A Perfect Day
By Malcolm Sharps
Malcolm Sharps recalls a day in London in the seemingly much safer world of forty years ago:
My girlfriend was from Brazil. Or rather, to me, she wasn’t just from Brazil, she was Brazil, the embodiment of the country, she was bossa nova, she was Copacabana, she was Capoeira. She was the girl from Ipanema, when she walks, she’s like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gentle… to which I have to add in all honesty she had known 30 more years of life than the original girl from Ipanema had, but ay Caramba! the sway was still there! And if I say thirty years more, she was some mystical age much older than me; though coming from a country where you can get an official to change your passport age if you ask in the right way, it didn’t really matter. Not to me.
The evening was set up to be a great one. She was coming from Birmingham, friends would drive her down, I was travelling out from a remote village in Cambridgeshire. We would meet in London, where Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil was giving a concert in Hammersmith on one of his periodic visits to the UK, a country he was close to since it had offered him political asylum during the worst days of a very nasty military Junta. After the concert I would go with my girlfriend back to Birmingham and stay the rest of the week-end with her. It was the perfect plan. This is what happens to perfect plans.
The arrival of the car was ominous, not three people inside, or even four, as I’d expected, but five.
“We couldn’t leave our friend Carioca behind,” they explained. Carioca, a strikingly under-sized youth with thick black hair, nodded in the back, not looking too responsible for the situation. The car was full. Two in front, three on the back seat, no place for me. “Sorry.” The Brazilian Portuguese accent drew the word ’sorry’ out a little further than British pronunciation would, but if it made the sorrow expressed sound a touch more soothing, that didn’t help me any in my predicament. I was lumbered 100 miles from my intended destination and with no way of getting back to my home village in the middle of the night.
The concert was great; a large proportion of London’s expat Brazilian population was there to guarantee it. At times the crowd rocked, at times it swayed, at times it listened with hushed fascination punctuated by the odd whoop to the stories Gil told between numbers; the future politician and novelist was a master with words too. While Gil performed I was on a short-term high but the end of the concert brought sobriety back to me. I was in London with no transport out and, after ten in the evening, also without a hotel reservation. All the cheaper accommodation had gone, I already knew that. What remained would be horrifically expensive. London never changes its ways. Regardless, I went through the motions of checking with one of the cheaper hotels I knew. No surprises, it was fully booked. I took it they spoke for all the other near reasonably-priced hotels in the area and tried no further. All of a sudden I was asking what had happened to the perfect day I had planned? A kind of chill within the heavy warmth of the night quickly surrounded me as my Brazilian group departed and I was left standing alone on the pavement outside Hammersmith Odeon. I had only a novel in my pocket as my survival kit to face an empty night.
In those days the night world of London was still half-trustful before the waves of terrorist attacks came along and closed public spaces and chased everyone home in the late evening. Charing Cross Station remained open all night. You didn’t even have to show a ticket to enter. It had kiosks, it had seats, and it was a distance away from the Odeon that could reasonably be walked. There were few places offering me a comparable welcome.
The station turned out to be a lively place. It was radiantly bright inside, not at all adjusted to a nocturnal regime. A lot of people had had the same idea as me. Most seats were occupied. And many of the people seemed to want to use the night to talk, a good solution if you found you couldn’t sleep sitting upright on hard seats.
There was a homeless woman who had found an audience for herself and was on her feet speaking to the people around her. She was a short and robust woman, built like a street battler, and with a voice that had in it the rough gravelly sound of the streets. But she wasn’t aggressive and seemed glad to tell her story, such as it could be understood, to whoever would listen. She was proud to tell us she had not been out on the streets all her life, but had once been married and had had a home and given birth to three children. She had loved men in those times but loved them much less now, these days she loved women much more and was not ashamed of it. She did not appear to be ashamed of any other thing, either.
The homeless woman looked clean, spoke sanely, was clearly sober; everything about her was normal-seeming, except for the fact that she was here in Charing Cross Station in the middle of the night, though not waiting for the departure of a train; something we had in common. I had to imagine the rest, yet my imagination failed me here. It seemed incomprehensible that such a person could find herself homeless, could find herself in a place of arrivals and departures but with no apparent destination and without the assurance of an eventual departure. She seemed admirable but her plight made me feel uneasy; spoiled, protected person that I was, I was so ignorant of the rules of life which made such things possible and equally permitted them.
There were three young Spanish women sitting opposite me, their ages somewhere between eighteen and twenty-two. Who knows how we got talking? Who remembers who spoke first and about what? But we soon found ourselves in conversation, communicating with natural ease and with no one putting on a front or trying to impress.
Again, the young women were sane people, acceptable and even unexceptional, but lively and open. I was curious to know why they were here at night in an inactive London railway station. It seemed a much greater risk for them than for me.
“We want to stay in London more, we like so much, but have no money.”
“In Madrid are places three can stay in one room much less than one here. Price is so terrible, no? But we like so we are here. Not every night here, just some.”
Not every night here, indeed, I imagined how tired they would be later having spent much of the night talking, in this city which at the best of times saps the energy through its unobserved humidity slinking up off the Thames and the exhaustion born of the inescapable spin of unremitting traffic and crowds.
The three went through a list of the places they had been to so far. All places, I noted, charging nothing for a visit. By great fortune, there are many places like this and unlike in the majority of other cities, London museums are mostly free. I told them to try the Docklands, my own favourite place in London costing absolutely nothing, though it’s good if you can afford the price of a beer at the Dickens Inn, an all-wooden building overlooking the St Kathrine Docks basin, based on a traditional 18th century coaching inn. I limited myself to one suggestion, knowing the recommendations of a local could often become an over-loading of the plate; too much choice is not helpful.
One neither expects nor needs great monumental conversations from three young women from Spain or any other place, no brilliant insights, no life-enhancing pronouncements, but their presence in that station was like a refreshment of pure spring water to a thirsty traveller. I was so grateful to them for the way they helped to move the time on so easily until almost imperceptibly around three thirty the light of day began to filter into the station.
In times when the conversation dropped, I fell back on my survival kit, the copy of The Ballad of Peckham Rye I had in my pocket. But it wasn’t what I needed: a parochial, too comfortable satire on the city I was in. I found it dull and it hardly mattered that it was a first edition with a fresh dust jacket and no paper tears. I had brought it with me to London possibly to sell to a dealer, but there hadn’t been an opportunity so far. I understand collectors of rare ancient books very well, the objects they collect are beautiful in their bindings and printing and illustrations, even in the texture of old paper, which is quite different from modern pulp, but collectors of modern books are a confoundedly opaque breed to me, more interested in the dust jacket than the actual book it protects, which they are contemptuously indifferent to; hence the tenfold difference between the market price of a first edition with a dust jacket or one without. I swear in the afterlife we will discover a new circle of Hell occupied by collectors of modern books, a circle just adjacent to one for over-charging taxi drivers and coldly taciturn receptionists.
I felt liberated and renewed as I crossed one corner of Trafalgar Square in pursuit of a new purpose. The night had been negotiated without problems and in the best of company. In fact, the only disturbing element had been the attentions a man with his hands lost inside his clothing, who constantly cast shady glances towards the Spanish women throughout the night.
Spreading out from Charing Cross Station up to Oxford Street and across towards Covent Garden is tourist London, artistic London, collectors’ London, opulent London with Simpson’s Grill on the Strand occupying the peak of that opulence, where an army of waiters do just that: wait until they spot the fact that you’ve gobbled your last piece of carrot or slice of leek and are immediately by your side spooning more onto your plate.
A little prior familiarity with the book dealers of Charing Cross Road, the very same ones who would be known personally to Helene Hanff and post her offers, enabled me to save myself some time: I calculated on which dealer would just relish a first edition with pristine dust jacket out of the vast swamp of mediocre modern British satires. I almost said English satires, but let’s not forget Muriel Spark, forever associated with the name of Miss Jean Brodie, was an Edinburgh Scot. And sure enough, bullseye on the first shot: I had to fight back a smile when a very satisfactory offer was made following only a minute’s examination of the book by the dealer. I took the offer without chancing a haggle, and with twelve pound notes in my hand walked out into awakening London; not a classically beautiful city but unfailingly made beautiful by the watery light of an English summer morning – should the rain keep off.
It was a perfect day. There was the smell of freshly-made coffee and dough nuts in the air. The cut flowers and vegetable suppliers were making their deliveries to Covent Garden. They talked the whole time in springy, eager voices rather than the more common grinding London grumble. Naturally, someone whistling an unidentifiable tuneless tune was an obligatory addition to the scene. One might almost have been convinced by their cheeriness that the English liked working bright and early on a Saturday morning rather being at home in bed and lingering a few extra hours.
I’d had no sleep in the night and yet I wasn’t at all tired and I felt unusually philosophical. Perhaps more than just the day seemed perfect, perhaps it was this point for me in my life also. I was no longer young enough to be considered young and yet not old enough to be considered old, and the twelve pounds in my hand was convincing proof that I knew a useful thing or two about life. On top of this, I had a beautiful woman friend from Brazil whose meeting with me later seemed like fortune ordained which had been held over in order to be more sweetly enjoyed. One night away from her already seemed like a vast ocean of time, but I could make of my absence more than a blank. It gave me an anecdote or two to share. I’d keep quiet about the three Spanish women, of course, but the selling of a dull book in a ridiculously rapid transaction for a price that repudiated its dullness could be made into a small offering.
Fortunately, another of the useful things I’d learnt about life was to better predict the ways of thinking of my partners; I saw my tale of luck would do me no good at all: my night of wandering, though I was not the one to blame, was sure to be accounted as my own fault, something I’d done deliberately and selfishly to cause her annoyance and heartache. I had seen more than once how the physical motions that could miraculously express the rotation of the earth and the rising of the sun could so easily turn rigid to express affront and rejection. It would be her way of hiding the guilt she was too proud to openly display; I needed to buy a present to make amends. Perhaps I would even embellish the game of remorse by telling her I was sorry, though a British accent could hardly make it sound as sincere as a Brazilian Portuguese one could.
I took a big sniff from the coffee and cabbage and carnation laden air and stepped onto the cobbles of old Covent Garden Market hoping to find the perfect gift, and for myself a fitting breakfast to match such a perfect day.