Sunday, 4 August 2013

That Gregory Peck Incident & Shake The Heavens

1.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?”


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

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


“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. 

2. Shake The Heavens

The couple in front of him lit their cigarettes from the same match, kissed until the smoke was coming out of their noses, then each slumped into a big red balding seat ready to wallow in another Saturday night at the Regal cinema. 

Ricky was his usual late self and arrived out of breath just as the rousing newsreel music was starting up.
“Hurry up and sit down”, demanded James.   
“My mother...”
“It’s always your mother, just shh...there’s something coming on that I want you to see”

They impatiently sat through a story of the latest spring fashions for the young ladies of 1951 then a report on Tottenham Hotspur and the Arsenal football teams fighting for the top place in the English First Division - although James, with a snigger, dismissed talk of any team other than the Arsenal
“This is it now, watch”

The excitable announcer talked over some film of London’s Southbank. In only a few days time the Festival of Britain would open and the focal point was be the breath taking three hundred foot structure which gave the impression of being unsupported.

“Bloody hell” James was pleased at Ricky’s reaction.
”It’s like one of those Dan Dare rocket ships...” the couple in front came up for air, told James to shut up and then just as quickly returned to kissing, “..and I am going to climb that bloody monster.” James whispered. 

“Why would you ever want to do that?” asked Ricky already knowing the answer.
“Because I can”.
Yep, that was the reply Ricky was waiting for.

The guy in front, whose face was now covered in lipstick, told them if they didn’t shut up right this minute he’d hit them. Then the guy in front of him, told him also to shut up; you could be here all night with this stuff.

“Excuse me, my crazy friend but weren’t you watching? It is three hundred feet high” a fact that was worrying Ricky.
I know, ain’t it brilliant?” this time James talked in a cheap American movie kind of way. 

You see, to James everything was brilliant and brilliant acted as the base level for his life. If it wasn’t brilliant he wouldn’t give it the time of day but somehow every brilliant thing that James attempted to do would result in Ricky getting into more serious trouble.

The alternative for Ricky was not being James’ friend and that was too awful to even think about. It would mean Ricky going back to being shoved around the British Library by his parents. It would mean Ricky’s mother cleaning his face in full view of people with a handkerchief, into which she had just made him spit.
Somehow getting into trouble was his only salvation.

One Saturday, James had suggested that Richard call himself ‘Ricky’ after Bogart’s character in Casablanca. Richard hoped that James would soon tire of it but yesterday when he knocked at Richard’s front door and asked if Ricky was in, Richard’s mother belted her son’s ear.  
“James is such a sweetie, why would you ever let him call you by that awful name, you wicked boy? It’s not very clever, not in any way is it clever, Richard, do you hear me?” 
Ricky wasn’t listening to his mother, instead he was contemplating greater ideas such as there must be a time just before a person is born when the gods decide if you should be blamed for everything in the universe or be allowed to get off scot free. Ricky knew that the gods had voted him into the former group and James had, most definitely, been voted into the latter; even when James blatantly lied to peoples’ faces they always ended up thanking him for something or other, Ricky knew he could never beat those odds.

On the morning of the 2nd of May, the boys boarded the London bound train weighed down with paraphernalia, most of which was a mystery to Ricky. 

“I’ll explain on the way” said James and over the sandwiches that Ricky’s mother had supplied, he did just that.
For several months, working with his college and pretending to be studying architecture, James had contacted the manufacturers of the Skylon- the new name for the big rocket - and they had supplied all the specifications. So he knew it was aluminium and steel and James reckoned on two ropes and a couple of small hammers should do it.

“So you’re going to climb the thing then come down again?”
“Hell yes, but I’ll leave a souvenir at the top to let them know I was there.” James was smug.
He thought maybe a bottle of whisky but Ricky had to remind him what would happen if it fell. 

“What about a flag?”
“I don’t have one” 

Then James noticed the scarf that was around Ricky’s neck but Ricky argued that it was the college scarf and anyway it had cost three guineas and since it was the college scarf it might give the game away. James said he wanted to give the game away and blow the consequences, so Ricky reluctantly handed the scarf over. Ricky never liked blowing the consequences, he could see trouble ahead. 

When they arrived at the Southbank, the workmen were still putting the finishing touches to the Festival Hall. James had reckoned this might happen and had brought working clothes for both him and Ricky. It worked as they managed to walk straight past the security man who mentioned that it was getting a bit cold and James had to agree. 

“What now?” asked Ricky, still thinking about the consequences being blown.
Apparently the plan was to wait until midnight when the lights on the Skylon were switched off. Was climbing in the dark a good idea?
“Hell yes”
Ricky wondered about James, who had never actually been to America but still talked like them. 

They found that they could crawl under the Pavilion and it seemed a great place to hide and was relatively warm. After a long wait and a bit of cramp, James attempted to stand up and hit a trap door with his head, this led into the Pavilion itself. 
“Bloody hell” shouted Ricky. “Shh”
“But look at this place it’s got food and more food and champagne” 

James ruled that they would return to the room after he’d climbed the tower, assuming that he survived. Anyhow he had a backup plan that if things got too dangerous or the wind picked up, he’d just jump into the Thames.
“And hope you don’t drown”
No wonder Ricky’s mother hits him, thought James.

So a few minutes after midnight James got ready to start the fifty foot climb which would bring him to the bottom of the Skylon. It was all a matter of shimmying up the cables that held the tower in place. Ricky knew his friend and knew he was more scared than he was letting on, so Ricky started their game that had seen them both through troubled spots in the past. 

“Who would you rather kiss Dinah Shore or Doris Day?” asked Ricky.
James opted for Doris Day, every time. Then they discussed who the better singer was between Frankie Laine and Bing Crosby, both of them opted for Bing. Ricky reminded James that he better not fall off as he still needed to go with his pal to see ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ when it came to the Regal. 

Ricky then asked who was the best player between Jackie Milburn and Stanley Matthews. James knew that Milburn had scored against the Arsenal and so ignoring the question he quickly disappeared into the night.

“Be careful” whispered Ricky, to himself.

It was the most difficult climb of James’ life. The overhang was more than he expected and a couple of times he thought that his great view of Big Ben might be his last. By four am he had made the top and Ricky had been right, there was no way you could leave a bottle of whisky up here. He caught his breath, enjoyed the view for a minute then tied the scarf to the top of the Skylon. 

When he’d lowered himself halfway down, he noticed the policeman standing at the bottom. Where was Ricky?
James’ options were limited, he was still high enough to jump into the river or maybe he could take his chances with the copper. It was getting light and it was cold, going down by rope was his only choice. He could easily outrun the policeman so that is what he did. As he slipped down the support cables he jumped off earlier than he or the copper had expected. Luckily nothing was broken and on a hunch he headed towards the Pavilion. Sure enough Ricky was hiding under the building and without being seen, James rolled under to join him.

“Let’s find that trapdoor” the words crept slowly out of James’ mouth.  

Within ten minutes they each had a bottle of champagne to hand and were swigging it back good style; the policeman was nowhere to be seen. Without realising, both sat down behind the big fancy sofa and fell asleep.

It was Ricky who saw her first; there she was staring at him, Queen Mary as large as life. Ricky shook James awake, who grumbled all the way into consciousness. He was about to say ‘bloody hell’ but Ricky realised what was coming and slapped a large hand across James’ mouth.
“What are you boys doing here?” whispered Queen Mary.
“I’ve climbed the Skylon, your majesty” said a bit too loudly.
The smile on her face was subtle but definitely there. She nodded to the boys to look around the sofa, which they did.
“Blood....” the hand got slapped over James’ mouth again.
There was King George the 6th, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill.
“Bloody hell” exclaimed Ricky, who couldn’t help himself and had no one to slap a hand over his mouth. 

An army officer came over to tell Queen Mary she was required outside whereby she smiled at the boys and left.
“Think she’ll tell?”
“Don’t know, but we don’t want to chance it”. Quickly the boys dropped through the trapdoor and stayed there until it was dark again. 

The next Saturday night at the Regal cinema James and Ricky watched, from the comfort of their red balding seats, a newsreel report on the mysterious appearance of a scarf at the top of the Skylon. 

They laughed and laughed until everyone in the cinema told them to shut up.

bobby stevenson 2013

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