Fairy Dust by E.Z. Rothkopf

kindertransport

When we were boys of twelve he seemed a little older than the rest us.  Sooner than in any of the others in our small group, a knotty corner of his soul had begun to surface.  It wasn’t anything dramatic or startling.  But apparent to all of us were the beginnings of uncommon frugality, an unusually careful, somewhat melancholy husbanding of  resources, that rose and moved like knuckle bones under his boyish skin.

 

I never fully knew what kind of man he became.  Eduard Stein was raised in a cramped tenement  in a shabby, workers’ district of Vienna.  The Nazi horror scattered German Jewry abroad.  Just before his fourteenth birthday, he left Austria on a Kindertransport, organized by an international relief committee.   At the railroad station, Eduard kissed his parents good- bye and shook my hand.  His eyes remained dry.  Tears would have been wasteful.   The  relief committee brought him and others to England.  Shiploads of Jewish children arrived there and dis­appeared in the stone towns and villages like quicksilver cast upon gravel.  Shortly after the war started, I managed to get to America.  Eduard wrote me there.  He had been evacuated to the countryside to escape airraids.  He was living with two friendly spinster school teachers in a small town, C., in Lanca­shire.  The address of the their cottage was Cobble Grove.  No street listing.   I thought that was exotic. It fitted perfectly into the England of my imagination — snug villages and castles, fog, warm wool, and wet cobble stones, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Sherwood Forest, and Edgar Wallace.

To my regret, his frugal temperament leached his letters of the color I was seeking.  I wanted green country lanes and thatched roofs, unbelievably large breakfasts, African hunt trophies,  and baronial manors.  All I got was meager and bland descriptions of people and places. His prose was dominated by functionalities and numbers.  Miss Bramston is teaching me English by reading the daily newspapers with me .  My walk to school takes fifteen minutes. Free, interesting lectures are given at Cloth Hall every second Tuesday evening.  The most recent talk on English wading birds was very well attended. I have the use of a bicycle but it has no hand brakes.  My ladies give me an allowance of three shillings per week.  He steadfastly avoided giving me fragrant heather and heath. There were neither lowing sheep nor mediaeval castle ruins.

His parsimonious outlook was also apparent in his dry replies to my glowing reports about America. “ Fairy Dust, “ he would write. “Just Fairy Dust !”  His spinster guardians apparently used that quaint expression frequently.  He had become enamored with its sound and used it often as a mild English oath in an otherwise German letter.  Whenever he suspected the accuracy of my descrip­tions, he would exclaim “more Fairy Dust.” ­Eduard could not believe that suits were sold with two pairs of pants.  It smacked of crude bragging to him. “ Fairy Dust,” he’d write.  Ice-cream sandwiches appeared as adolescent fantasies to him. When I mentioned them in a letter, he promptly replied with  “Fairy Dust” in capital letters.   Truth seemed to him what was frugal, economical, and within the reach of his ex­pectations.  Exaggeration and embroidery were wasteful.  I had the feeling from his letters that he did not object to lying per se, if it were easy and needed.  He simply begrudged the ad­ditional effort that was required by invention and  self‑indul­gent imagination.

Eduard’s disbelief grew as our lives entered divergent channels and gained momentum in new directions.  I wrote him of plans to go to college.  Would Eduard advise whether I should choose anthropology or zoology as a career?  He scoffed and mocked me as pompous and unrealistic.  Doctor of Philosophy indeed!  Doctor of Vanity and Pretense!  More Fairy Dust!  He requested that I stop puf­fing.  Was I planning to enter my uncle’s grocery business ?

Eduard took a commercial course in school and was appren­ticed in a solicitor’s office.  He took bicycle trips in the Pennines, first  with his two spinster guardians and, later, with disdainfully referenced girls.  The girls, who also worked at the solicitors,  never had names and were always referred to as colleagues.  He nearly always closed his letters by assuring me “that the Nazis will get their come uppance.”  Like a mild black Amen to a prayer.   Once he wrote, “ Miss Bramston wants me to say to you, God help Hitler if a Lancashire man or woman got hold of him.”

He steadfastly refused to feed my inflamed expectations about the Blitz.   I imagined twisting con trails over his sky and Dorniers roaring low over flaming buildings in his village.  Only alerts, he wrote, or a bomb dropped harmlessly eight miles out of town in a deserted stubble field.  My fevered curiosity was grist for the mills of realism and frugality that ground in Eduard’s head.  It appeared to please him to play sober counterpoint to my blood‑bright musings.

If  there was a vulnerable chink in Eduard Stein’s armor, it was Lisa, his younger sister. She had also come to  England and lived with an English family in Bradford.  He wrote of his visits with her with warm, almost fatherly, pride.  Eduard seemed jealous.  His sister’s foster parents were too possessive, he thought.  They did not recognize his precedence.  He fussed about Lisa’s religious education and complained about the devious methods by which the Bradford family kept Lisa from visiting Eduard in C.

In those days I often imagined Eduard and Lisa, during their rare encounters. They walked towards a green Lancashire hill along a lonely hedge‑seamed path.  She holds his hand.  With his free arm Eduard draws melancholy arcs in the blue sky and speaks softly of their dear mother and father far away.  He tells her about how just and generous their father was and how warm and loving their mother.  Eduard’s face is serious and yet serene.  He was shielding his sister from the deep pain that wrenches his heart.

Deep down, I did not really believe that their meetings were like this but I wanted it to be that way.  Very likely Eduard Stein and his sister sat in a railroad station or on a park bench if it wasn’t raining.  Lisa would be chewing licorice sticks that her brother had brought her and he would discuss her school work and ask her riddles.  They would have cake together in a tea room with putty-colored walls.  Over a fly‑specked table cloth, Eduard would shower his sister with advice on how to deal with her foster parents.  Then he would walk her to the bus for the lonely trip back to Bradford.

As time went on, I began to sense a certain restlessness in Eduard’s letters.  Things were not going as well as he had hoped.  He never complained or let me know in any direct way that he was dissatisfied.  A thin gray veil seemed to have settled over his personal landscape.   The solicitors office in which he worked, the courses he took in night school, scatters of girl colleagues who were his partners at local club dances or whom he escorted to the cinema,  gradually moved more and more out of focus until they were only mentioned and never described.  It was as if his increasingly frugal writing style saved him the trouble of admitting to a small but growing feeling of frustration.  Something unstated constricted his life in C. and the home of his kindly guardians.  Before he had been almost totally preoccupied with the local scene.  Now he was slowly turning his face to the world.  It made him restless and discontented.

His letters switched abruptly from German to English and the frequency with which he mocked my reports from the American Eden increased.  Cars, suits, generous allo­wances from my relatives, and over‑stuffed furniture were dismissed as Fairy Dust.   Eduard did not treat material possessions with frivolity but yet he teased me relentlessly about my breathy adolescent assertions about the seemingly lush material setting in which I lived.  I merely described the small wonders that a small Massachusetts city held for a Viennese street boy’s eyes. He acknowledged my observations with disdain.  Sparta despising the luxuries of Athens.  I sensed he thought it wrong that I should live in a more affluent setting  because I was not as serious about life as he and because I did not husband my resources as well as he did.

Eduard Stein’s sixteenth birthday was an unusually important day for him.  According to British law he became a full fledged enemy-alien on that date.  This meant bothersome restrictions of movement (Fairy Dust ) and an unwanted abstract identity.  His thoughts turned to emigration then.  Eduard had some distant relatives who lived on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and he hoped that they would be able to bring him to America.

Nothing much happened. I telephoned them twice on Eduard’s behalf.  They spoke to me with unenthusiastic,  cold voices.  Perhaps they already had more problems in their lives than they could handle.  They did not want a refugee boy who had to be fed, housed, and clothed.  The relatives on Atlantic Avenue were obsessed with the possi­bility that Eduard was or might become disabled or ill and would require perpetual care.  It seemed a very odd sort of fear to me.  But they spoke with a strong show of prudence, intoned with the taut inflections of realism.  I listened with my heart and thought of Eduard,  wandering forlorn amidst the green lanes and in the thatched villages of the distant, besieged island.

When I think back on this period, the pace of my memories seems to be slowing.  The intervals between our letters were getting longer.  Recollections crawl by like time-lapse photography.  Once, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, Eduard sent me a photograph and I was startled to see the angular face of a young adult.  He looked lean, with prominent cheek bones, and a curiously lopsided, large nose.  If Eduard had been in a Massachusetts high school,  his nickname might have been Moose.

When the  possibility for emigrating to America failed to materialize, Eduard began to write about joining the RAF. At first he described it as a clever, practical opportunity for attending college.  The RAF sponsored college training for flight officer candidates.  Eduard thought it would be advantageous to try for that.  He increased his course load in night school.  More mathematics, more physics !  He wrote with conviction about spherical geometry.  His letters were all about successful swotting, adroit handling of  test questions, and expense saved by having the RAF send him to college.  After a while, however, the glow in his letters about the advantages of free college training paled and he wrote very soberly that he wanted to fly a Spitfire. Flight Lieutenant Stein !

One day after a longish interval in our correspondence, the letter came.   Edward was in the RAF.  The censor did not allow an exact geographical address but he wrote with frugality-tempered pride that he was taking basic RAF training in the northwest of England.  The ladies at Cobble Grove and his lady colleagues at work had given him a farewell party.  There had even been a cake made with carefully saved sugar rations.  Soon he would go into advanced training.   Military service was important.  Calisthenics were making him tough and he was learning a lot.  Although it was difficult to be chosen, he hoped for pilot school because he looked forward to useful college courses.    In any case,  flying would prepare him for the world of tomorrow, he said.  A somewhat milder tone  crept into his prose. Perhaps it was wonder.  Leaving C. had brought revelations.  There were sights to be seen–free entertainments for airmen.   RAF-blue became him, he wrote.  The canteen was staffed with very attractive ladies.  A family he had met at a synagogue had invited him to their home.  He closed by wondering why I had not yet joined the military services.  Was I exempted because of my studies or did I have flat feet ?  “Fairy Dust! “ he wrote.  “Its time to get off your duff.  Get in the army.  Come to Europe, where the action is!”    He encouraged me to “get cracking” and he wished me well.  It was as close to extravagance that Eduard ever came in a letter.  It was the last letter I ever received from him.

I wrote to him several times after that.  Told him that I had been drafted, was taking training,  and would soon be coming over to rescue him.  The usual sort of young mens’ brag.  They were sent to his RAF address but I am not sure that they ever reached him. There were no answers.

I landed in France six weeks before the German attack in the Huertgen Forest.  When the Battle of the Bulge was over, I was a staff sergeant, with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and two frozen toes.  Four months later, my platoon rolled through the screaming horrors of Dachau, and then went on to liberate dancing Lippizaner horses.   Six weeks after VE day I got five days compassionate leave in Vienna.  The city was a dusty, rubble-strewn wreck, haunted by hunger, guilt, and hatreds. Wandering through the barren streets of my old neighborhood,  I was racked by resentment and biting sorrow.   In Eduard’s old apartment building, I found Eduard’s aunt who had been liberated from Terezin and had returned to Vienna.  In a pale voice, she told me that Eduard’s parents had disappeared in the ovens of Auschwitz.   Eduard was dead.  Killed in the RAF.  His sister, Lisa, had written that Eduard had been in the crew of a heavy bomber.  Returning from a mission, the badly shot-up Lancaster crashed at landing and Eduard did not make it out of the wreck.

I do not remember reacting very strongly to the news.  Perhaps this was because every day of my leave I confronted half-remembered acquaintances and strangers with the burnt-out faces and glowing eyes of the K-Zetnik,  who recited the list of dead as if they were prayers.  The sheer heart-wrenching mass of these recitals may have dampened my immediate grief at Eduard’s death.  Perhaps it was because the news had reached me from fourth- or fifth-hand sources and that information about the circumstances of his death was so meager.  I drank several toasts of raw, throat-searing plum brandy to him that  night, and then, filled with murderous melancholy,  drove back to my billet.  To this day, I am sure, some Viennnese tell of their close escape from a viciously driven American jeep on a summer night in 1945.  And that was that.

Refugees are more inclined to cultivate and preserve their memories than those who have not been uprooted.   I did not have all that much to remember about Eduard.  As young boys we had been friends and schoolmates.  After we were separated, Eduard offered me skimpy glimpses of  rustic Lancashire and brutally abbreviated sketches of the town and people among whom he lived.  His letters showed the growing  power and convictions of an adult but he remained as conservative and frugal as before.  Now, in retrospect, my imagination further compensated for the penury of his descriptions.  The English town in which he lived became greener, a place of thatched cottages and sunny gardens.  His spinster guardians, the school teachers, had ruddy full faces and bright blue eyes.  They wore stout walking shoes and tweed skirts, and spoke in friendly but energetic accents.  His girl colleagues were wise with female wisdom.  They wore saucy miniskirts,  made love in the heather and bracken of summery moors, and knew how to live with human failings.

As I grew older amidst the brisk rhythms of my American world, Eduard’s C. became smaller, sunnier, and even greener and its  inhabitants lived in ever boskier harmonies .  I developed a strong yearning to visit C.  The warm, friendly people of that town would share  their memories of Eduard with me and provide me with a passport to a fading past.  Traveling in time to an imagination-embroidered place is a dangerous undertaking.   What I knew about C. had been filtered by Eduard’s frugal sensibilities.  What’s  more, he had seen the place as an outlander, who had been wrenched from his human moorings by  a political catastrophe.  Yet, my dark yearning defeated sensible caution.  Twenty years after Eduard’s death, I was invited to read a paper at an international meeting of sensory physiologists in the University of Leeds.  C. would not be far away.  I could not resist.  Alea jacta est.

In preparation for my trip, I tried to call Eduard’s relatives in Brooklyn, whom I had contacted on his behalf, twenty years earlier.  After several failed attempts, I finally managed to speak to a confused old man, with failing memory, who did not seem to remember Eduard, but gave me the sister’s address in Bradford.  I wrote to Lisa immediately.  My letter was full of questions.  What did she know about his final flight ?  Where his school-teacher guardians still alive ?  Where could I find them ?    Where was Eduard buried ?  Where ? When ? How ?  My letter was five pages long.  Two days before I left for England, the letter was returned to me — addressee unknown.

London’s unaccustomed colors, moods, and rhythms provided pleasant relief from the stable routines of my American life.  It was a sensory feast for me: tides of traffic swirling around islets of royal pomp,  the silver-gray of fading elegance mingling with the provocative vulgarity of Carnaby Street rags,  glimpses of well-used docks heaped high with Thailand teak, and Pakistani women in brightly colored pantaloons, polishing the brass of marble commercial palaces. The imminence of an excursion into the past had made me a little queasy.  The cosmopolitan glitter of London restored me.  But the malaise returned at the airport on the way to Lancashire.  Leaving the polyglot babble of the international crowds in the central terminal hall at Heathrow and entering the local departure lounge, I found myself among whispering groups of industrial and commercial men going to Leeds/Bradford.  It was as if a switch had been thrown. A dun veil fell over the day.  It constricted and threatened.  Quiet suspicions which had hatched like basilisk eggs throughout the years began to stir.

Seated in the crowded aircraft, waiting for take-off, my dread grew.  Outside, a slow steady rain pelted the greasy, black tarmac.   The cabin air was stuffy   and reeked of hair dressing and stale cigarette smoke.   Hemmed in by a mass of steaming wool suits, I gasped for air.  Fatigue came to my rescue  and I was soon asleep.             When I began to waken, I was high over the Midlands under a bright blue sky.  The ground below was hidden by an almost continuous blanket of clouds.  Here and there, a gash appeared in the dense gray layer, and allowed a glimpse of a landscape imprisoned in deep gloom.  To my sleep-addled brain, it seemed as if I was floating in a celestial vessel amidst almost unbearable luminous beauty.   My feather-light chariot rode high in the sky while the clouds below, shot through with gobs of fibrous gray, sealed off a dark and evil world beneath.  I suddenly had the feeling of some sentient presence forming along the wingtip and following the aircraft in its soaring course  through bright space.    With startling vividness I sensed Eduard just outside the cabin window enveloping me with a strong aura of familiarity and closeness. I even thought I smelled the scent of licorice, one of Eduard’s favorite confections.  The total effect was so strong that it brought me quickly to full wakefulness.  The recollection of what I had just experienced was tremendously vivid.   I shivered and my arms and legs felt thin as paper.  I had to force myself to look out the window again to prove to myself that there was really nothing out there.  Any more?

When the plane landed in Leeds, the specter of Eduard on the wing was still strongly with me.  It was as if I had met him again and found some new knowledge about him through that meeting.   Something had pinched my soul with force.  As I started towards C., I ached somewhere and was yearning for remedy. My hired car took me through a gnarled brocade of plane trees, shrouded in dung-yellow fog.  Here and there a thorny wreath of sunlight crowned the trees  and pierced the haze with spikes of light.  The road twisted through the narrow streets of villages: Bromhope, Otley, Ilkley, Addingham.   Rugged walls of blackish stone lined the curving road.

I thought the stones were coated with an unfamiliar lichen or moss, but at a stop I discovered that the walls were blackened by soot.

The fog was left behind, as the car climbed the winding road towards a low saddle set in stocky hills.  A craggy castle hung on the slope overlooking the pass.  Lancashire  spread below me bathed in sunlight.   A flock of sheep was grazing in a green meadow flecked with heather.  My heart leaped.   This was the setting that I had vainly hoped to find in Eduard’s letters long ago.

The joy died quickly as I drove into C. Power shovels had torn great holes in the street and angry lines of trucks and cars crawled around huge mounds of brown earth.  The squeezed stone facades of the buildings lining the high street had forfeited their rustic benedictions long ago and stared at me with sooty grins, toothed with the enamel signs of cheap appliance shops.  In the relentless pressure of traffic there was no respite for collection and mental refitting. I was pushed along lines of worn shopfronts and soiled sidewalks.  Gray crowds eddied past displays of peagreen orlon blankets, chromed tea kettles, and the apoplectic stains of clothing-store windows.  A pub stared sourly from its dun shell of corroded stone.  Before I knew it the traffic had carried me out of town.

I pulled the car to the side of the road and sat there watching the passing traffic.  Somewhere nearby a pump was straining to suck muddy water from a huge hole in the roadway.  Each thump  of its creaking heart flooded me with deeper melancholy. I had to move to pull myself out of this funk.  A drink would help but I knew I could not get myself to venture into any of these dark stone pubs that I had passed.  I could not deal with friendly prying questions or with suspicious eyes.  To find Cobble Grove,  the place where Eduard and his kindly English school ladies had lived!  Something would happen there.  There would be someone who had known him and who would be able to talk with me about him.  Someone whose strangeness and reserve would dissolve in reminiscences about an airman, long dead, but still remembered.  Or perhaps there was the solicitor’s office.  Perhaps someone would remember him there.  I  keenly regretted not having made advance contacts or inquiries before my departure.

Pulling back into the road, I drove back to town, looping through side streets.  My senses were keen.  I was a hunter looking for some sign of my quarry, looking for the ghost spoor, the thread to  past.   A woman was moving on the narrow sidewalk, carrying fruit in a bulging net bag.  She was walking slowly up a gentle slope, her buttocks swelling and receding under her ample skirt.   Was she one of Eduard’s girl colleagues who would remember the laughter of a summer afternoon in the Pennines long ago?  I passed her without slowing.  The surface of the landscape was too smooth.  I could gain no purchase for my curiosity.

The narrow back street funneled me to an old country highway. Nearby, a gas station stood starkly alien in its red and yellow enamel sheen amidst a small group of time-worn stone buildings.  I stopped for gas.   The pale-faced attendant,  draped in electric-blue overall that were much too large for him, grinned when he heard me speak.  “You’re a Yank, aren’t you ?”  he said.  He was too young–not even alive when Eduard walked this street.  He had never heard of Cobble Grove.  Maybe there never was such a place.  Maybe I had made it up.

I drove to the center of town and parked the car.  Perhaps there was a convenient police station where I might inquire about Eduard’s old residence?  Or may be some municipal office ?  I could even stop some place for lunch and ask there.  Cities have better guides about their  distant than their recent past.  I was curiously irritated by my inability to gain a productive grip on the situation. I felt helpless.  My parking space proved to be further from the center of the town than I had thought and the slow discovery of that fact added to my annoyance.   I walked through the gray, hard street, cautious and weary–a tiring hunter in a strange stone forest.   The police station, when I finally found it, was on  a small square with a dusty little park in the center.   The thought of telling the desk sergeant that I was looking for the house of someone who died twenty years ago made me uncomfortable, and I did not enter.  Across the street , an old man was sitting on a bench feeding a flock of cooing pigeons.  In the center of the small park was a small stone monument.  I walked slowly past the cooing birds and towards the slab.  As I neared it,  the hackles in back of my neck rose as if a grave-cold hand had touched me there.  Chiseled in the crest of the stone were large airman’s wings.  In bold, raised letters the stone announced  “In grateful memory of the men of C. who gave their lives for their country while on service in the Royal Air Force during World War II, 1939-1945.”   Below  the inscription were four columns of names.  I froze, unable to read further.  It was not Cobble Grove and the pastoral vision that I had been pursuing in my hesitant search but rather some sign of him, some remnant, some spoor.  I searched for Eduard as a splinter of a youth that I had lost and it had left a jagged edge.   This column offered, at last, a tangible link with Eduard.  Other remnants might have worked in the same way– some person who had known him, a picture, a used room, a glimpse of  his school or of the solicitor’s office in which he had worked.

I read the tablet. Sixty-two names in four columns.   I read again.  No Stein ! All there was between Wm.  Sanders  and E.M. Stoddard  was the smooth regular interval of dressed granite.  After Stoddard was J. Talbot.  There was no trace of Eduard.  I must have read ten times through those four graven columns.  Frantic !  Perhaps they were not in alphabetic order!  Perhaps they were ordered by row rather than columns.  But, no ! His name was not there.  There was no sign of Eduard.  It was as if he had never been.

I walked to the bench across from the old man’s pigeons and sat down, stunned and drained of energy. What could have happened ?  Anti-semitism in C. ?  Prejudice against foreigners with Germanic names ?  A mix-up in a Whitehall records office ?  My reaction was physical.  The visual world constricted.   I saw the old man throwing bread crumbs to his gray flock.  The rest of the square surrounded the narrow tunnel of my vision like a stone cocoon.

It must have taken fifteen minutes or more before the world came into focus again.  The old man had been watching me and now he smiled.   Encouraged,  I rose and walked over to him.  Had he ever heard of Cobble Grove?  There was a long pause.  “Ah, yes indeed!” The Grove had been  a group of four old stone buildings, standing together at the west end of town .  They had been used  as private homes, probably since before the end of the last century.   Ten years after the war, they were sold.  Some of the houses were, he thought,  still standing.  A developer had made them the centerpiece of a fashionable resort hotel.  It was a recreation of an old English coaching inn with an upscale restaurant.  “Very luxurious and very popular with the tourists,” said the old man with a wink to me.  He never asked me why I was interested in Cobble Grove.  He showed me on my map where to find it.  The hotel, he said, was now called the Inn by the Grove.

The  approach to the inn was a long,  sunken road lined with gnarled wind-twisted trees.  Was my road lined with rowan trees. Rowan trees ?  Were these rowan trees ?  I had never knowingly seen a rowan tree in my life.  Yet it seemed to me that the trees with the scarlet berries that lined the sunken road to the inn ought to be rowan trees.  Some half-digested, half-remembered tatter of superstitious knowledge from a lecture and a book demanded it.  Daylight was failing rapidly. I saw bloody rowan berries in the dark branches and my belly tightened.

A light fog had settled on the landscape but it came down no further than crowns of the trees, and hung there, forming a faintly luminous tunnel for the road. I had feared myself lost but now I could see, in the fading afternoonlight,  what seemed like hotel buildings in the distance.   As I increased my speed,  I was startled by a dense flock of blackbirds,  which had been roused from the trees by my head lamps, and swept across the road before me like a huge black rag.  Spooked, I was glad to pull into the well-lit comfort of the  hotel parking lot.

The main part of the inn was a tall techno structure framed in polished metal and faced with wide expanses of golden glass.   A purple marquee led into a large, elaborately ornamented lobby, dominated in its center by the reception counter, an altar of teak and green marble. Beyond the reception, yawned the entrance to a labyrinth of brightly lit sitting rooms.  An American bar was on my left and through the open door on my right, I could see, amidst a small forest of potted palms,   the elegantly-set tables of a restaurant awaiting the evening’s guests.  Crystal chandeliers sparkled.  All looked rich, brash, and shiny.  Eduard’s school teacher guardians would not feel entirely comfortable in the new Inn by the Grove, I thought.  Where where the stone houses of Cobblers Grove amids all this splendor?

As I crossed the lobby to the reception desk, guests were beginning to gather at the bar, and a small band of female musicians in long gowns were setting up their instruments in a corner.  I had called from downtown C. to reserve a room and the clerk greeted me with practiced courtesy.   “  I can give you a very nice room on the fifth floor overlooking the lagoon,” she said. “or perhaps  you would prefer to stay in one of the Old England stone pavilions with a view of the gardens ?”

Old England pavilions ?  Could one these have been Eduard’s home?  Where these stone pavilions the remnants of Cobblers Grove ?

My question seem to startle the clerk and she examined my face for a few moments as if she were trying to gage my motive for  asking the question.  Then she shook her head.  “Cobble Grove?   I never heard of that.   I’ve been told that these stone buildings have been here for a long time.  When  the hotel was built they preserved the old gardens and they rennovated the stone buildings and made them part of the inn.” She fixed my face with what I guess they learn in hotel school to be the open and sincere look.

“ Our tourist guests really love the stone houses.  The cottages have been done like an old English inn — you know oak beams and dear little cozy corners — but with all the best modern facilities.”  She was pushing a little.

I instantly warmed to the thought that I might sleep where Eduard had lived, but I wondered whether I would be able to find out which was the house in which the Bramston sisters had sheltered Eduard Stein.  The clerk took my hesitation for resistance.

“Perhaps you would rather stay in our very comfortable main building,” she added quickly, “some of our guest feel more at home in a modern main building.”

“The stone cottages will suit me fine,” I said.   She seemed almost surprised.

“ Then I will give you Room 23 in the Holly Cottage,” she said quickly, “I am sure you will find it very comfortable.”

“Take this gentleman’s luggage  to Holly 23,”  she called in the direction of the three youths who were standing around the bell desk. The bellhops studiedly avoided looking in her directions.  Finally, after several ignored summons, one of them peeled away from the group and came to pick up my bag.

Through a door in the rear we stepped from the dazzle of the lobby into the late afternoon gloom of an old garden.  Dense stands of flowers lined the low walls –hedge roses, daisies, and poppies.  Their colors were fading in the twilight  but their scent was strong.  These are old plantings, I thought, they might well have growing along those walls while Eduard walked in this garden.

Our path took us past the white cast-iron skeleton of a gazebo, standing surrounded by a dark wreath of miniature ornamental trees, in the center of the plantings.   The whole garden was dissolving around me in the uncertain light.  I had the strange feeling that the young bellman who was carrying my suit case was becoming ill at ease as we approached the stone house.  Although my heels crunched loudly on the gravel path behind him, he kept turning his head nervously over his shoulder, as if he were worried that I was no longer following him.   At the door he stopped and without looking directly at me, he said,

“You sure you want to stay in this spooky old place instead of the mod main hall ?”  He was working painfully hard to force a smile into his face.  “There isn’t even an elevator in this building.”

“There are only two floors.  Don’t you think we could manage .”

“I guess,”said the bellhop,  laughing nervously and ferried me through the door. It was clear that he did not think highly of my choice of accomodations.

The first floor of the building, which must have held family rooms once, had been completely gutted.  All the interior walls had been ripped out and the entire ground floor had been converted into a small banquet or meeting hall.  It now stood empty except for stacks of tables and purple chairs.

Anticipating my question, the bell hop shrugged his shoulder, “Your room is upstairs, sir!”  and turned towards a steep stairway that led to the second floor.   As I started to climb the stairs, the hair on the back of my neck rose  and  a chill swept from my shoulders to my heels.   The narrow stair case was suffused with  a sweet, spicy smell.  The scent was faint but it was unmistakably that of licorice.  My strong visceral reaction annoyed me.  This odor  was  most likely from a cleaning fluid they had used on the floor.  But licorice had been Eduard’s favorite candy.  The candy had been in short supply in war-time England and he had once even asked me whether I would send him some.

 

My room was standard upscale American motel with a large bath, shining in faux marble,   equipped with two sinks, a bidet, and a gold hair dryer.  The only bow to old England were two worm-eaten dark beams that were embedded in the ceiling.   My windows faced the garden.  I stuck my head out and inhaled the evening air.   Music from the band in the main building was drifting back to me.  It sent an another icy wave rolling up my back.  They were playing  one of those cheery, familiar Strauss waltzes. It might have been “Wiener Blut” or perhaps “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” but I felt unsure.    I stepped back into the room.  The familiar, comfortable modern motel interior offered some shelter from the spooky English garden.

 

Perhaps someone on the hotel’s staff  knew something about the history of Cobble Grove and might even be able to tell me where Eduard’s spinsters, the Bramstons,  had lived.  I did not have high hopes, but nevertheless I washed hurriedly, and quickly returned to the main building.     My dinner was served in a festively-lit dining room.   A vase with freshly-cut was at the center of my elegantly-set table.  Music drifted in from an adjacent room.  The fare was better than I had expected.  Clear bouillon with golden lumps of marrow,  an excellent entrecote with small brown potatoes, and a fine  piece of well-aged Stilton.  I managed to make my way through a bottle of Bordeaux.  I was quite mellow when I finished, and had almost forgotten what brought me to the Inn at the Grove. Small parties of other guests rose one by one, and wandered past me into the comfortable sitting room  that adjoined the dining hall.  The sitting room was decorated in luscious red and pale green.  In the center of each table was a gilded lamp shaped like a pineapple. I asked the waiter to serve my coffee and brandy there.

The other guests were mainly prosperous-looking couples who seemed to know each other.  A few bridge games had started.  I settled back in a comfortable settee and watched the tranquil scene in a bemused, slightly alcoholic haze.  Before long, a  rather fleshy, well-dressed man walked across the room to sit in a nearby chair.  His eyes had been on me for some time.  As he sat down, he winked at me and smiled,  “You’re a Yank, aren’t you ?”  There was hardly a trace of question in his voice.  “I said it to Brenda, the minute you walked into the dining room.   What brings you to our corner of Lancashire ? “   Professionally-friendly business travelers usually set my teeth on edge and I try to get away from them at the first opportunity.  He was in electric pumps.  But the bordeaux had mellowed me and my interest in Cobble Grove caused me to slide into a conversation.  I did not tell him why I had come to the hotel, but told him that I had always been interested in the English countryside. “ We don’t have many thatched cottages in America, “ I said.

We talked about C. and Lancashire.  He laughed at my surprise that there were factories amidst the rustic dells.   Dark satanic mills had not loomed in my imagined landscapes.

“ Center of the rag trade,”  he said.  Then he looked at me very intently.  “I had you all wrong, “ he continued, “ I thought you came to the Inn because of the ghost.”  I had almost expected it. “A ghost ?” I asked.

“Yes, a ghost!  Of course, educated men like you and me, are likely to be a bit skeptical, but the locals believe that one the old stone cottages of this inn is haunted.  The maitre’d was talking about it only yesterday.”   My electric pump companion looked at me speculatively.  I could see he was warming to the tale.  “You will enjoy this,”  he said, “ Clarence, that’s the maitre’d, says this ghost is no friend to the management of the inn.   It appears the spook doesn’t approve  of good living.    He haunts only the big spenders.  You got to run up a big tab to have the  ghost come to your room. He must have a tap on the cash registers.  Whenever someone who is staying in the cottage throws a big bash for themselves , they are in for it.  Order caviar, pheasant, or the bubbly, you will have little rest that night.  You will not sleep despite what the old Veuve Cliquot might have done to your brain.  The ghostly apparition  is  too much for some guests.   I heard that a few have checked out of the inn in a panic. They say that right after midnight, a rumble will start in the rafters and a mild cool wind will stir the curtains and fill the room with a sweet herbal smell — some say like licorice. Then come heavy foot steps,  and a groaning, complaining, and bitter, hollow laughter    Those who have had the experience hold that the ghost calls out something to them.  What he says isn’t very clear and there has been a lot of debate about it.  Most claim, he cries  “Fair n’ Just!  Fair n’ Just!” over, and over again in a shrill dark voice. “Fair n’ Just!”  An uncommonly frugal spirit, this ghost– cannot stand their bit of fun.  He must have been a Scot, when his body was about and thriving.  Don’t you think ?”

About 34orion

Winston Churchill once said that if you were not a liberal when you were young you had no heart, and if you were not a conservative when you were older then you had no brain. I know I have both so what does that make me?
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