The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (7 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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11 p.m.

Leo Marks phoned up from the lobby at seven, I went down to meet them in my silk-dress-and-coat, red nose and watery eyes, and Leo, who is dark-haired and good-looking, said:

“How d'you do, we're very glad you could come, go back upstairs and get a coat, it's chilly and it's raining.”

I came up and got my old blue coat, went down and told him:

“You've made me ruin the effect of my whole costume.”

And Ena—his wife, very small and blond—said earnestly:

“You can take the coat off when we get to the restaurant, we're dining at a hotel, you can take it off in the lobby!” and peered at me anxiously to see if that was all right.

She ought to look delicate but doesn't, you get a sense of wiry strength. She might be a small blond athlete but she's a portrait painter. She paints under her own name, Ena Gaussen. Leo told me she's done portraits of Hayley Mills and Pamela Brown and won all sorts of citations; she doesn't look old enough.

They took me to the Stafford, a very old, gracious hotel rather like the Plaza. I had a couple of martinis to clear the sinuses and discovered Leo is a gin drinker. He's also a TV and film writer and we found we'd worked for the same TV producer—in different seasons and on different continents—and we talked shop. Ena didn't mind, she thinks we're both terribly witty.

He calls her “little thing.”

Little thing, you want the lobster again?”

He asked me if I knew of the pianist Eileen Joyce and told me:

“She's just been made a Dame of the British Empire and she wants the little thing to paint her in her Dame's robes.”

When it was too late to go see it, Ena told me one of Leo's films was playing around the corner; I was very impressed. I've always believed film writing is the most difficult form a writer can work in.

“Tell me,” said Leo. “You've written a beautiful book. Why haven't we heard from you before? What was wrong with your earlier work? Too good or not good enough.”

“Not good enough,” I said. And he nodded and went on to something else, and I think that's when we became soul mates.

It was a marvelous evening. I'd love to see them again but I haven't the nerve to call and suggest it. Being a visiting fireman has its own courtesy rules.


Wednesday, June 30

Being a celebrity means you're paged to the phone three times during breakfast, and the first time you come back to the table your eggs are cold, the second time you come back your eggs are GONE and the third time you carry a fresh plate of eggs out to the lobby phone with you.

Joyce Grenfell phoned to ask how my cough was and to say Do-be-here-on-the-thirteenth. I told her I mean to. The hotel switchboard operator recognized her voice and didn't put the call through to the booth, I took it at the desk, and the switchboard operator and cashier both like to collapse when I held the receiver out so they could hear her call, “RegGEEE!” when she wanted to ask him something.

Nora phoned and heard my croak and said Why didn't I come out to North London and let her nurse me? That's all she needs; she's working at a full-time job since Frank died.

The Colonel phoned to say the BOAC bag “will be sent round this

and he'll pick me up at ten tomorrow morning for the trip to Stratford-and-Oxford.

After breakfast I went across the street for Kleenex and cough drops. There's a string of small stores opposite the hotel on Great Russell Street: a stationery store, a Unisex Beauty Shop, a Cinema Bookshop and an Indian food store that carries health-food items. There's also a large YWCA Women's Residence and a curbside fruit stand. I stopped at the fruit stand for some peaches, and while I was waiting for change I noticed a bulletin board in a glass case outside the stationery store. Got my change and went over to read the bulletin board. At first glance the notices seem to be Items-for-Sale and Situations-Wanted ads, but you don't
have to read very far to discover your mistake. To the pure in heart, however, all bulletin boards are pure, viz.: (This is the entire bulletin-board list.)

Hot Pants for sale. Phone . . . . . . . . . .

Ex-actress will give lessons, French or anything. Phone . . . . . . . . . .

Male model. All services. TV, photog, rubber, leather Corrective training. Phone . . . . . . . . . .

Model seeks unusual positions. Miss Coucher. Phone . . . . . . . . . .

New lovely blonde doll for sale. Walks, talks. Phone . . . . . . . . . .

Tom Tamer gives lessons in the most strict deportment Phone . . . . . . . . . .

French girl. Ex-governess, many positions. Seeks new pupils. Both sexes. Phone . . . . . . . . . .

Three rucksacks wanted. Good condition. Reasonable. Contact YWCA, Great Russell St.

7 p.m.

Ena blew in at five-thirty with a brown paper bag full of lemons, honey and lime juice for my cough. She said she had
an urge all morning to call me and hang on the phone but felt shy about it; I said we're both too inhibited. She wanted me to have dinner with them tomorrow night. I told her I'd be in Stratford but would be back Friday, and her face fell.

“We go down to the country on Friday and we won't be back until the tenth!” she said.

“Never mind,” I said. “I have every intention of lasting till the fifteenth.”

She looked distressed.

“You can't go home that soon! We've only just met you!” she said. “Look, when you run out of money why don't you go down and stay at our place in the country? We shan't be using it at all after the tenth, you could stay there all summer—if you don't mind our coming down weekends?” peering at me anxiously. People unhinge me.

She just left to meet Leo at his mother's.

The BOAC bag arrived, and I phoned the Colonel and thanked him. He advised me to eat a lot:

“You must always feed a cold. If you don't give the germs food to eat they'll feed on you.”

Will now go down to the dining room and feed the germs.


I ordered “Chicken Maryland,” which turned out to be a slice of chicken, breaded and fried flat like a veal cutlet, accompanied by a strip of bacon and a fat sausage. Dessert was “Coupe Jamaica,” I didn't order it but the couple at the next table did: a long, narrow cookie sticking up out of a
ball of vanilla ice cream that rested on a slice of canned pineapple. It would probably confuse Jamaica as much as the chicken would confuse Maryland. But somebody once told me there's a restaurant in Paris that lists on the menu “Pommes à la French Fries."

Thursday, July 1



I'm writing this in bed, in a luxurious motel room: wall-to-wall carpet, easy chair, TV set, dressing table and a beautiful adjoining bath in mauve tile, life at the Kenilworth was never like this.

I tell you my Colonel has got to be the world's kindest, most considerate man. We left London in the usual gray weather, it gets to you after a while; I told him I was beginning to crave sunshine the way a thirsty man craves water. We drove into the Cotswolds and about mid-morning the weather cleared and the sun came out briefly. The minute it did, he pulled over to the side of the road, got a deck chair out of the trunk and set it up on a stretch of grass for me so I could lie in the sun the little while it lasted. He told me his wife died of cancer “after two years of hell”; he must have been marvelous through it.

We passed Stoke Poges and he told me that's where Gray's country churchyard is. Gray's “Elegy” was my mother's favorite poem, I'd like to have seen the churchyard but we didn't have time for the detour.

As we drove, he told me a long-winded story about a widow he knows who fell in love with a man and was invited to his villa in Italy, and when she got there she found she had no room of her own, the man actually meant her to share his BEDroom, d'ye see, and Well-I-mean-to-say, said the Colonel, she wasn't aTALL that sort, and it was a shock to find the Bounder wanted only One Thing. I wondered why he told me the story since he didn't figure in it—and
then it dawned on me that this was his tactful way of assuring me he didn't expect me to share his bedroom in Stratford. It had never occurred to me; he's much too strait-laced and old-school, it would have been out of character.

He told me he retired from publishing to nurse his wife, and after she died he took the job at Heathrow for the fun of it.

“If I see a man and his wife and grown daughters standing together looking a bit out of sorts, I walk up to the man and say: ‘Sir, which of these ladies is your wife?' And he beams! And she beams!” And the Colonel roars with laughter.

“If I see a middle-aged couple looking a bit down, you know, I walk up to them and ask: ‘Are you folks on your honeymoon?' and you ought to see their faces! They know I'm joshing—some of 'em do—but still, y'know, they can't help being pleased.

“If I see a child crying—some of them get very tired and upset at a big airport, they're hungry, they want to be at home—and when I see one crying I walk up and ask the parents if they know where I can find a nice little girl because mine is grown up. And then I discover the little girl who's crying and I say she's exactly the sort of little girl I've been looking for, and I ask if she'd consider being my little girl.” And he ends each story with that booming laugh of pure pleasure.

The Cotswolds are just what I always thought they'd be: stretches of green countryside pocketed with English villages that seem not to have changed since the time of Elizabeth I. We had lunch at a pub near a country church where, said the Colonel, “Hampden started the Revolution.”
Didn't have the nerve to tell him I don't know who Hampden was.

Stratford is beyond Oxford, we backtrack tomorrow. We passed Oxford road signs and I told him about Great Tew. Years ago, somebody sent me a postcard—a photograph of five thatched cottages falling down a hillside—and wrote on the back:

This is Great Tew. You can't find it on the map, you have to get lost on the way to Oxford.

The photo was so idealized a view of rural England I didn't believe the village really existed. I used to stare at that postcard by the hour. Kept it for years, stuck in my Oxford English Verse.

“Well!” said the Colonel, inspired by the challenge. “We shall just have to find Great Tew and see if it's still the same.”

He wove in and out through the Cotswolds and finally we came to signs pointing to Tew and Little Tew and rounded a curve and there was Great Tew, looking exactly as it had looked on my postcard: five ancient stone houses with thatched roofs, still falling down the hillside. The Colonel said they date back to Henry VIII. Five hundred years later they're still lived in: there were white curtains and flower boxes at the windows, and every front lawn had a rose garden.

He parked the car—the only car in sight—and we got out. Down the road from the cottages was the village's only other building, a one-room General Store and Post Office.
We went in. There was no one in there but the woman who runs it, and we hadn't seen a soul outside.

The Colonel bought ice cream, I asked for a glass of milk and was handed a quart bottle and a straw. The Colonel told the proprietress that I had come “all the way from New York” and had “particularly asked to see Great Tew.” While they talked I was clutching the quart bottle entirely preoccupied with trying to get at least half a pint of it inside me so as not to hurt her feelings. When I'd drunk that much I looked around for an inobtrusive place to park the bottle, and discovered that the store had suddenly filled up with people—men in country caps and women in print dresses. I moved out of their way and they all stepped up to the counter and bought cigarettes and newspapers. A few children came in and were promptly shooed out by the proprietress.

The Colonel finished his ice cream, took my milk bottle off my hands and disposed of a pint and a half of milk as if it were a glass of water, and we left.

“Well!” he said as we walked back to the car. “We've given them something to talk about for a month! Did you notice how the entire village came in to see the people from Outer Space? As soon as they saw my car with the London plates they came running. Did you see how she shooed the kids out? That was to make room for all the grownups. They won't see travelers here from one year's end to the next. And from New York? Not in a lifetime!”

And we were a few hours from London by car.

Everybody I ever knew who went to Stratford had warned me it was a commercial tourist trap, so I was prepared for it. The first thing we saw as we drove in was a
huge billboard advertising the JUDITH SHAKESPEARE WIMPY HAMBURGER BAR, the Colonel was purple with fury. It doesn't matter in the least. You find Shakespeare's house and pay your fee to enter—and just to walk up the stairs gripping the huge railing, just to walk into the bedroom and touch the walls, and then come back down and stand in the kitchen that saw him in and out every day of his growing up has to melt the bones of anyone born speaking English.

We saw
Much Ado
at the shiny modern theater, very conventional, not very well acted. The Colonel slept through most of it and I didn't blame him.

Will now go climb into that mauve bathtub, we leave for Oxford early in the morning and I mean to get the most out of this posh palace first.

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
12.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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