A Little Glass of Port
The sixties were almost over; lured by the lingering panache of swinging London, four of us decided to rent a flat together after graduation. In those days London was still an English city, with a strong connection to the surrounding country. Few homes were foreign owned, flats were affordable. We soon found a duplex in one of those elegant cream colored terraces that surround Regents Park.
While he was at Cambridge my husband Peter ran a music agency out of his rooms. The managers of the Who, one of whom had been at Oxford, offered him an indeterminate role in their office. George, having earned a first in English literature, found part time employment delivering copies of “High Times. Rick, another literature scholar, was a fledgling poet. I was teaching in a poor area of the East End; our estate agent advised us this was “fixed employment”, and put my name on the lease.
Not that our landlord, Colonel L. cared what we did. He lived on the upper floors of the house; and rarely appeared downstairs. A large, red faced man, given to wearing tweed suits and striped club ties, the Colonel was a caricature of the English gentleman. His companion, F., a German antique dealer, shared the parlor floor with a pair of elderly pugs.
Once a week Berry Brothers delivered a gallon of whiskey, a gallon of gin, and a gallon of port; empty return bottles cluttered the narrow shared hall. Even George, expressed amazement at the amount of liquor consumed by the Colonel and Fritz. It didn’t occur to us they might have a drinking problem.
Our flat occupied the ground floor and basement. The drawing room ran the width of the house with high ceilings and original molding. There was even a chandelier. At one end large windows overlooked the street, the other the small walled garden. The grandiose effect was marred by orange boxes, doubling as shelves, that divided our common living area from the space where George and Rick slept, on mattresses. Peter and I had the front bedroom in the basement. Light streamed in across a small subterranean courtyard.
In the autumn Cornelia moved in, she worked in publishing, and could afford the second basement bedroom. In addition to her bed, Cornelia brought her cello. She played for us on Sunday afternoons, while I painted water colors and Rick composed poetry. For those first months in London we were happy in our rambling bohemian home.
One day the wall at the end of the garden collapsed scattering bricks across the cobbles in the mews behind the house. Mews living had recently become fashionable; the little homes were immaculate, polished brass lamps, and window boxes. It wasn’t long before an angry owner appeared at the front door. Unfortunately George, answered. Taking one look at his long hair and beard the stranger launched into a tirade . Poor George was baffled; overhearing the commotion I intervened.
It was early afternoon the Colonel was home, he ushered me in to his darkened living room and motioned to an armchair. I told him about the wall.
“What a bore,” he mused.
“There’s a big hole now.”
“In my day horses lived in stables.” He picked up a decanter, “Care to join me in a little glass of port.”
Not wishing to appear rude I accepted.
“What kind of people live in stables, I never heard of such nonsense.”
Our conversation went in circles, while the port flowed, soon my head began to spin. I rose unsteadily, made my way downstairs. The nausea lasted for days.
Nothing was done about the wall, although someone cleared away the bricks. At first we thought the colonels indifference was rather cool. Weeks passed, people began tossing rubbish through the gaping hole; then rats appeared, we began to worry. Still the colonel did nothing, while the deliveries from Berry Brothers came and went. Cornelia found a rat on her bed; our idyll came to an abrupt end. To this day I cannot stand the taste of port.