Piglet out of Water, or Friday at The Chelsea Arts Club

I was standing in afishoutofwater phone booth in the lobby of the Dukes Hotel in St. James’s Place, London.  I was a twenty-one-year old, shiny new, NYU liberal arts graduate and I was scared.  I had been scared for quite a while, at least since bumping my wheelie suitcase down the stairs to the E train at 57th Street Station more than a week earlier.

I’d never been in London alone before – except for college I’d never really gone anywhere by myself and even then I only went a few stops downtown on the B train – so when my mom mentioned to her poet friend Bonnie that she had finally convinced me to leave New York to study for an advanced degree at Trinity College, Oxford for a year, Bonnie thought it would help me to know someone, and she told my mom to tell me to look up her dearest friend, Leah, who had moved to London in the wake of a collapsed marriage.  All this arranged friendship intimidated me even more than knowing no one, so I avoided calling; rather I wandered throughout the city alone, growing acclimated to being on my own. It was now my final day in London, and my apprehension about coming here was roiling, like one of those constantly-on-the-boil teakettles in Dickensian cafes.  I know it sounds like I am overly timid – my older sisters call me Piglet after Winnie the Pooh’s pink and quaking friend and wonder, often and loudly, how anyone raised in New York City could possibly be so fainthearted – but I prefer to think of myself as cautious.

Regardless, since I was leaving London for Oxford early the next morning to begin the Michaelmas term, it was my last chance to contact Leah, so I entered the phone booth next to the night porter’s chair and, chewing my left thumbnail, inserted my BT calling card.

Leah sounded pleased to hear from me.  She said that Bonnie had told her to expect my call and when she offered to take me to dinner at her club, I accepted.  I was aware that both Bonnie and my mother believed that new experiences were crucial for personal growth, a philosophy I was not entirely sure I shared.  But, like Bonnie, Leah was a published writer – a poet and a playwright – and since I wanted to be a writer, maybe she would offer me advice.  If not,  . . . well, I wasn’t thinking that far in advance.  And I’d never been to a private London club and had no idea what to expect; it sounded more exotic than the University Club where my parents took us for holiday lunches and it was bound to be better than another boxed sandwich from the Mark & Spencer food hall.

Pushing apart the split-panel glass and mahogany door of the old-fashioned telephone booth I headed for the birdcage elevator to return to my room to shower and change.  One sure thing was that dinner with Leah would force me to stop dwelling upon my own fear of change for a few hours.  And maybe Leah’s club was a famous one like the Groucho – supposedly Mick Jagger belonged there – or the renowned Chelsea Arts Club, which was reputed to be Eric Clapton’s club, and if I saw him there my sister-in-law Kelly would be really jealous.

Two pm found me standing in front of my hotel, shifting my weight in the late September sunshine.  Unsure what to wear, I had opted for a short-sleeved blue cotton dress and matching espadrilles. I didn’t think I’d need a sweater because I had read in the Timesthat this had been the hottest summer since WW II, and in the short time I’d been there, I had learned that London wasn’t air-conditioned. A tall, slim woman with curly brown hair and baggy linen pants approached me tentatively.

“Lucy?  Hi, I’m Leah, Bonnie’s friend.  How are you?”  She had a slight English accent, like she had adopted, rather than given birth to it.  She stretched out her hands to grasp mine and kissed me on both cheeks.

“Oh, hi.  I’m fine,” I waved a hand in front of my face nervously.  “A little hot.  I always thought it rained all the time in England and that would make it cool.”

“It does usually, but we’ve been having a record summer. And rain doesn’t always make it cool here, just wet. Wait’ll autumn strikes Oxford.  I hope you packed a mac because you are really going to need it.” She cocked her head and studied me. “You know, Bonnie never told me how cute you are.”

I didn’t know how to answer that so I didn’t and we stared at each other for a moment.  Then, “Bonnie says you’re a writer.”

“Um, yeah, well . . . um, I’m trying to be. . . I’m not a real writer like Bonnie or you. . . I have published a few things.  I won a haiku contest. . . I, uh . . . I’m just starting.  I think they call it ‘emerging’ but I hate that term; it makes me sound like a caterpillar breaking out of a cocoon about to be a . . . a moth or . . .or something . . . ” my voice trailed off.  Blushing, I turned to admire the lush floral baskets clustered within wrought iron trim of the hotel.

I felt a tug at my arm.  “Come on, caterpillar.  Let’s go for a walk and you can see London.”  Leah turned her face toward the sun. “It’s such a beautiful day I want to enjoy it.  I must pop into Boots, and then we can go to my flat in Morpeth Terrace for a bit. It’s in Westminster so it’s not far, right near Victoria Station; do you know where that is?  It’s the closest stop to Buckingham Palace, in case you ever want to go there. Oh, it’s such lovely day to walk; we rarely get weather like this.”  She almost skipped.  She must really like the sunshine.  “I want you to see where I live so you can tell Bonnie.  Do you know she has never visited me?  It’s a lower ground floor flat – what we’d call the basement in America – so you can only see people’s feet and there’s a long wall with a gate that goes across the building’s entire ground floor, but it looks across to Westminster Cathedral.  Do you know it?  It’s the one John Betjeman wrote about.”

I would have said I had heard of the historic cathedral, but I couldn’t slip a word in.

”Then after our visit we’ll go to the Club for an early dinner.” She began striding toward St. James’s Street, leaving me bobbing in her wake.  “On the way, we’ll call for my friend Graham at his flat.  He lives near me in a lovely neighborhood, right between the Station and the Cathedral. He leases a room in a massive and very elegant mansion flat in Carlisle Mansions.  Wait until you see it. It’s astounding – an entire floor!  The London Arts Council used to meet there.  Jessica . . . she owns the leasehold . . . has a dining table with 60 chairs; can you believe it?  And an amazing antique chandelier is suspended above it; it has these very grand angels hanging from it.  We’ll meet him then go for a meal.  Is there a Boots in Piccadilly, do you know?  I need to pop in for a few things.”

There was a Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly; I had noticed it on my way to the Green Park tube stop and had picked up a few useful items there myself over the past few days, however it was in the opposite direction of where Leah was pointed and she was chattering so quickly that it was hard to find an opening. “Yes, yes, there is a Boots, but it’s opposite the Ritz.  Isn’t that the other way?”  I gestured over my shoulder feebly.  Leah stared wide-eyed. “You have learned some things about London since you’ve been here, haven’t you, caterpillar?”

“Well, I learned where to buy toothpaste.”

Leah threw her head back and laughted. I blushed again. We set off toward the Ritz Hotel.

Over the next fifteen or so minutes, I trailed Leah through Boots as she collected her toiletries in a metal basket, then I sat and waited with her while the pharmacist filled a prescription for her second husband.

“How do you like London?” she asked once we were back outside, waiting to cross Piccadilly to cut through Green Park.

“Well . . . I like it more than I thought I would.”  I replied.

“More than you thought you would? Did you expect to not like it?”

I twisted a lock of hair around my right index finger.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I mean, I grew up in New York – my family has been there for generations – so New York is my template. Especially our neighborhood.  My grandparents – my mom’s parents – live really close to us and my dad’s parents live a couple of blocks away.”

Leah nodded. “So, like the slogan, you love New York.”

“Yeah, I guess.  My only criticism of Manhattan is that it is constantly destroying its past by knocking down beautiful old buildings and putting up steel and glass monstrosities.  It’s never the same from year to year. I hate that.”

Leah smiled. “You’re right about New York.  I think it purges itself every ten years of its people and its way of life and just starts over like a snake sloughing off its skin.”

“But London has . . . continuity; gorgeous old buildings are everywhere, and more survived the Blitz than I had thought. I love that . . . that constancy.”

“Developers knock down buildings here, too, you know.”

“Oh, I know, but there are so many great buildings and they transcend eras. The old Roman wall is still there in the City; I saw it when I visited the Tower, which is also still there.  And the V & A has one façade that shows bomb damage from WW II; no one has plastered over it.  And there is that Congregational church in Stepney that was bombed during the War that has only one wall remaining but that wall is still up.”

Leah stared. “You went all the way to Stepney?” she asked.

“Lord, no. I don’t even know where Stepney is, except in it’s in a Rolling Stones song.  My dad is a WW II historian and he talks a lot about the Blitz.”

We’d reached Leah’s building so conversation ceased as she began fussing with keys for gate locks, door locks, and mailbox locks.  Westminster was like New York in that respect, at least. As we entered, I gazed around at the building’s façade and hallways and mentally compared it to my family’s apartment building on the Upper West Side.  Morpeth Mansions was a big building but the halls seemed narrower and the windows, although larger, were fewer. When we entered Leah’s apartment, I realized that it was much smaller than my family’s on 86th Street.  Despite the front-facing windows it was dimmer, and even though she had less furniture, the space felt crowded.  The kitchen withits mismatched cabinets wasn’t separate, either; it took up more than half of the main room.  A small washing machine was located under the kitchen counter where I had expected a dishwasher to be, although I didn’t see a matching dryer.

I pulled out one of the two chairs tucked under the small, wooden dining table and sat and stared at the passing parade of shoes out the window, only half listening to Leah chatter as she pulled her damp sheets from the teeny washer while waiting for the electric kettle to boil for tea. I couldn’t imagine having such a small and inconveniently placed machine; it would take forever to complete a family’s weekly wash. I thought of the well-lighted and airy laundry room in our building at home containing nine regular-sized washers, three double-sized washers, and twelve enormous dryers.

Just after Leah had placed a glass pint bottle of milk on the table, she pulled open a narrow door to what I presumed was a pantry.  Inside was a series of pipes.  She began laying her laundry over them.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s an airing cupboard,” Leah replied as she slipped the sheets over the metal rails.

“What do you mean by ‘airing’?”

Leah stood on tiptoes and continued stretching and smoothing.  “This flat is too small for a tumble dryer so we lay the washing across these rails to dry.  They are heated by sourcing directly to the water heater. Over there, see?”  She pointed to a large, wall-mounted, metal cylinder. “Lots of older flats have them. It’s very energy-efficient.”

And peculiar, I thought, remembering how when I was little my mother would pull her sheets from the giant dryer, toss them in her wheeled basket, plop me on top, and push everything upstairs.  I mentally crossed my fingers that Trinity was in the current century laundry-wise.

I chewed my thumbnail again.  “Uh, Leah?”

“Hmmm?”

“Did you find it weird when you first came here?”

Leah looked over her shoulder from the airing cupboard.  “Weird how?”

I considered.  “Well, weird in that it’s different from New York.”

“It’s not that different; they speak English.”

“No, that’s not it.  I mean . . . like moving from your old apartment to here.”

Leah laughed.  “After Harry and I divorced, I moved into an unrestored five-storey walkup in the Village. There was no shower, no laundry facilities, and precious little heat, plus the only view was of an airshaft. Comparatively, this is a palace.”

“But weren’t you born in New York?  Hadn’t you first been published in New York?  Wasn’t your . . . life . . . in New York?”

“Yes to all three but there are publishers here.  New York isn’t the center of the artistic world, Lucy; it just thinks it is. And my parents are dead and I have no siblings, so after my divorce I had no real reason to stay.  And besides,” Leah closed the airing cupboard door and turned her attention to the kettle.  “There is a vibrant artistic community here, a real value of the written and spoken word that I never felt in New York, even when I did readings or met with my publisher.  It’s why I joined the Club.  Everyone just gets together and sustains one another in their latest endeavors.” She poured tea into porcelain mugs then placed the traditional English Brown Betty teapot on the table.

“You mean like a writers’ support group,” I ventured spooning sugar into my mug.

“Yes, and no.  A support group says ‘yeah, yeah, that’s great, it reminds me of . . . ‘ blah blah blah.  I mean a place where all artists, not just writers, express and stretch and celebrate just being artists together.  Not valuing who just got accepted by Grantamore than who is still scribbling away in a Shakespearean garret, but appreciating all. Just a great love for art itself.”

I thought about those concepts – camaraderie and acceptance.  My experience had been that writing was hard, solitary work and fraught with rejection of one kind or another, from professors, from classmates, from editors. Leah’s artistic London sounded as unreal as Oz.

Leah’s telephone rang, breaking the silence with that sharp European brrrring-brrrrring sound.

“Three one double six four.  Graham, darling!  Hello!  How funny that you are ringing now . . . we are actually about to head out. Are you ready?  We’ll be . . . What?  Now? Ohhhh, I am so disappointed!  You won’t get to meet Lucy, then, because she’s leaving in the morning . . . No, no apology!  I understand.  No, no, you absolutely need to do this.  You have worked too hard for too long.  Well, ring me tomorrow then, darling, and we’ll catch up.”  Leah replaced the receiver.  “Graham can’t join us, after all.  He has had a play in workshop for the longest time and the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse wants to discuss the possibility of staging it. He is thrilled because although he has been writing for years, he has never had a production.  This is a brilliant opportunity for him.”

“Wow, that’s impressive.”  I didn’t know much about the Donmar except it was a respected professional theatre created out of old warehouse space in Covent Garden, the former fruit and vegetable market on the fringes of the West End.  I felt a pang of envy; imagine having a play you wrote be performed.

“Well, caterpillar, I think it’s just you and me for dinner then. Let me tidy up a bit and we’ll be off. ”

Once Leah had brushed her hair and written a note telling her husband the approximate time she would return, she was ready to leave and we began the walk to her club.  She chatted the entire time but, immersed in my own thoughts, I barely heard her.  I was considering what she’d implied about New York’s being artistically inhospitable.  I could see how it might be true, although I still thought it was mostly representative of a writer’s friendless existence, not necessarily something exclusive to New York; that said, there must be some kind of artistic community in London if a friend of hers could workshop a play into the Donmar.  He didn’t workshop alone; there had to be other playwrights and actors to workshop with.

After about twenty minutes we reached Chelsea and I guessed our destination – One Hundred Forty-three Old Church Street, the Chelsea Arts Club. You could see it from two blocks away; it was a Victorian terrace with each section painted alternately prune-whip purple, Mediterranean coral, and Creamsicle orange, with unfinished-looking blotches of lemon yellow and cobalt blue.  On top of the colors were representations of all kinds of people, including a fat lady in a polka-dot bikini; a tall, thin toff wearing tails and a top hat; a tennis player with four legs; and an approximation of King Kong, a hairy brown ape balancing a recumbent woman on his right front paw like a cocktail tray.

“Here we are,” Leah said brightly a minute later.  “It’s not always painted like this.  We change it pretty often to suit the mood of the city.”  She extended a hand and fondly patted an outer wall, firm and solid, its regularity broken only by the somewhat uneven placement of large-paned windows covered with old-fashioned lace curtains somewhat at odds with the design of the mural.  My gaze drifted upward to the slate roof dotted with chimney pots. I wondered what mood the city had been in when they painted this.

It was a pretty audacious structure, miles away from the Italianate, palazzo-like University Club, although, architecturally-speaking – without the mural – the building itself was typical Victorian working class construction, stucco over brick and wavy glass panes in wooden frames.  It boasted no elaborately carved lintels or outré bas-relief patterns – but it didn’t need to; the paint job said it all, telling the world that this club, the urban home of London’s most talented and Bohemian artists, had stood fast since the reign of England’s longest-serving monarch and didn’t care what anyone thought.

We reached the door and Leah grasped the brass knob.  Inside, the light was dim and, despite the early hour, the bar was packed with people, their voices reverberating off walls covered with colorful Modern paintings so closely hung that I couldn’t discern the wallpaper pattern beneath. Strings of twinkling fairy lights entwined the upper reaches of gleaming bottles, casting dainty shadows on the bartenders’ faces.  There was no fire but people clustered around the stone fireplace, anyway, sprawled on well-stuffed furniture, talking, laughing, and clinking glasses. French doors were open to catch a hoped-for evening breeze and I could see lots of people gathered under market umbrellas, lazing in wicker chairs, or stretched on steamer lounges on the stone patio, talking animatedly.  Further away, on the exhausted-looking patch of lawn, striped canvas sling chairs were scattered.  There were no clubby leather armchairs here, no Persian rugs, and certainly no ambiently lit paintings of bewhiskered founders hanging above the bar.  Its very eccentricity delighted me.

Leah grabbed my arm and steered me from group to group to spread the news about Graham’s good fortune.  She seemed to know everyone in the room and all of them, from a BAFTA-winning playwright to an unemployed fabric painter, raised a glass in Graham’s honor and insisted that Leah convey their congratulations to him.  Eventually she got around to introducing me as an emerging writer and the response was pretty much the same, albeit more muted.  People asked about my writing: some offered suggestions for classes I might take or publishers I might approach while others merely smiled and wished me good luck.  A fat, balding man with glittering eyes and weaselly teeth professed especial interest in my professional progress.  Sidling next to me, he slid his arm around my shoulders and squeezed me under his sweaty armpit; he whispered drunkenly that I should feel free to call on him any time for anything.  He would make a valuable ally, he confided, as he had twice been long-listed for the Booker Prize. He reminded me of the Monk from The Canterbury Tales.  Nodding, I rotated my shoulder muscles and popped from his grasp. Leah caught my right wrist and we pushed into the crowd toward another cluster of friends.  Everyone we spoke to was warm and approachable and nearly everyone got in a round.

After about two hours, I pulled myself away from the cacophony and flomped unsteadily on an old brocade sofa alone.  I gazed happily around me at the affable chaos of the room, tipsy from too many Buck’s Fizzes and no food.  Maybe Leah had been right about New York’s not being the center of the creative universe; she had certainly been right about the coziness and vitality of this place, created by artists for artists.

Slouching there, I wondered how I could join.  After all, Leah had said that there was no distinction drawn between those who published in Granta and those who scribbled away in attics.  I had no idea what the requirements were for membership and suddenly I needed to know.  It probably cost a lot; certainly my dad said that the University Club did. But, it was worth it; I could take the train down from Oxford on weekends.  Coming here would further my education; the rooms were full of painters, sculptors, poets, lyricists. Hoisting myself up and out of the enormous cushions somewhat queasily, I looked around for Leah but didn’t see her.  I remembered vaguely that we had passed a Club Secretary’s office on the way in so I pushed through the crowd to the tiny room immediately to the left of the front door.  It was empty. Damn.  I felt a little dizzy and leaned against the cool plaster wall.

Hearing Leah’s laugh from somewhere near the French windows I turned my head back toward the bar to see whether I could find her in the scrum. The room really was stuffed with people and she was easier heard than seen, so I pointed myself in her general direction and began creeping, crablike, through the Friday night revelers. Eventually I made my way to where Leah stood surrounded by friends, her chestnut curls dancing in the approaching evening breeze.  I leaned toward her.  “Leah!”  She couldn’t hear me over the group’s laughing at the BAFTA winner’s joke.

“Leah!”  I jiggled her arm.

She turned her head and bent toward me.  “What is it, caterpillar?”

“You were right.  It’s amazing here.  How can I join?”

“Through committee acceptance of your body of work.”

I blinked.  “That’s not what you said!”

“I can hardly hear you; let’s go out into the garden.”  She handed her glass to the BAFTA winner’s staring girlfriend with a muttered excuse and led me into the evening air.  It was a little cooler now and the last vestiges of sunlight shone through the leafy trees.  We found two empty sling chairs, scruffy and nearly threadbare, and sat.

“What’s the matter, Lucy?” Leah asked.

“What do you mean by ‘committee acceptance of body of work?’ “ I asked.

She shrugged.  “After you apply for membership you need to be vetted by the professionals in your field who sit on the Board. For a writer, it means gaining their favorable impressions on what you have published in your career, so favorable that they think you will make a good addition to the Club.”

“But what if you haven’t published much?”

“You can’t become a member.”

“Not at all?”

“No, not at all.”

“What about expressing and stretching and celebrating?  What about not caring who gets accepted by Granta and who . . . writes on tube station walls?”

Leah cocked her head. “Perhaps I was a little cavalier.  What I meant was that England is a very class-conscious country and there is no status line drawn at the Club due to one’s background.  Everyone is welcome.  The only thing that matters is talent.”

“Published talent.”

Leah raised one eyebrow and answered she in a slightly defensive tone.  “All right, yes; published talent.  To be nominated for membership you must be a professional in your artistic field, and for a writer that means publication in reputable places.”

Minutes passed.

“So, I can’t come here,” I said finally.

“Well . . . no, not yet; at least, not as a member.  But you can come with me, Lucy.  And once you have published enough, I‘ll be happy to nominate you. Graham will second you.  I’m sure you’ll be accepted.”  She hesitated.  “Although there is a three-year waiting list.”

A three-year wait after I have been determined acceptable? I sighed and gazed into the weedy garden.

After another few minutes, Leah reached across the patch of tired grass and patted my knee, then rose and walked slowly toward the French doors.

I remained in that sling chair for a long time.  Well, that was that, at least for today, but like my mother always said, tomorrow is another day, Scarlett, and early tomorrow morning I would board the train for Trinity.

I stared at the dirt, wondering what time it was and whether I should try to find Leah so we could eat. Lacking a tissue, I wiped my nose across the back of my hand. Feeling a mosquito tickle the back of my neck. I reached over my head and slapped it, surprised to find that it was sturdy and hairy.  My head shot up. The lecherous two-time Booker long-lister’s hand was resting on the back of my head.

“Oh! Sorry. I thought it was a mosquito.”

Undiscouraged, he continued to caress me. I jerked my neck hoping to dislodge him. “What are you doing?”

“I’m just keeping you company.  You were sitting her all alone like an abandoned pussycat.” He began to entwine his fingers in my hair. “Is there anything I can do for you, pussycat?” he cooed.

I stumbled up and of the chair, knocking his hand and causing him to sway backward, spilling some single malt on his pale blue cotton shirt.  Lucky the glass was so full.  “No, not a thing. I’m fine. Really”

“Not even help you join the Club?  I could have sworn I heard you and Leah discussing it.” His eyes glittered.

“Well . . . sure I would like to, but I realize that it isn’t an option for me right now. After all, I am leaving for Oxford tomorrow morning and . . . ” I could hear myself beginning to babble as I backed away.

“We could get you an Overseas Associate membership.”

“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously.

“It’s a lesser membership for artists living abroad.”

“Why didn’t Leah mention it?”

He shrugged and took a step behind me.  “Perhaps she was merely forgetful.  She has been quite . . . merry tonight.”

Taking my skepticism for an invitation, he continued working his way around me and said, “It’s true that there are comparatively few memberships of that type but I have been a member here for over a quarter of a century and if anyone could be said to have influence over the selection of candidates eligible for such things, I must be among the first to spring to mind.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I really wanted this opportunity but if it were truly a viable option, wouldn’t Leah have mentioned it, regardless of her level of . . . merriment?

With my peripheral vision I could see him lean down and gently place his glass on a tile mosaic table. Bending close to my neck he whispered in my ear, “Let’s get out of here.  We can stop at the Membership Office for an application on our way back to my flat.”

“Your flat?  Why do we need to go there?  We can complete the paperwork here, right now, can’t we?”

He chuckled drunkenly.  “There is a certain level of quid pro quo in most negotiations, my dear.” His eyes wandered downward toward my breasts.

I understood.  No wonder my sisters thought I was naïve; they would have seen this coming long ago.  Taking a step backward, I dipped and lifted his glass from the little table,

“Thanks, anyway.  I think I will just wait for Leah to propose me for membership.”

His eyes glittered lasciviously in the dim light as he shrugged slightly.  “Your choice, my dear, and your loss.”

“Yes, my choice and my loss.”  With a sharp upward thrust I tossed the dregs of the Scotch in his face.

After a quick glance over my shoulder to assure myself that he wasn’t following, I threaded my way through the milling throng toward the bar.  I really needed a glass of ice water – my mouth tasted like a small animal had crawled in it and died – and I desperately wanted something to eat to absorb all the alcohol threatening to impair my judgment even further than it had already.

Leah was nowhere to be seen, but directly in front of me Eric Clapton stood, glass in hand, lounging against the bar’s scarred teak surface, surveying the room.

I wondered fleetingly what time it was, but that early morning train to Oxford had already chugged away in my mind. I continued walking toward the bar even though it no longer mattered whether my sister-in-law ever knew.

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