It’s safe to say I was not graceful about the move to London. I was no witty, patient, adaptable Jane Austen. And if I was anything like Katharine Hepburn, it was in the scenes where she’s being a giant pest. I cried in the taxi all the way to the airport, past the churning oil rigs on La Cienega. I cried on the first airplane I’d ever been on, which should have been exciting, and was exciting—all those tiny buildings below—but I wasn’t going to give my parents the satisfaction of knowing that I was enjoying it.
At Heathrow Airport in London, there was a framed picture of the brand-new Queen Elizabeth II on the wall.
“She’s not that much older than you are,” my mother said.
“And she’s been through a war, and her father’s dead, and
now she has to be queen, poor thing.”
“See?” my father said. “Your life could be worse.”
I looked at the picture of the young queen. We had escaped ahead of the U.S. marshals, locking up the house and packing only the things we could carry. My parents were going to be writing for the BBC under fake names—fake names, when my mother wouldn’t even put yellow food coloring in margarine! We were living like criminals or spies. Although I was angry, standing there looking at the plucky young queen’s portrait, I allowed myself to think that my mother was right, and it might be an adventure.
But February in London crushed those hopes. We took a taxi through streets that were still bomb-scarred and desolate, seven years after the war’s end, to a tiny third-floor flat on St. George’s Street in Primrose Hill. Across the street was a haberdasher—my father said he was like a tailor—standing outside his shop with his hands behind his back and a look on his face as if no one would ever come in.
Our new landlady, Mrs. Parrish, took off her apron and patted a wild cloud of hair to show us around. She said the gas water heater over the kitchen sink was broken, and we would have to heat pots of water on the stove. The kitchen was along one side of the living room, no bigger than a closet, and could be closed away just like a closet. The rooms were freezing and the walls seemed damp. The brown wallpaper was water-stained near the ceiling.
We must have looked dismayed, because the distracted Mrs. Parrish suddenly focused on us. She was not going to let some spoiled Americans fail to appreciate their good fortune.
“You’re lucky to get the place, you know,” she said.
“Of course,” my mother said quickly. “We’re very grateful.” “People are queuing up for a flat like this, with its own
lavatory, and separate bedrooms, and a working telephone line. But the BBC asked to hold it, specially.” It was clear that we did not deserve such a bounty, when her countrymen, who had lost so much, were still going without private bathrooms.
“We’re very grateful,” my mother repeated.
“Do you have your ration cards for the marketing?”
“Not yet,” my mother said.
“You’ll need those,” the landlady said. “And you’ll find that
the butcher sells out first thing in the morning, ration cards or no.” She lowered her voice. “I can sell you some eggs, if you like. They’re hard to get, but I know someone with hens.”
“That would be very nice.”
Mrs. Parrish showed us where to put penny coins into the gas heater in the wall, to make it work. We didn’t have any English pennies, but said we would get some.
“Mark you,” she said, brushing dust from the heater off her hands, “it doesn’t do much. Apart from eat up pennies. You’ll want your hot water bottles for the beds.”
“We don’t have hot water bottles,” my mother said.
“Try the apothecary,” the landlady said. “Around the corner, on Regent’s Park. He’ll have pennies, too.”
And she left us alone.
My mother started investigating the closet kitchen, and my father and I put on every warm thing we had, which wasn’t much, to go find the apothecary, which my father said was like a pharmacy. The sky over St. George’s Street was gray, and the buildings were gray, and people wore gray. It sounds like a cliché, but it was true. Going from Los Angeles to London in 1952 was like leaving a Technicolor movie and walking into a black-and-white one.
Around the corner on Regent’s Park Road, just as the landlady said, we came to a storefront with two bay windows full of glass bottles. A painted sign over one window said APOTHECARY, and one over the other window said ESTABLISHED 1871. My father pushed the paned glass door open and held it for me. The shop had a strange smell, musty and herbal and metallic all at once. Behind the counter was a wall of jars. A balding man on a wheeled ladder, halfway up the wall, pulled a jar down. He seemed not to have noticed us, but then he spoke. “I’ll just be a moment,” he said.
He carefully climbed down the ladder with the jar in one hand, set it on the counter, and looked up at us, ready for our needs. He had wire-rimmed glasses and the air of someone who didn’t rush things, who paid close attention to each particular task before moving on to the next.
“We’re looking for three hot water bottles,” my father told
“And how about some chocolate bars?” The apothecary shook his head.
“We have them sometimes. Not often, since the war.”
“Since the war?” my father said, and I could see him calculating: twelve years without a steady supply of chocolate. He looked a little faint. I wondered if he could get a prescription for chocolate from a doctor. Then I could have some, too.
“Come back again,” the apothecary said, seeing his dismay. “We may have some soon.”
“Okay,” my father said. “We’d better get some aspirin, too.” I could tell he was embarrassed by his undisguised need for candy, and he always made jokes when he was embarrassed. I could feel one coming. “And how about something for my daughter, to cure homesickness?”
“Dad,” I said. The apothecary looked at me.
“You’re American?” I nodded.
“And you’ve moved here to a cold flat with cold bedrooms that need hot water bottles?”
I nodded again, and the apothecary guided the ladder along the back wall on its metal wheels.
“I was joking,” my father said.
“But you are homesick?” the apothecary asked, over his shoulder.
“Well—yes,” I said.
He climbed the ladder and chose two jars, tucking one beneath his arm to climb down. At the counter, he unscrewed the lids and measured two different powders, one yellow and one brown, into a small glass jar. “The brown is aspen, the yellow is honeysuckle,” he said. To my father, he said, “Neither will hurt her.” To me, he said, “Put about a dram of each—do you know how much a dram is? About a teaspoon of each in a glass of water. It won’t take effect right away, but it might make you feel better. And it might not. People have different constitutions.”
“We really don’t—” my father said.
“It’s free of charge,” the apothecary said. “It’s for the young lady.” Then he rang up the hot water bottles and the bottle of aspirin.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’ll want some pennies, too, for the wall heater,” he said, handing me our change in a fistful of big brown coins that clinked, rather than jingled, into my hand.