LONDON AGAIN

And how long, I wonder, before you can look up and see one of those things flying over a city, and not feel your shoulders drawing together and a taste in your mouth like old pennies....

Getting there wasn't a lot of fun - not that it ever is, but things were even more buggered up just then. By the 18th it was once again possible to fly to most places, with sufficient determination, but the airlines still were operating on greatly reduced schedules; and you never knew for sure whether your flight would turn out to have been cancelled, or for that matter one or more of the relevant airports shut down because of some sort of scare.

Flying into Chicago, we got a wave-off at O'Hare and had to circle for a few minutes before being allowed to land. A common sort of delay and hardly worth noticing under normal circumstances, but distinctly pucker-intensive at the time.

We spent just short of ten hours at O'Hare before our flight finally boarded. It wasn't as bad as it might have been, because we had come prepared for delays; we had a couple of sacks of provisions picked up in Tahlequah the day before, burgers and chips and bottled water and suchlike, so at least we didn't have to eat that toxic overpriced air-terminal dreck. And we entertained ourselves strolling around the place, looking at what we couldn't have and didn't have any business with: Phyllis at the candy displays, me at the hot-looking young babes.

(Tahlequah tends to be a bit behind the times in terms of style, so this was my first look at the new fashion for extremely tight and dangerously low-cut female trousers, with a couple of lovely inches of buttock slope showing above. With, often as not, an intriguing glimpse of undies; after a little while I said, "OK, so much for that, now to see London and France." "You silly son of a bitch," Phyllis replied, not for the first time or the last.)

The President was scheduled to speak that evening, but we didn't get to hear it; we were somewhere over Lake Michigan and climbing about the time they played Hail To The Chief. For once Coach wasn't crowded at all...it was an old 747 and we had bulkhead seats, so there was this rack full of emergency tools right in front of me, including a fire extinguisher that I had my eye on as a weapon in case of a hijack attempt; but the flight was as uneventful as usual. For once I didn't mind. There are worse things than boredom.

And for once Heathrow wasn't crowded; the usually jampacked customs area was almost empty. We took the train into the city, to Paddington Station - Phyllis had heard there was a statue of her beloved bear, but we didn't see it - and decided to walk, cutting through Hyde Park and pausing to look at Peter Pan's statue.

The flags on the backpacks - and yes, I was wearing one too - weren't exactly our usual style, to say the least; we pinned them on at the last minute, on a strange and unfamiliar impulse, and not at all sure it was a good idea. But it was; it got us a lot of friendly smiles and waves as we walked along. London had taken last week's catastrophe to heart; American flags were hanging in windows and on doors all over town, along with homemade signs saying astonishing things like WE SUPPORT THE USA.

At the fire station near our hotel, the firemen had a table set out, taking donations to help the families of their New York colleagues. I have to admit I lost it at this point, and cried like a fool.

We had, it turned out, done the right thing, come to the right place; the warm support and sympathy of the British people did more to get us through that terrible time, help us start the closure process, than anything else could have. Bless them all. I will never forget.

But just now there was something else on our minds, something of truly supreme importance; and at last there we were and there she was -

Yes. Our new and utterly wonderful granddaughter Lauren. For a little while everything else in the world faded into insignificance.

Everyone will now exclaim, "Awww!"

Here we have a picture of a man looking like a complete God-damned idiot. As is but right and proper; grandfathers are supposed to look like total twits in photographs of this sort. Lauren found Grandpa hilarious. A not uncommon reaction.

As much as we were enjoying Descendant's company, however, we were too exhausted - physically, emotionally, every way - to stay very long. We went back to the hotel and, after a dinner that was probably superb but which we hardly tasted, went up to the room and collapsed.

A long night's sleep made a considerable difference, though, and so did a more-than-substantial English breakfast. I was not greatly impressed by the hotel (which I will not identify, because they really were nice to us and in some ways it was quite a pleasant old dump) but they certainly laid out a hell of a morning feed.

I definitely didn't care for the location, though. The Knightsbridge area is one of my least favorite parts of London: noisy, crowded, and the air all but unbreathable. That last was already getting to me; when you live in a small town with clean fresh air - and whatever Tahlequah's shortcomings, the air quality is excellent - and rarely visit cities of any size, you don't have much tolerance for atmospheric pollution. And Knightsbridge has smog in even higher concentrations than it has designer shops.

(Harrod's was just down the street; so, in other directions, were Christian Dior, Versace, Louis Vuitton...I think that's part of the air problem: smoke from all that burning plastic.)

But only a short distance away the noise faded and the air was cleaner and the buildings older, with steep roofs and idiosyncratic turrets and towers and neato Mary Poppins chimneys. We went back over to the house and hung with the family, and later walked around a bit, and generally had a pretty good time. It was a fine sunny Saturday and the sidewalks were alive with strollers and shoppers and people selling things, some of them delightful -

Unfortunately the good times didn't last. Sunday morning I woke up feeling perfectly dreadful; the fatigue, the bad air, and I think above all the accumulated stress of recent days, had combined to destroy my resistance. By the time we had walked the short distance to the children's place, it was obvious I was in trouble.

I stayed at the flat while Phyllis went to services at the little church down on the corner (St. Simon Zelotes; I don't know anything about it but it looks old) and then I went back to the hotel. And stayed there through most of the next week, flat on my ass, sick as three dogs and a cat, and thoroughly miserable.

Alone, too; I sent Phyllis to stay with the children, so she wouldn't catch whatever I had, and I made Eileen keep away so she wouldn't convey my bugs to the baby. With nobody to talk with and nothing else to do, I watched TV. It wasn't a very good time to do that either; the news consisted heavily of reports from New York, and endless replays of those terrible scenes from the 11th, with occasional shots of turban-headed maniacs ranting defiance at some camera somewhere.... I found myself very frequently weeping, and occasionally muttering certain terrible lines from Heart of Darkness.

And it wasn't just that I was sick and half out of my head; I had already been having almost unbearable difficulty dealing with the whole thing. We lived and worked in New York for a couple of years in the sixties - our daughter was born there - and later on we used to go there on visits, because the children lived there. They lived, in fact, literally across the street from the World Trade Center, where our son-in-law worked; they had only moved to London a couple of years ago...and I knew the area well, had spent a lot of time admiring the clean new buildings and the fit, well-dressed people who lived and worked there. God! I used to envy them! Maybe that was the toughest part....

All in all it was a pretty long week, and not one of the best I've had. By Thursday I was feeling a bit better, and I got out and walked a bit, not very far and not very fast to be sure; probably shouldn't have been out at all but I couldn't stand it any more.

Walking down Sloane Street, I met a contingent of the Horse Guards coming the other way. God knows where they were going or why, but there they were, big and fine as you please, clopping along past the fashionable shops; damn, I love London!

I walked on southward and then southwest, past Burton Court and the Royal Hospital. I knew where I was going; this was a pilgrimage I'd promised myself to make -

Oscar Wilde's Chelsea home, down near the river. Where he lived before the Taleban of his day took him down - and in taking him down inspired his greatest poem, and one of the most terrible indictments of their kind ever written.

I went on down to the river and across the Albert Bridge. Interesting structure; I'd never walked across it before.

Next day I was feeling considerably improved; enough to go for a long walk with Phyllis, visiting some of our old scenes from more peaceful times.

The leaves were just beginning to turn on some of the trees in Green Park. I wondered what it would be like in France.

Saturday morning we set off to find out.

*******

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