My aunt sensibly pooh-poohed my nerves over the social ostracism that followed—most of my friends were forbidden to have anything to do with me—but the fact remains that I arrived in England loaded with a sense of guilt and “difference” that, added to my “colonialism,” were dreadful psychological burdens with which to face a smart finishing school for young ladies.
Miss Threadgold's Astor House was, like most of these very English establishments, in the Sunningdale area—a large Victorian stockbrokery kind of place, whose upper floors had been divided up with plasterboard to make bedrooms for twenty-five pairs of girls. Being a “foreigner,” I was teamed up with the other foreigner, a dusky Lebanese millionairess with huge tufts of mouse-colored hair in her armpits, and an equal passion for chocolate fudge and an Egyptian film star called Ben Said, whose gleaming photograph—gleaming teeth, mustache, eyes, and hair—was soon to be torn up and flushed down the lavatory by the three senior girls of Rose Dormitory, of which we were both members. Actually I was saved by the Lebanese. She was so dreadful, petulant, smelly, and obsessed with her money that most of the school took pity on me and went out of their way to be kind. But there were many others who didn't, and I was made to suffer agonies for my accent, my table manners, which were considered uncouth, my total lack of savoir-faire, and, in general, for being a Canadian. I was also, I see now, much too sensitive and quicktempered. I just wouldn't take the bullying and teasing, and when I had roughed up two or three of my tormentors, others got together with them and set upon me in bed one night and punched and pinched and soaked me with water until I burst into tears and promised 1 wouldn't “fight like an elk” any more. After that, I gradually settled down, made an armistice with the place, and morosely set about learning to be a “lady.”
It was the holidays that made up for everything. I made friends with a Scottish girl, Susan Duff, who liked the same open-air things as I did. She too was an only child, and her parents were glad to have me to keep her company. So there was Scotland in the summer and skiing in the winter and spring—all over Europe, in Switzerland, Austria, Italy—and we stuck to each other through the finishing school and at the end we even “came out” together, and Aunt Florence produced five hundred pounds as my contribution to an idiotic joint dance at the Hyde Park Hotel, and I got on the same “list” and went the rounds of similar idiotic dances at which the young men seemed to me rude and spotty and totally unmasculine compared with the young Canadians I had known. (But I may have been wrong because one of the spottiest of them rode in the Grand National that year and finished the course!)
And then I met Derek.
By now I was seventeen and a half, and Susan and I were living in a tiny three-room fiat in Old Church Street just off the King's Road. It was the end of June, and there wasn't much more of our famous “season” to go and we decided to give a party for the few people we had met and actually liked. The family across the landing were going abroad on holiday, and they said we could have their flat in exchange for keeping an eye on it while they were away. We were both of us just about broke with “keeping up with the Joneses” at all these balls, and I cabled Aunt Florence and got a hundred pounds out of her, and Susan scraped up fifty, and we decided to do it really well. We were going to ask about thirty people and we guessed that only twenty would come. We bought eighteen bottles of champagne—pink because it sounded more exciting—a ten-pound tin of caviar, two rather cheap tins of foie gras that looked all right when it was sliced up, and lots of garlicky things from Soho. We made a lot of brown bread-and-butter sandwiches with watercress and smoked salmon, and added some sort of Christmasy things like Elvas plums and chocolates—a stupid idea: no one ate any of them—and, by the time we had spread the whole lot out on a door taken off its hinges and covered with a gleaming tablecloth to make it seem like a buffet, it looked like a real grown-up feast.
The party was a great success, almost too much of a success. All the thirty came, and some of them brought others, and there was a real squash with people sitting on the stairs and even one man on the john with a girl on his lap. The noise and the heat were terrific. Perhaps after all we weren't such squares as we had thought, or perhaps people really like squares so long as they are true squares and don't pretend. Anyway, of course the worst happened and we ran out of drink! I was standing by the table when some wag drained the last bottle of champagne and shouted in a strangled voice, “Water! Water! Or we'll never see England again.” I got nervous and said stupidly, “Well, there just isn't any more,” when a tall young man standing against the wall said, “Of course there is. You've forgotten the cellar,” and he took me by the elbow and shoved me out of the room and down the stairs. “Come on,” he said firmly. “Can't spoil a good party. We'll get some more from the pub.”
Well, we went to the pub and got two bottles of gin and an armful of bitter lemon, and he insisted on paying for the gin so I paid for the lemon. He was rather tight in a pleasant way and explained that he'd been to another party before ours and that he'd been brought by a young married couple called Norman, who were friends of Susan's. He said his name was Derek Mallaby, but I didn't pay much attention as I was so anxious to get the drink back to the party. There were cheers as we came back up the stairs, but in fact the party had passed its peak and from then on people drifted away until there was nothing left but the usual hard core of particular friends, and characters who had nowhere to go for dinner. Then they too slowly broke up, including the Normans, who looked very nice and told Derek Mallaby that he would find the key under the mat, and Susan was suggesting that we go to the Popotte across the way, a place I didn't care for, when Derek Mallaby came and lifted my hair away from my ear and whispered rather hoarsely into it would I go slumming with him? So I said yes, largely, I think, because he was tall and because he had taken charge when I was stuck.
So we drifted out into the hot evening street, leaving the dreadful battlefield of the party behind, and Susan and her friends wandered off, and we got a taxi in the King's Road. Derek took me right across London to a spaghetti house called The Bamboo near the Tottenham Court Road, and we had spaghetti Bolognese and a bottle of instant Beaujolais, as he called it, that he sent out for. He drank most of the Beaujolais and told me that he lived not far from Windsor and that he was nearly eighteen and this was his last term at school and he was in the cricket eleven and that he had been given twenty-four hours off in London to see lawyers as his aunt had died and left him some money. His parents had spent the day with him, and they had gone to see the M.C.C. play Kent at Lords. They had then gone back to Windsor and left him with the Normans. He was supposed to have gone to a play and then home to bed, but there had been this other party and then mine, and now how about going on to the 400?
Of course I was thrilled. The 400 is the top nightclub in London, and I had never graduated higher than the cellar places in Chelsea. I told him a bit about myself and made Astor House sound funny, and he was very easy to talk to, and when the bill came he knew exactly how much to tip and it seemed to me that he was very grownup to be still at school, but then English public schools are supposed to grow people up very quickly and teach them how to behave. He held my hand in the taxi, and that seemed to be all right, and they seemed to know him at the 400 and it was deliciously dark and he ordered gins and tonics and they put a half-bottle of gin on the table that was apparently his from the last time he had been there. Maurice Smart's band was as smooth as cream and when we danced we fitted at once and his jive was just about the same as mine and I was really having fun. I began to notice the way his dark hair grew at the temples and that he had good hands and that he smiled not just at one's face but into one's eyes. We stayed there until four in the morning and the gin was finished and when we went out on to the pavement I had to hold on to him. He got a taxi, and it seemed natural when he took me in his arms, and when he kissed me I kissed back. After I had twice taken his hand off my breast, the third time it seemed prissy not to leave it there, but when he moved it down and tried to put it up my skirt, I wouldn't let him, and when he took my hand and tried to put it on him, I wouldn't do that either, although my whole body was hot with wanting these things. But then, thank heavens, we were outside the flat and he got out and took me to the door and we said we would see each other again and he would write. When we kissed good-by, he put his hand down behind my back and squeezed my behind hard, and when his taxi disappeared round the corner I could still feel his hand there and I crept up to bed and looked into the mirror over the washbasin and my eyes and face were radiant as if they were lit up from inside and, although probably most of the lighting-up came from the gin, I thought, Oh, my heavens! I'm in love!
Three: Spring's Awakening
IT takes a long time to write these things, but only minutes to remember them, and when I came out of my daydream in the motel armchair, WOKO was still playing “Music to Kiss By,” and it was someone who may have been Don Shirley improvising through “Ain't She Sweet.” The ice in my drink had dissolved. I got up and put in some more from the icebox and I went back and curled up in my chair and drank a careful mouthful of the bourbon to make it last, and lit another cigarette, and at once I was back again in that endless summer.
Derek's last term came to an end, and we had exchanged four letters each. His first one had begun “Dearest” and ended with “love and kisses,” and I had compromised with “Dear” and “love.” His were mostly about how many runs he had made, and mine were about the dances I had been to and the cinemas and plays I had seen. He was going to spend the summer at his home, and he was very excited about a second-hand MG his parents were going to give him, and would I come out with him in it? Susan was surprised when I said that I wouldn't be coming up to Scotland and that I wanted to stay on in the flat, at any rate for the time being. I hadn't told her the truth about Derek, and because I always got up earlier than she, she didn't know about his letters. It wasn't like me to be secretive, but I treasured my “love-affair,” as I described it to myself, and it seemed to be so fragile and probably full of disappointments that I thought even to talk about it might bring it bad luck. For all I knew, I might be just one in a whole row of Derek's girls. He was so attractive and grand, at any rate at school, that I imagined a long queue of “Mayfair” sisters, all in organdy and all with titles, at his beck and call. So I simply said that I wanted to look around for a job and perhaps I would come up later, and in due course Susan went north and a fifth letter came from Derek saying would I come down next Saturday on the twelve-o'clock from Paddington, and he would meet me with the car at Windsor station?
And so began our regular and delicious routine. The first day he met me on the platform. We were rather shy, but he was so excited about his car that he quickly hurried me out to see it. It was wonderful—black with red leather upholstery and red wire wheels and all sorts of racing gimmicks like a strap round the hood and an out-size filler cap on the gas tank, and the badge of the B.R.D.C. We climbed in, and I tied Derek's colored silk handkerchief round my hair, and the exhaust made a wonderful sexy noise as we accelerated across the High Street lights and turned up along the river. That day he took me as far as Bray, to show off the car, and we tore through the lanes, with Derek doing quite unnecessary racing changes on the flattest curves. Sitting so near the ground, even at fifty, one felt as if one was doing at least a hundred, and to begin with I clutched onto the safety grip on the dashboard and hoped for the best. But Derek was a good driver, and I soon got confidence in him and controlled my trembles. He took me to a fearfully smart place, the Hotel de Paris, and we had smoked salmon, which cost extra, and roast chicken and ice cream, and then he hired an electric canoe from the boathouse next door, and we chugged sedately upriver and under Maidenhead Bridge and found a little backwater, just this side of Cookham Lock, where Derek rammed the canoe far in under the branches. He had brought a portable gramophone with him, and I scrambled down to his end of the canoe and we sat and later lay side by side and listened to the records and watched a small bird hopping about in the network of branches over our heads. It was a beautiful drowsy afternoon, and we kissed but didn't go any further, and I felt reassured that Derek didn't after all think I was “easy.” Later the midges came and we nearly upset the canoe trying to get it out of the creek backward, but then we were going fast downriver with the current and there were a lot of other boats with couples and families in them, but I was quite certain we looked the gayest and handsomest of everyone. We drove back and went down to Eton and had scrambled eggs and coffee in a place called The Thatched House that Derek knew about, and then he suggested we should go to the cinema.