01 February, 2010

Back-B-Log: UK20: Arrivals and Rentals

[From the 1st issue of the Tuesday Express/American Defendant Winter/Spring 1990]

I have never been significantly afraid to fly, but its always had its tense excitement ... will I live? ... but now, I'm blasé, and confident, if only for the fact that all that could go wrong, well, has, three months ago... (those of you unfamiliar with this part of the saga, cop to it in a future issue). The flight makes one stop in Montreal, so, already just looking out of the plane at the spreading lit boulevards, I seem to be in Europe already. Upon arrival in Heathrow, things go smoothly, mostly. The one humiliation they left out last time, a medical examination, is thrown in. They just check for TB, I have to wear one of those gowns while they X-ray me... fine, just get me out of here before I catch something from the real third worlders. In the waiting room one of the officials is trying to phone the resident relatives of an incoming Indian family who speak no English, it did not seem to be going well, as I left the drama, collected my luggage, and grabbed a cab to Islington.

The Fancetts, Islington:

These are wonderful people. Stephanie and Paul have been my benefactors ever since this summer when a simple phone call prompted an offer of shelter. They are sort of an earthy British alternative to thirtysomething. Paul-thin, wiry, with an energy which might be described as peripatetic in slow-mo; he works odd hours for British Telecomm. Stephanie-warm, nurturing, but with a slight weariness which suggests an inner regret of her own compassion, which only rises to the surface when she is being put-upon by the children... she gets genuinely viscerally upset at having to raise harsh words to them -- she is a chartered accountant with a fairly thriving practice, her office in the house, so she can be with the kids. Emma (5) and Tom (2) are precious, but apt to get on your nerves. Emma is very wilful, she wavers between being protective of Tom and very roughly commandeering toys from him (in this she reminds me of my niece, Lauren); she is also a rabid Michael Jackson fan. Tom is still one of those infant balls of energy, with a tendency toward unintentional trouble, he plays Jackson Pollock with his meals.

Steph and Paul live in a fix-it-up townhouse, which they bought several years ago but still haven't finished fixing (never mind the plaster damage in the ceiling looks like marbling, I think it should be left alone). When the children are asleep they share wine and chain-smoke off of each other.

I arrive at roughly ten in the morning on Saturday. Paul lets me in, brews coffee for me, and talks to me. I am barely aware, I converse through the jet lag which has me crucially weary. I meet Carla the latest in the series of au pairs for the children. She is from Verona, where she worked in one of the first McDonald's in Italy. She is awkward seventeen, thin, her face pale modigliani pretty, with short blonde hair. When she comes of age she will probably be Fellini-esque behind sunglasses. She is constantly apologetic of her English. She takes the kids to the park. I take a nap.

The house has been rearranged since I was here this summer. Stephanie's office on the 3rd floor moved to span of the basement flat, the children installed in the former office. They have cleverly put me in the spare bed in the children's room. This may be a subtle hint or knowingly providing me with motivation to find a place to live ASAP. Last summer I did push things a bit, staying once for a little over a week. They are too polite to withdraw hospitality, even in the face of frank invitations to do so.

The kids wake up at six like clockwork. They have been trained not to run downstairs and jump on their parents bed before eight, a rule that, as proof of her superior time telling powers, Emma observes when she feels like it. She helps Tom climb out of his crib. She
loudly instructs him not to wake me. Her mind still awash with the recent Christmas season she retells a rather garbled version of the story which depicts Jesus as something like Superman, with a Mum named Mary. The upside is that I won't need to buy an alarm clock to get to work on time until I move out.

The weekend is a wash, flat-hunting wise. The blab is that you have to get the classifieds hot off the presses and call within an hour or you're doomed. Nonetheless, I buy a day old sheet and study it for an idea of good areas and reasonable prices. Monday morning I go into the office, first time since the hectic fiasco, I reason, it makes sense to look from there, and to get out from underfoot in Islington.

I use LOOT an all-classifieds publication. I start calling but I only want something short term, until I really get a clear idea of where I want to live. No one bites at this, but I look in the short term lets listing, there is a very reasonable sounding six week let in Kensington, which I know to be a pricey area. I make the call anyway. A weary voice answers, but I am soon forwarded to an unEnglish sounding voice.

Turns out to be an American. An interesting situation, Mrs. Bradshaw an eighty-five year-old widow of an India army officer, has two au pairs to take care of her, the American, who works the night shift, is going on vacation for six weeks, the room is being offered with the rent going to pay the other au pair to be on full time. I go to check it out, meeting Barrett (the American), Paula (au pair from Columbia) and Mrs. B. I feel odd about living in the bedsit room, but the ideal short term and the irresistible atmosphere have already hooked me. After returning to the office and continuing the motions of looking, I give up, decide, and call to clinch the deal before someone else gets it.

Mrs. B's, Kensington:

Mrs. Jessie Margaret Maxwell Bradshaw is uncanny. She has many of the physical weaknesses of her age, but her mind is much more on line than most people of my age. She is a rabid opera fan, she still goes almost twice a week. She tells me that in 1929 she spent three months in Munich, seeing loads of opera, £5 covering all her expenses for that time. she has a degree from Cambridge, she attends local lectures, and she is dictating her memoirs. She has two sticks for walking (four legs in evening, oh sphinx); she has Parkinson's, but the only symptoms that I can detect (I know whereof I speak) are speaking and swallowing problems.

Paula, from Columbia, gives me the creeps, I can't be sure why. she stands too close, obviously has different values of personal space: I swear I almost caught her using my toothbrush. She has an indirect manner that makes her seem sly, cunning, dishonest. She is thin and strange looking. She is desperately trying to stay in England. Mrs. B's daughter, Annette, convinces me to pay Paula to do my ironing, to help with her Lawyer expenses. I'm later told that her family in Columbia is actually well off. Also, Paula is anorexic, which explains a lot, but somehow this elicits no sympathy in me. I don't dislike her, despite the way this sounds.

Annette takes Mrs. B to the opera. She is one of the curators at the Royal Academy, was involved with the Franz Hals exhibit that was recently in Washington, D.C, and just finished showing here. She has a clipped Penelope Keith accent. She lives in Chelsea, and comes up with the idea that I be her lodger shortly after I've finalized arrangements for the house in Streatham. I'm grateful for the offer, but I don't relish the idea of becoming a family fixture, poor relative or unused manservant, skirting about, tiptoeing through a residence not equally mine. Although living there is an experience, I am glad for its finity. The room is small, the huge period gentleman's wardrobe (sans lantern, witch and turkish delight) takes about a fourth of the room over. A monkish cell, it unfortunately conforms to my lifestyle. Here I must be quiet, enter and leave silently, use the kitchen minimally. I greet Mrs. B coming and going from the apartment, and bring her flowers once a week, the apartment is dotted with vases always full.

Clare, a biology grad student who comes into cook every other week, and whom I recognize as a kindred spirit, an unmet sister, gives me more background on Mrs. B. Apparently, she grew up in South Africa in a rather aristocratic family. Explains why she lives in this building, in posh Kensington, with an obsequious doorman, and an historical landmark to boot (Campden House).

I feel sorry for the doorman, Harry. He is compact and servile. I feel uncomfortable when he calls me sir. He opens the door, then rushes ahead to open the door and the gate to one of the two cramped cage elevators. Either because he knows me to be a lodger, an American or both, he forces particulars of his life on me. He has to see a doctor for a hearing problem akin to tinnitus. He finds the weather cold today.
Perhaps he should see Mrs. B -- I am told that she dabbles with homoeopathic cures and divination (Barrett relates incidents when Mrs. B has tested food and people with a small pendulum hung from a string).

Barrett is a lovely and sweet person, and she has a redeemingly frank sense of revenge, a streak of curmudgeon behind bright eyes-natural healthy prettiness skewed by the tendency to curse anyone or anything that has ever bothered her. She is not mean-spirited in the least, her verdicts are just, her sentences tend to be severe. She works for a film-industry trade publication. She is a patron of squirrels.

Meanwhile, it is not long before I find that one of my co-workers is looking for someone to move into the house he shares with some friends from school.

The Gang, Streatham:

Jon is a fairly friendly, amiable, humorous guy. He is also overweight and lethargically belligerent. He also works for Comshare Professional Services. He and his flatmates all went to Brighton Polytechnic, graduating last year, the place is still something of a student flat, sporadically untidy, yesterdays beercans wait for the bin tomorrow. The house is fairly large, in an almost sub-urban neighborhood. Before deciding to check in, I visit, and also go to a party there (good one, 90 to 100 people).

Oddly enough, Greg, the guy who's room I'm taking over is being sent to New York by his company. Another, Mark Humphries, (nick named Humph) was to be sent to Abou Dhabi but this falls through and instead he goes to Hull (that's about as tough a break you can get). Steve and Graham are the other two. All in all a pleasant bunch, I find that I get along with fairly well.

The week before I move in I go by the house to drop off a few things. I'm looking at my room, large, but which has the ugliest purple putrid fallopian paisley wallpaper imaginable. I look at the strange light switches, and outlets. There's this odd plastic box on the wall with a slot on the side and a red button on the bottom. Curiously I push the red button in. Nothing happens, and I seem unable to return the button to its original position. Later I ask someone about the boxes, no one seems to know what they are, they might have something to do with the alarm system.

Later that week I meet Jon after work at a social gathering, he pulls me aside -- did I press one of those boxes? Well, yes. Apparently at 8 AM the next morning, after everyone had left the house for work, the alarm went off, massively disturbing the neighbors all day. When the guys got back they had to do everything in the world short of blowing up the alarm system to shut it off. Then 4 AM that morning the battery kicked in and the alarm went off again. Luckily I missed all this fun. one of the neighbors insisted on being given a key so that if it happened again they could kill the alarm, the next day he was caught, casually snooping around the house (not criminal, just nosey), which gave the guys grounds to demand the key back and to make him look silly enough not to complain about our alarm.

Well I'm moved in, here to stay, more or less. I'm living with a group of ex-students whose aspirations teeter toward the yuppiedom they despise, while they still hang about having belch and fart contests, watching video nasties ('plod' movies) and dreaming of this month's page 3 girl on the calendar in the hall. They have devised a game of pseudo cricket in our back-yard edged with poplar trees. And soon I'll be up at bat... whatever that means.

Copyright 1990 Tarnoff-Navel-Gazetteer’s, Un-Ltd.

[Addendum: Sadly, Stephanie Fancett died in 2001, which I was only made aware of in a timely fashion as her accountancy practice handled my limited company for contracting work. The upside was that I was able to let my brother and all his LSE friends know in time for the memorial.

I caught a glimpse of Annette Bradshaw, Mrs. B's daughter, in a 2008 documentary on the London Débutante scene, apparently she came out in the 1958 season.

Jon Hammersley, to my knowledge, went to the far east with an Australian/AsiaPac Comshare affiliate in the mid 90's where he met his wife and has his family. He was a good guy and I'm sorry I lost touch with him. I remember going to a 10,000 Maniacs Concert with him, and how we were both in love with Natalie Merchant afterwards.

I later found that apart from Jon, the other housemates despised my introverted, non-lager drinking ass. A scumbag salesman for Comshare once told one of my clients an unflattering nickname the housemates had for me that related to the length of my shower time. They once planned a party erroneously believing I was going stateside that week. They thought I was gay partly because I invited one of my stateside gay friend's friend to stay whilst visiting the Terence Higgins Trust. They later warmed to me when someone discovered my distinctly hetero porn stash and after I made a slightly homophobic tirade whilst watching the Brit awards, although this may have equally been because I managed to put down Emma, one of the guys girlfriends, in the process. They disliked her more than me. To be fair to them, it was probably one of the few moments when I displayed much of personality at all in their presence.

We all had to move out around August 1991, when our strange non-dom landlord ended our lease early, and then after leaving the property vacant for over a month, tried to keep our deposit based on damage after we left. By then I'd found and purchased my flat in Islington, although I couldn't move in until November 1991.]

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