Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Friendship and Fleur

I'm telling you this story now because, quite unexpectedly, it has broken out of the past and into the present.
Have you noticed the picture above my sofa, the rather stylised painting of a tiger? If you have, has it caused you to wonder if it had a story? The simple answer is that it has. The tiger was painted by Fleur Cowles. It was a present from Fleur. Let me tell you about her.

When King George VI died, to be was succeeded by his daughter, it was a time of post-war deprivation. The coronation brought a welcome moment of hope, colour and celebration. Eisenhower, who was then the US President, thought it fitting to send a representative who would echo the theme of youth and glamour . . . he sent Fleur Cowles. She came from the ranks of American high society, and was renowned for her work as a respected artist and journalist. It was Fleur's first introduction to this country . . . and she liked what she saw.

Her two marriages had ended in divorce and, before long, her name was linked to that of a British timber merchant, Tom Meyer. With Cary Grant acting as best man at the wedding, Fleur and Tom were married in 1955. Their London home was a large apartment at the Albany in Piccadilly, in addition they had an estate near East Grinstead in Sussex, and a castle in Spain.

Our story now jumps forward several years. It jumps to a time when my first book of poems had just been published. Quite how it happened I'm never sure, but Fleur came across my poems . . . she liked my poems . . . she wanted to meet the author. And when Fleur wanted anything . . . well, that was what happened.

So it was that I found myself invited to their apartment at the Albany. It was so spacious that it felt like a mansion in itself, staff moved discreetly in the background, everywhere there was evidence of Fleur's art and her interests. More like an exotic museum (a very comfortable museum) than any home I'd ever come across, I drank it all in and felt distinctly inebriated!

Despite the difference in our ages, and the even larger gap in our social circumstances, Fleur and I became unlikely but close friends. I owe her so much by way of incredible experiences. Thanks to Fleur, I met Grace Kelly, numerous MPs of both parties, philanthropists, top journalists and many creative artists. Whether it was in London or at one of her house-parties in Sussex, I was invariably the only unknown in a bunch of 'celebrities', and saw myself as a very privileged fly-on-the-wall. Fleur widened my world and offered me experiences that I would never have gained elsewhere.

I look back and smile at many memories . . . my first visit to Sussex, and the shock of discovering that the housekeeper had actually unpacked my battered suitcase! The anxiety on being told that I could either come to breakfast in my dressing-gown or fully dressed. What if I came down fully-dressed and everyone else was in their dressing-gowns? Or, even worse, what if I were the only one in a dressing-gown?

Always in the background was Tom, and the kindness of Tom. He was a man of great charm, wit and distinction, a man who seemed to have close contacts in the White House, the Kremlin and wherever else you'd choose to name. I could forget the international news that I'd read in the newspapers, the true story was gained from listening to Tom and his guests after Sunday lunch in Sussex.

Fleur visited this flat. More contentiously, Rupert visited the Albany. I say contentiously because no animal is allowed within the hallowed walls of the Albany. Rupert had to be smuggled in, hidden deep in his bag, and, to the best of my knowledge, is the only animal to have crossed that closely-guarded threshhold!

But Fleur was now growing older. Her house parties were a thing of the past. True, she and Tom still travelled, but not as frequently as before and the castle in Spain was more of a retreat than a place for entertaining.

Time passed, and it had been several years since I had heard from her. Occasionally, when looking at her books or her picture, I would regret not knowing how she was. Had she died? I felt sad to think that I didn't know. Her friendship had enriched my life. I wished that I'd told her so.

Which is where the story comes right up to the present day.
Two weeks ago, riding in a bus down Picadilly, I looked out of the window at the Albany and thought about Fleur. On impulse, on returning, I put her name into Google and was amazed to learn that, now in her nineties, she was still living at her home in London.
How was she? How was Tom?
Straightway, I wrote her a letter. I asked how she was, told her how I'd thought of her as I'd passed in the bus, and sent her several current photos of Rupert.
I didn't really expect a reply.
But . . . a week later, the phone rang.
"Is that Miss Spain," asked a woman's voice.
I said that it was.
"I've Mr. Meyer for you," said the voice.
It was Tom! What was more he sounded just as he always had . . . charming, interested in my well being, amusing, kindly.
Fleur, I learned, had been seriously ill. She was now recovering, but still confined to the house. They had sold their Sussex estate and their castle in Spain, and now lived - with their longtime helpers - in the home they'd always loved at the Albany.
"I was wondering," said Tom, "some time when you're passing . . . would you like to come in? I know Fleur would love to see you. It would do her good . . . "
"Of course," I said, "and I'll bring Rupert."

And so it was arranged. Rupert and I were to go at three o'clock the following Monday. Parking would be made available for me in the forecourt.

Rupert was looking keenly out of the car window as I drove into the forecourt. He clearly liked the look of the place and, after I'd parked, refused to understand why he should be confined to his bag. Surely, in a welcoming place like this, he could walk straight in?
The doorman standing on the step was watching curiously as, half-concealed within the car, I struggled to get my unco-operative cat into his bag. Finally, with a recalcitrant Rupert well hidden, I got out of the car, walked as innocently as I could manage up the steps to the door, and handed over the keys.
"I've come to see Mrs. Meyer," I said firmly.
"D'you know the way?" he asked, eyeing my strangely bulging bag.
I assured him that I did.
Once on the stairs, Rupert's head emerged from the bag and, after that, nothing held him back.

It was wonderful to see Tom. The debonair, powerful and highly intelligent individual that I remembered dominated the superficial veneer of old age. We sat in Fleur's study - under her portrait of her friend Mother Teresa - and chatted happily over tea and biscuits. This study, Tom told me, has been reproduced in its entirety at The University of Texas, where Fleur's achievements are honoured.

Then it was time to visit Fleur.

Clearly making good progress, she was out of bed, sitting in her chair and eager to greet us. Enthusiastic to explore yet more new territory, Rupert marched in. Her frail hand went down and grasped his fur . . . two old friends were reunited. Because of the Albany's restrictions, Fleur had been deprived of animal company for months. Rupert couldn't have been more welcome.

Eventually, when she broke off from stroking him to speak to me, he jumped up into a chair beside her, curled up happily and settled down for a snooze.
"He can stay with me!" she pleaded.
"He's a lot of work!" I warned.
"Then you'll come again?" she insisted.
I told her that we'd love to, and Rupert added to the general pleasure by producing loud grumbles of indignation when I lifted him, squirming with indignation, out of his chair.

I reflected as we drove away that, thanks largely to Rupert, I had made a miniscule return for the abundance of kindness that Fleur had given to me.

Just think.
If I hadn't passed the Albany and thought of Fleur . . . if I hadn't followed it up with a letter . . .
I'm so very grateful that I did.