When I, an Englishwoman, married my American husband (a widower with three teenage children), practically all my friends said what a change there must be in my life! It certainly was a change from the relatively carefree days of spinsterhood. But the greatest change in my life - the one that really changed the direction of my life - had occurred one cold rainy January night in a London "pub", many years before I ever thought of coming to the United States.
In common with so many people of this age, I was afflicted with loneliness. My mother died when I was a child. Father remarried a woman whose behavior alternated between acts of extreme kindness and unkindness. I never knew where I stood in the family circle. At 8 I was sent to boarding school and suffered the well-known miseries of English boarding school life: poor food, Spartan atmosphere and an emphasis on sports, which I loathed!
War broke out in 1939 when I was 17. I joined the Women's Royal Naval Service when I became 19, which for me was as much as an escape from home as the opportunity to serve my country.
I enjoyed my years of service life. I liked being one of a crowd and enjoyed the congeniality of group life. I made some good and firm friendships, which exist to this day. The war, of course, took its toll. Many of my early childhood friends were killed during air raids, and inevitably many of my men friends did not live to see the end of the war.
Towards the end of the war, my sense of loneliness began to increase, as more and more of my friends began to marry (many to be widowed after a few short weeks or months of happiness). With the end of the war and the prospect of demobilization I began to feel very apprehensive. I was then almost 24, with no professional training to help me get a job. Living arrangements also bothered me. I knew I could not live at home for any length of time as I wouldn't be really welcome. My mature stable friends were either married or their home life was so satisfactory they were content to return to live with their parents.
For me there was only one city in the entire world where I could possibly live, and that was London. I tried living alone and working as a typist in a business office. I was so terribly lonely however, that I soon gave up that arrangement and moved into an apartment with a girl I had known in the W.R.N.S. I also found a new job, which although not wildly exciting, was an improvement over the other. My friend, Grace, with whom I shared the apartment, was a pretty, supremely confident girl, who moved in far more exciting and sophisticated circles than I had previously encountered.
It is difficult to write of those immediate post war years and adequately describe the gloom and bleakness that prevailed. We had worked and fought for so many years to end the war. We had been promised a Brave New World! But all we had was rationing, rationing and yet more rationing. Everything was rationed. Housing, food, clothing, fuel, utilities. Bombed buildings were still boarded up, empty yawning holes indicated buildings bombed out of existence, nothing had been painted for years This was the Brave New World we had been promised! Everything was gray and grim, with no glimmer of brightness even in the far distant future.
A black market did exist, but nothing to the extent that it did on the Continent. Most British people are very law abiding, and we were always deeply shocked when a friend or an acquaintance was discovered dealing on the black market.
Grace's boss was sent to jail for manufacturing and selling French perfume, which he made from his own recipe in his bathtub. So Grace had to find a new job. Grace's new boss, John, a quiet gentlemanly real estate executive, paid her a high salary and was unfailingly courteous and polite. John and I met one night at a party and promptly fell in love with each other.
That winter was one of the coldest on record. Electricity and gas, badly needed by the factories to maintain production, was only switched on for domestic consumption for short periods during the day. Then everybody had to try to do their heating, cooking and washing, with the consequence that the power was severely depleted. We all suffered a sense of deep frustration because of being perpetually cold, and depressed by the meager rations of dull, stodgy food, and a sense of inadequacy because of the shortage of clothes, and a devastating disappointment because of the non-appearance of the promised Brave New World.
The joy and radiance of being in love with, and having that love returned, by such a sweet, gentle and thoughtful man can hardly be described, We lived in opposite parts of the city so we could not see each other every night of the week. But we had lunch together almost every day, and spent glorious weekends together walking in the snow covered parks, attending concerts and exploring the numerous museums in London We laughed and talked & loved and for the first time in my life, I felt alive and gay and happy.
Then one terrible day I discovered he was married. Not even separated from his wife, but living with her all the time he was making love to me. Feeling sick and disgusted, my whole life was shattered and wrecked If John had been a smooth ladies' man I could have stood it better. That such an outstanding man could be guilty of such deception ruined my confidence in my judgment.
In my extreme loneliness I began to move with Grace's crowd - highly articulate ex service men and women. I quickly assimilated the prevailing mood of chatter and cynicism, which is such an easy defense for the lonely and unloved. We were always on the move. Rushing madly from party to party by bus, taxi and underground. Making noisy entrances and noisier exits. Always chattering, grumbling and anti everything.
One cold, wet night a crowd of us went to one of our favorite pubs on Baker Street. It was a lovely old place, the warm cozy atmosphere enhanced with well polished woodwork, gleaming brass and a roaring fire in the huge stone fireplace. The lights were often out because of the electricity shortage, and then the pub was illuminated with candles in old brass candlesticks. The supply of Scotch was severely limited and the beer weak, and by American standards, warm! But we didn't care. We always enjoyed ourselves there. The other customers were mostly ex service like ourselves, and the evening usually ended with a gathering around the piano singing "Roll out the Barrel", "Waltzing Matilda" and "There Will Always be an England".
On this particular night, the pub was almost deserted. But a man I had seen and chattered with a few times before, sat alone at a table by the fire. He was a remarkable man. Although badly scarred and crippled ( he could only walk with the aid of two canes) he had a warm, friendly manner. Our crowd greeted him cheerily, before congregating with their drinks around the bar. I remember I was particularly restless and depressed that night. Because of my unhappiness I wanted to make big changes in my life A new job, a new environment I thought would help me to forget John . I had been offered two jobs and was being pressured into making a decision regarding one of them. Through one of Grace's friends, I had been introduced to an important and rich man who wanted a social secretary. The salary was almost triple what I was then making. This man had taken me to one of the most famous restaurants in London for the interview, Ciro’s. I was introduced to the Shah of Iran at the bar. For the first time in years I had a steak and it had cost almost as much as two weeks of my salary - I was very impressed with the steak, even though I didn't like the man very much. (Our meat ration was then so small, we usually saved our coupons for two weeks and so had a decent meal once a fortnight.) He was fat and had monograms on his shirt, cigarette case and lighter, handkerchief, and I suspected on his pajamas and underpants. He was pompous and stuffy. "Play your cards right and you'll probably have a mink coat in six months”. Grace’s friend told me.
I didn't particularly want a mink coat, but it would be nice to be able to afford meat and fresh fruit, even if I did have to buy them on the black market. At the same time I had been offered a job with a welfare organization to work in Germany for a couple of years. The salary was even smaller than the one I was then making.
My crowd bored me that night and I wished I had stayed at home to make my fateful decision regarding my future. Everybody was anti- government,/religion,/American, in fact anti- everything and I had heard it all before. The "good old days" were being discussed, when the men were in uniform, had men to command and a war to win. Winning the peace was infinitely more difficult. In fact my crowd had all but surrendered to the present and regarded the "good old days" with neurotic nostalgia.
The man who sat alone, smiled and invited me to join him. As I have already mentioned, he was a remarkable man. Someone had once remarked that he looked as though he had stepped on a bomb and blown apart, then somebody had found the parts and stuck him together again. He had nice blue eyes and a friendly smile, But there was much more to him that that, there was a strength and compassion I have never met in another human being. I suppose now that he had been face to face with death and that he was no longer afraid. Despite his terrible injuries he had a serenity and inner strength which few of us acquire during our life span. He looked to be in his early thirties, and must once have been a tall and handsome man. Now his face was gray and lined and scarred and he had a huge hump on his back.
I have to refer to him as "he" because I never knew his name. We sipped our drinks quietly for a few minutes, listening to the chatter at the bar. Then he stubbed out his cigarette and remarked quietly, "How angry that talk makes me. Times are grim, but the war is over. If they exerted as much energy into trying to do something about present conditions as they waste by their constant grumbling, we would soon have the country in better shape!"
I was shocked. Nobody in my crowd said anything about improving the situation. "How" I wanted to know. "Grumbling," he said, is such a negative waste of time. By changing one's attitude and accepting reality and getting into the mainstream and working to improve conditions of others less fortunate than oneself."
Some of the crowd moved towards the piano and started to sing.
I didn't join them. Something compelled me to listen to this man. "One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in this life is to accept things as they really are, and not as we would have them. Most of us waste far too much time on ourselves in self pity. And life is far too short for that."
I told him then of my unhappiness, my loneliness, the decision I had to make about the two jobs "Some of the loneliest people I know own mink coats," he told me when I finished. "You don't want to make yourself any lonelier than you already are, do you?" I wanted to cry then, but of course I didn't. "In the last analysis," he told me very gently, "we are all alone. Yet almost two thousand years ago a young man told us how to live, by loving others more than ourselves. But few learned that lesson, we still think far too much of ourselves. We feel lonely and unloved because we say we have nobody who loves us. But we are so involved with ourselves we are blind to the needs of others. Actually we are lonely because we have nobody else to love."
He began to get his canes into position to help him rise from the chair. "Don't take that secretarial job," he said. "You're not the mink coat type. If you feel you must make a change, go to Germany. Give something of yourself to others who need help. I think you will feel far less lonely then."
He stood up and slowly began to move away from the table. "Tell me," I asked shyly, "Do you have somebody to love?" He smiled then, a lovely radiant smile. "Oh, yes, I do. I am an extremely fortunate fellow!"
I never saw him again. I never knew his name. But I remember him with gratitude. Our conversation so many years ago really was the changing point of my life. I weaned myself away from the crowd. I did go to Germany. I worked hard and I read a great deal and I traveled and I learned tolerance and understanding. I found it far more rewarding and relaxing to be for something instead of against it. I lost my anti- Americanism a long time before I came to the United States. Loneliness is such a thing of the past, that I now welcome the few periods of solitude left to me as a busy wife, mother and stepmother.