A London Boyhood - and Sarah
ON the train into London I saw the green parks and horse guards around the bombed walls that had been cathedrals and the long ramparts, like ruins of cliffs, of houses no more. Around them went the shiny black taxis in the traffic, and though the new buildings were not yet complete, you got the feeling they soon would be. The London of poems would have a modern binding. It was a boy's London still, in the light and the serious side, and the bombs had not knocked down the statue of Peter Pan or, farther down the gardens, the great arch at Hyde Park. I would awake to the clattering of a train of white horses under my window pulling a coach with footmen attending the Queen or one of the princesses going to wherever royalty goes on a fine spring morning. I would watch, and the horses were so beautiful that no one objected to the messes they would make. I was curious as to w
ho would clean up for the motorcars; there must have been arrangements for it was clean-streets by after breakfast, when I crossed to the gardens.
The first thing I did when I got there, a place I felt I had been through child's verses, and a television program in the United States that showed the Queen getting her heavy crown, was to cross the street to Kensington Gardens to find Peter Pan. It took walking past ponds behind old men sailing ingenious yachts, barely avoiding the fluffed-up swans. I went along paths into the woods and there, in a leafy spot, was Peter. He was running forward like the emblem on the hood of an old car, a boy in bronze ,
weathered and timeless. I knew people in the park must have had serious things to do, like our elevator operator in the hotel across the street. But because Peter Pan was playing in the park forever, what grown-up could be without a bit of idleness for long?
I liked people who didn't need to work right at a given moment, busy or not: the old ladies who looked sad with their bags on a bench watching the swans (had their houses been bombed?); or the men rigging sailboats carefully; or the Queen's Guard in silver helmet that reflected green branches, who looked down from his horse to squint a secret smile.
We were staying in a little hotel until we found a house. Everyday my father went off quite proud in his new bowler hat, which would have looked silly, I think, in Philadelphia, where all men were created equal. We had breakfast in our rooms and the elevator operator brought up on a tray tea and muffins and a covered dish of eggs. After breakfast, my mother read the papers looking for a country house near London.
The elevator operator was my hero because he went up to the roof 10 floors. The elevator was just an open cage, and you could see the wires hanging down and the cables that held the frail box he traveled in. It made a whirring sound as it went up and down: shirr-click, stop, click-whirr, go. I couldn't imagine going up high in that cage. We were only on the second floor. When I looked up to the top through the gates I would fall down dumb with dizziness at the thought that he could go up there.
He was a handsome man with flattened hair, and he wore a white coat and gloves. He saluted us in or out of the hotel and allowed me to turn the polished handle that made the elevator go. He helped me when I found it difficult to align the bottom of the cage to the floor of the second. It was queer to see the infrastructure of floors coming or going; it was like looking at the insides of bombed buildings.
It was the elevator operator who answered calls. He brought us down for dinner, and he told my mother the weather when we wanted to go to the park. Our operator was always there for us if we needed him.
ONE early morning I ran down stairs to see the Guards at street level. I saw our operator coming to work at the hotel. He looked quite ordinary in his gray raincoat. He walked in holding a little girl's hand, kissed her, and sent her off to a door behind the desk. She was a pretty girl with an open face in a nice dress. I wondered where she went when she arrived each day.
I asked the hotel manager. He stepped from behind his desk, annoyed, I think, that kids talk. He frowned and said the girl's name was Sarah and that she belonged to the "help." I asked if she was an orphan, and he explained that she had her father but her mother was killed in an air raid in the war. Sarah "stayed" in the kitchen during the day and "made herself useful," the manager informed me.
"Can Sarah come play?" I asked my operator. The manager was nearby and coughed not discreetly. It was not a stuffy place, but the English have their rules.
m sorry," I said, later. "Did I get you into a rhubarb?"
"Quite all right. You see, I feel lucky having my job and bringing Sarah along. The kitchen ladies don't mind. I can't afford to pay for it. But the manager has his ideas about guests and employees."
One day he said, "No, Sarah will not bepermitted to run about the hotel. Definitely not in rooms. But you could go to the park."
I called for her down the back stairs leading to the kitchen. The ladies in the kitchen made us luncheon treats and bade us goodbye. "We'll miss yer hard work, Sarah. Run along then and get some fresh air with yer friend."
Sarah was a shy girl by American standards but did well saying "Oh, wizard!" She knew everything about London, at least the part of it within blocks of the hotel.
She won my family over by taking us on a tour of the British Museum; she explained the differences in plumes on the Guards, red for cadets, blue for officers. She used the half-crown my mother gave her for the tour in a sweet shop - two bags of candy for my family.
We went to the statue of Peter Pan. There, she sat on the bench looking at it, put her head in her hands, and cried. When I asked what made her sob, she ran from the bench through the woods.
I went back to the hotel without her, having lost her, lonely and afraid. The operator told me she was in a storeroom. It was full of cases of soda. Sarah was in there, sitting on the cases. " I was little. We went on a walk to Peter Pan. That night she went off as a Red Cross aide.... She didn't come back," she said. Sarah came to our rooms for her birthday party. My mother got permission from the manager. My operator, in turn, invited me to tea. I went to their flat, Sarah guiding me, upstairs to a pl a
ce with a couch and a bed. It did not have the comfortable, rich smell of the hotel; but it was clean and almost military with shoe polish and fresh linen. Sarah showed me the second-hand dresses her father was stitching her to fit, using his army sewing kit.
We found a house at Sevenoakes, southeast of London. We brought Sarah along when we went down on the train to look at it. She liked everything and said the house was "wizard!" I wanted her to move with us. So did my father, who was looking for a way to hire our operator. But he was his own man and my father had been a soldier and understood him when he said, "London's my home, sir."
As we were moving luggage, the operator came up to our rooms with a stern look on his face. He had a box. He handed it to me. I opened it to find a golden coach and 12 white horses! They were made of heavy lead and wonderfully painted. My mother said it came from the very best store. "Sarah's grateful," my operator said, looking out the window.
They both promised to visit. The first holiday. I wrote a letter to Sarah. But it seems her father got a better elevator. He was working longer hours. We were planning to go get her. Then we got the news. They had emigrated to New Zealand.
I wrote to her there and got a letter back. It was "simply wizard" in New Zealand. And Sarah had a new mother.
I had my coach and horses that I kept carefully on a shelf, only for my best friends to touch. I was sad Sarah was gone, but it was a fairy tale for her, getting a new mother and going on a great ship.
Under the spell of Peter, she's still my "wizard" friend who all my family admired so. We forgot to feel sorry for her in those days after London had been bombed and people were scurrying about to preserve the fairy tale that is the stuff of English stiff upper-lippedness.