I had come to England, that May of 1986, expecting lofty and exalted feelings, but everywhere I went I kept picking up distress signals, thin vibrations of pain: a blotchy-faced girl shredding a Kleenex with both hands on the 73 bus, a dark birdlike man hunched over his soup in the shabby café near the South Kensington Tube station. And every morning, when I opened my eyes in my crummy hotel in Bloomsbury, all the mismatched bits of furniture bristled at me with silent malice. Then I’d tell them to fuck off, though not loud enough for them to hear. On my eighth day in London, I woke to the smell of mildew: one door of the lopsided wardrobe had swung open during the night. I slammed it shut and padded to the window, peering through the net curtains to check out the street. Sometimes I’d stand for an hour, one leg snaked around the other, watching the people below. That morning it was drizzling, they were putting up umbrellas, tugging at their collars, tossing cigarettes into the gutter as they headed for the Tube. I couldn’t pick out faces very well, but even from the third floor I could spot the luckless ones, trudging along with their heads down, communing with the sidewalk. A squat bald man barreled impatiently ahead, knocking his briefcase against a woman’s bare legs. Ordinary, trivial rudeness. You’d have to be half nuts to get riled about a thing like that when it wasn’t even happening to you. But there I was, heart pounding. Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life . . . there was no answer to that, nobody had ever found an answer.
Time was running out. There were only a few days left to find the romance of England, in which I’d placed so much faith; so far it had eluded me even among the swans and turrets and purple irises of St. James’s Park. It was just past nine o’clock. I made my way to the damp bathroom down the hall, where I brushed my teeth and splashed cold water on my face; back in my room, shivering by the tepid radiator, I dressed quickly in my good black suit and high heels, as though I had somewhere important to get to. In front of the cracked mirror of the wardrobe, I applied lipstick, blush, the new greeny-gold eyeliner in a pot that I had bought on the last day of my old life and never worn. Then I went down the shabby steps and onto streets newly washed with rain; in the first square I came to, the leaves on the trees were blurry with sunlit water. A tremulous, born-again feeling. I realized I was hungry, and climbed the majestic steps of the Hotel Russell.
A boy who looked no more than fifteen, in a maroon uniform whose matching hat tied under his
chin with gold braid, emerged from behind a speckled marble pillar and asked if he could help. I’d like some breakfast, I told him. “Certainly, madam,” he said, in a grave adult voice, though it squeaked. “I’ll go see if we have a table available. Would you care to take a seat while you’re waiting?” He gestured to a deep alcove at the left of the staircase, where a small round table with a vase of gold and crimson flowers sat between two identical plushy armchairs.
One chair was occupied by a bony old man in a clerical collar, with a rough-coated white terrier at his feet. As I seated myself opposite, he turned toward me, and I saw that the left side of his face had collapsed, his eye half-sliding onto his cheek. Very slowly, he lifted a trembling hand from the arm of his chair, then lowered it again. Men in suits and gleaming shoes walked past. A few minutes later my teenaged guide reappeared to inform me in the same grave voice that my table was ready. When I stood up the man opposite lifted his hand again, higher this time, so that I almost thought he was going to pronounce a blessing.
I ate a large plate of eggs and sausages and fried tomatoes in a cavernous room crowded with chandeliers.
After that I had a burst of determination; I got out my guidebook, with its little foldout maps, and made my way on foot to the National Portrait Gallery, where I tried to sort out which wigged and powdered man was which; I revisited the van Dycks next door; I wandered down the Mall and up Whitehall, and circled the thunderous-looking statues on plinths in Waterloo Place. Then I remembered that I hadn’t yet been to Keats’s house, and went looking for a 24 bus.
When I was eleven, my father had sat on my bed and told me the story of Keats’s life in a voice husky with tears. At fifteen I had read Keats’s letters in bed, under a pile of blankets, in a house my mother could no longer afford to heat, and believed that I could have saved him somehow. In college I’d kept on my desk a postcard of his grave that I’d found in an old library book.
I’d expected his house to be silent, like a shrine, but a straggly party of Russians was being ushered around by a stocky female with a harsh angry voice. I lingered on the ground floor, by the case with Fanny Brawne’s engagement ring, waiting for them to go upstairs, but even when they did, I could still hear her booming away. The bony woman at the ticket desk told me that the Russians had gone to lay a wreath on Marx’s grave in Highgate; now the guide was killing time before delivering them for their scheduled appointment at the Consulate. “She’s come here before, she doesn’t know anything about Keats,” she burst out resentfully. “I think she just lectures them about the evils of the class system.” I liked how fierce she sounded, like a dog growling; I wished I could go on talking to her—I hadn’t heard my own voice much that week—but I couldn’t think of anything helpful to say.
Upstairs the guide’s guttural consonants followed me as I peered at the portraits, the death mask, the tiny bed he might or might not have slept in, trying to feel his presence in those white antiseptic rooms. Finally I gave up and took myself for a walk on the heath, where no nightingales sang, and one of my heels sank into a dog turd hidden in a clump of tiny purple flowers. But at least I hadn’t picked up any signals of anguish from the Russians.
I had just made my way back to South End Green and turned onto Constantine Road when an unshaven man with half his teeth missing accosted me and asked if I could spare a couple of quid. “I could say it was for food, darlin’, but I’m not going to lie to you.” He winked at me. “I’m an alcoholic, see, I can’t help it, it’s a disease.”
All I had in my wallet, apart from a twenty-pound note and a day’s travelcard, was a five-pence bit and a few pennies—that and the ticket that allowed for free entry to Keats’s house for a year, which he might not find very useful. So I handed over the change, apologizing: “I’d give you more, honest, but this is all I have on me.”
“What about the note, then?” And when I said I wasn’t going to give him twenty pounds he thrust his face at mine. “What’s twenty quid to you compared to me? Eh?”
“Sorry.” I closed my bag and walked away, but he followed behind, muttering just loud enough for me to hear, “Fuckin’ Yank, we don’t want you here, go back where you came from, foreign cunt,” all the time breathing heavily, quickening his pace when I did. After a minute I was short of breath too—pant puff, pant puff: our breaths had synchronized—and hampered by my high heels, so that I could only trot in short steps. Across the street a woman was talking to her dog, a fat dachshund on a leash, without taking any notice of us. I wondered if I should shout for help, but I still hoped he was basically harmless, he’d get bored with calling me a Yank and a cunt and veer off.
Then he grabbed my hair, jerking my head back; I clutched my handbag to my chest and tried to hit him with my other hand, flailing behind me, while he tugged harder. At that point I did scream for help, but I had hardly gotten out the H when he let go, I heard a sort of crack, and turned my liberated head around: a tall sandy-haired man in a V-neck sweater had a cigarette in one hand and the other wrapped around my assailant’s neck. “Now,” he said, “I think that’s quite enough, don’t you? In fifteen seconds I’ll let go, and then you’ll scarper. Agreed? Just nod if you agree.” Insofar as he could, the drunk nodded his head. “All right, off you go,” Sir Lancelot said briskly, and released him.
“Fuckin’ toff,” the man said, rubbing his neck, and then, as he crossed the road, “Bleedin’ imperialist toff.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “Really, I can’t thank you enough, you saved my life.”
“I doubt very much that your life was in danger. Still, it must have been a nasty shock. You’re not hurt, are you?”
“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m fine,” and burst into tears. “Of course you are.” He threw his cigarette in the gutter. “I was just on my way to the pub. You’d better come along.”
I had to scurry to keep up as we headed back toward South End Green, which made me more teary. I must get rid of these shoes, I thought, sniffling, I must get some flats.
“Here we are,” he said, opening the pub door, and I tottered after him to the long wooden bar, where he spent a good three minutes discussing what I gathered was soccer with the man behind it, while I diverted myself by reading the signs on the dark walls and the words on the little pumps.
Finally he turned to me and asked what I’d like to drink. He frowned when I said a gin and tonic, as though that was the wrong answer. But he went ahead and ordered it.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend, Jules?” the barman said, measuring out the gin.
His eyebrows shot up. “I’m afraid we haven’t been formally introduced.” He turned to me again. “Would you mind telling us your name?”
So I did. “And you’re Jules.” “Julian, actually. But Jules will do.”
In a booth by the window, I got my first direct look at him: eyes the gray of rain clouds, a long bony nose, slightly jutting chin, an altogether decisive-looking face. He took a long swig. “So. Tell me what you were doing wandering around Constantine Road.”
I had been to Keats’s house, I explained. “Ah yes. ‘Hail to thee, blithe Spirit.’” “That’s Shelley.”
“Christ, is it? You Yanks always seem to know more about English literchur”—pronouncing it in an exaggerated American accent—“than we do.” His eyes strayed to the television in the corner, where a game of snooker was in progress. My feet were hurting, I was wishing I hadn’t come. I decided to take a taxi back to my hotel. First, though, I would go to the ladies’ room and tidy myself up. I was sure I had mascara running down my cheeks, and my hair felt greasy from the drunk’s hands.
But when I stood up, he said gruffly, “One of my sisters was very keen on all that.”
“Keats and Shelley and that lot. Byron. John Cam Hobhouse.” I stared at him in puzzlement, not sure what this had to do with anything, or why he should sound so gloomy as he brought out the name of Hobhouse. Then his eyebrows went up again. “Don’t look so gobsmacked. Why don’t you sit down and finish your drink?”
So I did, and we exchanged some basic information: where I was from (I just said New York), where he was from (“originally the West Country”), what I did for a living (edit ecologically minded guidebooks for backpackers: I didn’t say I’d quit my job). He told me he’d lived for a couple of years in Kenya; he and a friend of his who’d been born there had taken tourists on wildlife safaris. Once he’d been summoned to shoot a rogue crocodile that was attacking people. “Crocs are quite difficult to take out, actually, because you have to get them right in the brain, and they have exceptionally small brains.”
“But did you manage it?”
“Afraid not. But at least he didn’t kill me either. Would you care for another drink? You’re looking much more cheerful, by the way. It must have been the croc.” He waved away my twenty-pound note and went off to the bar.
What was he doing now, I asked when he got back. “You can’t be leading safaris in London.”
No, he said, he was your average disillusioned bureaucrat, not even a proper bureaucrat, because he worked for a think tank. “A ludicrous name for it, given the paucity of thinking that takes place there.”
“But do you think?”
“Not very often. I’d be the office pariah if I did.” He’d got a law degree at uni, he said; his remit was jurisprudence, exploring possibilities for coordinating sentencing guidelines among EEC members. He launched into a riff on the contradictory and byzantine laws governing sentencing in France and Italy and West Germany—“So you can get two years for passing a bad check in one country and six months for murder somewhere else”—breaking off occasionally when a shout or a wave of clapping alerted him that something had happened on the snooker table. Apparently there were great disparities in police procedures too, though those weren’t his department. In France they never released a single fact about a crime until they’d arrested someone. In England they begged the public to help them, and all the mad people phoned in and told them how they’d seen the crime in a vision . . . strung . . . dem . . . The place was getting more crowded, there was much hooting and laughter; what with that and his accent and the two double gin and tonics I’d had on an empty stomach, I was missing about a third of what he said. Something about the SDP, something about the wankers in the government.
At one point I decided I’d better have something besides booze in my stomach, so I went to the bar and bought us two cheese rolls. By my third drink I felt sure that he was suffering, he was in pain without being able to express it. It made me very sad, so sad that twice I went to the ladies’ room to have a little cry. In the passage leading to the ladies’ room, there was a brown-and-white engraving of a lavishly mustachioed man, head of some Indian regiment, and as I leaned against the wall to steady myself and stared into his face, I realized that Julian’s tragedy was that he’d been born into the wrong century: he was meant to be searching for the source of the Nile, or administering justice in some outpost of Empire. Protecting the women and children from rogue crocodiles. That made me cry some more.
I could never remember how I wound up going home with him that night—whether he said casually, with a shrug, Why don’t you come back to my house? or it was just taken for granted that I would. But somehow there I was, stumbling back along Constantine Road, bumping into him, until he turned right and I did too, down Rona Road, whose name I only learned later. I don’t remember first entering the hallway of his house, or his first entering me, for that matter. The next morning, though, I woke in panic, not knowing where I was. I heard his breathing next to me and jerked myself upright, staring around in the semidark to get my bearings. It was seven weeks and four days since my husband had dropped dead, and I was in a stranger’s bedroom in London.