him in a letter whether he was prepared to give up his married mistresses, and she ended with some equally conventional endearments. She then addressed the letter, care of the British consul in Savannah, Georgia.
Viv came into the room just as Liz was about to go down to the lobby to mail the letter. She was tempted to open it for Viv to read, but sensed that Viv wouldn’t want to. As it turned out, they both went down to the lobby, where tea and snacks were served. Liz dropped the letter in the mail slot, and then sat down and ordered a little smoked salmon sandwich, otherwise known as ‘lox’. She said, “David and I are doing something somewhere between partnering, negotiating, and fencing, all by mail.”
“Probably inevitable in the circumstances.”
“Knowing his mother and sister, he must realize that they’ve spilled a lot of beans.”
“But all about the past. He may well intend to be as advertized in the future.”
“I do think that he’s basically nice. Probably nicer than his father and brother.”
“There’s also a pattern for wild young men to settle down.”
“I hope it doesn’t have to be because they become fathers.”
“Ugh. I suppose that’s sometimes true. Anyhow, with the war coming on, we’ll all be occupied. If we survive, we can afterwards decide how we want to live.”