Bill Todd -- Melissa and Jethro: A Quirky Little Novel
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 Chapter 12

Muswell Hill

It was a strange and thrilling experience to look down and see the southern tip of Greenland, Cape Farewell, in the northern twilight. The only trouble was that Melissa was with the wrong man. Jethro was perfect for strange aesthetic experiences. Even when he didn't paint them, he understood. Not only that, he was the sort of man who could have climbed the sharp icy peaks and raced the unseen Eskimos in their kayaks. Her present companion, Jimmy Pickersgill, would simply have keeled over and died. Unlike Jethro, it would never occur to him to take aesthetic advantage of a death that could hardly be approached in the hospitals and nursing homes of a civilized society. Even the name of the cape seemed to suggest to him no possibilities other than to titter,

"I hope we come to Cape Hello soon."

On the other hand, Jimmy was saved from being ordinary by the fact that he was really a child, one possessed of a crazed and naive intuition no adult could ever share. He was also blessed with a great amount of luck. His luck was as good as Jethro's was bad. Moreover, children could, at least some of the time, be led where one wanted. That, in itself, was a nice change from Jethro. And, then, Jimmy didn't seek out people like Al Markowitz.

In England, Melissa had always mistaken servants for gentlemen, and vice versa. When she emerged from the cold dirty ladies' room, she took the man she found in conversation with Jimmy to be a friend or business associate who had come out to the airport to meet them. He was, in fact, the driver who was to take them, not to central London, but to a suburban railway station which dated from the last century. It was on the little curving platform covered with soot and enveloped with drifting coal smoke that she discovered who Jimmy really was. He explained,

"The Victorians loved progress, which they identified, in large measure, with steam locomotives. The art of life, for them, was to be immersed in the attendant dirt and smoke, but to remain unsullied by it. There were ladies who stood just where you are in pink silk dresses with matching parasols. They defied all impurities, both physical and moral, with Christian spirituality and sheer force of character. When they emerged from the train at their destination, there wouldn't have been a single speck of soot on their costumes."

Melissa forebore from asking whether a gentleman could immerse himself in a vat of Dawn Strike and emerge smelling, perhaps not like a rose, but at least like a hyacinth or opium poppy. She, after all, liked his idea. Drawing herself absolutely erect with her hands at her side as the light zephyrs riffled her own delicate silk dress, she determined on an uplifted and uplifting elegance at all costs.

When the train came, Melissa understood even better. It was headed by a little steam locomotive that made all sorts of hissing noises and went toot-toot. Indeed, it amounted to a toy train eminently suitable to a child's fantasy. They got in by simply opening a door at platform level. They then found themselves in their own little compartment. There was no communication with the rest of the train or, once they started moving, with anything else. It was the perfect setting for one of her own staged therapeutic fantasies, but, this time, she looked at her companion to see what direction he would take.

Jimmy was tremendously excited in a perverse red-faced sort of way. With bulging eyes, he looked a little as Colonel Huggett had under somewhat different conditions. Melissa smiled at him in what she imagined to be a cool Victorian way, full of bogus Christian nonsense. Jimmy, almost shaking, sat bolt upright on the opposite bench and informed her that they were on a stretch of line known as the Hounslow Loop. Melissa spoke of the Loop with due respect, and then produced the required expressions of aesthetic appreciation as they tooted and chugged their way through Twickenham and crossed a high bridge over the Thames to Richmond. Some other passengers got on there, and, when Jimmy moved to a seat beside her to make room for them, he became somewhat calmer.

Since it was a business trip, the next day called for a visit to the works producing the British version of Dawn Strike. Having gotten started in Cincinnati, Jimmy had returned to England and bought a shambling old company making a liquid nutritional supplement called Vigoro. It was relatively easy to convert it to the production of fortified wine, and Jimmy had named the product Stiff Upper Lip. Instead of "having a kick like a mule", it was said to "expedite digestion."

There was some irony in the name. The consumers of Stiff Upper Lip were like the American consumers of Dawn Strike in all important respects. They didn't share the upper class ideology of maintaining the stiff upper lip even while being prepared for beheading. Nor did they speak of "expediting" the digestion, or anything else. But the name reminded Melissa that Jimmy had a nice sense of whimsy. That, in turn, made her wonder about the name Jimmy had given the American product.

The name brought to mind a sort of blitzkriegy attack by hundreds of dive bombers and strafing fighters on a sleepy French airfield with the aircraft lined up in neat rows. The attackers, leaving everything in flames, would disappear as quickly as they had arrived. The French general, still in pajamas, would utter picturesque oaths and shake his fist in the direction of the vanished attackers.

It seemed absurd to associate Jimmy with a dawn strike. It was more Jethro.

On the other hand, Jimmy could plan and organize. And he was patient with detail. There might have been German staff officers, possessed of many of the same qualities, who created forces capable of such strikes. Moreover, it was possible to imagine Jimmy, not as a pilot, but as an observer in the lead bomber, curious to see the outcome of the attack he had planned. The fact that he was weak physically didn't necessarily imply that he lacked courage. So far as Melissa knew, he might turn out to have as much as Jethro or herself.

Jethro, by contrast, had been an infantryman because his difficult personality and undisciplined individualism had rendered him unsuitable for any sort of advanced training. He would never have been allowed to plan, or even participate in, a dawn strike.

By the fifth day in London, it was abundantly clear that there was no real work to do. The works were located in a commercial district on the Thames in an ancient building. Although the present operation was only a couple of years old, the Vigoro employees had been held over, and they mixed and bottled Stiff Upper Lip in much the way they had Vigoro. Doddery old men stirred the stuff with paddles in large vats, and maiden aunts with uncontrolled wisps of gray hair kept the records in the adjoining offices.

The manager was a retired army major of formidable appearance who was not prepared to put up with any nonsense, most particularly American nonsense. Indeed, it was so obvious that no changes could be made that Melissa and Jimmy, after little more than an exchange of glances, conspired to conceal the fact that any changes had ever been contemplated.

The resulting difficulty was that Melissa was left in the position of the owner's assistant without specific portfolio, but with somewhat suggestive overtones. It seemed to her that some of the gray-haired ladies, however vague they might be in matters of business, were not slow to arrive at conclusions in other areas.

There was, in fact, little real fuel for the gossip. Melissa and her employer were staying in a small fairly unpretentious hotel a bit south of Kensington Gardens, and the rooms they occupied were, not only separate, but on separate floors. Jimmy had put to her no propositions, indecent or otherwise, and showed no signs of doing so. Indeed, Melissa had been feeling her way, trying to guage what he wanted from her. Far from trying to reduce the fantasies which he seemed constantly to generate, she tried to avoid puncturing them. When others were around, she was as deferential and correct as possible, and tried to be, in all respects, the kind of young woman a Victorian gentleman might employ in his business. But, when they were alone at dinner, the road wasn't mapped out nearly so clearly.

In any case, they were having a good time. They both loved food, and, since Indian restaurants offered the best alternative to English cooking, which ranged from the flat to the unspeakable, they systematically chased them down. Just now, for variety, they had found a Turkish place in Marylebone High Street. The food wasn't terribly good, but the setting was exotic. The waiter had a distinct martial bearing, and Melissa whispered happily to Jimmy that the man had the look of a psychopath.

In addition to the varieties of cuisine, they both developed a sociological interest in the various villages which had gone to make up London, and whose distinctive personalities could still be detected. One evening, Jimmy suggested a visit to Muswell Hill. It was an affluent backwater on top of a hill overlooking London from the north. While there probably wouldn't be the throngs of people which afforded the amateur sociologist so many excuses to make sweeping generalizations, it would provide an interesting contrast to such places as Battersea and Wapping.

On the noisy underground ride to Kings Cross to catch the train for Muswell Hill, Melissa wondered what Jethro might be doing. Shannon had been sent back to Tennessee, but there were the eight girl friends he had been seeing when Melissa moved in with him. It wasn't uncommon for some of these ladies to walk slowly down the opposite side of the street, pausing to look at day-old newspapers in the racks. In addition to absorbing obsolete news with great apparent satisfaction, they often adjusted their undergarments and perfected their smiles with heavy layers of lipstick.

Jethro hadn't liked it when Melissa characterized these females as brazen hussies, nor had his attitude improved when, somewhat less quaintly, she promoted them to the status of syphilitic sluts. As Jimmy seemed lost in his own dream, perhaps of every proper Englishman with a flask of Stiff Upper Lip in his pocket, Melissa imagined Jethro sticking his head out of the window and smiling beatifically down at one of the hussies. Nothing more would be required.

Jimmy would run headlong if approached by one of Jethro's little playmates. The performance might be undignified. Peals of silvery laughter, both merry and derisive, might well follow him. But, still, there was something to be said for decency and respectability.

While the Cincinnati bus and trolley system was calculated to defeat in advance the pretensions to decency and respectability of anyone who might venture aboard one of its rattle-trap vehicles, the train from Great Portland Street to Kings Cross, no less noisy and dirty, was patronized by all orders of society, perhaps even the occasional duke. Melissa let her full skirt swirl as she stepped briskly from trains to escalators, and didn't have to look back to know that Jimmy was watching her as he scurried to keep up.

The Northern Heights line left the flurry of intense rail activity at Kings Cross and dead-ended at Alexandra Palace, the stop beyond Muswell Hill. At the beginning, their compartment was entirely full. Melissa was wedged against the window, and Jimmy, next to her, put his arm behind her with his hand on the window-sill. They didn't touch if she leaned slightly forward, but she maintained a light and shifting contact while conversing volubly, as if too immersed in the conversation to notice.

The others all got out at Finsbury Park, a bustling suburban centre, and Jimmy and Melissa were alone in the isolated compartment as they clacked slowly over switches and began to gain momentum for the hill which was visible through the windows. Jimmy took an intense interest in the mechanics of the train, the roadbed, and the track alignment. Instead of remaining by Melissa, he bounced up, looked out one side and the other, and then announced triumphantly,

"The track on this line has bull-head rail."

When Melissa inquired about the rail, Jimmy replied,

"Instead of having a flat bottom, it has close to a figure-8 cross-section and fits into chairs."

It seemed that it was archaic, and that Jimmy had made an exciting find. Then, when they began the grade near Highgate and the little locomotive up ahead chuffed strenuously, he became even more excited and animated. As he began to make peculiar noises, evidently in sympathy with the travails of the engine, Melissa herself made soft chugging noises. Certain men, no doubt, would want women who sounded, and even acted, like locomotives.

When they alighted in the sleepy little high street, it was easy to imagine that Muswell Hill was still only a village, not part of London at all. There were some people in the street, obvious ladies and gents, who went so far as to smile gently at American tourists of the better sort. Melissa smiled and nodded in return in what she hoped was an appropriate way, nothing too garish, but a little inclination of the head and a twitch at one corner of the mouth.

As they walked along in one of their silences, Melissa considered her position. From the distance of a few thousand miles, it became obvious that her present made of professional practice, with its Colonel Huggetts, couldn't go on very long. And that, in itself, was a last resort after other failures. It looked as if she had no prospects for any sort of career having to do with psychology.

As regards men, there had really only been two, Bradford and Jethro. Her mother was probably correct in thinking that she should have married Bradford. But he was now happily married to another woman. One hardly knew what to say about Jethro, but, whatever else might be true, Melissa knew that she wasn't happy, still less contented. And then, if she stayed with him, how many more times would she have to avail herself of the services of the Hon. Charles Whitby?

Their silence ended as they came to an open space with a view of central London. The city seemed to stretch to infinity, and, in places, the Thames was visible as it snaked its way along. Jimmy pointed out the bridge they had walked across the previous evening, with a view of the brigtly lit Westminsher Abbey. Melissa responded,

"Cincinnati has hills like this and a nice river, but I do wonder how you can stand living there when you could live here."

"You could live here too, couldn't you?"

"My mother would probably finance me, but it would be humiliating."

"You've never accepted money from her?"

"I'm older now. It would also look as if I thought I could disown failures in Cincinnati and start anew in another place. I know better than that. People who fail in one place usually fail in the same way in the new place."

"Well, yes. There would have to be other changes as well. But why do you think you've failed in Cincinnati?"

Melissa ended up by telling Jimmy more than she had intended. Jimmy remembered Jethro as a "big jolly fellow." She replied,

"He probably is jolly at the Y, but he has much darker moods."

As they walked along, returning to the relative merits of London and Cincinnati, Jimmy commented,

"I've always intended to live here most of the time, spending about one month in every three in Cincinnati. Brenda Osborne can handle most of the things that come up."

"The trans-Atlantic telephone works pretty well, doesn't it?"

"Yes, certainly. I've just gotten occupied with a lot of niggling little things in Cincinnati. I've a mind to promote Brenda and put her in actual charge of a good deal that goes on."

"I'm sure she'll be able to manage."

They soon passed a little church, and Jimmy suggested that they go in for evensong. Melissa had the distinct feeling that he had secretly organized the whole evening to arrive at the church at the right time, but she agreed cheerfully. Religion was an important part of his life, and, while she didn't pretend to believe, she found the Anglican services that he liked peaceful and restful.

Bill Todd -- Melissa and Jethro: A Quirky Little Novel
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