Mr. Bedford and the Muses
I began keeping a journal when I was thirteen. Sometimes, now, I look with incredulity at the bulk of volumes widening along my shelf and I am reminded of the old lady who confesses to a stranger that she has always had a weakness for pancakes. "There's nothing wrong with having a weakness for pancakes," the stranger says. "Really?" she cries, relieved, and takes him up to her attic to show him her hundreds and hundreds of pancakes stacked neatly in tiers.
People say, "Oh, they must be so useful to your writing. All that material." But in fact the majority of the agonies, furies, passions, and dreads, penned in various inks in a handwriting that has changed from a stiff baroque upright to a looser, loopy slant, are as cold as those pancakes in the attic. Yet I go on with my vice. I look forward to it at the end of the day as some people do to a drink. Occasionally I indulge in a retrospective read and come away wishing that girl and then that woman had paid more attention to what was going on around her rather than heaping up more cold pancakes. But once in a while I come across something still warm. It connects me to my living past and starts my imagination glowing, as in the case of Mr. Bedford's story, written down carefully one spring afternoon in the London of 1963, within an hour after that strange and memorable couple, the Eastons, had told it to me.
My life with the Eastons began when I arrived in London in the spring of 1962. I lived with them, except for one winter's defection, until the autumn of 1964. Even today, when I try to describe the Eastons to people, I end up talking for thirty or forty minutes, growing more agitated, and finally demanding of my listeners: "Who were the Eastons, anyway?" And, as most people are perfectly willing to pass judgment on people they've never met, the answers are as peremptory as they are varied. "Con artists," says one person. "Victims!" insists another. "Their kind is a dying breed," remarks a third. But the minute I reread Mr. Bedford's story in my old journal, I knew that the Eastons, whatever they were, are very alive in me.
Easton is not their real name, of course. For obvious reasons, I'll change all the names, including my own. Also, made-up names make it easier to invent when you come to memory gaps. And this sometimes leads to bonuses. In the middle of "inventing," you discover you are remembering. Or, even better, you discover the real truth that lay buried beneath the literal happenings.
Only Mr. Bedford's name I won't change. It was his story that reconnected me to that chunk of raw past that now quivers to be shaped into meaning. We take our Muses where we find them, and you, Mr. Bedford, are the Muse of this story. As you once carried your candle into dark rooms for the Eastons, lead me now, in your diligent, slow-footed way, through the precarious realm of fiction-in-progress. You may keep your real name; your relatives won't sue.
The ad in the Evening Standard offered a bed-sitter in South Kensington, two meals included, seven guineas a week, "Student or young prof. person preferred." I had to ask someone what a guinea was, and was told that it was a fancy way to ask for more money (seven guineas being seven pounds, seven shillings). But I could still afford it, and I was a "young prof. person." So I called, or "rang up," as I would learn to say, and the woman who answered the telephone had an American voice with an Eastern Seaboard drawl. Her tone was warm and cultivated. She seemed pleased I was American, too, and even more pleased when I told her I'd be working for our Embassy. "Aren't you lucky!" she said. She told me to get off the 74 bus at Old Brompton Road across from the Boltons and walk around the grassy circle to Tregunter Road. "It's the big gray house. It has a brass knocker shaped like a lion's head." She laughed. "You can move in right away if you like the room," she said. "But by all means stay and have supper with us." I was impressed by her spontaneous generosity. I had been in London less than a week and was still not certain what to make of the so-called British reserve.
I really congratulated myself on my luck when I saw the Boltons. It was just the sort of London I had imagined myself living in, knowing even as I conjured it up that I could not afford it on a GS-2 salary: a sweep of grand houses banked by well-kept lawns; old trees that, even though still bare, were tall and plentiful enough to form a cordon between the Brompton Road traffic and this austere preserve. Tregunter Road was shabbier, but the big gray house with the brass knocker still retained the ghost of former grandeur, even though its portico paint was peeling badly.
Mrs. Easton also retained the ghost of her better years. She carried herself extremely well in her baggy sweater and too-long tweed skirt, and her thoroughbred outlines were still apparent. She had a classic face, though wrinkled, and wore her faded blond hair pulled back behind her ears and fastened with a tortoiseshell barrette. "I'm so glad you rang when you did, Carrie," she said, "because immediately afterward a lovely young man telephoned from Leeds -- he's joining Reuters (you know, the news service) and they had seen our ad and teletyped it up to him -- but I told him I was pretty sure we'd already rented it. I see you've brought your bag -- wasn't it heavy? Let's leave it just inside the door for now. I want you to meet Mr. Easton first and then he'll show you the room." She had a way of talking and smiling through her teeth at the same time that I found both unnerving and classy. We went past a large common room where a balding young man in a three-piece suit sat on a sofa reading a newspaper and another mate of indeterminate age, also wearing a suit, was playing a Bach prelude rather badly on an old upright piano painted red.
"Do you have other tenants?" I asked, following her long, neatly shod feet down a gloomy corridor filled with promising supper smells. Somehow, from the way she had talked on the phone, I had assumed it would just be the three of us.
"Oh yes," she replied in her sunny, closed-mouth way, "we can accommodate seven. One is away at the moment, however, for the Easter holidays."
We passed a purple velvet curtain behind which someone was playing a Charles Aznavour record, then turned right into another corridor. Mrs. Easton knocked softly on a tall door with carved moldings. "Whit, dear, it's us," she called in a slightly placatory tone, then allowed a moment or two to pass before she opened it. A tall man stood erectly, with his back to us, in front of a fireplace that had a gas heater in the grate instead of a real fire. He wore well-pressed cavalry twills and a Harris tweed jacket with suede patches at the elbows. Then, with rather theatrical timing, he did an about-face. His cheeks were flushed and his light-blue eyes were a little watery and his hair was mostly gone, but he, too, still carried the outlines of a former beauty. He wore a maroon-and-gray tie that looked regimental, and also some tiny decoration in his buttonhole.
"Whit, this is Carrie Ames," said Mrs. Easton. "Carrie, this is my husband, Whitmore Easton." There was pride in her voice as she drawled out those last four words. I assumed he must be someone important, and/or she was still in love with him.
Mr. Easton shook my hand and looked me over. "So you'll be working for David Bruce, huh? Well, he's a capable chap. Gives wonderful parties, so I'm told. I was fond of Winant myself. He was ambassador here during the war. Amiable fellow. Took his own life, you know. I knew him when he was governor of New Hampshire. His second term."
"Are you two from New Hampshire?" I asked.
"No, I'm from New York and Lee, here, is from Connecticut. Say, Carrie, can I get you a drink? Darling" -- he turned to his wife --"how about a drink?"
"Thank you, dear. I'll have a glass of sherry."
I said, "That sounds fine."
"Wonderful." He went to a sideboard. The room was filled with lots of large, dark-stained furniture. There was the smell of a nice perfume in the overheated air. Mrs. Easton displaced a Siamese cat from the sofa, explaining to him that he must defer to their guest. "This is Enrico," she said, fondling the cat in her arms. She wore a large pear-shaped diamond with two emerald baguettes on her wedding finger. The cat wriggled and sprang out of her arms with an ill-humored meow and stalked off to a hassock.
"Poor Rico," said Mrs. Easton, "he misses Elba. He had more freedom there. And he still hasn't forgiven us for the animal quarantine. We only recently got him back."
"You lived on Elba?" I sat down in Enrico's place. The sofa was a hideous old brown horsehair, but someone had draped a beautiful sea-green mohair shawl all along the back.
Mr. Easton joined us with the drinks. "I'm having some- thing a wee bit stronger," he said, winking at me. He had poured himself half a tumblerful of gin with a dollop of tonic water. "Here's to Carrie," he said, raising the tumbler. We all drank to me. Mrs. Easton, with the air of a confidante, told me how for seven years she and Mr. Easton had run a little pensione in Portoferraio. "We met so many lovely people, mostly English, and we began to get homesick for some real civilization. And then this young man, Martin Eglantine, who owns this house and the one behind, across the garden, where your room is -- listen to that, Whit!" -- and she laughed, screwing up her eyes -- "I'm already thinking of it as Carrie's room."
"Eglantine's a real entrepreneur," said Mr. Easton. "He owns dozens of houses like this, all over London. Buys 'em up quick as I can snap my fingers." He snapped his fingers, looked surprised to see that his glass was empty, and got up to refill it. I caught a shadow of annoyance on Mrs. Easton's face.
"Anyway," she went on brightly, smiling through her teeth, "Martin was very impressed with our pensione and when we said we were ready to make a change, he offered us the use of these houses."
"'But how long has it been since you've been home?"
"Oh, about eight years," said Mr. Easton jovially from the sideboard.
"No, Whit, it'll be ten years the thirtieth of this month," Mrs. Easton corrected him.
There was a silence in the room. The gas heater sighed. A clock ticked. Mr. Easton sloshed gin into the tumber.
"But don't you miss the United States?" I asked, more to break the silence than anything else, and earned a look from Mrs. Easton that I would come to know and dread. I called it, in my journals, "the scrunch," because her whole face bunched up into a mask of wrinkles. The eyes became little slits of light -- and malevolent light, at that -- and the lips disappeared altogether. And you knew you had done something unforgivably gauche.
But this first time the apparition was mercifully brief, and the next moment she was drawling through her teeth, "Of course we miss it, but . . . well, honestly, Carrie, England has so much to offer, and, frankly, Mr. Easton and I are more English in our values than we are American."
"Carrie, if you look out those French windows you'll see a big white mansion to your left," said Mr. Easton. "That's Douglas Fairbanks junior's house. I knew him in Cairo. We met at a houseboat party on the Nile. Interesting fellow, but I always thought he had terrible taste in women."
I don't think it once occurred to me that I could choose not to take "my room." Even before I saw its unprepossessing layout -- though it was no worse than the average room perpetrated on "students and young professional persons" all over the civilized world -- I knew I was going to live here. I knew it even as I followed Mr. Easton's military pace down the narrow garden path that connected the big gray house with the less impressive row house behind, and he knew it, too, because he had brought along my suitcase. In less than an hour, the Eastons had wound me fast into their net. It was a net composed of obligation, fascination, and intrigue. I liked them, didn't quite trust them, desired their approval, and knew, with the instinct of one who likes to stir life up, that wherever they were would never be dull.
"Well, no movie star's mansion on this side," said Mr. Easton, as we looked out "my window" upon a solid block of council flats, "but you get the morning sun. It'll be easier to get up for work. We furnish linen service. Three towels a week, one change of sheets. What? Oh, a bookcase. Sure, sure. Ask Lee, I'm pretty sure there's one in the attic over at the other house. What we do is, you see, we give you the basics and then you fill in the rest according to your individual taste. Jean-Louis -- that's our French textile salesman -- has his room all filled with velvets and brocades. Alexander -- he's a turf accountant (we call it bookie back home) -- he lives in that passage with the purple curtain, we passed it on the way out. He can't afford the full rent, but he's an interesting chap, so we let him fix up that passage and have his meals for a little less than you guys pay -- which reminds me, rent is payable a week in advance and on Thursday, if possible. Keeps things uniform. Get Alexander to show you his passage. He's fixed it up like a Victorian brothel. Here's your gas fire. First you put in your shilling -- I'll put the first one in for good luck -- and then you light it." He did a deep knee bend, amazingly limber for his age, and demonstrated. Then rose again, tilting toward me as if he'd lost his balance momentarily. "Well, I expect you'll want to wash up before supper." His face was crimson as he backed out of the room. I couldn't be sure whether he had actually patted my bottom or just brushed against it with his hand in the act of getting to his feet.
Just before supper, Mrs. Easton, wearing a handsome black bib apron with thin white stripes over her clothes, emerged from the kitchen and introduced me to my fellow boarders. She reiterated that one was away for Easter. Of the present number, I was the only girl. Mrs. Easton explained that she and her husband took their meal separately, in their own quarters. "We feel you young people are less inhibited that way." Then she went back to the kitchen and served the plates, which Mr. Easton carried out two at a time. The couple took their own plates on a tray and disappeared.
"Did you know Colonel and Mrs. Easton back in America?" asked Alexander, the turf accountant who lived in the passage.
I said no, I'd met them only this afternoon.
"Pity. We were hoping you could give us the gen on them."
"Sorry. I didn't even know he was a colonel."
"He has a DSO," said a baby-faced young man with dark eyes and beautiful long lashes. "The British gave it to him for blowing up an enemy train in World War Two. He drinks too much, but she's terribly nice. And such a terrific cook. Mmm." He parodied someone licking his chops, then took a delicate forkful of lasagne.
"Even if her servings are the size of a postage stamp," said Alexander. "That's fine for Carlos here, he can sit in his room all day eating pâté and reading novels. Carlos's father is the finance minister of Mexico."
"Alexander," said Carlos, blushing deeply, "you embarrass me."
An arrogant-appearing young man in a turtleneck sweater who was reading something in his lap while he ate gave a snort of laughter. He was the best-looking of the bunch.
"I don't see why, Carlos. I'm just saving Carrie a bit of time. She's curious about us, we're curious about her. And being such a bloody international group, we don't have access to all the shortcuts one has with one's own countrymen. That's why I was hoping she could give us the gen on the Eastons. We're all keen on placing people, Carlos."
"That's not true," protested Carlos, blinking rapidly. "It's what a person is in himself that counts."
"Rubbish," said Alexander. "What am I 'in myself'? A bloody cipher. One more human being. Whereas if you can place my accent -- Yorkshire, working class -- and then if you can tell I'm wearing a thirty-guinea, made-to-measure suit, and if you go in my passage and if you know anything about antiques and can recognize what I've managed to accumulate on my sodding salary, then you're on the road to finding out who I am. And intend to become."
"A crook?" inquired a balding young man genially, without looking up from his food. He was the one in the three-piece suit I had seen reading a newspaper earlier.
"That's Colin," Alexander told me. "He's a clerk at Barclays Bank. He earns ten pounds a week. But his suit is off the peg.
"Oh, really, Alexander," said Colin, continuing to eat.
The arrogant man in the turtleneck gave another snort of laughter. I had retained his name from Mrs. Easton's introductions, though his had not been one she had lingered over indulgently, as in the case of Alexander and Jean-Louis the textile salesman, or with relish, as in the case of Carlos Paredes y Broncas. The antisocial man's name was Nigel Farthingale. He ate a piece of endive with his little finger sticking out and turned the page of the book on his lap.
"Oh Colin," I said, "I wonder if you could advise me. I was in the Canary Islands just before coming here and this British lady told me I would get a better rate of exchange if I cashed my American Express dollars into pounds down there. So now I'm carrying around all these loose pound notes. Would I lose a lot if I were to turn them back into traveler's checks?"
"You might lose more if you don't," said Colin.
"Nevair carry more cash than you can afford to lose," said the French textile salesman with real feeling, looking up from his meal for the first time. There was genuine alarm on his handsome, plump face. He wore his paisley silk foulard tied so high on his neck that he appeared to have no chin.
"Oh, Carrie probably comes from a very rich family," said Alexander. "All Americans are rich."
"Rubbish," I said. But in such a way that they might think he'd hit on the truth. "You must get a lot of good tips," I said, "being a turf accountant, Alexander."
"Yes, but I don't gamble. Investment is more my nature. Alexander was the thinnest grown-person I'd ever seen. His cheeks were so hollow he looked as if he were constantly sucking a sweet.
"Then why work in such a place?"
"It's as good as any, till my ship comes in. Besides, I rather enjoy watching how people of all classes can make equally bloody asses of themselves."
The Eastons reappeared. Mr. Easton cleared the table while Mrs. Easton poured coffee and served around a platter of cookies in the common room. She had taken off her apron and dabbed on a little of the nice perfume, and now, with the air of a grand lady entertaining a group of young people in her own home, she proceeded to devote herself to each of us in turn. I came first because I was new, and she explained to the group that I would be working at the Embassy on Grosvenor Square and then asked me what my duties would be, exactly, and turned things over to me with the smoothness of a talk-show hostess. I said I wasn't sure as to the exact scope of my duties, the job didn't start till Monday, but that I would be with a new program that was supposed to encourage British people to take their holidays in the United States.
"I'd adore taking a holiday in America," said Alexander. "Why not get your department to send me over as a publicity stunt? I'll go everywhere and send back good reports."
Appreciative laughter. Except for arrogant Nigel, who sat with the air of one restrained, his demitasse cup balanced upon his closed book.
Then Mrs. Easton looked fondly at Carlos and inquired whether he had studied any today. "Carlos is cramming for Cambridge," she explained to me.
There followed another set-to between Alexander and Carlos, in which Alexander said Carlos would be a bloody expert on the novels of Mary Renault when he got to Cambridge, and Carlos, blinking and blushing, protested that he had studied all morning and read The Bull from the Sea only in the afternoon. "And besides, Mrs. Easton" -- he appealed to her like a favorite child -- "it is history."
"Of course it is, Carlos, but you mustn't neglect your other subjects." Then, squaring her shoulders a little, she turned to Nigel Farthingale. "Any luck with your auditions?" she drawled, forcing her smile wider.
With a scornful glance at her, as if to say, Must we play this ridiculous farce?, he offered her his book. "I'm reading for the part of Jack next Tuesday. It won't be a very grand production, but then" -- with a curl of his lip -- "beggars can't be choosers, can they?"
I thought she flinched at this, but when she saw the book she cried, "Oh! The Importance of Being Earnest. Nigel, you're not going to believe this, but I once played Jack when we did this at our boarding school." She folded her hands on the book, closed her eyes for a minute, and then leaped up like a girl from her chair. She began pacing around our little circle and we watched fascinated, as her stride grew more masculine. Then she held out the book in front of her, as if it had suddenly become much larger and taken on weight. "Is this the handbag, Miss Prism?" she asked, in a husky male voice. "Examine it carefully before you speak. The happiness of more than one person depends on your answer."
We were all charmed with her as she stood before us, in the tweed skirt whose length had been right about ten years before, holding out the library book as if it really were a bag large enough to hold a manuscript . . . or a baby . . . but then Nigel cruelly revoked the spell by saying, "It's 'the happiness of more than one life,' actually," and Mrs. Easton visibly recalled herself. You saw the years pile up again -- for a moment she had been a girl, or a boy, with youth's whole life before her -- and then she spoke once more through her teeth as she said, "You're right, I'm sure, Nigel. After all, it was such a long time ago." She handed him back his book. And resumed her place at the coffee pot.
Some desultory conversation ensued. Jean-Louis described his success on a selling trip in Bristol, from which he had returned only that day, and had complimentary things to say about the sherry of that city; Alexander described a lamp he had seen in a shop in the King's Road that would be just bloody perfect for his passage, only it cost eighteen quid. Mr. Easton joined us. He sat down at the red piano and ran his fingers over the keys, then embarked on the first few bars of the "Moonlight Sonata." "Hey, Carrie," he called over his shoulder, "ever hear of a place called Rhinebeck, New York?"
It was at this moment that Nigel Farthingale chose to acknowledge my existence for the first time. "Come, Carrie," he said, rising abruptly, "it's time someone showed you the inside of an English pub."
I was in a quandary, one that would become a staple of my association with the Eastons: that of choosing between the call of freedom and the demands of "civilization" -- one of Mrs. Easton's pet words. I had been eyeing the arrogant Nigel all through dinner, fantasizing just such an invitation as this, but why did it have to come at such an inopportune time? Mrs. Easton was just now beaming her scrunched look at Nigel with a formidable intensity. But, fearsome as the scrunch was, I dreaded any encroachment on my free choice more. This was a boardinghouse, after all, not a convent.
"Well, okay," I told Nigel. I slung my purse over my arm and followed him out of the room. Just as we reached the door, Mr. Easton hurried up behind us and took Nigel aside. "Can I count on it this Thursday?" I heard him ask.
"They're a frightful couple, frightful. When he started on his act, I felt it my duty to spare you. You'll get it yet, all the new ones do. The beautiful lady at the piano in the manor house in Rhinebeck, New York, playing the 'Moonlight Sonata,' only she turns out to have a tail. They're mean, dishonest, petty people. I think they've done something awful, that's why she can't even go home to see her grandchild. And they play favorites. They blow hot and cold on you, and they're terrible snobs. They court you as long as you're useful and do things their way, but they gossip behind your back and he tells the most awful lies. It's nothing but plot and counterplot from morning till night in that house."
"But what do you think they've done -- that they can't go home?"
"Oh, who knows. Embezzled money, maybe. Perhaps they were spies. One day I was alone with her -- I was in their good graces then, she thought me frightfully charming -- and she showed me all these photographs of a child. 'He's almost nine years old and I've never laid eyes on him,' she said, and began to sniffle. I asked why, was it a question of money, and she laid her hand on my arm in that confidential way she has and said, 'Oh, Nigel, it's much more complicated than that.' She turned nasty on me after that, probably regretted confiding even that much. I'm getting out of there as soon as possible. I'm a bit strapped at the moment, but as soon as I get something . . . I'm seeing a chap at the BBC tomorrow . . .
I regretted coming out with him. The beer was warm and tasted bitter, and all exhilaration of freedom had long since fled. On and on ranted Nigel, always about the Eastons, his voice rising to a whine as he catalogued their faults. He was probably angry because Mr. Easton was closing in on him about the rent; I was a mere sounding board. I said I was tired and offered to pay for our beers, since he was strapped. He gallantly refused and said he'd go along with me tomorrow and show me where the American Express office was, as it was quite near where he had his appointment.
The next morning, as soon as breakfast was over and the dining room had cleared out, I prepared to reinstate myself with the Eastons. Mr. Easton, wearing a soft blue wool shirt with his tweed jacket today (and the little decoration on his lapel), was moving briskly around the common room, humming to himself as he emptied ashtrays and gathered up stray newspapers. I went over to him with my purse and explained that I was on my way to American Express to get all my pounds changed into traveler's checks, so could I just give him my seven guineas in advance now, though it was only Wednesday.
"Sit down, sit down," he said. He himself sat down and patted a place beside him on the couch. "A man should never take money from a woman while standing up," he said jovially. I counted out seven pounds from my envelope and then added seven shillings from my change purse. "Much appreciated," he said. "And how did the inside of an English pub look to you?" I made a sour face and shrugged. "I think it's a matter of who shows it to you. I'm going to try again." There, that should make things clear and win me back into their good graces. "Poor Nigel," he said to me, slipping my rent in his wallet, "he came to London hoping to make it big as an actor and, well, he just hasn't got what it takes. He's turning bitter and blaming it on everybody else. We've been very patient with him. Lee even baked him a cake for his thirtieth birthday and he never even thanked her." "It must be terrible to turn thirty and not be what you had hoped to be," I said, truly shocked that Nigel should be that old. "He's riding with me to the American Express office to show me where it is, but only because he has to go that way, anyway." "Sure, why not?" said Mr. Easton.
Mrs. Easton came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dish towel.
"Carrie wasn't too impressed with the inside of an English pub," said Mr. Easton. "Seems the company left something to be desired."
"Well, I'm not surprised," said Mrs. Easton. Her manner brightened toward me. "Carrie, come into the kitchen, if you have a moment, and I'll show you something simply splendid."
An impressive-sized fish had been laid out on the chopping board. "Isn't he wonderful?" crooned Mrs. Easton. "Daphne Heathcock brought him back with her on the train. In a wooden box packed with ice. The Heathcocks have been so lovely to us. He's an M.P. Daphne is a lovely girl, I want you two to be friends. She slept in this morning, she was tired from the trip."
"What kind of fish is it?"
"Why, it's a salmon. He's one of the first of the spring run. Honestly, I admire this fish. Do you realize he's been at least twice to sea? Look, you can tell from the scales. This fellow has gone through unbelievable hardships just to get back to his hometown river and start a family."
"How do you know it's a he?"
"Why, because of the hooked jaw. The hens have a rounded jaw; also, their sides are fatter. My father was a great salmon fisherman. He fished the Restigouche, up in Canada. Have you ever heard of the Restigouche Salmon Club?" It seemed to disappoint her that I hadn't. "Well, boy," she said to the salmon, "I'll do my best for you. I'm going to poach you and serve you with a Flemish sauce. I do hope you'll be here for dinner, Carrie. I wouldn't want you to miss this treat."
Nigel Farthingale obligingly pointed out the sights to me as we rode to Piccadilly on the top deck of the bus. He did not mention the Eastons. It was as if he knew I had gone over to the enemy and he needed to preserve his strength for his own battles. His face looked gray and worried as he walked me down the Haymarket in London's muted spring sunshine, and as he talked about his appointment -- he was trying to get into television commercials -- his breath was not good. I pitied him as I wished him luck at the entrance to American Express, but I was relieved he planned to leave the Eastons soon. This morning he was a walking portent of all I did not want to happen to me.
I went into the brightly lit office, found the banking window, and opened my purse. The envelope was still there, but the sheaf of pounds that had been inside was gone.
Ballantine Books | Paperback| 223 pages