Friday, March 4, 2011
At tea time I would emerge from my work-cave, often dripping with moisture to mingle with the assembled cast of characters from the Supply team. There was Reginald Motley, a vacuous but enthusiastic lad from some midland collier town with buck teeth and powdery dandruff peppering his shoulders and lapels. He was fixated on all matters sexual, and he had an odd habit of using exact clinical terms for body parts and functions instead of slang. This gave his erotic discourses a stilted, perverse flavor that it would not otherwise have had. For instance: “It was all vaginal intercourse, old boy, vaginal intercourse all the way!”
There was Sandra Shagsby, a passably pretty young girl of twenty-four or five from the West End. Her accent, a thick and plastery Cockney, was an incomprehensible series of guttural stops and starts. I do not think she ever said an “h” in her short, sweet nubile life. She had a lazy left eye that made her seem subtly lascivious at all times. Her passes at me over wedges of black market lemon and cubes of pre-war sugar and the clinking of chipped porcelain became a minor scandal for a short time. Then I realized, with the kind of relief one gets when one reaches the rock-bottom of a truly simple person, that flirtation was how she encountered the world.
Then there was Gavin Budge, of course, his blond down glistening as he stood by the window, a sunburst breaking through the steel gray winter sky, illuminating him like an androgynous angel --- all soft angles and broad planes without visible edges or snag points. He was beautiful to behold. He was the sort of upper crust sexual chameleon that only the British public schools produce in unending quantities.
He was so cavalier about his masculinity that he was effeminate in his mannerisms, tossing a hand unselfconsciously in the air to make a point, or thrusting a finger into the sky while balancing a cup and saucer, discussing supply problems, manifests, invoices, requisitions, shortages or war strategy as if it were a production of Swan Lake
And then my little Clare, my gnome, would stand next to Gavin, her brown hair falling below the top line of her ears, concealing their points, a crumb of biscuit carelessly perched on the soft dimple above her upper lip, her green-white hand grasping the cup, steadying the saucer, her silence revealing not the reserve and haughtiness I imagined when we met, but a sweet shyness, a gentle girlish repose.
I would emerge from my lair for my tea as a stock character, the bulky solid American. Perhaps I was bursting from my uniform? Perhaps my command of space was so sub-consciously New World that it displaced the air in the room. For Clare seemed to shy away from the slightest contact with me, even at my periphery. This recoiling only made me move bulgingly forward, to try and jostle her into awareness of my body. When I entered the room at tea she appeared to butt up against Gavin for support.
I know now, now that I wander among a dozen pianos, piles of newspapers, acres of old clothes, that I used Eros to replace impulses that never really existed. I wanted a sheltering roof for a certain layer of detritus foam that sat in my bowels – that had been my unconscious substitute for a heart.
There was also a little hollow niche that sat somewhere above my sternum and ended at my breast-plate. I filled that spot with all sorts of things, mundane and extraordinary. But what should have actually gone there never did. For why should anyone hide from the world? Perhaps, as some people are born without a limb, or with faulty eyes, or a shrunken foot, others are born without the faculty for expansion. Perhaps the unfortunate few reach a proverbial dead end when they reach the tip of the birth canal. No more outward grasping. No more gain or loss.
After several hundred cups of tea, several dozen biscuits and small pies, Budge and I became close chums. We warmed a few pub stools, threw darts at a pitted cork target, licked the foam from innumerable pints, and gradually lessened the divide between the States and the Mother Country. He even invited me to his flat to meet his erstwhile girlfriend, a mousy petite peroxide blond with a button nose and close set green eyes, named Lesley Tuncless.
“You mustn’t listen to a word Gavin says about me Langley --- he’s positively daft.”
“He says nothing but good things,” I lied, for Gavin was tactless about women, especially the ones he habitually slept with.
“Oh, Gavin’s an expert in everything, don’t you know, how to best use resources, how to make a lasting peace, how to best plant tulips.”
“Well, I was always keen on gardening,” Gavin said, puffing on his cigarette demurely.
“Oh, yes, that’s true. That’s something you can believe about Gavin. He actually is the landed Gentry --- his grandfather abandoned the family title, but kept the lands of course.”
“Yes, he had decidedly Liberal leanings.” Gavin sipped his cocktail and removed a fleck of tobacco from his lip with his fleshy pinkie-tip.
“We should all go to your family’s estate for a holiday. Wouldn’t it be grand Gavin?”
“Yes, of course, what a splendid idea. We are positively overworked. A little holiday is in order. Not too long, of course, there is a war on.”
“Its settled then. We go!” Lesley’s close green eyes beamed with frenzied glee.
Somewhere near the river a siren blared. Anti-aircraft guns popped in regular cadence. Gavin stood up and brushed the blackout shade aside.
“Dear,” he said, “looks like we’re in for it.”
“Should we go down to the shelter?” Lesley asked.
“Yes, lets --” Gavin extinguishing his cigarette, “-- only I invited someone from work over for a drink as well. I do hope she makes it safe.”
We climbed down the dark stairwell past the entryway and into the basement. The tenants were filtering down as well, carrying pillows, blankets, a radio, blankets, food. The shelter was just a placebo to prevent a general panic. Situationally we were doomed if the building took a direct hit.
Mass bombing were designed to demoralize as much as to do physical damage, but in one of those twists of our century the ironic counterpart had been achieved: the English refused to submit. A nation of invaders, now threatened with invasion, turned a steely gray face across that choppy channel, pushed a robust hand upward across the Cliffs of Dover and said --- no further.
I pulled my massive legs up and sat on a small bench. When a woman came in with a small baby wrapped in a gray shawl, and I gave her my spot.
The two dozen people in the basement were quiet, even studious, listening attentively to the giant, muffled footfalls in the distance. They danced from location to location, for a spell, but then they seemed to be falling in a tight clump on the other side of town.
I walked up to Gavin. He was standing against the rough wall with his elbow leaning on a broken piano smoking. From the blue-green vein protruding on his forehead I knew he was troubled.
“You invited Clare over, didn’t you,” I asked in a hush.
“Yes, I’m afraid I did. I knew that you like her so I wanted you two to mix. I hope she found somewhere to hole up.” He lit another cigarette. I could see the soft down on his forearm as he brought the match down and extinguished it.
Gavin was a stoic of a decidedly effeminate variety. He hid his emotions beneath a soft shell; you could see them churning and dynamic under the transparent surface. I stood over him, gazing at that spectacle, my looming bulk eclipsing him for a moment. He gave me a weak smile. For one can either hide emotion and know they are a sub-cutaneous present, or live them, and not know their origins.
I suppose I fit into the former. If you somehow measured the volume of my inner torments, your gauge would most likely break. But you would never know it from looking at my face (it is as placid and self-composed as a child’s duck pond). Budge showed his heart on his sleeve, but Budge was in control. He had captured his fleeting emotions of dread and fear like zoological specimens and his taxonomy was nearly complete. My menagerie had gaping holes.
A sudden burst. Budge fell forward. I propped him up by thrusting my hands beneath his armpits. He was surprisingly light and easy to manipulate. In his efforts to right himself his lit cigarette fell into my open breast pocket. It smoldered for some time until we both realized what it was and tamped it out.
“Sorry, sorry, Chum,” Gavin sputtered. The people were whimpering now. The hit was close. We could hear the wail of a fire truck. It must have hit somewhere down the street.
The door to the shelter burst open. Everyone turned for a moment thinking it was the Civil Patrol telling them to decamp, but it was Clare. She was in her old worn work uniform covered by a ratty tan raincoat. A scarf was wrapped around her head. It was covered with dust from plaster. Gavin and I rushed her.
“Oh Clare, we were awfully worried. Are you alright?” Gavin asked.
“Barely,” she said, removing her coat and head wrap, “its terrible out there. I thought I saw a plane fall from the sky. I just missed being hit. Several flats that went down east of Knightsbridge. Ahh!”
She sat down on a crate. I handed her a glass of water from the basement tap. She gulped it greedily and then stared at me. There was a terrible twinkle in her beautiful, cloudy gray eyes. I handed her a cigarette, and lighting the match, I felt paternalistic and sexual in a blind instant.
I followed the tapered lines of her waist, watching it flow down her slim hips to the protruding, knobby kneecaps of her outstretched legs. Her stockings had abominable runs in them, and her small feet, stuffed into shoes a size too big, were turned into each other like two small animals seeking mutual protection. I sat down next to her.
“I’m glad you’re safe.”
“What do Americans know of this? Your country has never been bombed or invaded.”
“Not true, you burned the White House in 1814.” I’ve stood at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor years before on many occasions, where Francis Scott Key penned the Star Spangled Banner on the back of an envelope.
“That’s an abysmal lie.”
I raised my shoulders in weary gesture. I looked down at her, wishing I could kiss her petulant lips.
When the all clear siren rung we climbed upstairs. Gavin, Lesley, Clare and I stood on the street in a fine misting rain.
“Well, I don’t know about you,” Gavin said, “but inside is ruined for me. Let’s go over to the pub for some drinks. I want to get tight.” Everyone agreed.