Thursday, January 29, 2009

"London Times - Part Six"

Steve was the nephew of my former orthodontist.

That’s how he introduced himself when I received his unexpected call. “I’m your former orthodontist’s nephew,” he announced. Both he and my former orthodontist had the same last name, and when he arrived at my front door, I spotted a familiar arrangement of baldness, so I had no reason to dispute his claim. I just didn’t know what he was doing at my house.

I had never met Steve, and having endured both nerve-tingling pain when my braces were tightened and gagging bouts of nausea during the taking of “impressions”, I was no great fan of his uncle. But here he was.

“Welcome,” I said.

What else could I say, “Go away!”?

Steve explained that a mutual friend from Toronto had suggested that, when he was in London, he should look me up. This happened with no small frequency. But normally, the unexpected callers were people I knew, like my mother’s friends, Alfie Freeman and his wife Mary, who were instructed to take me to a decent place for dinner, so my mother would know that, for one meal at least, I wasn’t eating crap.

Steve was a stranger. For me, the chilling word “stranger” brings to mind the line delivered by Walter Brennan in the classic western, Red River:

I never liked strangers. That’s because no stranger ever “good-newsed” me.

This is hardly an alien sentiment to me.

It turned out that Steve was a nice stranger. (Challenging my general view of humanity.) His new bride, however, was not. (Re-enforcing my general view of humanity. I was one-for-two. Wariness remained a reasonable response.)

Steve and his American bride – she was from Detroit – had married just a few days before. Their plan was to enjoy a couple of weeks touring the famous landmarks of England, then settle for the year in London, working as substitute teachers, in a beleaguered British school system, where the only qualification for the job of substitute teacher (for British citizens and members of the Commonwealth) was a college degree in anything.

Canada was a member of the Commonwealth. The Detroit woman was married to a Canadian. Both had college degrees. Ergo, two qualified substitute teachers.

Yeah, about that woman. I mean, she was admittedly darkly beautiful and impeccably groomed, but she had this pinched face and wrinkled-up nose that said, “Something smells here.” It turns out what she meant by “here” was England. The whole place.

Steve’s new bride was clearly used to better things. Better heat. Better plumbing. Better phone service. Better food. Better everything. Plus, it appeared, though it was never articulated, servants. I immediately sensed that the “year in London” adventure had not been her idea.

I quickly received confirmation of this impression when, after two days in England, Steve’s new bride abruptly packed her bags and returned to Detroit. Steve was devastated by her departure. As the only person he knew in London, it fell to me to comfort and console my former orthodontist’s nephew.

Besides being devastated, Steve was also angry. A lot of planning (now, clearly, all his) had gone into the “year in London” strategy, and he was not ready to throw it all away. That’s why, when she left, he stayed. (I actually don’t know why he stayed. I don’t know for sure why she left. It could have been Steve. But going by her disparaging commentary on England, it definitely wasn’t all Steve.)

A couple of days after his wife’s exit to Michigan, the mourning period apparently over, I get a call from Steve. He was thinking about the honeymoon plans – touring the famous landmarks of England. Steve was determined not to abandon those plans merely because his wife had left the country. He asked me if I’d like to accompany him instead.

Well, sir…

I had never visited the famous landmarks of England. I had no car (nor a license, nor any interest in driving on the left). And at the time of his invitation, I had nothing to do.

So I said okay.

And that’s how I got to go on Steve’s honeymoon instead of his wife.

It was a memorable experience. We explored historic Windsor Castle. We stopped at Stratford-Upon-Avon, home of William Shakespeare, taking in a superlative Henry the Fourth - Part One.

Then it was off to Oxford.

We toured the venerable university, lolling happily on the grounds, as we downed pints of “bitter” from pewter tankards whose bottoms were made of glass, the glass being the source, it was explained to us, of the toast, “Here’s looking at you.”

The image that remains most vividly was of me, seated at one end of a rickety old boat, my hair blowing in the wind, as Steve, stationed at the other end wielding a long wooden pole, “punted” us capably down the river that wound lazily through the campus. How we laughed when he had to duck suddenly to avoid the bridge. Steve was agile but tall.

And then, suddenly, it was over. Despite her wretched behavior, Steve pined desperately for his absent bride. And so, abandoning his dream of “a year in London”, he boarded a plane for Detroit, hoping for reconciliation.

I had to let him go. It was the right thing to do.

I never heard from Steve again. (Maybe he wasn’t that nice.) I have no idea if they got back together. A part of me hopes that they didn’t. That’s not me, being awful. I just knew he could do better.

I went on with my life. One must, you know. I felt damaged, but resilient. Steve was gone, it was true, but after all,

We’d always have Oxford.

10 comments:

Mike Bell said...

There's a movie in this story.

rms said...

That's awesome. Truly hilarious. Thank you for my laugh for the day!

Joe said...

For a second I was worried you two would wind up becoming shepherds.

growingupartists said...

Oh, that's a wonderful story! Love your lack of inhibition, and pride.

Corinne said...

That was fabulous!

2 thumbs up ;oD

A. Buck Short said...

How very Merchant-Ivory of you. Enjoyed your take and general way of looking at the world. Hope you don’t mind this unfortunate habit of sharing loosely related sagas, but it sure is lonely down here in the ague belt.

Not to flaunt or anything, but for our honeymoon, we chaperoned a high school ski trip to Altoona, Pennsylvania. If Claudia Longet had been with us, she would have shot herself.

I am making none of this up. My wife’s sister and now husband were in the George Mason high school outing club, with previous expeditions including scuba diving, spelunking, rock climbing, and finally sky diving. The administration then determined it would be unwise to allow these kids to take anything to the next level, unless accompanied by a married couple. It was Christmas break. A group came to us and protested that they had already bought ski passes to Altoona on Monday and got a van. "You guys are getting married this weekend, right?"

Let it suffice to say, Altoona is not one of the world’s notable downhill skiing destinations. Neither of us had ever downhill skied before – or since. The ski “lodge” complex involved the mountain-top conversion of a former Nike missile base. Unlike the customary arrangement, the lodge was therefore located at the top of the mountain. So while at most “resorts” if you fell down or couldn't catch the lift as it passed by, you could at least roll or plod your way downhill to the lodge, here it was literally an uphill battle. But worth the trek upward, since all lodging was dormitory style, me spending our honeymoon nights with the guys and my bride and her party in the other cabin.

As small consolation, we arranged to enjoy the second week of the honeymoon in my wife’s home state, visiting historic Williamsburg, Virginia. Now you have to understand that Laura is from the area around Washington, DC, not exactly the deep south. But for some reason, whenever we get anywhere below New Jersey, she always started to sound like the Kingfish in the old Amos ‘n Andy series. I was still so miserable as we travelled along the beautiful Blue Ridge vistas of the Skyline Drive, that in a great demonstration of maturity, I pretended to sleep entirely through them. Only to be eventually "awakened" by an exasperated bride proclaiming, “Ah de-cle-ah, you ah ig-nauh-in’ the en-ti-yah state of Va-gin-yah!” Williamsburg was nice.

Willy B. Good said...

What a romantic story.Cheers.

Jeremy said...

Wow. I'm not sure which amazes me more... the fact that he managed to plan the entire trip with her while remaining blissfully ignorant of the fact that she was totally not interested in his dream... the fact that after she left, he decided to soldier on with YOU as substitute sweetheart... or the fact that after all that, he decided to try to reconcile with her.

We saw "Benjamin Button" Monday night, and in several places I was reminded of the fact that, to build drama, we must make our characters do things that we would not, ourselves, choose to do. They must have their own, legitimate, motivations, that cause them to do things that might make us cringe... but create the conflict that drives drama.

Of course, when you do that in your personal life, you end up with meaningless bullshit, and your wife flies home to Michigan. That's the difference between fiction and life (also, as one teacher instructed, "The difference between fiction and life is that fiction must be plausible...")

A. Buck Short said...

Addendum.
Claudine, Claudine, Claudine, and furthermore…Claudine. Our research dept. informs that one would be a fool to believe the astute readership of Blog Pomerantz could not immediately see through the thin disguise of our disclaimer: “This comment is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons or chanteuses living or dead – especially Claudine Longet – is purely coincidental. Only one animal was harmed in the unfortunate “accident” described in the making of this error.”

PB said...

Just gonna post and say this would make a great movie premise (and the last guy to post has said exactly that!). Power of the crowds.

Make it a world tour, have the 'buddy' have a andro name like Leslie. "Round Trip Honeymoon". Maybe the girl comes to her senses and starts to chase them down mid-way thru their itinerary.