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Stealing a Sweet Kiss From a Proper English Lady

EVEN the battered lute I had picked up in the grape fields of France did not get me results. I had found it in a shop in Montpelier before I knew Jonathan's semiroyal friends. I had restrung it like a guitar, cheating on six extra courses of strings, but it sounded rich and I liked the effect of the big wooden bowl in my lap. I supposed the ``golden-haired light ladies'' at Cambridge would fancy me ``plucking a harp string bravely,'' as the Irish poet says. All but one. She was beyond my reach.

When I first came for my year at Pembroke College, Jonathan - who lived at home in Winston Churchill's old summer place but had grubbied himself with me in the dusty hot fields of France, earning extra cash - had warned me, a Yank, about some of the ``minor'' protocols of whom I would meet in the city of England's towers of learning.

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``You'll be in,'' he said, ``if one of the young women wrapped in a scarf on her bicycle invites you round for tea, and gets out her mother's silver tea set.''

``Oh,'' I said. ``That's all?''

``They're not all like that. But if you got to one of those things, you'll be all right.''

Now we were living in the second story on Glisson Road, identical-looking council houses, a gate, a bit of yard, dustbins on the side, and behind us a fabulous park (commons) where we and our other roommates, Mike and Dickey, often cooled off from the intellect by playing Frisbee.

I often played my ``lute'' by the gas fire evenings, and Mike, who was on scholarship from Wales, flattered me by falling into a reverie in the big armchair. But Dickey, Dickey-boy, was neither musical nor so equalitarian. He took seriously protocol, was out often, ``went up'' to London, and always was getting invited to ``silver'' soirees. I don't think he cared for Yanks at Cambridge, but tolerated me with fine manners.

All was well in our routine: cornflakes and bottled milk at the door by 7:30; days of cycling to lectures and tutors; lunch in the hall where heraldic flags floated breezelessly on this generation with their crusade benison; reading the newspapers - full of Richard Nixon trying to end America's war - in the men's college club; and Sundays out at Grandchester, where we threw Frisbees some more, admired the young women, and watched the swans in the river. Once, Dickey-boy drove us out there in his car. He could be quite charming.

THIS student-prince peace of mind ended abruptly when Dickey-boy forgot his wallet and brought Hillary back up the stairs with him. Jonathan knew her from his circles of public school connections. I knew her from some ancient heroic myth from days ``when the world was still new.'' I was strumming some Welsh song back to Mike to see if I had got it right, when in walked a simply stunning person. They were on their way to London for a house party.

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``Yes. She has a silver tea set,'' Jonathan answered my question, after they had left, and I watched her get into a polished car from the window. In good taste he said, ``Her father has some sort of baronetcy in Yorkshire. Big hall and all that. Nice girl, actually.''

``Nice girl, actually'' gave me hope. Even if I had no titles, a fake lute, was not even an Englishman, I had my American wits, and this little flat where I reigned with my friends. We had had some nice little parties. People came round.

But ``Hilly,'' as Dickey maddeningly called her, would have none of it. I saw her at a party Jonathan took me to at her college, Girton; I played my lute, Mike singing harmony. She didn't even look.

THEN I got my chance. On market day, I was pedaling round the square enjoying the smells of vegetables, looking at pigeons in cages, the embroidered finery for sale, when I saw a lady in distress: no dragon but a fallen greasy bicycle chain. ``May I?'' I asked Lady Hilly. She had her gloves off and fingers soiled. She stared at me with the myopic prettiness of the aristocracy.

``Oh, yes. You're Jonathan's friend. The American.''

``Ja.'' I answered.

The chain was soon on its proper sprocket.

``Thank you ever so much. You must come round and wash. My place is nearby.''

It was only nine in the morning - no chance for a silver tea set. But as I came out of the bathroom, a little place above the bookstore she shared with a friend, she asked me, ``Have you seen all the sights? Richard tells me you and Mike are quite the poets. Your American Robert Frost drank tea with Rupert Brooke, out at Grandchester....''

``Really?'' I had been out there about 30 times, but I said very convincingly, ``I'd like to see that.''

Two evenings later I had a date with an English lady, cycling out miles of harvest moon fens and fall fallow fields to the inn. I was as nervous and polite as I would have been with Queen Elizabeth. We had heated cider (``cider from moon-cooled apples'' she called it), talked, and soon I was as relaxed as with Titania, Queen of the Fairies, although I couldn't help feeling a bit like Bottom, the donkey she fell in love with under a spell.

On the way back, she asked, as we cycled parallel on the smooth dark road, generators humming off the tires for lights, ``Where do you live in America? I have cousins there, you know.''

Thinking of geographical distances, I said, ``Near Boston.''

``Boston. Why didn't you say? That's the one civilized place in that rash land. How nice.''

I braked and she stopped beside me, flushed, enchanting, eyes sparkling. A gentleman then stole a kiss from a lady. (It was ``ever so'' nice.) Thank heavens for Boston, I thought. I may have had to follow her red tail-light all the way back, in misery, but never knowing what my misery would have been without that kiss. What if I had said the truth, Bah Harbah, Maine? At least now I had time to educate her about Americans. 'Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Annenberg Collection,' including the pastel on this page, will be on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from Aug. 16 until Nov. 11.