An Englishman in New York shows that chivalry is not dead, though the woman he saves has other ideasby / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
A young Englishman was walking down a street in the West Village. He had come to New York on an internship at the Manhattan branch of the auction house he worked for in London, and he was on his way to appraise a painting at the home of a private collector.
He was early for his appointment, and he moved along at a leisurely pace, gazing appreciatively into the boutiques lining the street. He liked New York. Superior versions of all the things he enjoyed most in life—clothes, cocktails, art books, restaurant meals—were available everywhere at half the price they cost in London, and wherever he went people seemed smitten by his unusually pure Englishness: his drawl, his unfailingly polite manner, his pallid good looks.
He had a girlfriend in London, who worked for a merchant bank. Every morning he spoke to her on the phone, and every night he sent her an email, usually with some anecdote chosen to appeal to her sense of the ridiculous: the beggar he had given a handful of change to, only to be indignantly informed by the man that he didn’t “accept no goddam pennies”; the clam bake he had gone to on the beach in East Hampton wearing shorts and a T-shirt, where it turned out all the other men were wearing linen suits and ties… And this too, the gathering up of these little stories to share with his girlfriend, was a part of his enjoyment of the city.
He turned on to a quieter street of brick townhouses with window boxes and small front gardens enclosed in iron railings. About halfway along he heard a voice shouting from above him:
“Sir, sir, excuse me, sir…”
He looked up. A woman was leaning out of a window on the top floor.
“Could you help me please? I broke the handle on my door and I can’t get out of my apartment…”
He hesitated, unsure how to respond.
“I feel like such an idiot but I just don’t know what to do… I’m trapped in here!”
“Do you think maybe you could open the door from the outside if I buzz you in?”
She spoke slowly in a high, rather plaintive voice. Her brown hair gleamed in the sun. She wore a pale turtleneck sweater.
“Well… all right…”
“Thank you! I’m in 4a. There’s no elevator. Sorry!”
The door buzzed and he stepped into a dim hallway with cracked marble tiles and a row of brass mailboxes. As he climbed the wooden stairs, it occurred to him that he was being set up to be mugged. This was no doubt some old trick; well known to New Yorkers, but still good for a newcomer like himself. The woman had probably spotted him the moment he’d turned down the street—guessed he was English from his herringbone jacket perhaps, or the old-fashioned brogues that he had polished that morning—and readied her accomplice, some thug who would be waiting for him behind her door with a knife or a gun… He should go back outside immediately, he told himself; turn around and leave. But something—some perverse pride or gallantry—prevented him. He moved on up the stairs: not afraid, but with a feeling of melancholy resignation.
The door to 4a was a dull beige colour, with an egg-shaped brass knob. He knocked. There was a movement at the peephole, then the woman’s voice; softer now:
“What shall I do?”
“I guess try turning the handle.”
He turned the handle but it didn’t seem to be connected to anything.
“I think the spindle may have come out.”
“Oh. Well, try just pushing.”
He gave the door a push.
“Nothing much seems to be happening.”
He pushed as hard as he could. Still the door didn’t budge.
“I think maybe you need to take a run at it,” the woman said.
He paused. The imagined mugging gave way in his mind to a more sinister scenario. He was going to be accused of breaking and entering, or whatever they called it here: caught on some hidden camera perhaps; blackmailed… Thoughts of some embarrassing drama involving the police and his supervisors at work went through his head. And yet, with the same fatalistic resignation as before, he stepped back along the landing and ran full tilt at the door, hurling himself against it.
This time it burst open. He and the woman stood face to face. She looked about forty; her features lined but still youthful, a tailored skirt hanging in the shape of a Ming vase below her close-fitting sweater. There appeared to be no one else in the apartment: a studio by the look of it, with bare brick walls, shelves full of magazines and plants, and a bed in the far corner half-hidden by a screen. After a moment of startled silence, the woman spoke:
“Wow! You did it.”
“So it would appear.”
“That’s wonderful! I don’t know what I would have done. I was just—I was just trying to go out.”
“Well, I’m glad to have helped.”
She had been smiling, but now she began to look agitated; her eyes darting about the room as if seeking support from familiar objects. The situation, though evidently not dangerous, seemed to him freshly awkward. It struck him that having forced the door open, he had taken on the aspect of an intruder, even though the woman had asked him to do it. For a moment this made him actually feel like an intruder, stirring something unexpected inside him. And this in turn prompted the thought that he must leave immediately, so as not to appear to be trying to take advantage in some underhand way. He straightened his jacket. The woman glanced at him nervously.
“I don’t know how to thank you…”
“Oh, no need.”
“Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”
“No, that’s very kind of you.”
He laughed: “A little early for me.”
He went back down the stairs, smiling to himself. Already as he reached the street he was composing in his mind the email he would send his girlfriend that night. He would make the whole story into a little mock epic of suspense and misplaced apprehension, with the woman as a damsel in distress and himself as the naive but gallant knight, too chivalrous to ignore her plea for help. He would describe the gloomy hallway, the sense of being led into a trap, the melancholy obligation to proceed nevertheless, the oddness of breaking into a strange woman’s flat. His little moment of male regression he would omit, but he would try to describe the woman herself.
Although what was there to be said about her, after all? A New York woman of a certain well-groomed type: more glamorous-looking than her English counterpart, her face more concertedly made up, her hair more showily coiffured, her manner at once more direct and more remote, giving that odd effect of intimacy and unknowability.
He pictured her again, facing him in the doorway with her dazed, slightly frantic expression, the afternoon light refracting on the surface of her hair. Her voice came back to him, high and a little mournful: I was just trying to go out… Briefly, a vague disquiet entered him, as though there had been some complication or confusion present in the picture that he had failed to grasp at the time. He tried to pin it down, but it seemed to retreat from him as he pursued it, and by the time he arrived at his destination on Washington Street he had decided he was mistaken. It was as he had thought: the woman herself had been the least interesting aspect of the whole situation.
She went straight to the kitchenette and poured a vodka martini into one of the cocktail glasses chilling on the shelf of the freezer. Listening to his shoes clomp down the last flight of stairs, she swept the chrysanthemum stems into the disposal unit and stepped over to the window where she watched him come out through the door and walk off down the block.
She sipped her drink, following his progress till he disappeared across Ninth Avenue.
“Goddam Englishman,” she said.
The accent had thrown her, triggering some absurd reflex of guilty nervousness. That and how much younger he was than she’d thought.
The sun sank down behind the rooftop opposite and the colour drained out of the room; only the chrysanthemums were still glowing yellow on the coffee table, as if they’d been dipped in some kind of luminous paint.
A mistake, those. The wrong note entirely. She must have realised that unconsciously. She’d picked them up on impulse coming back from the liquor store with the Stoli, then forgotten about them till he was already in the building, so that she had had to unwrap them and trim them and set them in their vase, all in the space it took him to climb the stairs, forgetting even then to throw out the stems, which meant that the entire time he was there she’d been thinking about whether he had noticed them and if so whether it was reasonable or paranoid to imagine he might infer from them that she was not in fact just going out but had just come in, in which case—
“Oh, who cares.” She said, tipping back the rest of the drink.
She stood, consulting her own restlessness. After a minute or perhaps ten minutes a smile rose on to her face. Was this possible? There were ways in which the world forced itself on you and you had no choice but to yield. But there were also ways of using your own weakness as a source of strength. At high school she and her best friend had discovered they could do anything the other dared them to do by telling themselves they would do it on the count of three, with eternal damnation as the penalty for chickening out. One, two, three, and without hesitation the highway at the end of the school road would be run across blindfold; the cherrybomb-rigged toy boat sent floating over the pond to explode amid the boys’ fleet of miniature clippers; the mystery substance puffed, sniffed, swallowed… Cumulative observances had strengthened the rite over time until it came to possess an almost magical potency, with no need of the penalty clause to enforce it. She had continued to practise it at college and on into adult life, using it not just for feats of gratuitous recklessness but also for simple practical purposes. One, two, three, and she could dive into the icy lake her husband’s family had owned in Maine. One, two, three, and she could make herself call up her brother at his law office in Atlanta and ask for a loan… It wasn’t about willpower; it was about submission. That was the glory of it.
She strode over to the table and picked up the bowl of flowers, carrying them into the kitchenette and shoving them into the garbage. No more innovations. From the kitchenette she went over to the door and wedged the thick brass tongue all but a few millimetres in, using a paperclip the way she had figured out earlier that summer. And then, pushing the door till she heard the little click, she crossed the room to take up her position once again, beside the quartered glass of the casement window.
The sky was clear; just a small fleet of clouds patrolling the river, pink-lit from beneath. Nobody of any interest on the street. She waited, thinking of the first time it had happened. She really had locked herself in: pulled the handle and its mechanism right out of the door and been unable to unfasten the catch. In a panic of claustrophobia she had called down to the the first person she had seen passing: a man in a business suit who turned out to be a shoe retailer on his way to check out a new storefront. It had been his idea, not hers, to take a run at the door after nothing else worked. When it burst open and they had found themselves face to face with each other, they had both felt it: the sense of something unexpected surging up through the situation. He had stood there with a strange look on his face, making no attempt either to leave or come further in. She had offered him coffee, then before he had been able to form an answer, had heard herself add: “a drink?”, at which he had smiled, very sweetly. She smiled back now, remembering…
A man appeared: coming east along the block from Ninth Avenue. She studied him carefully as he approached. He was tall, lean, with long greying hair. Leather coat, jeans, scuffed cowboy boots. A little wolfish maybe, his chin unshaven by the look of it, but after Mr Tweed Jacket that was maybe just what was needed. She gripped the handles on the window and slid it up. For a moment a vertiginous sensation passed through her, as if she had opened the window on to her own fears. One, two, three, she counted in silence. Then heard her own voice calling:
“Sir, sir, excuse me sir…”