Hello from London, where I’m writing this from a very tiny table in the cramped, windowless breakfast room of my otherwise lovely hotel. I’m currently sticky with marmalade and sweating in my overcoat — I couldn’t take it off without elbowing a middle-aged Swedish man in the head — so I’m basically Paddington Bear without the adorable accent or the willingness to apologize.
I’m here because of Brexit or, more accurately, because the pound’s value plummeted on Britain’s collectively awful morning after, and the exchange rate has been in the dollar’s favor ever since. And then after Election Day, when Americans raised an eyebrow toward the Atlantic Ocean and said “Oh yeah? Watch this,” airfares dropped, too. So because I tend to measure my life in passport stamps (that, and seasonal skin disorders), I booked a trip to England to do some Christmas shopping and pretend that I’m just a ribbed turtleneck away from being Love, Actually’s most boring subplot.
Here’s where I just paused to walk back to the buffet to drop another meaty rasher of bacon on my child-sized plate. A woman whose gleaming nametag said NASTYA appeared.
“Excuse me,” she said in an accent that was pure Bond villain. “But haven’t you had buffet already?”
Yes, I have. Of course I have.
“Please, no, the guests have one buffet each day,” she said, gently pulling the plate away from me.
And now I understand why we fought a war against the English.
Despite the morning’s unreasonable breakfast restrictions, I do love London. If you add it all up, in the past decade-plus, I’ve spent a couple of months here, starting with a trip I took with the theater department at Wake Forest. I actually minored in theater at Wake, although my roles have been limited to one show with Theatre Alliance and that time I acted delighted when an ex-boyfriend gave me a letter opener.
The show I did was The Cripple of Inishmaan, the darkest of dark Irish comedies that allowed me to say several dozen heavily accented F-words onstage. Later I saw it here in London, with Daniel Radcliffe in the title role, when he traded his Hogwarts degree for a deformity and its accompanying depression.
The play was at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, a 113-year-old building decorated in the style known as Your Great Aunt’s House, with ornate lighting and an abundance of velvet. I was sitting in the uppermost balcony, where the seats were the perfect size for anyone born without a pelvis. I’d just origamied myself between the armrests when an elegant seventysomething man started inching down the aisle.
He carried himself proudly, despite the metal crutches that he was using, and he spoke with an unmistakably posh accent when he asked if I could help him with his coat. It was a practiced dance for him. He slowly waltzed with one crutch and then the other, while I pulled on the sleeves of his cashmere coat, one that cost more than every piece of furniture I’ve ever owned.
“Thank you, dear,” he said, as he started lowering himself to his seat, one painful inch at a time.
The aisles were so tight that when he sat down, he had to pass one of his crutches to those of us beside him, the rings on his hands catching the light as he gripped the gray plastic handle of the other. We handed them back and forth as he moved toward the seat, holding them over our heads like the saddest possible version of the Wave. When he finally settled, he instructed us to tuck the crutches behind our feet, sliding them slowly across the carpet.
It was an exhausting process to watch, one that made me crumple my forehead into its most sympathetic expression. He was a fantastic companion, though, and seemed to have seen almost every comedy, tragedy, musical, debut or revival for the past half-century. We talked about theater and travel, London and America, history and current events, and he was such an enjoyable conversationalist it was almost a letdown when the lights dimmed.
At intermission, my bladder was punching its tiny fists against my abdomen, but I wasn’t about to move, because I didn’t want to make him do his entire routine four more times. But when the lights started to flash, signaling Act Two, a well-dressed woman stood impatiently at the end of the aisle, staring past all of us at her empty seat. I looked at the bookish man on my new friend’s left, silently willing him to say something.
“Erm, could you try the other side,” Bookish Guy said softly.
“No, I’m afraid I can’t,” she said. “I’m just over there.” Her bracelets clanked as she pointed past us.
She was insistent. We had no choice. The man exhaled slowly as we reached under the seats to retrieve his crutches. His face stayed completely neutral as he slowly curled his fingers around the handles, shifting his weight until he was able to lever himself into a standing position, like a living diagram for some simple but complicated machine.
When he was finally upright, shaking slightly from the effort, she slid past him silently. She didn’t acknowledge him and her only thank you was the lingering scent of her perfume, which seemed to be based on Chelsea’s finest funeral home.
The second act was underway by the time he’d settled himself again. “She has no idea how much trouble she just caused,” the bookish guy hissed.
“Yes, she does,” the man said quietly. “She’s my ex-wife.”
I think of that man — and his god-awful ex — often. I’m thinking of him today, in the hours before I go to the theater and I’m thinking of her, as I elbow past Nastya and pinch a piece of bacon with my bare hands, my coat flapping behind me as I make for the door.