CAMILLA MET us at London's Heathrow Airport with hugs, kisses and assurances that we were actually welcome. Months earlier, when we had been plotting how best to freeload during our Grand Tour, we had sent her one of our disingenuous "How long has it been?" letters. Innocent Camilla had written back sweetly, saying it hadn't really been that long, as a matter of fact, but to come and stay as long as we liked. Oh, we would, we wrote back, we would.
On the way to the car park she apologized for a slight change in plans but said the humidity and heat in London were so beastly, would we mind terribly if we went instead to her mother's country estate in Wiltshire? Since both of our bags contained no small amount of black volcanic dust as well as clothes still damp from intimate contact with the Grojota, the Svarta and several other Icelandic rivers, neither of us protested too vehemently at the prospect of a weekend at a British country estate.
An hour later Camilla turned off the M-4, drove past the abandoned tarmac from which Jumping Jim Gavin's Airborne Rangers once took off on their missions, and crunched up the gravel driveway of the estate. It sits on 700 acres of rolling farmland with thickly wooded stands of enormous oaks and cedar. Cavaliers and Roundheads fought battles in some of the fields. Bonfires were lit on the hills to celebrate the birth of new kings. Not far from the main house are the remains of a New Stone fort, along whose ramparts Camilla and her sisters, as children, used to search for arrowheads, axs and other implements of ancient commerce and killing.
A herd of Jerseys was mooing 30 yards from the front door. A Cavalier King Charles spaniel looked at us with melancholy eyes. The smell of new-cut hay blew across the pastures. After 10 days of Iceland's volcanic deserts, all this greenery had an intoxicating effect.
The beds were soft. The Yorkshire pudding was hot and savory, the gravy puddling around fresh vegetables from the garden. The port flowed freely from the decanter. We took a walk after dinner in the late twilight, out to the New Stone Age fort. It is a large circle, 200 yards in diameter, ringed by a high rampart formed by the earth these early men dug up to make their moat. There is a spot by the path leading through the rampart where the spaniels will not go. Whenever they approach it, they stop, shivering and crouching, eyes suddenly frightened, barking furiously and unaccountably at something 3,000 years old, unfelt and unseen by humans.
Our own fears were founded not in the preternatural, but in the warning Camilla's mother had given us about the bull. The bull would be no problem, she'd told us, as long as it was surrounded by its cows. Alone, it might be grumpy. Certainly this bull had every reason to be grumpy. Last winter, one of the coldest in England's history, the bull, its amorous instincts unaffected by temperature, had mounted one of the cows. But the cold had a curious consequence: The bull was unable to resheath itself. Frostbite threatened. This was an alarming prospect, not only for the bull, but for the estate, considering the price of VSOP bull semen. So the farmer -- a brave sort, one gathers -- provided an extra large sweat sock as a wrap for two days until the disability corrected itself, to everyone's relief, including the bull's presumably. We didn't see the old boy that night, only a stag deer making for a glen. We returned to the house for more port.
We gathered for conversation in the properly appointed drawing room, the sort of place where one could imagine Bertie Wooster and Jeeves appearing any moment, where one could expect a subdued diiscussion of arts and manners in La Belle Epoque. For some reason, though, the subject kept getting around to the sexual peccadilloes of the British upper classes.
Buckley, subdued after the unfortunate incident at the embassy in Reykjavik, where he had regaled 10 uncomprehending Icelanders and the stunned U.S. ambassador with the latest U.S. congressional jokes, was not responsible. No, the subject arose quite casually while old family snapshots were being passed around. One showed a little girl of three, riding piggyback on a man of somewhat sinister mien.
"Do you remember him, darling?" Camilla's mother asked.
"Heaven's yes," said Camilla in a tone that aroused our interest.
"Well," said Camilla's mother, drawing a deep breath, "it's rather a peculiar story. Great friends of ours, lovely fellow, who, quite late in life, decided to become a doctor. He became a doctor. Then" -- she drew another breath and slightly arched her eyebrows -- "he developed rather a thing about feet."
"A thing about feet?" someone asked.
"Yes. He started cutting off his wife's toes."
"Good Lord," said Buckley.
"But I thought foot fetishists liked feet," said Tierney.
Camilla's mother explained that the doctor put his wife under anesthesia, and when she woke up, she was missing two toes on her left foot.
Tierney shook his head and said you always hurt the digits you love. Buckley muttered something about putting her best foot forward.
The wife apparently found it in her heart to forgive. But his appetite for her toes must have been great indeed, and one morning she awoke to find herself again with fewer toes than she had gone to sleep with. Three this time, from the other foot.
"She divorced him," said Camilla's mother. "And he was sent to jail. It was rather a scandal. Awful, really."
"She finally put her foot down, huh?" said Buckley.
We nibbled digestive biscuits and drained glass after glass of port as we chatted on about missing toes and like passions in Britain -- the banker who enjoyed having freshly baked cream buns hurled at his privvies, the old gent who had his ladies root about the drawing room, naked except for a single pheasant feather intimately placed, pecking up kernels of corn. And finally the wonderful tale in David Niven's The Moon's a Balloon about the British soldier who used to dress up as a bride, select a groom from among his men and make the rest of them dress up as bridesmaids. We wondered what the saleslady at the bridal shop must have thought, what with 10 fellows out of "Charge of the Light Brigade" showing up to be outfitted in ribbons, lace and taffeta.
The next day, Sunday, was pleasingly indolent. One slight drawback to freeloading is that you feel compelled to make yourself useful -- cleaning dishes or whatever -- or to be entertaining, or at least try (by telling, say, the latest Washington jokes). But our hostess told us we didn't have to do anything. Consequently, we didn't.
The previous Sunday we had bumped across 100 miles of Icelandic lunar terrain in dense fog; today we awoke at 9 to the sound of morning doves and a breakfast of fat English sausages with hot mustard, eggs, toast, marmalade and tea. Read the newspapers and did crosswords until noon, when Camilla's mother appeared with a pitcher of Pimm's, full of tiny fresh strawberries, cucumbers and sprig of mint. After lunch we played croquet, tennis and swam.
Unfortunately, we both had to work this week. This was a distasteful but necessary prospect. The problem with taking a Grand Tour in this post-modern age is time. Only the French take what they call "grands vacances," fleeing Paris in droves on the 31st of July, not returning until September. It's quite a sensible notion, really. But in the States, the idea of taking off for two months, as we did, is not thought sensible. It is thought profligate. It is one thing to take off a summer after graduating from college. At that point in life you need to "find" yourself, or "go away and think," and no one will think the worse of you. But at our age (29), you bloody well should have found yourself. So explaining to your boss, your girlfriend, your family, your friends that you need two months off is not easy.
"Why?" they say, not unreasonably.
"I need to get away," you say. And here lies the problem, because what you are saying is that you need to get away from them. In the end, what you have to do these days if you are going to make a Grand Tour is combine some work with the more pressing business of pleasure.
The next day Tierney caught a train to Newcastle for some research while Buckley stayed in London to promote a book. One day Buckley was on a BBC morning radio show. There are five guests at a time on this show, none of whom have anything to do with one another. The producer told Buckley the day before about the other guests.
One was a paraplegic woman who had won six gold medals in the Special Olympics. Another was a Cambridge don who had started a lucrative business improving the English of corporate training manuals. Another was a man who had recently completed a 500-mile race on foot. The last guest would be Barbara Windsor, said the producer, quite pleased, as he explained who she was: the actress who had appeared in many of the "Carry on" movies--the farcical, slightly bawdy English comedies of the '50s and '60s. The name rang a bell. Is she, Buckley asked, uh, well-endowed? Indeed, said the producer.
The next morning Buckley arrived at the BBC building at the same time as another of the guests. She was a stout woman, in her 60s, well-endowed indeed. She looked remarkably like Margaret Mead.
"Are you Miss Windsor?" asked Buckley.
She began laughing very loudly. "No," she said, "but I'm told I look like parts of her." It turned out that she was, in fact, the professor at Cambridge. When Buckley finally saw the real Miss Windsor, he realized that he had performed the British equivalent of asking Margaret Mead, "Are you Loni Anderson?"
Early in the broadcast, the host asked Miss Windsor if it were true she had been voted the 1976 "Bottom of the Year" award.
"Yeah," she said. "It is the only thing I've ever won."
She was quite talkative and candid. She and the host called each other "darling."
"Tell me, darling," he said. "It hasn't been a good year for you, has it? What with the cancellation of your show, your husband's trial for--"
"No," she said, "it hasn't really."
He added, as an afterthought, "Of course, he wasn't convicted." Somehow, "Of course, he was acquitted," might have sounded better.
"That's right," she said.
"And I understand this was all predicted by a fortuneteller?"
And so it went.
Tierney returned from Newcastle the next morning. We were actually glad to see each other. Sharing the same laundry bag and bedroom and even the same handkerchief can produce a strain in even the best friendship after two weeks on the road. Even a Grand Tour can become a grind.
But the spirit of companionship--and freeloading--was strong, and, as they say of emerging Latin American and African democracies, vibrant. Nothing could stop us now. We had nearly a week's clean laundry in our bags.
Next: On to the continent.