“I want to check out that bookstore.” Joe pointed to a store that seemed to occupy most of its block on Piccadilly, its dark wooden façade making a contrasting statement to the pastel stucco and white columns of the rest of the building.
“OK. I’ll meet you there in a half-hour. I want to check on Maria Grazia’s present.” Nancy had ordered a wool suit for her, the finest gift she picked for anyone in the office.
Joe stepped into Hatchard’s and stopped at the door. As far as he could see, tightly-packed shelves of books rose to the ceiling, even along the stairways that led up to the upper floors, to disappear into the far wall of books on each level. He had seen pictures of places like this in old prints and photographs, but to see it live, and full of shiny new books took his breath away.
“Good day, sir. Is this your first visit?” Joe jumped at the kindly sound. A middle-aged man with wire-rimmed spectacles and a tartan waistcoat was beaming at him, like an old print of Father Christmas.
“Oh, yes, sir,” Joe stammered. “It must be obvious.”
“If I may say so, young man, what is obvious is your love of books.” He waved Joe into the store. “May I help you find something in particular?”
“Well, yes, no, I mean, I think I want to see everything, but I do have a list here.” Joe searched for his list of abbreviations, while explaining his interest in books that might have current information on military affairs, intelligence and perhaps terrorism. The bookseller seemed to know exactly what he needed and led him upstairs.
“I dare say that we are seeing increasing interest in these things, so much so that we may have to expand our modest holdings and bring them to the ground floor. Several titles are already on various best-seller lists.” He paused at the top of the stairs to consider the wide-eyed youngster in front of him.
“Would you care for some tea?” he asked. “You may be here a while.” Joe thanked him and said no, because his mother had given him a rendezvous here in just a half-hour.
“Then I will look out for her. Perhaps we could take that tea when she arrives or at a future visit. Here is the section that I think you will find most useful. Out to that corner and along the far wall. There are more titles on the next floor up, if you still can’t quite find what you need.” He turned and stepped lightly down to the main floor.
Joe could not run through the books fast enough. This was a gold mine, books on spy craft, intelligence organizations, glossaries of military and intelligence terms in every major European language. He finally settled on a small military dictionary, and a NATO glossary. Both had all the words that had stumped him so far. Then he went back to look at the books on terrorism and Interpol, the international police organization.
“Joe, where are you?” Nancy’s voice reached him from the ground floor. Joe looked at his watch and jumped up. He had been lost for more than an hour. He grabbed his books and ran downstairs.
Joe found his mother and the bookseller going over books on the European Common Market and a scholarly monograph on a new line of drug research. A tea service on the counter sat between them. The bookseller winked at him behind her back.
“Would you like that tea, now, young man?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The bookseller poured a cup and put it near Joe on the counter, then slid the sugar bowl toward him.
“Mom, I have to come back here. This place has everything.” He took a sip of the tea.
“I think you’re right, son. I could go broke in here.” She turned to the merchant. “Do you publish a catalog or a book list?”
“Yes, we do, ma’am. Quarterly. And it’s quite complete.”
“That’s excellent.” She gave him a business card. “Could you add us to your mailing list? I can pay for the extra postage.”
“That won’t be necessary, ma’am. Most of our mailing list members are on the Continent.” He tilted his head toward Joe. “Shall I mark it for an extra copy, ma’am?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Joe put his books near the register. “Mom, I still would like to come back.”
“We will. I don’t know about you, but I need to buy more traveller’s cheques before we do.”
Joe fished out his traveller’s cheques to pay for his books. He only had to cash one of them to cover his books. “It looks like I’m doing OK,” he said. “I love this place.”
England is famous for its rain. On their way back from Hatchard’s, Joe and Nancy barely made it to the hotel before the skies opened up. It quickly settled into one of those steady downpours that could go on for days. They both chose to stay indoors, Nancy attending the conference and networking with her colleagues, Joe translating the del Piave book as fast as he could.
During the day, Joe worked in the suite. The rain beat steadily and gently on the windows, setting up a rhythm that he found comfortable as he wrote for hours. The translation did not pose any problems, and he made notes as he went along, rather than stop.
After dinner each night, they took refuge in the writing room. The Great Western Royal was a 19th-Century railway hotel near Paddington Station. It retained the somber air of a gentlemen’s club downstairs. Comfortable armchairs with floor lamps and heavy writing desks with brass lamps allowed a quiet comfort and a change of scenery. They could order coffee or drinks and relax in rather more space than their hotel suite.
The second evening, Joe finished writing out the last chapter of the presentation book for the del Piave Group. He pushed back the chair and exhaled a sigh of relief. His mother looked up from a comfortable armchair where she had been reading the monograph that she had purchased at Hatchard’s.
“First draft anyway. I’ve pushed through the whole book to get it on paper, but now I have to go back and look up everything I wasn’t sure of and fix the mistakes.”
“That’s the way writers produce books, Joe. The hard part starts now.”
“I know, but it still feels really good to get through the whole thing once.”
Nancy closed her book. “You know, Joe, I’m supposed to be the one on a working vacation. But my meetings end tomorrow, and you’ve been burning night and day on this book.”
“But I like this work.”
“I like my work, too, especially since you freed me to concentrate on it. But neither of us is getting a break. Tomorrow, I think we should take a tour of the City. Then I’d like to get out of London.”
Joe was packing up his work into his knapsack.
“Could we see Stonehenge?” he asked.
“Sure. We could spend a few days touring the Salisbury Plain and the Cotswolds, then come back.”
They checked out two days later and took the train to Salisbury.
“Joe, it’s always raining here. That hasn’t stopped you before.” Her eyes went to the knapsack hastily stashed against the wall on the bed. “Have you been working again?”
“Just a little.”
“I thought you finished,” she said. “What’s in there anyway?” She started toward the knapsack.
Joe leapt in front of her, grabbing the bag. “Just the book, Mom. Just leave me alone.”
Nancy looked hurt. “Joe, this isn’t healthy. Are you hiding something from me?”
“I just want something that’s mine. And I don’t want to go out.”
Nancy sat down. Joe hated that. Whenever she got upset or ready to argue, she would suddenly sit down quietly and think, never taking her eyes off him. He sat on the bed clutching the knapsack and stared at the floor. This time he would not crack. He would make her talk first.
It felt like forever. A car with a defective muffler drove by, whining like an overworked lawn mower. He heard the chambermaid knocking on the door down the hall, then going in. Water ran through the pipes: she must be cleaning the bathroom, he thought.
He realized just how quiet this English village was. Rome was a crowded, bustling metropolis; he was surprised to notice how such plain sounds stood out. There really were few other noises.
His attention was snapped back to the room by the sounding of his mother chuckling softly. He looked up and scowled. She spoke first.
“Go ahead and say something now. You win.”
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, really. It’s just hard to stay angry with you. You’re so much like your father and me.”
“Not that again, please.”
“Then let me ask this. Do you really not want to go out or do you just want to work on that knapsack more? — no, ten seconds.”
Joe almost burst for five seconds. This was another trick he hated, mostly because it worked. When the ten seconds were up, he said, “I want to work.”
“I understand that, and I know you mean it. But we promised ourselves a real vacation, and we both know we need it.”
“Are you afraid of missing your deadline?”
“Not really. I still have the typing.”
“But you can’t do that here anyway.”
“Well -” he stopped. She’s going to find out about the Arland stuff if I keep talking, he thought. “OK. Let’s go.”
“Leave the knapsack closed until we get home?”
Joe nodded. He held it a little closer.
Nancy stood up. She walked to the door and stopped. She looked back at her son still sitting on the bed. “Joe, relax. I won’t look in the knapsack. Is there anything in there besides translation work?”
“Just my camera and film.”
“Bring that and leave the knapsack behind.”
Hiding Arland’s translation work from his mother bothered Joe more than anything else, even more than getting caught in class last year. It was bad enough when there was just the guilt. Now he added the fear that his mother and her company might be involved in something that had nothing to do with pharmaceuticals. He was not sure really what she did when she travelled, or whether it was a normal amount of travel or not. The meetings in London were all closed to outsiders, and Nancy did not discuss the details of her work outside the office. As often as not, Joe learned about it from the newspapers.
On the way to the cab stand on the corner, he forced himself not to dwell on it. As they rode out to Stonehenge, the rain stopped.
The cab driver had offered to accompany them to visit the monument at Stonehenge and bring them back. He included a visit to Woodhenge, which was much smaller and not as well known.
To Joe’s eyes, accustomed to the manmade wonders of the Eternal City, Stonehenge looked like a natural formation, awesome as it was. That humans without tools and advanced machinery laid massive stones on one another with such precision amazed him. He had appreciated the grandeur and acoustics of Salisbury Cathedral very much, but Stonehenge left him breathless. He walked in and among the stones and noticed how the sun traced a line among them. When the summer solstice came, the sun would appear perfectly aligned up the avenue at sunrise.
They tarried in Stonehenge for an hour, then the driver took them about two miles north to what looked like a large park. Woodhenge looked like a collection of concrete cylinders in circles, sitting in an open field with no signs or the usual collections of hawkers and tour buses. Down the slope, sheep grazed in the tall, uncut grass. The driver explained that the two henge monuments were roughly contemporary. Woodhenge had been built with large timbers, and the concrete forms served to provide a visual indication of what had been in the holes.
The next day, they took a train to Bath, where Nancy hired another cab to take them through the Cotswolds. In a little village on the edge of a ravine, Joe got tickled by the sign on a sandwich board outside.
“Hey, Mom, read that fast three times.”
“Bar Food. Barfood. Barf food”. They both laughed so hard that they had to wait to calm down before going in. The food was substantial and delicious and went well with the locally brewed beer.
They spent an extra day in London, walking the downtown area, and collecting the shopping being held for them. Both felt rested and glad that they had left everything normal behind for a few days.
Joe gripped the arm rest again as the plane plunged suddenly. The storm had struck suddenly just south of Milan, only an hour from their destination. Lightning flashed outside, turning the portholes of the airplane cabin into big strobe lights. The effect was eerie, because the lightning was so much brighter than the cabin lights. The lightning flashes froze the passengers in a variety of poses of terror and misery. Joe thought of the engravings of Hell in the illustrated copy of Dante’s Inferno at home. This would be one of the circles of Hell if the great Italian poet were alive today.
His stomach fought for a chance to fill a bag like his mother was doing. Most of the passengers were using the “doggy bags” and pushing the call buttons for more. The smell of vomit in the cabin made things worse. Joe gave his doggy bag to his mother and hoped that he would not regret it.
A stewardess made her way down the aisle with a handful of bags. She gripped seat backs and luggage racks, falling twice by the time she ran out of bags and started back to the galley.
Then the storm stopped as suddenly as it had started. The stewardess walked back to the kitchen area for a cart to collect the trash and the bags. Joe looked out the window. The plane dropped below the clouds, and then out from under them. Below him the Agro Pontino lay between the Alban Hills and the Tyrrhenian Sea in a vast patchwork of farms. Sunlight bathed the countryside, with no hint of the cloudy terror that they had just left behind. Despite the lingering smell, he breathed deeply as the fear drained from his body.
The captain announced their descent to Ciampino airport. Seat belts were already as tight as they could be, but he had to remind the passengers anyway.
Customs in Italy proved a lot smoother than in Great Britain. The Finance Guard at the exit asked them if they had anything to declare and marked a big X on their suitcases with chalk. Joe wondered what that accomplished, but it was quickly forgotten. He was grateful to be on the ground and home again.
Nancy went into the ladies’ lounge while Joe went out to the sidewalk with a porter. Nancy and he had accumulated several boxes of shopping in London.
“Joe! Over here.” Jack Arland beckoned him to where he was waiting with a company car.
“Mom will be right out,” Joe said as he pointed out the car to the airport porter.
The driver and the porter put the luggage and boxes in the trunk while Jack and Joe waited at the door to the airport terminal.
“How was the trip?”
“Great going up. But on the way back we hit a storm. Most of the passengers got pretty sick.”
“Sounds lousy.” Jack glanced around. “Did you translate any more of the files I gave you?”
“Some. You didn’t tell me what you wanted first, so I started on the letters. Is that OK?”
“That will be fine.” Jack looked nervous, which made Joe uneasy. “Did you go over the rest of it.”
“Of course. But it doesn’t mean anything to me. I found a book in London that should help me translate the NATO gobbledygook.”
“Do you know what this is all about?”
“Not really. It’s company business, but I don’t understand it all. Did you find any mistakes in the last batch?”
“No, it was perfect.” Jack relaxed. He put his arm on Joe’s shoulder. “You just keep working the way you have. Oh, here comes your mother.”
Nancy had her normal color back, and she had fixed up her hair and makeup. The driver held the rear door for her. Joe sat up front while Jack went around to sit with Nancy.
“Joe said the trip back wasn’t so hot,” Jack said.
“Terrible. I may never fly again,” said Nancy.
“We got the Procter & Gamble contract after you called from London. Great work. I –”
Nancy held up her hand to cut him off. “That call was the start of my vacation, Jack. I don’t come to work until Monday. Can it wait?”
Jack laughed. “Of course. What are you doing this weekend?”
Nancy reached up and touched Joe’s shoulder. “If my son isn’t too thoroughly sick of being stuck with his mother for two weeks, I’d like to hang around the house and do nothing at all. But we’ll think of something.”
Joe twisted around. He thought he caught a look of disappointment in Jack’s face. But the man recovered quickly.
“Well, del Piave called several times. Maria Grazia said he wants to do dinner again. Is that work?”
“Pino is work, Jack,” Nancy said. “I’ll return his calls Monday.”
Nancy kept her word. The farthest they strayed from home for the next two days was to go to Church on Sunday. Saturday morning, they rose late and walked across the street to the Cavalieri Hilton, where they enjoyed a couple of sets of tennis and lunch overlooking the Eternal City. They ate at home the rest of the weekend.
Nancy read the journals and monographs she had bought in London. Joe read The Art of Espionage. They played Monopoli (the Italian version of the board game) Saturday night. Sunday afternoon, they walked to the Parco della Vittoria park at the top of the Monte Mario.
At the park, they each ordered a granita, Italian ice, at the refreshment stand at the overlook. Rome looked like the scale model of the ancient City that Joe had seen at the Museum of Roman Civilization.
The cars on the Via della Giuliana and in the Piazzale Clodio moved like lines of ants. In the far distance, the white buildings of E.U.R., the 1939 World’s Fair that never happened, rose from the dark green trees of the open country southwest of the City. The late afternoon sun washed over the buildings, painting them gold and pink.
Suddenly he felt a rush of emotion.
“Mom, this really gets me,” he said, choking slightly, nodding to the City.
Nancy stood closer to him. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“It’s more than beautiful. There’s something special about this city. I’ve never felt like this about anywhere else.”
“You’ve never come home from a trip before.”
“Yeah, that must be it, Mom. It feels good to be home.”
(to be continued)