As I look back on my past (aunts always have a past), I’m dumbstruck at my good fortune to have traveled as much as I have. It was mostly luck and circumstances, but sometimes I just flew off, like the time I went to England.
I worked for Presidential Airways in the early 1980s. I was talking with our maintenance director, a wonderful man, and he said “Have you been anywhere yet?” I mumbled that I hadn’t, and he told me gently but firmly to take advantage of the opportunity for free flights (I think he knew the airline would shut down soon). “Where would you like to go if you could go anywhere?” “England,” I said.
The next thing I knew I was being offered fine wine and Stilton cheese by a charming male flight attendant on a British Airways jet. I landed at Heathrow, got into a classic black taxi, and told the driver the address of my tiny hotel, where I stayed in an attic room. When I looked pained at the flights of stairs, my host said, “But you see, you’re closer to heaven up there” and of course I was.
I saw a play about a cartoonist whose characters come to life. I went to Liberty and Marks & Spencer. I bought the classic English cardigan, a little too small, more’s the pity. I still have it. I bet I could drape it over my shoulders and it would give me a British accent.
I knew two people in London at that time. (Come to think of it, that’s amazing in itself.) One was a tall young man with unruly chestnut hair who had visited my neighbor the year before. I had given him the hotel’s phone number, and one day when I got in the desk clerk said “You have a message! I say, he’s very keen. Do call him back.” As we all know, keen in British means enthusiastic, and I was delighted, because I didn’t think he would call.
He asked me where I wanted to go, and I said Brighton. Now I would have made a different choice, perhaps St. Mary Mead. Anyway, off we went to Brighton to see the beach, the fabulous pier, and the Royal Pavilion.
St. Katharine’s is at Limehouse in the East End, and I had to take a red bus to get there. When I mentioned to another passenger where I was going, everyone recoiled and said “Oh, my dear, you can’t go there by yourself. It isn’t safe! We’ll guide you.” And they did, from the bus stop to the monastery complex, which I’m told used to be owned by a sugar magnate whose son hanged himself on the premises for some reason or other.
I knocked, and the door was answered by a nun in full habit. I asked for Father Hoey, and just then he sailed down the steps, soutane billowing. “The very man!” said the nun. Father Hoey, still billowing, took me on a tour. The choir stalls in the chapel were made in the 14th century. As I leaned over to examine the carvings, I looked at the good father questioningly. He said, “Go ahead, touch them; after 600 years I don’t think you can hurt them.” And so I did.
I toured the Tower of London, of course, but I remember almost nothing about it except The Crown Jewels and a walkway that has appeared in my dreams, benignly, ever since. I can’t find a photograph of it, but I think it’s in the White Tower, near some of the cells where unfortunate royals were stored for safekeeping.
I saw very little while I was in England, and I’ve forgotten most of it, but I was there for a week and I’ll never forget it. I’ll pull out my scrapbook and go to the websites of places I went and places I didn’t go, and a few years from now I won’t be able to tell which is which.
But I was there, somewhere.