Many years ago, I almost got a job with the CIA, but they wouldn’t hire me because they were convinced that I had had some involvement with white supremacy.  They knew that I had written a story called “Skinhead,” and they jumped to conclusions.  It’s actually a condemnation of the idea of white supremacy, but they never bothered to read the story, so they didn’t know that.

Here’s the first part of the story; I’ll post more later.  It’s mostly factual, but I did make some of it up.  It was originally published in the Rio Grande Review, vol.7, no. 1, summer 1988.

Not that anybody would ever want to steal it, but I feel obligated to include:          © J H Russell 2010.  Can’t be too careful.

 

My first observation, the first day in London, was that everything English was wet, or at least that’s the way that I remember it.  The sidewalks, the streets, the trees and bushes, the people, the buildings–the brakes on the taxis, too.  My being there gave the men in taxis something else to worry about, since it took me a long time to get into the habit of looking right before crossing a street.  That was an oversight that nearly killed me more than once, and by the time I got used to thinking that way, I was in Amsterdam, where they drive on the right, and I had to learn all over again how not to connect with some irresistible force.

Even so, and flying in the face of all the gloomy clichés I’d grown up with, I never actually saw it rain in London.  It was just relentlessly humid, like living in a chilly terrarium.  I saw a bum spit on a sidewalk one day–something that only the most unregenerate British bum would do, as that’s high on their list of unforgivable offenses (right after being French and queue-jumping).  A whole day later,  that disgusting gob was still there, right where he had left it, in front of a take-out curry place on Bedford Terrace.

I was staying at No. 47 Cartwright Gardens, a B & B owned by a man named Crimmin.  He was old, retired from the service, and spent most of his time puttering around his garden and rounding up stray tennis balls from the nearby London College courts.  When the balls landed in his helichryse or asphodel, he’d fish them out and throw them back at the London College courts, yelling things like “How’s that, you smarmy twats?  I’m sick of it!”  For an old man with failing eyesight, he had very good aim.  The players on the courts mostly just stood there looking at him, with their arms down at their sides, exchanging glances with each other.  But then a tennis ball came flying back into their court, seemingly from nowhere, and they were all elbows-up.  “Ha!  I told you, didn’t I?”  I liked Mr. Crimmin.

There was a café on Marchmont Street, not far from Cartwright Gardens.  Two middle-aged Italian sisters ran the place, and I went there often.  They gave advice on everything from affairs of the heart to how to cook a gammon up proper.  Their father and the original owner, old blind Sal de Venado (his name still graced the sign above the door), sat there on a stool by the front counter, greeting customers as they came in.  He recognized my voice–or my smell or my aura or the sound of my walking–every time that I was there.  Recognition gave him pleasure.  He’d laugh and say, “Hey, I know you!  How you been?  Come in, come in.  Sit down.  What you want?”  He did that with everybody.

I liked to sit at a window table, right next to the sidewalk, and drink tea and eavesdrop on English talk while I was looking out at the close, gray sky.  The sky seemed closer to the ground there than anywhere else I’d been.  Really, though, there wasn’t any sky–just clouds, big cast iron billows insulating the old city like a giant gun-metal tea cozy.

Every now and then, if you knew where to look, you could make out a faint, round, orange-red glow beyond the haze, which was the sun.  When the clouds got thin and the glow stronger, Londoners would lie around Saint James Park in their underwear, sunbathing.  It was still bleak and dreary to me, but they took what they could get.  It didn’t matter that it was fifty degrees–they wanted to soak up as much ultraviolet as they could, whenever they had the chance.  I guess they did it in an effort to shore up their defenses against the nagging gloom, maybe hoping that their reserves of sunlight would, on a bad day, burn away the clouds and the lichen, mold, and condensation that layered everything in the city.  People aren’t solar panels, though, so it didn’t work.

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