A few years ago I was in wandering through Fortnum and Mason collecting goodies for Jamie and me and decided to send some treats to a distant relative living at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, a retirement institution for honorably discharged veterans. During World War II, he had been stationed in Egypt as a sapper, a member of the Corps of Royal Engineers whose duties included breaching fortifications, building and demolishing bridges, laying or clearing land mines, and building/repairing roads and airfields. While wandering the aisles, I phoned Jamie to ask what he thought would make a nice gift hamper, then filled my basket with biscuits, cheeses, and an excellent single malt Scotch. It soon became heavy and after plonking it next to a till and digging out my wallet, I said, “This is actually two orders; one for me and one for my grand-uncle. I would like the gift delivered, please.”
“Certainly, madam,” the clerk replied as she began ringing up my purchases, now organized into neat clumps on the counter.
After my own biscuits, tea, and cheeses were packed neatly into my reusable burlap carrier bag, the clerk slid a small pad of paper toward me. “Please write your uncle’s address for shipping.”
I pushed the pad back. Everyone knew where the Royal Chelsea was located.
“Oh, it doesn’t need to be shipped, just messengered. He is only in Chelsea.”
Her clear blue eyes met mine. “But that’s only two or three miles away, ma’am. For what the delivery will cost, you could pop into a taxi and take it there yourself.”
I shook my head. “No, he is elderly and I want him to receive a gift. Having me take it isn’t special but your sending it over gift-wrapped will make his day. His week, in fact.”
The clerk began shifting uncomfortably. “Ma’am, I don’t think our delivery department will accept this small an order to go such a short distance.”
I don’t surrender easily. “Oh, please,” I pleaded opening my large, dark eyes even wider. “He is a Chelsea Pensioner and . . . “
Her eyes snapped to attention as they met mine. “He is a Pensioner at the Royal Chelsea Hospital?” she verified.
“Yes,” I affirmed tentatively wondering what exactly that had to do with it.
She reached for the pen and paper previously abandoned on the counter. “What is his name, ma’am?”
I told her and she wrote it on the paper followed by at least fifteen lines of instructions. Then, after tucking half of my groceries neatly back into the basket, she rang a shop bell just like the one that had rested on the counter in my grandparents’ store. Within seconds a floorwalker appeared. She handed him the parcels and instructed him to read the note carefully before packing.
She tilted the handles of my neatly-arranged sack toward me then accepted my credit card for payment.
Curious about what had just occurred, I asked whether she included the delivery charge for the whiskey and cheeses that were headed to Chelsea.
“Oh, no charge for delivering those, ma’am. We value our veterans and if he is a Chelsea Pensioner he has already served his country with distinction and deserves our gratitude.” She smiled and pushed the bag toward me.
“Really?” I was flummoxed since I am from a country that treats it veterans like spoiled food, something once needed but now past its sell-by date.
The package arrived at the Royal Chelsea promptly that afternoon. I know because I received a phone call from my relative thanking me and recounting gleefully how jealous all of his friends were at his good fortune and the envy in their eyes when the messenger handed him the paper-wrapped and beribboned box.
He didn’t live long after that box was delivered, just a few months, succumbing to advanced and inoperable lung cancer. Although he made quite a dent in it, he never got to finish the Scotch but left it to his closest friend, another Pensioner who wrote to me in New York to tell me so, wanting to be sure that I had no objection to his inheriting the Scotch.
I wrote back to him, assuring him that if John wanted him to have the Scotch it was fine with me. It seemed the smallest of thank yous for all he had survived in his life.
I wish that the US veterans who daily risked their lives were treated with such deference.