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Chelsea Calling

Taking up residence in London

From Mariner (Dec 2010)

From Mariner (Dec 2010)

By Andrew McCarthy

For several years I kept a flat in London, in Chelsea, on Tite Street. It was never my home. It was something better. It was my sanctuary.

A one-bedroom charmer, up a flight of stairs, it had a good-size living room with delicate French doors that led to a narrow terrace that ran along the front of all the Victorian row houses on the block. A large London plane tree dappled my view. The bedroom was in the back, with one small window overlooking slate roofs and the garden below. It was a posh flat on a posh street—Oscar Wilde had lived a few doors down, and John Singer Sargent a few doors beyond that. Mark Twain lived around the corner—I passed his house on the way to the pub.

I hadn’t been looking for a place—I lived in New York. I was just in London working briefly for the BBC. And I didn’t know Chelsea at all. Most of my time was spent in the West End, or Soho, a 20-minute taxi ride away. Yet, after one accidental viewing, I bought it, furniture and all.

Over the next few years I would routinely get on a plane and go to London, to Chelsea, to Tite Street, and settle in for a time. I told myself I was going to catch up on some theater—and I did often walk along the Chelsea Embankment beside the Thames River to the National Theatre and buy a ticket to what was on. I told myself that I was going to see the latest exhibit at the Tate Gallery, and I always did. But really, I was just going to be alone.

I had friends in London, but each time I went I found myself waiting longer and longer to call them. Some trips, I never called. The more alone I was, the more any interaction seemed to rob me of my time. Yet I enjoyed those who inhabited my micro-world. There was a lovely old woman who lived in the basement flat next door who looked after the place while I was gone. She would find a reason to come by most afternoons for a cup of tea and tell me all about “my Fred,” her husband of 40 years who was downstairs asleep on the sofa.

I liked her a lot, but often, in anticipation of her unscheduled visits, I’d escape out the door shortly before her three o’clock arrival. I’d slip along Swan Walk and wander among the rare herbs and plants of the Physic Garden (the second-oldest botanical garden in Great Britain—dating from 1673) or past the fields across from the Royal Hospital and pause to watch a cricket match, or I’d head up to the Kings Road and buy something I didn’t need from one of the trendy shops. But mostly I stayed home. I read. I drew a great deal with pastels—undisciplined renderings of faces, and landscapes. It was something I never did anywhere else, before or since.

One day there was a knock on the French doors overlooking the terrace, above the street. A blonde lady was leaning over the wrought iron railing from the flat in the next building, beckoning me. I climbed over the rail and settled on her cream-colored sofa. She was a woman of a certain age, trim and well maintained. In the crisp RP accent of the well bred, she told me she was of royal lineage. When she crossed her legs, she wrapped one foot behind her other ankle and then dipped her knees to one side until she was sitting so high on one hip, with her torso rotated in the opposite direction, that she looked ready to snap. I spent drifting evenings at her place, watching her sip Champagne from a long fluted glass. “Pour us another, dear one.” I felt like a character in her play. I can’t say I really cared for her, or she me, but I was the young man who lived next door, and I would do.

It always made me feel very far from my New Jersey roots.

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