And Elizabeth waited in Victoria Street for an omnibus. It was so nice to be out of doors. She thought perhaps she need not go home just yet. It was so nice to be out in the air. So she would get on to an omnibus. And already, even as she stood there, in her very well cut clothes, it was beginning. . . . People were beginning to compare her to poplar trees, early dawn, hyacinths, fawns, running water, and garden lilies; and it made her life a burden to her, for she so much preferred being left alone to do what she liked in the country, but they would compare her to lilies, and she had to go to parties, and London was so dreary compared with being alone in the country with her father and the dogs.
Buses swooped, settled, were off — garish caravans, glistening with red and yellow varnish. But which should she get on to? She had no preferences. Of course, she would not push her way. She inclined to be passive. It was expression she needed, but her eyes were fine, Chinese, oriental, and, as her mother said, with such nice shoulders and holding herself so straight, she was always charming to look at; and lately, in the evening especially, when she was interested, for she never seemed excited, she looked almost beautiful, very stately, very serene. What could she be thinking? Every man fell in love with her, and she was really awfully bored. For it was beginning. Her mother could see that — the compliments were beginning. That she did not care more about it — for instance for her clothes — sometimes worried Clarissa, but perhaps it was as well with all those puppies and guinea pigs about having distemper, and it gave her a charm. And now there was this odd friendship with Miss Kilman. Well, thought Clarissa about three o’clock in the morning, reading Baron Marbot for she could not sleep, it proves she has a heart.
Suddenly Elizabeth stepped forward and most competently boarded the omnibus, in front of everybody. She took a seat on top. The impetuous creature — a pirate — started forward, sprang away; she had to hold the rail to steady herself, for a pirate it was, reckless, unscrupulous, bearing down ruthlessly, circumventing dangerously, boldly snatching a passenger, or ignoring a passenger, squeezing eel-like and arrogant in between, and then rushing insolently all sails spread up Whitehall. And did Elizabeth give one thought to poor Miss Kilman who loved her without jealousy, to whom she had been a fawn in the open, a moon in a glade? She was delighted to be free. The fresh air was so delicious. It had been so stuffy in the Army and Navy Stores. And now it was like riding, to be rushing up Whitehall; and to each movement of the omnibus the beautiful body in the fawn-coloured coat responded freely like a rider, like the figure-head of a ship, for the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture.
It was always talking about her own sufferings that made Miss Kilman so difficult. And was she right? If it was being on committees and giving up hours and hours every day (she hardly ever saw him in London) that helped the poor, her father did that, goodness knows,— if that was what Miss Kilman meant about being a Christian; but it was so difficult to say. Oh, she would like to go a little further. Another penny was it to the Strand? Here was another penny then. She would go up the Strand.
She liked people who were ill. And every profession is open to the women of your generation, said Miss Kilman. So she might be a doctor. She might be a farmer. Animals are often ill. She might own a thousand acres and have people under her. She would go and see them in their cottages. This was Somerset House. One might be a very good farmer — and that, strangely enough though Miss Kilman had her share in it, was almost entirely due to Somerset House. It looked so splendid, so serious, that great grey building. And she liked the feeling of people working. She liked those churches, like shapes of grey paper, breasting the stream of the Strand. It was quite different here from Westminster, she thought, getting off at Chancery Lane. It was so serious; it was so busy. In short, she would like to have a profession. She would become a doctor, a farmer, possibly go into Parliament, if she found it necessary, all because of the Strand.
The feet of those people busy about their activities, hands putting stone to stone, minds eternally occupied not with trivial chatterings (comparing women to poplars — which was rather exciting, of course, but very silly), but with thoughts of ships, of business, of law, of administration, and with it all so stately (she was in the Temple), gay (there was the river), pious (there was the Church), made her quite determined, whatever her mother might say, to become either a farmer or a doctor. But she was, of course, rather lazy.
A London Day inspired by New York poems
I dedicate this day to Mr. David Gent who I have not seen since around 1975 and whose wife went off with a member of the New Seekers folk group leaving him with two cats named Spot and Rover.
It is March 13, 2012. I was dreaming last night about a social commentator, usually sharply dressed if somewhat camp, who was clad in the garb of an unidentifiable tribesman. I awake as he approaches me in a not particularly friendly fashion.
I’m feeling unashamedly comfortable, cocooned in some high thread count fortuitously bought in a sale. Pulling on a Uniqlo “lounge” garment I go downstairs and consider whether to clean the cat’s box before or after breakfast.
I make a breakfast of Miss Lizzy’s Granola and some juicy blueberries. Joan Bakewell is on the radio, recalling the intricacies of being a woman in media in the 1960’s, and the time that Mortimer Wheeler fondled her knee as she conducted an interview on live TV. She hinted at the smoking of dope in the studio. Yesterday I exchanged words about chocolate cake with her in a Westminster cafeteria.
I look at the white sky and wonder if this will lift.
I board the bus to the Tate Gallery, distracted by the man on the news who wishes to change the law to allow a doctor to take his life. He can only communicate by blinking.
When I reach the Tate, the installation that I have come to see is closed. No matter. As a small tribute to you, Mr David Gent, I will board another bus – the 87 – in memory of those days when our roving work was so dull that you occasionally suggested spending an hour or two on the number 11 bus while exchanging gossip and stopping en route for an ice cream.
I am humming Albatross by Fleetwood Mac in my head.
We are rounding Parliament Square now. Commonwealth Flags a-flying like giant hankies waving at the Queen. Her favourite, pre-Europe club, I’d guess.
From my vantage point dear reader, I see a man asleep on the top deck of the adjacent bus with a Stetson over his face. It lurches and he awakes. He is Korean, I think. Or Malaysian?
We’re in Whitehall now, just coming up to Horseguards, you and me.
“BEWARE! Horses might kick or bite!” Ooh, beware you tourists!
Did Rebekah Brook’s ex Met horse come with that warning too? Were the Brooks and Cameron power buttocks exempt from biting? Raisa, that was the horse’s name. The same as Mrs Gorbechev, now deceased.
This leads me to think of the Russian grannies singing for Europe and to wonder whether the New Seekers were ever up for Eurovision?
Still there, reader?
See that little boy on the rocking horse on the fourth plinth? I’m not sure what that’s all about. It gave Joanna Lumley great pleasure to unveil him, apparently. Do you love Joanna Lumley? People do. The unveilings and launches always give her great pleasure. Lucky Joanna!
I’m eating chicken and brown rice watching a woman carrying two very large white carrier bags with weighty contents and remembering you, Miss Vogue journalist, and how we walked down Bond St together with you carrying a Raoul Dufy painting in a similarly large Christie’s auction house bag. You asked me to look after it while you tried on a navy cap in the chandler’s shop off Piccadilly.
I wander into the courtyard of Somerset House. The fountains have been turned off and an installation of plaster flowers covers the courtyard. The white flowers, set in grass are in varying states of decay and death.
Now I’m passing St Clement Dane’s. Oranges and lemons, the bells of. The scary moment returns to me. The “chop off your head” bit as arms came down on your shoulders and you were out of the game, sitting on the floor in your party dress, your heart beating a little faster.
Aldwych Station now. Are you hanging on in there? The station platform is still down there in the darkness, the holy grail of dust and derring-do for photographers with a death wish.
A little turning and we’re in Middle Lane. A nice piece of legal Georgian elegance, Peace and quiet reign here while the money presses try to keep up with the fees.
Thresher and Glenny. Hello Fat Cat! I see you in there, trying to do up that top button. Ede and Ravenscroft. Stanley Ley. Many a pastel shirt with a stiff white collar and the prospect of lawyer’s ankles whose dark trousers disguise a riot of coloured socks.
But wait! No mention of Fleet St as I walk along past the Old Cock Tavern and the ghost of the days when El Vino’s would not allow women to sit at the front and not at all, when unaccompanied by a man. Rebekah and co have ridden their horses to Canary Wharf and Wapping leaving the eerie absence of clattering printing presses and the hooks that hoisted in the rolls of paper.
Bankruptcy eh? Mr Ede and Mr Ravenscroft and branches don’t see much of that.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Mr John Soane, thank you for your collection, your grand tours, your fabulous follies and candlelight openings. I shall return with Veronica.
Astrid Sutton Sharkey