Thursday, 1 March 2012

That Gregory Peck Incident



She’d been living in the city long enough to remember to call an elevator - the lift, and the place where she was standing right now was a bookshop not a store.  

London was a million miles away from northern Virginia but home was where God had placed her whereas this big city was her current choice in life.

She had been born in the town of Herndon, right under the flight path to Dulles airport. That was when the place was little more than an oversized village, but now each of the towns had grown to touch the next  until there were buildings all the way to the Potomac river and into Washington itself.

Nancy had never really seen D.C. as a city, to her it was just another small town where everyone knew everyone else. She had worked in administration at William and Mary College in Williamsburg but when her mother remarried and moved out, Nancy needed more money and took a job at Georgetown University. It was a bit more travelling but boy was it worth it.  

Although Washington had always been on her doorstep, it was only when she started working there that she appreciated how beautiful the place was. Her father had been employed in the tax offices on Pennsylvania Avenue and at weekends the last thing he wanted to do was take the family back into the city. So for a long time she remained ignorant of what it had to offer.

Her father was many years older than her mother and died when Nancy was still relatively young. Eventually her mother married another government official and moved a few miles away to Great Falls, a more upmarket estate on the edge of the Potomac. Nancy very rarely visited her mother until her second husband also passed away and then she found herself visiting on a weekly basis.

Nancy and her mother grew closer during those years, walking in the Great Falls Park everyday and watching the great and the good of Washington riding their horses through the woods. When her mother began to lose her battle with ill health, Nancy sold own her flat and moved in with her. She eventually gave up her job to nurse her mother full time and over the next three and a half years she did so, until her mother quietly passed away.

Nancy found herself with no family to speak of, no partner, no job and very few friends who weren’t married - in fact nothing but a huge empty house overlooking a river. It was then that the idea came to her to sell up and travel the world. There would be enough money from the sale to keep her comfortable for a few years.

What she didn’t expect was to arrive at her first stop on the itinerary and stay there.

Eighteen months she had been in London and now she was employed at a branch of a well known American magazine. Someone she had known at Georgetown had recommended her, one quick interview and the job was hers.

The work was hard, the hours were long and initially, to Nancy, it seemed that the city was indifferent to most. Unlike D.C. she felt that no one really knew anyone in London or for that matter really cared whether they did or not.

She had rented a decent sized apartment   (or flat as she now called it) just off of Kensington High Street. Her wages as a personal assistant would have never covered the cost of her living there alone, so until she decided what her next move was, she subsidised the rent with her own savings.

The folks in the office were mostly from back home and would socialize on occasion; the 4th of July, Christmas holidays, Hanukkah and New Years. She had hooked up with a couple of boyfriends but nothing to make her stay. If she was being honest with herself, she had been already thinking of moving on to Paris or to Prague. She had been to check out both places over several weekends and liked what she saw. Air travel within Europe was so cheap these days that almost anywhere was within easy and inexpensive reach.

Her office was in a prestigious building on Piccadilly which meant at lunchtimes she could take in art galleries, sunbathe in Trafalgar Square, see the movers and shakers in Downing Street, or just take a wander through the West End and people watch.

She’d developed an odd little hobby, one that she would most definitely keep to herself. In D.C. there were never that many interesting buildings with elevators, at least not ones which were open to the public. So when she came to London she was fascinated with riding in lifts, something she had loved since she was a kid.  Nancy felt that if something was meant to be then it would happen, so when she discovered an interesting building with a lift, she would take it and get out on the top floor.

It always led her to some adventure or another but she was wary that one day it might get her into trouble - it never did; she played ‘Elevator Lottery’ and she always won.

On this particular day she was in her favourite bookshop, at the far end of Piccadilly, looking at nothing in particular yet at the same time watching the British at leisure. She noticed something she had never seen before - a lift over in a dark corner of the shop. There was no point in resisting as she was determined to find out what on the floors above.  

She pressed the call button and when the doors opened, she stepped inside discovering it was empty. She then selected the highest number - ten - and pressed it. Sometimes it was nothing more than the administration floor full of accountants and managers and on those occasions she would make her excuses and take the stairs down. Even under these circumstances she would find forgotten floors. 

The doors opened at the top and delivered her into the most charming of tearooms, one that was open to the public but, by the looks of it, was a well kept secret. This was a place for those who knew. The tables by the window had the most marvellous views of Westminster , Pall Mall and the parks.

Some sat at tables reading their latest purchases, some wrote on computers, some talked to lovers while holding hands. Nancy couldn’t understand why in all the months she had been working in London no one had told her of this place. Perhaps if you stumbled upon the tearooms it was because you felt it was meant and there was no need to make its existence widely known to those who were not so deserving of such a prize.

Nancy took the last table for two beside the window and ordered a pot of Earl Grey tea and two scones. These arrived at her table very quickly and were delivered with a glass of water which she appreciated. She looked around the room and saw contentment on the faces of her fellow tea drinkers and made a mental note that she too would keep this place a secret.  As she bit into the crumbling scone she realised just how British she was becoming.

“May I?”

His question pulled her away from her thoughts.
Her eyes met a well dressed man in his twenties, who had a kind face and who was looking around as if to say, this is the last seat in the room.  It wasn’t of course but it was easier to join another single soul than push into a table of three or four.  

“Of course, please sit.”

He pulled the other chair from under the table and sat.

“You’re American?”

“Virginian.”

“How splendid, I’ve been there, a wonderful State.”

He passed his hand above her cup and took in the aroma, “Earl Grey?”

“Mmm”

“Waiter, same please.”

She had loved the first scone but didn’t dare lift the second until his also had arrived. People couldn’t help it and were usually unaware of it but when only one person was eating, the other one at the table normally watched as their companion ate every mouthful. It was what we humans did.

When his tea and scones arrived they both got stuck in.  Nancy told that him this was all part of her world tour, that was if she ever left London. He told her that his name was Alfred and that he worked in public relations.


"Sometimes I just walk away for a shirt while, when it all gets too much. I find this a nice place to think, to get things clear in my head." He said.

She smiled and felt as if she recognized his face, perhaps from television but was too afraid to mention it.

When they had finished their tea, he asked if she would like a walk or as he put it ‘a perambulation’ which she laughed at and he seemed to enjoy.  They walked down Lower Regent Street and across Pall Mall, down the stairs and into St James’ Park.

By this time the sun was shining and the park was awash with wild life, they sat on the grass and watched the world going by.
“I never get a chance like this.”
“What to sit in the park?” asked Nancy.
“I suppose, I am always busy and if not, someone always finds something for me to do.”  

And talking of working , Nancy suddenly realised that she had to get back to work.

“If you must” he said, sadly.

“Oh, I must, I must.” And she wished him well giving him a kiss on both cheeks. Yes she was becoming European.

“Perhaps if you are ever in the tea room again, we might meet.”

“Perhaps” said Nancy.

And with that Nancy walked back towards Piccadilly even though she was sure he was still staring .
As she was perambulating  up Lower Regent Street, she realised that she did indeed hope she would meet him again in that secret tea room.

Twice a week she went back for several weeks but he never turned up.

Then one afternoon, as she sat down for her usual Earl Grey and scones, she started reading an early evening newspaper that had been left on the table and there he was in a photo on the front page.

Prince Alfred off to Afghanistan, it continued, the Queen’s grandson is off to fight for his country.....

Now there was a story to tell one day.

She took the stairs back down to the ground floor and went to the film section where she bought a copy of Roman Holiday - that one where Gregory Peck plays an American journalist who runs into a beautiful girl who happens to be a princess.

That night she poured a glass of wine, watched the movie and felt, for the first time in a very long time, that everything was going to be okay. 


bobby stevenson 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment