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Authors: Plum Sykes

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Then Mom called.

I
let voice mail pick up.

The sound of Mom’s voice always reminds me that there are very good reasons why I am living the party-girl life here, and not living the non-party-girl life over there.

Four reasons to leave England, in ascending order of importance:

 

1. Mom

Migraine-prone. Migraines caused by such terrifying prospects as driving into multi-story carpark at Heathrow Airport; taking a holiday abroad because she might have to drive into multi-story carpark to get plane because planes leave from airports, which generally include multi-story carparks; remembering she’s an American; sending a fax; sending a postcard; thinking about the idea of learning how to send an
e-mail; living at our house in rural Northamptonshire; living in London. In other words,
everything
.

The result is that Mom, who always calls herself “Mummy, because it’s more British,” is obsessed with controlling her only daughter’s life. A Professional Mom and a stunningly unembarrassed snob, she’s fixated on the British aristocracy, their interior decorating style, and the brand of Wellington boots they wear (
Le Chameau
, leather lined). Her ambition was to marry me off to someone British and aristocratic. (A career wasn’t part of her plan, but it was part of mine.) The ideal candidate was “the Boy Next Door,” the son of the local peer, the Earl of Swyre. Julie could never understand why I hated Mom’s idea so much. She always says she’d do anything to marry a guy with an English castle. But then, she has no idea how damp they get in winter.

Our house sits on the border of the twenty-five-thousand-acre estate of Swyre Castle. “Next door” for the English upper classes means a twenty-minute drive. Ever since I can remember, every time we motored by the castle gates Mom would exclaim, as though she’d just that minute thought of it, “Little Earl is just your age! He’s the most eligible man in Northamptonshire!” (She was describing our six-year-old neighbor, whom I’d never actually met.)

“Mom, I’m five and a half. You have to be sixteen to get married,” I said.

“Start young! You are going to be the most beauti
ful girl and you are going to marry Little Earl next door and live in the pretty castle, which is much grander than any of your relations’ castles.”

“Mom—”

“It’s ‘Mummy.’ Stop saying ‘Mom’ and talking in that unflattering American accent or no one will ever marry you.”

My accent was a replica of Mom’s. I couldn’t change it, just like she couldn’t. The difference was, I didn’t want to. I wanted a
more
American accent, even at five and a half.

“Mummy, why do you always say that all our relations live in castles when only one of them does?”

“Because the others died, darling.”

“When?”

“Very recently, in the Wars of the Roses.”

One of our relations did have a castle near Aberdeen. We visited the Hon. William Courtenay, my father’s aging great-uncle, every Christmas. His grandsons, Archie and Ralph (pronounced, inexplicably, “Rafe” in England), were also on Mom’s shortlist of future husbands, their considerable inheritances making up for their lack of titles.

Mom told me that everyone in America wished they got to go to a real Scottish castle for Christmas vacation. I never quite believed her. I mean, who wants to spend five days in a house colder than the North Pole when they could be at Disney World? After six arctic Christmases I developed a phobia of
country houses that I doubt will ever leave me. Most of the time I fantasized about being Jewish so we could forget the whole Christmas thing altogether.

Mom’s marital ambitions for me came up in almost every childhood conversation I can remember, the way other parents go on at their kids about getting into college or not taking drugs. I remember being about ten years old when we had a very tense talk over breakfast.

“Darling, when are you going to go round to Swyre Castle and have tea with Little Earl? I hear he’s very handsome. He’d fall in love with you if he met you,” said Mom.

“Mom, you know that no one’s seen the Swyres since Daddy sold the Earl of Swyre those chairs,” I replied.

“Sshhh!!! All that was a long time ago. I’m sure the Earl and Countess have forgotten all about it.”

“Anyway, Mom, everyone says they’ve moved away. No one’s seen them for years,” I said, exasperated.

“Well, I’m sure they visit! How could anyone abandon a house that beautiful? That dome! Those Capability Brown grounds. Next time they’re here let’s call…”

“Can we not, please?” I replied, even though I was secretly a little curious about the castle and its owners.

Mom was in complete denial about two rather significant facts: first, that the Swyres had divorced
about four years before—the mysterious Countess was famous for her affairs—and the Earl and his little boy seemed to have vanished; second, that ever since my father, who was always chasing a new “bargain,” sold the Earl four Chippendale chairs that turned out to be fakes, the two families had been on non-speaks. The Chair Affair—as it was dubbed by the local newspaper—was a typical English village feud destined never to be resolved. Although the chairs were returned, and my father repaid the money and apologized in writing to the furious Earl, saying that he had been duped by his suppliers, the Earl refused to believe him. He let it be known that he distrusted Dad and wanted nothing to do with him. The Countess, naturally, sided with her husband. Mom, naturally, sided with Dad. Everyone in the village, naturally, sided with the Swyres, as was tradition, thereby increasing their chances of being invited to the big house for dinner.

Mom, desperate to be friends with them, tried to make amends with the Swyres. However, when she invited them to her annual summer drinks party, they declined. When Christmas came around, there was no invitation to the castle for Boxing Day lunch. At church, the Countess publicly snubbed Mom by moving pews when Mom sat at the end of hers.

Mom found the whole affair so socially embarrassing that she eventually started pretending it had never happened. Mom always hoped everything would be
forgotten, but the village thrived on the story and wouldn’t let it go. Honestly, in small English villages people have lifelong feuds over the dumbest stuff, like the size of their cabbages, or what kind of tree their neighbors planted on the boundary (oaks are acceptable, conifers will precipitate legal proceedings). It’s tradition. I think it keeps them going through the long winter nights.

After the divorce, the castle was run as a conference center, although the family kept a wing for themselves. The Earl was rumored to occasionally appear, alone, and then vanish.

The older I got, the more Mom’s attitudes annoyed me. When I said, “I’m going to have a career and marry for love, if I do. You married Dad for love,” she replied, without missing a beat, “Exactly. Don’t do anything as silly as that.”

To be fair to Mom, she had tried to stick to her principles and
not
marry for love. Before she was a Professional Mom, she was a Professional Brown Signer.

A Brown Signer is a woman who is interested exclusively in British men with houses that have brown signs outside. I’ll explain: The only way the British aristocracy can afford to go on living in their huge beautiful houses is if they open them to the public. A sign that is generally brown with white lettering is placed on the closest highway to direct the public to the house. The brown signs often have a cute little icon
of a stately home on them. Only very large houses have brown signs, because if your house is small, you can afford the repairs and upkeep yourself, but if your roof is sixteen square acres, financial aid is required every time a tile comes loose. So quite ironically, although a brown sign is an indication of too little money to mend a roof, it is also a reverse status symbol. Because if you don’t have enough money to mend your roof that means you must have a vast roof and we all know what’s underneath a vast roof: a vast house.

You’d be surprised how many girls want a man with a brown sign. Brown Signers are cunning, leggy, international beauties from Manhattan, Paris, and London, who pose as uncunning things like handbag designers, actresses, and artists. It’s perfect cover because no one would ever imagine that a fabulous girl with a modern career would swap it for something as retro as a brown sign. It makes no sense at all—I mean, it would be the moral equivalent of swapping the new Prada shoe for last season’s.

Before a date, Brown Signers do their homework. They look up the man in
Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage
, a British guidebook that lists Brits of high birth, plus their addresses. If the house has a “The” in front of it—e.g., “The Priory” or “The Manor”—it is more than likely to have over twenty rooms and a brown sign. Regardless of his looks, mind, hair quantity, or neck measurement, the Brown Signer is in love with the
proprietor of the brown sign before she has closed her
Debrett’s
and curled her eyelashes.

Mom was an American Brown Signer posing as a student. It was the seventies and she couldn’t get out of the Upper East Side quick enough. Her destination: London’s Chelsea College of Art, the perfect hunting ground.

Mom thought she was getting The Manor-at-Ashby-Under-Little-Sleightholmdale by marrying Dad, which she did practically the day after he’d taken her to dinner at Annabel’s in Berkeley Square and driven her home in his Jaguar XJS (which was apparently a very cool car back then). After the wedding she discovered that although he has aristocratic roots, Dad was about thirteenth in line for The Manor-at-Ashby-Under-Little-Sleightholmdale. The Jaguar was borrowed. Mom blamed the confusion on her being an American, because Americans trust guidebooks like
Debrett’s
as much as they trust the
Michelin Blue Guide
.

That’s when the migraines started. Mom realized that not only was she married to a not very rich man, she was in love with him, too. It wasn’t what she wanted.

I say, complain not when you’ve saved yourself a life sentence like writing out The Manor-at-Ashby-Under-Little-Sleightholmdale every time you want to send a letter. I don’t think Mom agrees. She renamed
our house, which was originally called Vicarage Cottage, The Old Rectory at Stibbly-on-the-Wold, which is a very grand title for a four-bedroom house that isn’t exactly old. Whenever I ask Mom why everyone else calls the village just “Stibbly” she says its because no one in the village knows their correct address.

Speaking of long names, this reminds me:

 

2. Toffs

The main reason to
avoid
a brown sign is because it comes with an aristocrat, known fondly as a “toff” in Britain. Toffs call their palaces “dumps,” wear sweaters with holes in them darned by their ancient nannies whom they love more than any other women in their lives, and really do call sex “shagging”
à la
Austin Powers. Amazingly a lot of English girls tolerate The toff in return for The House and The Title. Personally I think it would be beyond exhausting to have a title like The Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, or Alice, Duchess of Drumllan-drig. It’s bad enough signing checks with a name with two parts, let alone five or six. But to some women, a six-part name and a toff are worth all the sacrifices—like absolutely no central heating allowed, ever.

Seriously, the British aristocracy actually think heating is low class. I have always thought this is unfair to people like me who just get cold easily. Mom
often said when I was a kid that she’d be happier if I died of pneumonia in a historic four-poster bed at twenty-nine than if I lived to be eighty-five in a centrally heated house. That’s one of the reasons I was allergic to Mom’s idea of the Boy Next Door: I just didn’t know if, being an American designed to thrive in balmy, artificial heat, my fragile constitution would survive the low temperatures associated with a toff marriage.

 

3. Dad

Dad describes himself as an “antiques entrepreneur,” but he’s so entrepreneurial that he’s totally gullible about any bargain, including those fake Chippendales he sold to the Earl. He was so cross about the whole affair that we could never mention it. In fact, no one in the house really spoke about chairs of any type when they were around Dad.

 

4. Brazilians

When I first moved to New York after college, this cute guy, a twenty-seven-year-old movie director (who’d never actually directed a movie) told me I “needed a Brazilian here.” Considering the position of his head at the time, which I’m way too polite to reveal, I thought it was
très
peculiar that he was proposing that a man of Latin origin should put his head in the same place.

“Chad!” I said. “Why would you want a Brazilian
here as well as you?” (I mean, not to be racist or anything, but one foreigner at a time.)

“There’s too much hair down here for a New Yorker like me.”

“Would a Brazilian be more suited to this than you?” I asked.

“You don’t know what a Brazilian is, do you?”

“It’s a person like Ricky Martin.”

“Duh! Ricky Martin’s French. A Brazilian’s a wax. You need one real bad.”

Chad insisted I visit the J. Sisters the next morning at 35 West Fifty-seventh Street, which is where I discovered the true meaning of the word
Brazilian
. It’s a bikini wax that involves waxing virtually everything off the place where Chad had had his head. On the pain scale, it’s right up there with unfriendly things like cervical biopsies, so
entre nous
, next time I will get an epidural first.

Chad was thrilled with the new Brazilian. Most men are, I’ve subsequently discovered. Ironically it was to be the cause of our breakup. He wanted his head to be near it constantly, which got a bit much after a while. Then he started doing creepola things like spontaneously booking appointments for me with the J. Sisters and getting overly upset if I cancelled. (No one has the pain threshold to tolerate a Brazilian every week. No one.) That’s when I started to suspect that I don’t have quite as good taste in men as I do in shoes. A man whose affections are swayed by the
shallow charms of a bikini wax wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I had to end it.

BOOK: Bergdorf Blondes
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