Friday, November 11, 2005

Our Beginnings

I arrived in London in 1968, full of the very beginnings of pregnancy and trepidation at the thought of marriage to a very young man I hardly knew. I also had what I thought to be a fortune…$2,000, saved from a variety of summer jobs. That we’re still married today, even happily, is a testament to dumb luck and love.

Customs cleared and baggage searched (no scanner then...all searching done by hand and they poked and prodded every case...customs took forever) I hesitantly walked into the confusion of Heathrow. On the flight I’d obsessed over details. I tried desperately to remember every nuance and subtlety of the man I was going to marry, but kept coming up with this amalgam picture… the features of all the boys I’d ever loved. I had known this man only three short weeks, but in that time I had determined, with all the conviction of youth, that he was the one. I find it curious, that as I write I’m able to refer to my husband, Roger, as a “man.” Today I have a son a some years older than my husband was when I married him. Was the young man I married as young as our son was at 24? Surely not. If I truly felt that, I would be filled with remorse for the opportunities and adventures of which I’d deprived him. I like to think that I was the adventure, but in fact, I know I was more of a trial.

Arrivals and departures are so casual today, but in 1968, one still dressed to travel. I seem to remember wearing something vaguely Mary Quantish. I do remember that my hair was growing out of a Sassoon cut and that I’d died my naturally dark blond hair a hip, blackish color. I had blond roots. In other words, I had looked better, and the reality of my hip attire fell far short of the impression I wanted to make. Tugging on the jet-creased piece of fabric that was my dress, I looked up and saw him. I remember that. I remember he was everything I knew he was but couldn’t shape in imagery on the plane. I felt better. I knew this new adventure, this new life of mine, would work out. Maybe not for years and years, but certainly in the short run. That’s the way people were beginning to think in the 60s

The second week I was in England, the Sunday Times began a series of articles that dealt with this brand new phenomenon that was sweeping the country. Perhaps not so new in the United States, but certainly assuming front page coverage in the British Isles…the subject was D.I.V.O.R.C.E., and the increasingly high numbers of people seeking it. Divorce still had a capitol “D” in those days and was whispered, much like AIDS or cancer is today. Since I was almost married, I decided to read up on Divorce. What I read almost convinced me that I would be lucky if my marriage lasted two years. I tried to be philosophical about my impending Divorce but sadness filled me every time I thought about it. I pondered over the fate of my as yet unborn child and shivered with dread at the thought of having to go back to my parents’ home, tail between my legs, baby in arms, begging for help. What I read assured me that divorce was indeed imminent because:

I was under 21
My husband was under 24
We had no money
I was moving to a new country far away from my parents
I had no close friends within 25 miles
We had known each other under a year
I was pregnant
I was pregnant
I was pregnant.

The handwriting was on the wall, that much was obvious and it filled me with gloom.

And so, filled with those sad but delicious (because I was still at an age where drama in life was appreciated) fears, I began an apartment search with my fiancé (not that we called each other that).
I had no idea that trying to find a flat would be so difficult a task. Whole areas of the East End of London were still bomb-ravaged so the city still had a vaguely post-war feel to it, and housing was still at a premium: very scarce, very expensive, and very sub-standard. It might as well have been the day after the Blitz. Roger, my intended, would search the classified section of the Evening Standard every night, circling what areas we could live in and what prices we could afford and then plan our strategy for the next day. I was used to modern apartment complexes in the Washington suburbs or wonderfully old apartment buildings deep in the city, heavy on charm and character. He was used to grotty bed-sits (efficiencies) entirely unsuitable for a married couple with a baby (YIKES) on the way. Turns out we could barely afford one bedroom, much less two. We couldn’t afford to live anywhere but close(ish) to the nice parts of town. I wanted to live in Hampstead...West Hampstead was the best we could do. He would call me every day from work and we’d rush to the listed apartments, trying to be the first in line. I couldn’t believe the shortage of housing. Roger explained it as being a post-war shortage. POST-WAR, my brain screamed? The wretched war had ended over two decades before. There was much to London in the late 60s that I couldn’t understand and one of those things was accommodation.

Anyway, we looked and we looked and we looked and finally, one day, I got this jubilant call from Roger. He’d run out on his lunch hour, armed with that day’s copy of The Evening Standard and had found the perfect apartment. I can clearly remember my excitement. Oh my god, he'd acheived the impossible, he'd found the perfect apartment. Little did I know, then, just how different were our opinions of perfect.

He had found a 3rd (2nd fl. Eur) floor ‘flat’ on a straight, treeless street in a marginal neighbourhood. Bonus points awarded for being equally as close to a good area as a bad area, I suppose. At one end of the street, Irish laborers toughed it out, their wives picking over second best in all the shops. At the other end, out-of-season fresh produce and Chinese wash carpets were cheerfully arranged in up-market shop windows. And even further along the road, not that far north of us was Hampstead, the place I wanted to live, the place where I was sure we could find the truly perfect apartment. What really struck me as strange about this flat was that we had to walk through other people’s flats to get to ours. Okay, not their sitting rooms, but their hallways. I mean if they had to get up in the middle of the night to go to the loo, or they wanted to wander half-dressed through their flat, and we were coming or going at that moment, we would see them. The stairs ran straight through the body of a terraced house, and the third floor (our perfect flat) was nothing more than the third floor of the house.

The place was a nightmare. A mess. Totally uninhabitable, in my estimation, but because we were almost married, because I was pregnant, because we had no money, because he was handsome, because he knew London and the housing stock, I said, “Yes, yes, it’s perfect,” grimly lying through my teeth.

I wandered through looking at the rooms; all two and a bit of them. Front room, with a ghastly pink-tiled coal fireplace. Roger read my thoughts and said he’d put a gas fire in immediately. Good idea, I silently thought. I’m not hauling buckets of coal up three flights of stairs just to get warm. The tiny bedroom overlooked a tiny back yard, concreted over, and all the other tiny yards, full of washing and children’s bikes, and grime; layers and layers of grime. Then the kitchen, as it was so inaptly described while in truth it was a short hallway. Our apartment door opened into this room. A few chipped cupboards, a sink, and a gas stove perched on four legs, circa 1910. Oh yeah, and a grubby, peeling linoleum floor. That was it. Then the bathroom, a fairly big room with a grand curved, legged and chipped tub, a big gas water heater on the wall and…a sink. “Where’s the sodding toilet?” my mind screamed. My mind had already screamed “Where’s the sodding refrigerator” when we had toured the kitchen.

I quickly ran through the tiny flat again, eyes raking every corner and the one closet. Just as I thought, no toilet. I stared at Roger in disbelief and then hissed coldly, “Where’s the fucking toilet?” He looked at me, quite brightly, and said, “Oh, it’s close, just down that flight of stairs. We share it with the landlady, Mrs. Schwartz.” It was at this moment that I knew for certain that Roger and I were fundamentally different, with completely different ideas as to what was perfect, much less necessary. I had grown up with my own full bathroom, sharing with no one, and now I was sharing with a complete stranger, and my landlady at that. “Show it to me,” I snarled.

We picked our way down the stairs, Mrs. Schwartz leading the way. She kept on and on about how many other people wanted this flat. I made faces and stuck my tongue out at the back of her balding head. Bottom of the stairs, frosted glass door, The Bathroom. A toilet, a sink, and a shower-curtained tub, the rail barely discernible beneath big old lady knickers and support stockings. I glanced at Roger and shook my head, silently giving him one strong message. “This Will Not Do.” He misinterpreted my look, not knowing me terribly well, and said. “Great, we’ll take it.” I rolled my eyes, and watched him hand over the deposit. Seventy pounds. One month’s rent and one month’s deposit. Then I walked upstairs and waited for him, in shock.

I practiced what I would say to him and when he walked in, I just said, “I can’t live here. It’s awful. How could you even begin to think that I could live here,” and I burst into tears. Something I did with alarming frequency through my pregnancy. We moved in the next week. You see, there really was a housing shortage and I had a lot to learn, not only about living on a budget, but also about making do. I mentally tallied all these things up, thinking about the D word and how forces seemed to be conspiring to make it inevitable.

One gets used to things. We all know it’s a fact, but it sometimes amazes me when that which is untenable one day, a month later becomes quite normal. That’s precisely what happened on Dynham Road. Within a couple of weeks, I was beginning to know the shopkeepers, my tube station was predictably crowded at certain times and empty at others and the rhythms of life in this corner of London gradually revealed themselves to me. I busied myself with decorating this little space and Roger and I used our Saturdays to spend over-the-odds for curtains and carpeting. Before any primping of the room could truly happen, though, Roger had to remove the pink-tiled, circa between-the-wars, ugly fireplace surround. There was no way that I would haul coal up and down the two flights of stairs. So, courtesy of the building site where he worked as a young civil engineer, he arrived home late one night with a serious-looking sledge hammer and some other tools of destruction.

Saturday morning, with no warning to Mrs. Schwartz that the destruction was about to happen, he took his first swing. While he had told her of his intention a couple of weeks prior, she had no idea that the deed was imminent. The whole building seemed to shudder as reluctant tiles pulled away from old plaster. The second swing cracked and then Mrs. Schwartz burst through the kitchen door. Her balding head was more noticeable than usual due to her deep, red coloring. She looked horrified as she rushed into the sitting room. As Roger brought the hammer down again, Mrs. Schwartz screamed. He stopped, abruptly and turned to look at her. “What do you think you are doing?” she screamed. “What I told you I would be doing,” Roger answered with an equal amount of passion. “I told you I was going to remove this surround and replace it with a new, gas fire.” “You didn’t say you were going to tear the surround out, just that you were going to put in a gas fire.”

I didn’t know the details of their prior discussion and so stood mutely at the edge of the room. Then, she started screaming at him again, about eviction this time. I turned and ran to the bedroom and shut the door. In my delicate state I couldn’t stand any dissention. Behind closed doors I could hear her wailing at the damage and the ruin that was now her third floor flat. Roger screamed something else, and finished off with, “…you stupid cow.” I was straining at the door trying to hear when I heard the window being thrown up with some force, then dead silence. I waited a moment, hearing nothing, and then rushed from the bedroom. I was convinced that he had thrown Mrs. Schwartz out the window. But the scene that greeted me was something quite different. Yes, the window was thrown open, but Mrs. Schwartz was standing, silently for once. She was not at all dead. Roger had thrown the window open and stuck his head out, purely in frustration. He’d felt like shoving Mrs. Schwartz and wisely chose to stick his head out the window, instead. He slowly gathered his equilibrium and eased himself back into the room. “Get out, Mrs. Schwartz. You came in here uninvited, now leave. I assure you that when I am finished this will look better than it did before I started tearing it out. The Gas Company comes tomorrow to connect a lead, then the fire will go in.”

She didn’t utter a word, just silently turned to leave. I was in the doorway and moved aside for her saying, “Mrs. Schwartz, don’t ever walk in this flat again unannounced. We rent it from you, but legally, you have no right to just barge in here.” She just looked at me and gave a curt nod. Roger sat on the floor, in the sitting room, head in hands. “I could have hit her,” he said, looking alarmed at his own feelings. “I know, but you didn’t,” I reassured him. “That’s all that counts.”

He picked up the sledge hammer and starting whacking away again. It didn’t take long and the whole thing was off the wall, leaving an unsightly, gaping hole. “I’ll take this out to the tip and then start patching the plaster,” he said, more to himself than to me. I nodded and said, “Well, I guess I’ll go get something for dinner.” We were both shaken by the confrontation with Mrs. Schwartz, yet oddly depleted. No more words were necessary. We had stood together, as a couple. As unsettling as the argument had been, I think we both were somewhat comforted by being a team. I know I was.

By the following week, a much-too-good, expensive, pale-grey Wilton carpet was fitted on the living room floor while deep, cranberry red curtains were being made by a local seamstress, a bargain by American standards, but still stretching our meager budget. I think Roger felt some excitement at finally having a place to live in that felt truly comfortable. I know what my feelings at the time were…I remember them all too clearly. I wanted to immediately disguise the fact that I was living in sub-standard accommodation. I was making, or at least trying to make, the proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And then our Tomotom furniture arrived. It was as modern and statement-making as any I’d ever seen. It felt like fun furniture … whimsical furniture. I adored it. I can remember Roger staring at it, probably saying to himself, “What were we thinking of?” but it made me laugh out loud. The huge, round red chair with the big yellow cushions was sized for two people. It was a circular love seat. I plopped into it and gestured for him to come over. We both fit. I loved it. No focusing on the kitchen or the bathroom. Our bedroom had a beautiful, old brass bed, one tiny closet, one chest of drawers and one window without a view. Our kitchen was a corridor, no window, a few makeshift cupboards and an ancient stove. Our bathroom had a bath, a sink and a wall heater, but I focused on none of that. I shut the living room door and felt that I finally was home.


Blogger junebee said...

I had no idea the housing situation in London was in such a dire situation in the late 60's.

Guess you and your husband showed THEM about the divorce probability! Congratulations on a long and happy marriage.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Ova Girl said...

lin! What a great post! I loved this and I felt like I was there with you!
Please tell more stories about being in London in the swinging sixties! Loved the image of you in your Mary Quant (?) gear and your groovy hairdo.

3:03 AM  
Blogger Lin said...

Junebee...the housing shortage was crazy, and yeah, we showed them! was fun writing. It's always interesting when you force yourself to think about things that happened so very long ago. The clarity of some events is amazing while other things are just so fuzzy.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Crystal said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Crystal said...

Great great story! Who knew that the effects of the war were still present 20yrs. after the war ended! And as far as long marriages, people forget that 50% of marriages do NOT end in divorce, so a long happy/healthy relationship is a real possibility. My husband & I also married after not knowing each other too much, we dated only 9mos. before we were engaged, but he is the perfect person for me. Anyway, Way to go~~~

6:24 PM  
Blogger granny p said...

you make me feel nostalgic (almost) - how I remember, not comfortably, flats like that xx

11:15 AM  
Anonymous sazemoo said...

i had to say hello, because i live on dynham road now and whilst i expect a few bits and pieces have changed, much hasn't! it was lovely to read a bit of personal history about the road i live on :)

2:06 AM  

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