The tall American

I can't recall exactly why he came to stay with us. There must have been some contact, some mutual friend; but these details were arranged in an adult world. I simply heard that an American was coming, and was, I understood, a "Roads Scholar." This seemed curious. I took a long look at our familiar roads and tried to make the connection.

Our main street, in this North London suburb, had a noisy bus service, the red monsters open-topped upstairs, with tarpaulin sheets to button over your knees when it rained. But in the '20s motor traffic was still sparse, and this was also a highway for the butcher's swift pony and trap and the milkman's chestnut horse, which enjoyed a nose bag of hay outside our gate. One side road curved off to a noble mansion with lawns and cedars, once owned by David Garrick but at this time a hotel. Another turning was simply a rutted lane lined with trees, called Waverley Grove. . . . So what could a scholar do with such roads? I made further enquiries, which evoked laughter. A Roads Scholar, it seemed, was "a very clever American at Oxford." This confused me further. My only knowledge of Oxford was linked with the University Boat Race and the excitement of wearing a light or dark-blue rosette, according to loyalty. Rosettes were then more general, and huge cards covered with them were displayed at the local stationer's in the season. But the race was over for that year.

I had never seen a live American. Fictional characters had appeared in my favourite comic, wearing straw boaters and continually exclaiming "Gosh!" But this mysterious scholar would be different, I felt. And so he was.

He arrived unconventionally at breakfast time and joined us for bacon and eggs. He seemed immensely tall and thin, and my mother thought him undernourished and piled up his plate accordingly. To my joyful surprise he had brought me two fine books, with large pictorial covers, one of a kangaroo and one of an elephant."You should know about these animals," he told me gravely but without condescension. I watched him with the keenest possible interest.

One thing became obvious right away -- the tall American despised formal clothes. He owned one hat, a much-worn trilby, but the original felt was bare and the brim torn at the back. The ribbon band, too, had gone. This hat distressed my mother when she saw it coming up our path, and she offered to buy him a new one. "I told him he would look so nice," I heard her tell a close friend, "but what do you think he said: 'If you don't mind, I'd rather have a Beethoven sonata!'" So the music shop got the order, and the piano in our morning room burst into life. The American gave my mother the offending hat, and she destroyed it.

Then there was the episode of the tennis trousers. At this time, tennis parties flourished in suburbia, and the American was reckoned a good player. But he did not have the obligatory white flannel trousers. Shortly before he was due at a neighbour's party he walked around in trousers of rough brown tweed. So while my father was at business, mother went to his wardrobe and gave his tennis flannels, freshly cleaned and pressed, to our visitor. They fitted well, apart from shortness in the legs, but father's white socks were produced to fill this gap, and white canvas shoes bought locally, double-quick. When father returned, he strolled over to the party, and the tall American was the star of a mixed doubles. "But look!m " father whispered hoarsely, "he's wearing my trousers!" Mother nodded. "We had to manage with them. Your socks were short in the foot, but they'll last the match."

The American had a way with children. His serious assurance was never superiority. I had begun to learn draughts -- and when we played, he annihilated me in a few moments, sweeping the board with impersonal ease. "You're clever," I said wonderingly. He shrugged. "I've had practice." I had no brother, but for a few weeks I dreamed that he might be something like this.

Another game we played had a touch of magic. He called it "Through the Wood" and it needed sparkles. Indoor fireworks that were simply lengths of wire dipped in magnesium with a free end to hold in the hand. The spray of gold and silver darts fell harmlessly on hands and furniture. As it was high summer, and darkness did not synchronize with my bedtime, this involved closing the morning room curtains, which added atmosphere. "These," said the tall American, as he lit a firework, "will guide us through the wood, but we must not waste them.m Once they are gone, we shall be lost. Ifm we see the lighted window of a cottage beforem then, we shall survive." Slowly, we marched around the room, threading our way through the furniture. And always, at the brink of doom, there was the lighted window.

So the summer passed, and the tall American went on a trip to Scotland. And strange things were happening in Waverley Grove -- it swarmed with men wielding measuring tapes and setting up concrete mixers. People spoke of an "arterial road" which would carry motor traffic hundreds of miles north. But the American went by train.

We saw him once more, at Southampton, on a marvelous floating township called the "Aquitania." We walked up and down the great promenade deck on a windy autumn morning, until the inexorable call went booming out for visitors to go ashore. The tall American stayed, waving slowly to us, as the ship pulled out into a seemingly measureless future.

And that autumn, the whole of Waverley Grove vanished beneath a great straight road that went streaming off over the horizon.

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