‘America Awaits Us, My Lovely’ by Christopher Owen

 

 

Christopher’s family on his father side is Welsh, he has family in North and South Wales, and he comes from a Welsh seafaring, literary and musical background. His stories have been published in Jessica Kingsley Publisher’s ‘Final Chapters’ anthology, and in magazines including Neon, Smoke (London) Magazine, Irish Literary Review and Valve Journal. His play The Touch of a Butterfly’s Wing has been long-listed for the Papatango Play Prize, and he has had plays on in Manchester, London, Wales, Scotland, USA and Australia. www.christopherowen.co.uk

 

AMERICA AWAITS US, MY LOVELY

By Christopher Owen

 

London. 1960. Irene Walker, eighty-three years old, is seated in her

armchair by the living room window in her flat in North London. It is

eleven in the morning. Eddie, her husband, is out, gone to put a bet on.

She married Eddie when she was seventy-nine years old. At the time she

declared she had been a widow for fifty years and that she and Eddie

would be company for each other ‘in their dotage’. Her decision had met

with no small measure of resistance from her grown-up children, Judith

and Norman.

‘I’m not discussing the matter,’ she had said to them.

She has in her lap a solicitor’s letter she has received this morning. She

puts it on the table at her side. Picks it up again, puts it back in her lap.

She leans back in her chair.

 

1903. Birmingham. The people struggling, making do. Children by the

thousands shipped to strange lands, to Canada, Australia, South Africa.

The unemployed. The charity breadlines.

‘This is no country for the living,’ Alec had said. ‘Heigh-ho and heave-

ho, we’re off my lads for an adventure of a lifetime,’ he had said before

he set out from Liverpool to sail to New York City to stay with his friend

Albert Fitton in Buffalo. ‘We’ll be all right with him,’ he had said to

Irene.

Full of boldness, he was. She couldn’t help but fall for him, be taken

up by his charm, his optimism.

‘My friend Albert, we’ll be all right with him,’ Alec wrote to her all

those years ago. ‘You’ll be joining me out here in New York. So pack up

what you can but not too much, for there’s opportunity over here and no

arguing.’

He was a Birmingham man, of rough and ready stock, she couldn’t

deny that.

‘Buy yourself the ticket,’ Alec had said to her. ‘I’m here waiting for

you.’

Birmingham, the city of a thousand trades, that’s what they used to say,

engineering, metal, cutlery, nails and screws, guns, tools - tools were the

thing, and wasn’t Alec a tool maker and hadn’t he come up with tools to

manufacture tin cans, and weren’t there – ‘for God’s sake, won’t you

listen?’ he had said to Irene – weren’t there, he said, huge markets, vast

opportunities for the can-making tools in parts of Canada and the United

States where they grew the fruit, the peaches, the cherries and plums.

‘You’ve got to get in there early, my lovely, before the other buggers

clean up,’ he said. ‘Before some other bastard steals the patent, mocks up

an inferior version, flogs it, undercuts the price. God help us, one can’t be

sitting on one’s arse doing naught. One has to go, go, get out there and

make a living, conquer the world,’ he said to her. He said it out loud,

voice raised, he let all of them know, there in the Red Lion when he was

three parts gone with the beer. He was fond of his beer. ‘Too fond,’ her

father said.

‘America awaits us, my lovely,’ Alec wrote from New York where he

had gone to make the contacts, to prepare the ground. ‘The world is our

oyster. Just have to find the way to prize it open and take up the pearl.’

‘Lady Intrepid’ he had once called her. She was up for a challenge, he

said. He could use words, this mechanic. He was a classy act. He could

put on the style. He could smile. That smile was his passport. She always

thought that. It was his guarantee.

‘We’ll get married the day you arrive, the very day, my lovely Irene.

I’ve made the arrangements, it’s all in hand.’

It comes back to her in her old age now, there she was, twenty-six years

old, due to sail on the SS Lucania from Liverpool, to arrive at the port of

New York City after seven days.

And there she was filling in the Emigration Form. She remembers

every detail of it. It comes back to her now unbidden. She can’t remember

what she had for her tea last night but she can remember the Emigration

Form. Gender? Female. Marital status? Single. Occupation? Cashier.

(At the Albion Lamp Company, Aston Road, North Birmingham. She

was there with Betty and Doris and Marcia, all young women they were

together – all of them gone now.) Able to read and write? Yes.

Nationality? British. Race? English. Residence? Birmingham. Final

destination? New York. Ticket? Yes. Paid by self. $50.

‘Fifty dollars, it’s only fifty dollars,’ Alec wrote, ‘I’ve not got it on me

just yet, with the expenses over here, but you can borrow it from Eric or

one of your other brothers, Eric’s ok for a bit, for a loan, tell him I’ll pay

it back soon as soon, he can rely on it, no trouble.’

The Emigration Form had asked if she had been to States before? No,

she had written. Who was she going to join? My future husband Alec P.

Bowker. 97 Barrow Street, New York.

‘We’ll be staying there for a few days, have a look around Manhattan,’

Alec had said.

Then they’d be staying with his friend Albert Fitton. Albert Fitton had

gone out and married a Polish American girl.

 

Irene in her armchair in West London puts the solicitor’s letter back on

the table at her side, picks up the passenger logbook which she had

recently re-discovered in a box at the back of the hall cupboard. She reads

that SS Lucania was a British Passenger Ship built in 1893 by Fairfield

Govan for the Cunard Steam Ship Company. The print is faded – it looks

as if something has been spilt on it – her cataracts don’t help – she makes

out … the first-class public room … staterooms … upper deck … oak ...

thickly carpeted ... first class dining … white and gold ... ionic pillars ...

panel … pilasters and decoration. Alec had made a point of remarking

upon the luxury. It was as if the ship was his, that he owned it. That was

Alec, that’s how he was. He would have her enjoy the opulence of it all.

Only, of course, she was travelling second class.

‘Don’t you worry, my darling,’ he had written to her. ‘It may be second

class this time around, but, mark my words, my lovely, in a few years

time, in no time whatever, it’ll be you and me in first class intermingling

with the toffs, ordering the champagne, feeling up the velvets.’

There was a woman on board. She was called Jane Devonshire or

Devonport. She said she was from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’d been

to England to see her brother. There was that woman in her furs from

Darlington with her two boys who was joining her husband in Boston.

Mrs Charter, that was her name. She’s not thought of her, not since the

voyage out. But there she is now in her furs.

 

Irene, her old legs painful from the arthritis, pulls herself out of her

armchair, goes to the drinks cabinet with its glass front. It’s a quarter past

eleven.

‘Barrow Street in West Village was a shock,’ she says to herself as she

pours a Martini. ‘Those narrow streets, rubbish everywhere. So many

Africans.’

‘We’ll not be here for long,’ he had said.

She unsteadily makes her way back to her chair. She sits, settles

herself. She sips her Martini.

 

There he was, waiting for her, as he promised, and he took her in his arms

and lifted her in the air.

‘Quick. We’ve got to make an honest woman of you,’ he said, and off

they went to the marriage licence place.

And then – and then – he took her on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan,

he did. He showed her with pride and excitement the Statue of Liberty as

if it was his own. Then there was Central Park, there was, and the flower

market in Union Square, the Grand Army Plaza. And they took a trip to

Coney Island and paddled in the sea, they did. They were on their

honeymoon, he said, and well they might be, she’d thought, it costing him

as it did.

‘You wait,’ he said to her. ‘You wait – in the next few years this place

will be transformed, it will be unrecognisable.’

They were standing on Broadway, in Times Square. They were

stepping out on Brooklyn Bridge which could not fail to impress. They

walked the length of it into Brooklyn and back again and landed up at

The Assonia Hotel, where they had tea. The Assonia had air conditioning,

Alec told her. He told her all proud as if he’d put it in himself. She had

never been in such a grand place. He had bought himself a new suit for

twenty-five dollars. He stood there in his suit, brown with a white fleck.

New brown leather shoes.

‘One has to look one’s best, my lovely,’ he said to her. ‘You’ve got to

impress. People out here don’t buy unless you look good, like you don’t

need to sell. Then they buy,’ he said. ‘We’re off to my friend Albert in

Buffalo,’ he said.

She can’t remember Albert Fitton – can’t put a face to him or his wife.

They’d stay with Albert, he said, while he did the business in New York

and then they’d be off to Pennsylvania. There was a man there. He owned

thousands of acres in the Lake Erie fruit and vegetable belt. He was

looking to invest in tin-making machinery. Alec was onto a winner, he

was sure of that. And that, he said, would only be the start of things.

Alec proudly told her that Buffalo was located in Western New York

State on the eastern shores of Lake Erie and at the head of the Niagara

River. It was the eighth largest city in the United States and the largest

grain-milling centre in the Country. He showed her the Ellicott Square

Building which cost $3.5 million to build. It was built in under one year

and Buffalo was the first city in the United States to have electric street

lighting. Alec knew it all.

‘America is only just starting,’ he said.

He pointed out a car – they were in Main Street. It was called – what was

it called? – It was called The Arrow, made by the Pierce Arrow Motor

Car Company.

She can see it now. She doesn’t have to close her eyes; it was red,

sleek, leather interior.

‘One day,’ he said, ‘we’ll be driving around in one of those. You don’t

come to America unless you think big.’

They were going to Pennsylvania, he said.

 

She had Judith in the hospital in Franklin. Took fourteen hours.

‘You’ve a reluctant child in there,’ one of the doctors said.

Alec wasn’t there. Men not permitted. When he came in after the baby

was born he smelt of beer. You couldn’t blame him. Fourteen hours of

waiting.

‘Our first child,’ he announced.

He was excited, he was enthusiastic. He always was.

‘How did the business meeting go?’ she asked him there in the

hospital.

‘Fine, fine. Putting the last bits and pieces of the contract together,’ he

said.

‘Will we be rich?’

‘Not as rich as I’d like,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of competition. But,

fingers crossed, old girl, it’ll keep us going. The man’s bought non-

exclusive usage and all that.’

She didn’t really understand. She can hear his voice, the way he talked

then. The bravado.

‘We’ll have a few more weeks, we’ll get you and Judith well and on

your feet – we’ll take a trip on Lake Erie. I’ve always wanted to go on

Lake Erie. We’ll have a great time,’ he said. ‘We’re off to Canada,’ he

said. ‘We’ll be staying in Barton. Rented accommodation. There’s great

demand for cans in Canada – peaches, plums, cherries, all sorts. You go

where the business takes you,’ he said.

After Canada it was back across the border from Canada to USA at

Niagara Falls to return to Pennsylvania and then Ohio. Then the

following year in 1910 – she remembers the year, it comes to her clearly

– she can’t remember the name of her next-door neighbour half the time

but she remembers the year, 1910 – back they came to Canada, to Barton

in Wentworth, Ontario. Yes, and it was there she had Norman, seven

pounds eight ounces.

 

He hadn’t been home for six days.

‘I’ve met someone else,’ he said.

He’d fallen in love, he told her, and he’d come home to collect his

things. She’d seen the girl. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen, if

that. Blonde hair, standing there with him, her looking up at him, him all

on show. She entranced, no doubt. The silly little bitch. What did she

think she was up to? The two of them coming out of Maple Leaf Park.

She can’t remember her name. He told her it was best she and the

children went back to England, to her mother and brothers. He said he’d

send her money. But he didn’t. Back home in Aston she told everyone

that Alec was dead. She was a widow, she said. To be sent home by her

husband, that was too great a shame. It was a disgrace.

 

Irene is seated in her armchair. Her hand goes out to the solicitor’s letter

on the side table. She re-reads it. It’s telling her that Alec died four weeks

ago. On the fourth of August 1960. Alec’s dead. And he’s been alive all

these years. She’ll not tell Judith and Norman. She’ll not tell Eddie. Why

upset the poor man? There’s nothing anyone can do about it, she tells

herself. The solicitor’s letter says Alec P. Bowker had been living in

England, in Farnham, Hampshire since 1926. Her address was among his

possessions. He’d come back and not told her. He found out where she

was but he’d made no effort to see her or the children, and he, the self-

centred fool was there – doing what? – in Hampshire. The girl had given

him his marching orders, she’d not be surprised, and no wonder. A

seventeen year old, no older than nineteen that was for sure, him out there

with his grand ideas, his foolishness. There were his offspring, his and

hers, and off he went the useless fool, the callous oaf. She had loved this

man. Those early years, the adventure, his promises. She’s never

forgotten him. He’s been with her ever since. And he’s died of

pneumonia at the age of eighty-seven, the letter said.

 

Irene hears the front door open. It’s Eddie.

‘It’s me’, she hears him call.

Irene takes the letter and slips it behind the cushion at her back.

Eddie is there. In the doorway. He bends down, kisses Irene’s cheek.

‘Everything all right?’ he asks.

‘I could do with another Martini,’ she tells him.

‘You’re starting early,’ he says to her.

 

END

Christopher Owen