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The Face of London


ISSUE:  Spring 1982

A first it is an overlapping front tooth belonging to Albert Spencer that catches Pickering’s eye: the tooth is in the mouth of a Pakistani man who lurches forward and says “Oh, I’m awfully sorry” to Pickering as the London Underground moves away from Tottenham Court Road Station. Pickering instantly likes what he sees—already two weeks in London and his transatlantic trip continues to pay dividends. And now there—right over there— is a nose, thin and nicely upturned, that once belonged to Emily Fanshawe. Why, he wonders, is the nose on the face of a stranger, a fifty-ish woman in a loose-fitting tweed coat? When the train pauses at Oxford Circus and new passengers board, Pickering is surprised by the crinkled eyes and thin mustache of a storekeeper, another relative, who had supplied Aunt Margaret with licorice strings more than 70 years ago. Pickering has forgotten his name. . .something with a tree in it. Beech? Oakwood? Pinehurst? Linden? Pickering is no gawk, but he finds it difficult not to look again. While he does, the face turns away.

Pickering sees nothing else he recognizes among the new passengers. Darkness sweeps along the train windows; the steady sound of travel nearly lulls him to sleep. Then a slight swerve opens his eyes seconds later, and he is looking at the ears of Alfred Langdon jutting from beneath the stiff bowler of a London businessman. The man is standing in the aisle. Like the others, Langdon has been dead for years, but Pickering is delighted they haven’t disappeared completely. Now he cannot resist those ears: he rises from the seat and touches them lightly. The businessman twitches his head, ignoring the touch. But when Pickering tries one more time the man wheels suddenly and hits Pickering on the arm with an attache case. “I caught you that time,” the man says with a flush of triumph on his cheeks. “Now make an end of it.”

Pickering, his mouth tight with embarrassment, stumbles off when the train stops at Marble Arch.

Robert Morley’s face staring at him like a map of London from the enameled pages of an advertisement: that had something to do with it. Robert Morley had said, Climb aboard a British Airlines 747 and enjoy two spectacular weeks in London. (Good God in heaven, those mischievous eyes! Is it London that pulls them partway from their sockets? And is that Big Ben chiming quarter-hours in the background?)

Feeling the tug, Pickering had responded.

But there had been other reasons for leaving Montreal. His last known relative, an aunt, had died, leaving him an estate valued at 60 thousand. Not a fortune perhaps, but Pickering had been grateful all the same. Yet he wished Aunt Margaret had lived longer: he missed the monthly visits to her modest apartment in Toronto. Here he would spend deliriously contented moments with Margaret, her brown button eyes glistening above the endless teacups, while she spoke of early years in London, of shopping excursions up and down Regent Street, promenades along the Embankment, the Drury Lane Theatre, the steamed jam cakes at a cafe in Bloomsbury, fish and chips near Paddington, and—my goodness, Clive—the inexhaustibility of the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert. . . .

Sitting beside her, adrift in the faint scent of talcum—a teacake or two balanced on his knee—Pickering never tired of listening.

Whenever she went to fetch photographs from another room, Pickering would move about the cramped spaces of the sitting room and examine the Tiffanies, the lowboys, the satinwood chairs, the rococo mirrors whose gilded convolutions made him dizzy, the music boxes, the paintings, the leather-bound books, the soft velvets and the stiff brocades, and all the assorted bric-a-brac of decades crowding out from the walls. Then his aunt would start the Victrola, and they would settle down with photographs while the strains of Edward Elgar or Thomas Beecham rinsed their ears of evening traffic from the streets below. Sometimes Elgar’s cello concerto of 1919 spiraled out of the Victrola, and Pickering would grow thoughtful with the sad sense of the irretrievable.

Because of Aunt Margaret’s arthritic fingers, Pickering turned the blotter-like pages of the photograph album. “That’s Eustace, a distant cousin,” Margaret would say, “and that’s her daughter Faidie, a chatterbox but a lovely, lovely girl. That’s G. K. L. Pickering, who died before you were born, Clive; he retired to a house in Addlestone. The man with those gorgeous epaulettes and medals is your greatuncle, Major Wentworth. I’m nearly certain he served with Lord Cardigan in the Crimean. He was something of a soak, I’m afraid. And this one in the open-necked shirt and handsome waistcoat was a poet, Clive, who once read his sonnets and villanelles on the same platform with Rudyard Kipling.”

Pickering would skim his small-knuckled fingers across his cheek and nod at dozens of photographs. He had seen them all before, but he seldom grew restless. Margaret, it seemed, was always on the verge of a new recollection, and sometimes—exploring the geography of sepia faces and stiffpostured relatives—Pickering himself would discover new terrain: the beginnings of a smile on Frank Hetherington’s otherwise sullen face, the remarkable butterfly ears of Alfred Langdon, the asymmetrical tug of one side of G. K. L. Pickering’s mutton chops. . . .

“All of them from England,” Aunt Margaret would say, her treble voice pronouncing the word Engelond because she had read extensively in medieval English. “They all lived and died in England, most of them in London. We may be the only ones left, Clive.”

And often she would cast a peculiar mascaraed glance at her nephew as if to say, Pickering imagined, “What are you and I doing here in Canada?” Or was she really saying, “You should have married, Clive, and raised a family”?

He would leave to get more tea from the high porcelain stove in the kitchen, sometimes pausing at the oven door to baste a fat roasting chicken. When he returned with the tray and tea set, his aunt would already be looking through the genealogical tables of the family Bible, an enormous volume bound in oak boards and so heavy that the thin legs of the coffee table swayed under its weight. He poured while she nibbled marzipan and reminded him that the word tea never appeared in the Bible. And sometimes, if he remembered to bring one with him, Pickering would supply her with an interesting fact (“Did you realize, Aunt Margaret, that there are more than six thousand terms used to describe a camel in Arabic?”). Then together they would search the fading ink of their family tree—”All of it,” Aunt Margaret was fond of saying, “rooted and perhaps still blossoming in London.”

When she died in September, Pickering inherited the Bible, the photographs, and the antiques; but he could no longer find Aunt Margaret or the rest of his relatives among them. By October he had sold his hardware business and for several days walked the streets of Montreal listening to the melancholy whispers of his conscience telling him he had been incautious. Then he wondered why, at 67, he was worried about being incautious. By the end of the week he had said goodbye to friends, had purchased ten thousand dollars in travelers cheques, and was taking the long taxi ride from his apartment in Cote St. Luc to Mirabel International Airport.

Not until his plane circles the bright green fields around Heathrow six hours later does Pickering realize the Tightness of his decision. Though still not certain why he has left North America, he knows he has arrived at the right place. Adrenalin clears his brain, moves him through baggage claims and customs, past lanes of people holding name signs, to a double-decker airport bus headed for Victoria Station. Yes, the bus drives on the left side of the road, just as he has imagined. Yes, he notices, the British do have accents mysteriously different from his. He considers his own accent: Is it too old to change?

Pickering wants to go everywhere at once. He has no patience with tours and decides to abandon that part of his travel package. As soon as he views the splendors of Buckingham Palace, he wonders if Robert Morley and British Airways will let him extend his stay so he can go where he wants for as long as he wants. He pats his full pocket of travelers cheques, beginning to realize now why he has brought along so much.

He walks the green formal sweep of St. James Park. He circles Landseer’s stone lions in Trafalgar Square, cranes his neck to view Nelson, and considers how many times Charles Dickens must have passed this way. How many times his own relatives?

Piccadilly Circus: loving the dance of those six syllables, he says them over and over. At night he spends hours near the winged statue of Eros and gazes at the people and the lighted advertisements pulsing above theatres and jewelry shops. He knows bloody well he’s been here before. The lights make him feel televised. Is someone filming his life? Returning to Piccadilly on two successive rain-glazed nights he sits with his dripping umbrella in the blinking electricity, Eros, arrow drawn back, poised on one foot above him, and wonders: What is happening?

Pickering sleeps here and there, but only when he needs to. A hotel on Great Russell Street opens its arms to him one night after he staggers in from 20 hours of London, eight of them spent at the British Museum. He stays in Kensington another night; Sussex Gardens another; there is need for a three-hour snooze at a bed-and-breakfast place near King’s Cross Station. Sometimes the rooms are so narrow he can extend his arms and touch both walls. Sleep is always difficult. When Pickering’s head touches a pillow, daytime London roars through his brain. When he sleeps, nighttime London smiles up at him from the Thames and slides beneath his flickering eyelids. He sleeps lightly, afraid that the London bridges, the Tower, the parliament buildings, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral—that none of it will be there when he wakes.

Rising for an English breakfast, he discovers new words escaping from his mouth. Spanner, he tells the leaking sink in his room. Lift, he tells the elevator. Walking Oxford Street he thinks, Do not foul the footpath. Windscreen, he wants to call out to black taxicabs rattling by. Petrol. Bonnet. Unusual inflections touch his voice, and somewhere in his nervous system he feels strange new words, phrases, entire sentences branching among his dendrites and marching toward his brain.

When he stops for dinner, he is often seated with strangers whose features and personalities later blur when he tries to recall them. Let’s see now. . .he remembers a narrow-faced man sitting quietly at table who suddenly pushes aside his steak-and-kidney pie to shout at an Arab. “Go home, sir,” he says. “You are a bah-stid and your costume offends me.” Pickering rises to object, but by then the man is saying to young women at a nearby table: “Sit up, for God’s sake! Don’t they teach good posture anymore?”

And in another restaurant an aging croupier with crowded teeth tells Pickering he tried earlier in the week to bet his life savings on a turn of the roulette wheel. He had brought the money with him, but when he tried to place the bet he was unable to lift either of his feet.

“I could not walk across the casino floor without dragging my feet,” the man says, using a knife to mash brussels sprouts and potatoes against the back of his fork.

“How dreadful,” says Pickering, “and how fortunate.”

But he remembers best the bloke who talked of toy trains: his house, he tells Pickering, is filled with them, hundreds of feet of track. Wearing a cloth cap and a stained serge waistcoat, his face red and wind-blown, he lifts a pint of Red Barrel bitter to his mouth, takes a long drink, pauses, and then confides to Pickering that he has steadfastly forbidden his daughter’s request to marry.

“It’s caused quite a shindy,” he says.

“Rough fellow?” Pickering suggests.

“Not at all,” the man says. “A decent chap, really.”

“How old is your daughter?” Pickering asks.

“Thirty-two,” the man says, and seeing mild protest forming on Pickering lips, he shakes his head sadly and says, “I need her to work the train switches, don’t you know?”

Pickering carries the pleasant ache of these people with him wherever he goes.

Toward the end of the second week Pickering slows. London, he has learned, is always there, whether one sleeps or wakes. Though people on the streets move as fast as ever, he lets them pass. On escalators he stays to the right, allowing runners the passing lane that was formerly his. In his newfound leisure, he wants to retrace his steps, to revisit what he’s already seen. He also wants to see more plays, attend the ballet, listen to music.

But his clothes have started to shift around on his wirey body, and a London scale informs him he has given up seventeen pounds, over one stone. He taps his stomach, feels his arms and legs: he is as compact as a walnut, but he needs new clothes. Marks & Spencer provides him with socks and underwear, Harrods with a dark pinstriped suit (a tailor on Savile Row measures him for a second suit), Burberry with a raincoat that buttons everywhere. Other accessories—shoes, capes, umbrellas, washleather gloves, hats—come to him from the cozy interiors of other shops. When he leaves, his reflection in the shop windows whispers, Bertrand Russell . . . George Bernard Shaw . . . Graham Green. . . .

Late on Saturday night, wandering over from Piccadilly and Soho, Pickering strolls up Charing Cross Road looking into more shop windows. Here is a music shop. There is a tobacconist’s with fine pipes and intricate snuff boxes. Here is a book shop. And there, there on the cobblestone ahead walks Robert Morley. Pickering recognizes the man immediately—the massive figure, top-hatted, dressed in dark suit, an evening cape with white scarf, umbrella in hand, and the face of course: a face forever startled by London. Who else can it be? But Pickering is not surprised, nor is he a gawk. Having twigged Julie Andrews that afternoon on Regent Street, having nearly bumped into James Mason near the Savoy, and having seen Sir Alec Guinness perform in Yahoo at the Queen’s Theatre just this evening, Pickering takes the encounter in stride

It is Robert Morley who speaks. He says to Pickering, “By Jove! I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”

“I think not,” Pickering says.

Caught in the steady gaze of Pickering’s blue eyes, Robert Morley stops. He plants his umbrella on the pavement. “Come now,” he insists, “don’t josh.” His face leans out from his lapels to inspect the elegantly tailored figure before him. He snaps his fingers: “That’s it, we went to school together. We were school chums. You’re. . .you’re. . . .

“Clive Pickering.”

“The name,” he says, “is awfully familiar. But it’s your face I know. Are you playing over at the Haymarket by any chance?”

“I’m afraid not,” Pickering says. “But I must say that I enjoy your acting immensely.”

Robert Morley laughts heartily, his eyebrows dancing above his startled eyes. “Well, yes, I suppose I should let you have your little joke.”

“And I should tell you that I’m staying longer,” Pickering says. “I shan’t be using my return ticket.”

“That’s bloody fine, Clive,” says Robert Morley, still chuckling, “but I had no idea that you’d left.”

An empty greengrocer’s bag, nudged by a breeze that has come in from the sea, flutters between the two men, and Pickering spears it with his umbrella, Robert Morley just missing with his. With another deft motion Pickering deposits the paper in a trash container.

They dip their hats; they wish each other a good evening.

And now, emerging from Marble Arch Station into the bright but chilly Sunday afternoon, Pickering regrets having touched the ears of Alfred Langdon. And yet. . .for that one second. . . . No: he pledges reasonable behavior. No more faces shall take him by surprise. To his right, a line of artists’ and merchants’ stalls stretches up Bayswater toward Kensington Gardens. Perhaps he will go in that direction, stroll the Serpentine, and later pet the flattened ears of the adorable rabbit on the Peter Pan statue.

But across the way Marble Arch gleams in the sunlight like the white circle of a wedding cake.

And beyond that, toward Hyde Park, Speakers’ Corner beckons.

Pickering goes that way, past the chestnut vendors and the plane trees, toward the gathering crowds. Look at the people, the raised platforms, the placards. What are those speakers saying? It doesn’t really matter. Caught up in the energy of the crowd, he goes where they go. And now he clears his throat and is surprised to see people looking at him. He adjusts his derby. Humnn, he says, floating the sound toward the circle of men and women forming around him. Pickering likes what he sees: the faces of tourists, of course, and here and there a British face.

They wait for him to speak.

Those eyes watching him from behind National Health spectacles, surely they are Aunt Margaret’s eyes. And in the strange geometry of the other faces Pickering senses his entire family tree waiting to be assembled. To see it more clearly, he would have to transfer those eyes to that face, those teeth to that mouth, put that nose below those eyes, and so on. But such effort, he realizes, is hardly necessary. It is enough to know they are out there and near him.

“I am Clive Pickering,” he says, introducing himself, and he is pleased with the spread of his voice.

Well, Pickering, they are waiting. Well? Indeed they are. This sceptered isle. . .this other Eden. . .this precious stone set in the silver sea. . . . Earth has not anything to show more fair. . . . Oh, to be in England now that April’s there. . . . Lovely words, thinks Pickering . . .lovely . . . but the words of other people, and so they cannot form his song.

Tilting his face to watch the sun’s bright dance over London, Pickering smiles and thinks of where he’ll be tomorrow, and he waits circled by people for the music he feels leaping in his throat.

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