I never did see her face. She trotted up the steps from a basement flat, a teenager on her way to school, and turned down the sidewalk some yards ahead of me. My route to the news-agent for the morning paper took me through one of those streets for which English resort towns are famous: shoulder-to-shoulder Edwardian houses, whose anxious-looking windows peered from tight-laced curtains across at one another's stained glass transoms and brick cornices. They had long since been made into tiny bed-and-breakfast hotels with names like "Sunnyside" and "The Mayfair." They wore their signs in designs as different as the faces of their guests, who even then were settling down to boiled eggs and bacon rolls served on heavy pale-blue dishes. They ate heartily: behind them lay roomfuls of rumpled beds; ahead, another day among the morning candyshops, afternoon arcades, and neon evenings in a landscape whose business was pleasure.
It was the contrast that struck me. She seemed to suggest a curious sense of seriousness among the froth and fun-seeking of her surroundings. Like a figure in a Winslow Homer painting, she remained faceless: but in the slight sag of her shoulders under the blue pullover, and in the white bobbysocks already sunk around her ankles, there was an aura, if not actually of sadness, at least of resignation. Yet as she walked briskly past the shopwindow crammed full of glass animals and sourvenir pencil sharpeners ("nothing on display more than 25 pence," said its sign), she might have been a determined pilgrim through a world made for idleness. Soon she disappeared around a building.
I bought my paper, but didn't look at it. I found her image troubling. She seemed trapped, somehow, the daughter of a small hotelier doomed to see life from a sidewalk level window. Yet all around me life seemed oddly normal: cars were swirling along, dog walkers were ambling past, shopkeepers were sweeping doorways. Nonsense, I told myself: you're too sensitive. You've read into her experience only what you would feel if you had to live her life. No doubt she's perfectly content -- off to a school crammed full of fun, studying for her exams , shouting through the pale afternoon air to friends across the lacrosse pitch, soon to be out in the world.
And yet, i kept wondering, my Times still furled under my arm, what sort of world was it? What were its parameters, its standards? Where did its make-believe stop? When would it cease to be simply a souvenir of its own past? Would she ever know a life beyond this city?
It was a day of high blue brightness, I remember, and as I walked back down the side street it happened: I came face to face with an ordinary sight transfigured into brilliance. I happened to look up. There, miles above, was the fine, silent vapor trail of a jet.
I stood quietly, watching it unravel. An intercontinental airliner, I thought, leaping from New York to Amsterdam perhaps, full of a sense of importance, of eventfulness, of a world beyond. I found myself wishing I were on it, wishing all of her city could lift off in that way . . .
And in that instant I was filled with a sense of remorse. Not for her: she was herself. Nor for the breakfasters about to swarm upon the city: they were true to their own conceptions. Nor for the travellers above, who could not have known what their trail was signalling below.
No, the remorse I felt was for myself. I was the one cut off from the world. I was the one who no longer cared for pale-blue dishes. I was the one for whom "the world" was a folded Times, seat 11A in "no smoking," a chat at the embassy, creme brulee.m I was the one most in danger: the danger of losing contact with life as it unravels itself in ordinary, lower-case back streets. Had I lost the capacity to participate imaginatively in the experiences of an English girl with whose language and traditions I had so much in common? Then what hope was there for grasping the complexities of Bangladesh or the Brawlings of Peru? Of the world's darknesses, what could all the foreign correspondents of the still unfolded Times tell me, who shrank in distaste from a bare light bulb hung from a hotel ceiling?
Had there been a loose stone on the sidewalk, I would have kicked it, hard. Because what rose up inside me next was a wholly contradictory impulse--the impulse to cling, in a world of garish tastelessness, to a higher standard. Why , I fairly shouted, having glimpsed the cool white purity of the jet trail, must I grovel among the tawdry? Is it not only by holding to the best that is known and thought that I can foster breadth where there is narrowness, help find a pathway out of the penny arcades?
Dear Reader (as Henry Fielding used to say when he, too, got in a jam), I confess that I haven't got the answers. I can only raise a question -- though I think it might be one of the most pressing questions of our age. It is this: how, in a world so various and so changing, can we maintian on the one hand the highest possible standards and, on the other, the broadest possible tolerance? Must progress, in other words, necessarily breed fastidiousness? Or can we cultivate in one mind both a love for Wedgwood and a love for those who fancy carnival glass?
I think we can, although I haven't alw ays seen how. As I said, I never did see her face.