London, April, 1936
In the spring of the year I was able to pick up some of my old acquaintances and get started on my new career. I published a little poetry in journals that didn't pay, but that poetry was nevertheless important, indeed essential. The literary associate must be one who has already published serious work in his own right. That's what keeps him from being a hack. The fact that my modest reputation was in poetry was an added and unusual attraction. Anyone who wants his memoirs ghost-written can go to a broken-down journalist, but the one who goes to a poet steps up into a more rarified atmosphere.
Both Brenda and Ralph were amused when they found out what I was up to. They forced me to admit that, even before leaving New York, I had planned this new life in the shadows of the fashionable world. Brenda kept questioning me further. "Whatever put it into your head in the first place", she would ask. Finally, I admitted that the idea had come from Wilhelmina Sanderson. As I told Brenda,
"One day she despaired of my ever becoming a plausible trust officer and ..."
Brenda broke in,
"She used to make fun of you to me. She said you were terribly earnest. You tried to be taken seriously, but, the harder you tried, the funnier you were."
I didn't know until then that Mrs. Sanderson had chosen to ridicule me in my absence, but I carried on.
"Anyway, on that occasion she told me that I was perfectly fitted to write the memoirs and autobiographies of semi- literate people of distinction. I was aware that she was teasing me, but, as we all know, she did have remarkable insight.
Brenda spoke in a familiar tone which, I knew by then, contained an element of pity for her conversant.
"And so here you are, Thomas. I think Wilhelmina was probably right. You really do understand those sorts of people, probably much better than Ralph or I do."
At that moment we were sitting in the pleasant drawing room of Brenda's flat in Pilgrims Lane. She had moved in only a week previously, and then only after weeks of deciding which house to buy.
The whole process of choosing a house had puzzled me. In view of Brenda's stated intention of rebuilding the fortune, one would have expected her to rent or buy something modest, and then put most of her capital into some speculative stock. On the contrary, the only houses she looked at were rather smart. And then, uncharacteristically, she went through seemingly endless quandaries of indecision before she finally settled on one. I had gone with her to look at a dozen or more. Each time, she wanted to know, not about the house, but the neighborhood. We would walk down the streets scrutinizing the curtains in the windows, the gardens, and anything we could see. Whenever we passed someone, Brenda would ask about the class and professional standing of the person. She seemed to think that I had an exhaustive knowledge of the English social system, and could, at a glance, place strangers within it.
Even if the passer-by was a woman, Brenda would ask me exactly how fashionable she was. I would object that she surely knew more about women's clothes than I did. On one occasion she replied,
"What a woman wears on a weekday morning in her own neighborhood might not mean much. How she carries herself, and the way she looks at people, is much more important."
I enjoyed it all, of course. It's always fascinating to wander around London looking at things, and it was an excuse to be with Brenda. It gradually became clear that she had a certain social level in mind, even if she couldn't say exactly what it was. It was a level somewhere in the upper middle range. While she seemed willing to spend money, she had no inclination to buy a house in Mayfair, or one in Belgravia near Buckingham Palace. Nor was she interested in the expensive suburbs such as Twickenham, "Twickers" to the cognoscenti, or Richmond. On the other hand, she dismissed an area if there weren't people with definite pretensions living there
In the end, she chose Hampstead. We knew that Hampstead Village, at the top of the hill dominating London from the north, would always be expensive. There was the famous Hampstead Heath, where Turner had painted, and the charm of twisting precipitous streets with old churches, antiquarian shops, and funny little houses. Not only that, Hampstead had avoided the staid reputation of so many wealthy enclaves. There was art and drama in the air, even though there wasn't much accomodation which was within the budgets of young artists and actors. We both agreed that values in Hampstead could only increase.
Not terribly far away, at the base of the hill, were the howling slums of Gospel Oak, Kentish Town, and Islington. In between, there was a buffer zone. In general, the desirability of housing was correlated closely with its distance up the hill.
We had originally noticed that even such working class streets as Agincourt Road had some professional people living on them. Pilgrims Lane was some half dozen streets higher. A slow turnover of houses over the last decade had resulted in a situation where the only frankly humble people were elderly, and were left over from a previous era. The rest of the families tended to run to a type. The men, mostly around forty, worked in the city in professional or managerial capacities. Some had gone to good schools, but even the graduates of obscure ones had made their way far enough to be confident of good things to come. Their wives were expected to be good-looking and charming, and to help their husbands advance their careers. A good many dinner parties were held along Pilgrims Lane on the weekends, and most of the participants prided themselves on their taste in wine.
When the right vintages had been consumed in the right quantities, the consumers confided to each other what they had paid for their houses, and what they thought they were now worth. When one of the inhabitants got a really significant promotion, he moved higher up the hill. On the whole, however, the feeling was that the whole street could be elevated, socially if not physically, and that one would have to be very successful indeed before it would become necessary to move.
People of this sort looked closely at new neighbors. While British reserve, more fabled than real in many instances, might have kept them at a distance, they were simply too curious. Even before Brenda had finished moving in, and Ralph and I were moving furniture, the woman from next door popped over to see.
The woman was tall, at least six feet, with strawberry blond hair that frizzed out and up in a halo around her head. Quite slim, and probably in her early thirties, she had a way of flinging herself around rooms as if she were unaccustomed to any enclosed space less than a hundred feet on a side. I had never seen anything like her, and thought her a suitable subject for poetry. Ralph stopped dead with a huge packing case in his arms. The lady made straight for Brenda and introduced herself.
"I'm Jane Smith. I know it sounds like an alias, but there it is, I'm afraid."
When she spoke, it was with what the English call a "county accent." It went with rural estates, sports, and horses. Many of the women of that class never really get much beyond the horses, but this one was clearly of a higher caliber. The name was ludicrously inadequate for such a woman, but, judging by her rings, it was a married name. The original, I suspected, was such that a plain 'Jane' in front of it was all that was required. I was a little surprised that, unlike so many English Smiths, they hadn't hyphenated it with something else.
After we had all introduced ourselves, Jane remarked,
"My husband is an American. He's actually rather horrid, but I've known many nice ones."
Then, as later, one hardly knew how to reply to some of the things Jane said. Was she joking when she said her husband was horrid? Probably not. Brenda showed more presence of mind than either Ralph or I, replying,
"I don't have any husband at all. Is that better or worse than having a horrid one?"
Jane considered for a minute, and then answered,
"Better, I should think. Anyway, mine isn't home at present and I wondered if you'd all like to come over for tea."
We were all too intrigued to refuse, and, with unanimous consent, we began the trek next door. Jane and Brenda went first, and, as Ralph and I followed, it seemed to me the first time I had ever seen Brenda overshadowed. Jane wouldn't have seemed beautiful to everyone, as did Brenda, but her effect was greater. It was partly appearance, but more a matter of manner. It was only in comparison with Jane that one noticed how restrained Brenda's gestures were, and, with her straight regular stride, what a small part of the world she laid claim to.
Jane's home was decorated with more imagination than most English ones. Instead of having heavy dark old furniture, it was light, airy, and had sunshine flooding in the south windows. When I complimented her on it, Jane seemed pleased, nevertheless pointing out a number of defects in the workmanship. She concluded,
"Anyway, it's an improvement. It was quite disgusting when we moved in."
After a little more idle chitchat, Brenda dropped what was, to myself at any rate, something of a bombshell.
"I'm not sure how long I'll be living here. I'm the representative of an American company that's buying up property in London. Once I get the flats in this building satisfactorily rented, I'll probably keep repeating the process with other buildings."
I must have looked astonished, but Ralph either knew more than I did or was so taken with Jane that he hardly noticed. Jane didn't seem particularly surprised, and replied only,
"May I tell the neighbors that? They're frightfully curious whenever someone new moves in, but they're hesitant about calling."
"Is that because they think it wouldn't be British to make the first move?"
This remark surprised me almost as much as Brenda's pronouncement. Although he was smiling pleasantly, it wasn't like Ralph to say anything the least satirical or teasing. Jane took him seriously.
"I don't think so. I'm as English as anyone could be, and I'm specially brazen. It's just the sort of people they are. They'll have seen you come in here, and, as soon as you leave, half a dozen women will call to ask what you're like. If you don't believe me, try ringing my number later. I'm sure it'll be engaged."
That statement effectively loosened up the party. Here was a spy in our midst, but one who cheerfully admitted the fact. It was impossible not to suggest to Jane humorous reports she could make about us. Jane, surprisingly, seemed a little embarrassed at times. Perhaps some of our suggestions came rather close to the mark. However, she was the sort of person who enjoyed being embarrassed up to a point. She flushed prettily, teased back, and had her maid bring sherry.
It wasn't long before Brenda and Jane started discussing men. There were examples from the past and occasional waves of hands and arms in the direction of Ralph or myself when we were taken to exemplify some feature under discussion. We, in turn, defended ourselves against some of the grosser calumnies that were flung out.
As so often happens when a friend talks with relative strangers in one's presence, one finds out things about the former that would otherwise have remained hidden. Brenda, it turned out, regarded virtually all men as fragile creatures who could be crushed as easily as insects if one put one's foot down in the wrong place. Jane said to her,
"It's probably because you're so good looking that you think of men that way. I couldn't destroy a man if I tried. In fact, I have tried without any luck."
I couldn't help asking,
"Do you try often?"
"No. But there were times when I became infatuated with a man, and he abandoned me. The last time, I wrote a letter that should have done for the cretin, but I saw him happily joking with his friends a few days later."
"It's hard to destroy someone by mail. In my experience men most often destroy themselves. I've had the misfortune to provide them with an opportunity to fail or make fools of themselves. They did the rest without any help."
Jane asked, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world,
"Has anyone committed suicide over you?"
"No, but I've had nightmares about it."
"I don't know what I'd do if I thought I could drive someone I loathed to suicide."
"I'm sure you wouldn't."
Brenda said this in a tone which was more hopeful than convinced. Jane sat erect, smiling gently as she considered the matter. With the full skirt of her bright green dress arranged over her legs, she looked like a pagan princess deciding whether or not to have the missionaries put into the pot. At that moment, the sunlight streaming in the window illuminated the radiating curls of the princess' reddish gold hair in such a way as to make it appear as an elaborate headress. Even Jane's necklace and earrings were the bright gaudy sorts of things that were reminiscent of a Southern Ocean island.
Ralph was obviously fascinated by the spectacle, and I wondered if he wanted a woman who, like the queen bee, couldn't be depended on not to gobble him up. At length, Jane shook her head slowly and said,
"I might not. I certainly wouldn't want my husband to kill himself. Such an appalling mess. Not to mention having to fill out forms in quintuplet."
As she thus returned to civilization, Jane moved her head out of the shaft of sunlight, leaned back, and crossed her legs. Since Ralph was showing more interest in Jane than he ever had for Brenda, even in his recent adolescence, I looked to see if she was returning it. It wasn't easy to tell. She wasn't flirting, but, then, she might never flirt with anyone. When he spoke, she looked directly at him and responded, but she obviously found Brenda the most interesting of us. It was equally obvious that I brought up the rear.
The conversation seemed about to leave the subject of men, somewhat to my relief, when it took a veer and focussed on sex. Brenda talked in her usual way, disparaging virginity and recommending sexual activity as a healthy exercise. At the time, such statements were highly shocking in America. Oddly enough, they sounded rather mundane in England. It was only Brenda's conclusion that sounded bright and fresh.
"Anyway, I've had to give it up. It leads to so much trouble, and there are other exercises just as good."
"I hated it at first, and I've never enjoyed it. I tried a number of different men, but it didn't seem to make much difference."
She then added casually,
"My husband kept wanting to do various odd things to me, but he hasn't mentioned them recently. He's probably doing those, and other revolting things, with the little French slut who lives across the street."
Shortly after that utterance, Mr. Smith appeared in the doorway. He might easily have heard Jane's remark, but also might not have. She, seemingly not in the least concerned, introduced her husband rather graciously. From his appearance, one would have guessed none of the defects of his personality as outlined by Jane. Smith was, in fact, a rather presentable American on the fringes of youth who had adjusted to English manners without aping them. It occurred to me that Ralph and I could do far worse than to emulate him.
On the other hand, Smith and his wife were ludicrously mismatched. It wasn't just that he was a few inches shorter. The fact that he was so presentable merely made him look as if he were Jane's land agent. One expected him to have in his pocket a list of the tenants and rents, together with a well reasoned appreciation of next year's harvest. My sympathy immediately went out to him. There was no way in the world for him to cope with Jane. I hoped that he was indeed having it off with the French slut across the street.
I soon saw that my feelings weren't shared by Brenda. Nor were they, for different reasons, by Ralph. It was a very rare thing to see contempt in Ralph's face, but one understood. He was young, he wanted Jane, and he felt that his virtues were superior to those of Smith. Brenda was far more complex, and I watched her closely as Smith talked.
Smith was on the edge of being a real estate agent, but one with somewhat more grandiose concerns. In American terms, he and his partners were real estate developers. But, still, there was a difference. The American developer would start with the bulldozer, knock down the trees, and then put up rows of nearly identical houses. A good deal of that had also been done on the outskirts of London, but, by this time, there was little undeveloped land left within any reasonable distance of the central city. Development was much more a matter of buying blocks of existing houses, fixing them up, and selling them for three times as much to different sorts of people.
I see nothing scurrilous in this. The profits are high, but so are the risks. The net upshot is surely to improve some part of the city, both physically and in terms of its inhabitants. Of course, the poor have to live somewhere, but they can always be accomodated in the vast east end of London. There was every reason to think that Smith was hard- working, honest, and, despite what Jane said, as good a husband as anyone could have been under the duress of her humiliation of him.
The discussion turned, inevitably, to the neighborhood. Smith congratulated Brenda on her purchase. It could only appreciate, although the process might be slow and thus require a certain amount of patience. As he put it,
"A rather solid sort of working class population is entrenched around the base of the hill below us, and, even though better people are moving in, they're still a small minority."
I could see Brenda's hair crinkle at Smith's reference to "better people." He did assume himself to be one of these better people, but so did all of us. Some people are better than others, and the English make no bones about it. It's only an American conceit to try to pretend otherwise, and it's revealed in the absurd euphemisms that are invented in an attempt to avoid speaking of better people. In any case, Brenda gave Smith her full attention when he described one of his developments.
It was actually on the next street down the hill. He and his partners had bought every house that had come up for sale, and had managed to buy a good many others with offers slightly above the market. They now had almost half the street, and had a motion before the local authority to improve the street itself. It seemed that, even in London, bribery was indicated in such cases. One of Smith's partners was, he said, taking the matter in hand with every expectation of success. Brenda seemed fascinated by this little tale, and, despite what I took to be her distaste for Smith, she wanted more detail.
What happened next was really rather embarrassing. I suppose it was because I had been rather left out of the conversation. In any case, I had drunk a good deal of Jane's sherry and suddenly felt quite sick. I was, in fact, about to undergo the unparalleled humiliation of throwing up right then and there. The choice was between pitching forward out of my chair and letting go on the carpet or remaining seated and vomiting in my lap.
I did choose the latter course, but, to my immense relief, I was able to hold on as my innards surged upwards. However, as the wave of nausea passed, I realized that the respite was only temporary. It was Smith who recognized my distress and who, very smartly, conducted me to the toilet. Once there, I knelt before the bowl in a supplicative position and let go. I gagged and retched for some moments and felt as if as much had travelled through my nose as through my mouth. Still, once I got cleared out and cleaned up, I felt much better. When I returned to the drawing room, there was a certain amount of badinage, but it turned out that I had again awakened that improbable motherly streak in Brenda. She insisted on taking me home immediately.
There was another episode on the way, possibly brought on by the motion of the taxi. Brenda signalled to the driver as we were just passing down the most expensive part of Regent Street. He pulled smartly to the curb where half a dozen ladies and gentlemen were standing conversing. Brenda threw open the door, almost hitting them. I, having held on to the last moment, pitched out head first, catching myself with my hands while my knees were still in the taxi. In that almost inverted position I was absurdly conscious of some brown leather high-heeled shoes which started out only inches from my nose. They retreated quickly as I lost what remained of my cookies.
Brenda, without saying a word to the people on the sidewalk, hauled me back in with surprising strength. It may have been born of desperation. She couldn't reach the door, but the driver, showing presence of mind, started quickly enough so that the door closed of its own momentum. Brenda remarked,
"There are times, Thomas, when it seems better not to try to apologize."
When we reached our destination, Brenda helped me out and tipped the driver lavishly. She then insisted on helping me upstairs to my flat. Once there, she determined that I had a fever and called a doctor. It transpired that I was coming down with the flu, and, while certainly a bit tipsy, the alcohol may have played only a minor role in my distress. While I was sitting in the only decent chair in my furnished bed-sitter, she knelt and removed my shoes.
No one had done that in many years, and I suppose the anamoly must have struck me. I did find myself giggling and hiccoughing as she led me to the bed. Then, before I knew what had happened, she had my jacket off and my trousers down. I was expostulating on not being in appropriate costume to receive ladies while she removed my tie.
The bed felt very good indeed, and, as she sat at the foot waiting for the doctor, it did strike me, as on the ship, that we had fallen into a quite matrimonial set of circumstances. Indeed, the doctor obviously took Brenda to be my wife, and she did nothing to correct him.
A sparsely heated English bed sitting room is not the best place in which to be sick. The gas fire was operated by inserting coins, and there are times when it is better to shiver in bed than to drag oneself across the room with a sixpence piece. What one does if one runs out of coins I can hardly imagine. That first night, Brenda slept on the couch and kept the fire going. During the week that I was in bed, she and Ralph came often, bearing food, juices, medicine, and coins for the fire. The maid came daily, and, between all their ministrations, I recovered in some comfort. It was toward the end of the week that Brenda and Ralph came together, accompanied by Jane.
Jane burst into my tiny domicile with the force of a tornado, twirling prettily and throwing out her arms as she said,
"I'm so glad to see you sitting up and taking notice of things. So far as I know, you're the first person I've ever poisoned with my cakes and sherry."
There was no alcohol this time. Instead, my visitors had brought a basket of delectable objects from Fortnum and Mason. Brenda scooped a bag out of it and began to make tea with my primitive facilities.
It dawned on me fairly quickly that Jane and Ralph had come as a couple, albeit one chaperoned by Brenda. Brenda, seemingly happy to be paired with me for some purposes, was now the hostess. That made Jane and Ralph even more a couple, in fact, a couple visiting another couple. Moreover, Jane now spoke of Ralph in a rather wifely way as she addressed me.
"Ralph's been rather enterprising. He's joined a group which plays soccer in Hyde Park on Saturdays, and another which plays American football there on Sundays."
It turned out, not surprisingly, that the latter group had a core from the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and was filled out by various Americans living in London and a few English rugby players. I hadn't known, however, that Ralph played soccer. He replied,
"I went to a school where they played some, and I'm learning as I go. Most of the group isn't English. We have Italians, Arabs, South Americans, and some Africans."
I asked if they were students.
"Not mostly. They do things like washing dishes in restaurants. They all seem to be worried about being deported."
"It's a wonder how they ever got here in the first place. With the unemployment what it is, it must be very hard to get work permits."
Ralph smiled as he answered,
"I doubt if many of them have any of the papers they're supposed to have. I do know that several of them stole a boat in France, sailed it across the channel, and then abandoned it on the beach somewhere near Brighton. At least, that's what one of the others told me."
Jane looked as if, in other circumstances, she might have taken the matter to the authorities. She instead remarked to Brenda,
"I suppose it wasn't enough to play games with these people. He's made friends with them as well."
Ralph, undeterred, continued,
"What they really need is to marry Englishwomen. Then they can stay."
Brenda came over with tea. She also suggested that, once Jane was divorced, she could marry one of Ralph's friends.
I gathered that Jane was, in fact, being divorced from Smith. However, in England at that time, the process was lengthy and complex. I had previously been around divorces, and braced myself for an account of all the horrible things Smith had ever said to Jane. For example, one woman I knew was left by her husband because he didn't think her intelligent enough to bear him the right kind of children. Another, having had a cancerous breast removed, was informed that her prospective replacement had two beautiful breasts.
These ladies didn't repeat what they may have said to occasion these comments, but it didn't seem likely that Jane would be similarly reticent. I fully expected that she and Smith would have exchanged barbs that would make even these sound like conjugal cooings.
In the event, there was nothing of the sort. Jane did refer to him as "the wretched Smith", but, to my great surprise, she seemed primarily worried about what he might think, and say, of her. I pointed out, reasonably enough, that it hardly mattered what one's ex-spouse thought, particularly if one were going to live in entirely different circumstances. Jane, however, gave one of her gestures and replied,
"The thought of what he might say fills me with a great dread."
If one were dealing with any ordinary person, one might reasonably conclude that there was some awful dark secret, perhaps a criminal one, that might be revealed. However, in the present case, I think it was obvious to Brenda and myself that the revelations Jane feared would seem trivial to anyone else.
Ralph, incidentally, behaved in a particularly absurd fashion, taking the posture of a medieval knight intent on defending a lady's honor from an unspeakable cad. Jane looked at him appreciatively while Brenda gave me a look of amusement. I asked whether she or Smith would keep the house. She said,
"He can have it. I've put it, and the whole street, right out of my mind."
But, of course, she hadn't. As I should now have guessed, she also cared desperately what the neighbors, including the French slut, thought of her. Indeed, while she seemed fairly generously inclined toward Smith, Jane wanted to take vengeance in advance on the female neighbors, who, she was certain, would think ill of her.
For some reason which eluded me at the time, Brenda seemed to encourage Jane in these fantasies. The two sat happily planning the discomfiture, not only of the French slut, but of virtually everyone on Pilgims Lane. Ralph, and even his soccer friends, seemed to come into it in some obscure way that I couldn't fathom.
Perhaps it was connected with Brenda's extraordinary statement that she was a property agent with an American company. When I had been alone with Brenda I had been too sick to worry about that, and, later, there were always other persons present. In any case, I knew that something was being kept from me. I couldn't imagine why. Was it because there was some underhanded scheme for which I was thought to be too honest? Or was it because I liked Smith, who was now defined as the enemy? Or was it because they supposed that my sickness had affected my brain, and thus imperiled my mental and emotional stability to the point where surprises were inadvisable? Young people can be so very foolish.