An Appointment In London

By | Saturday, March 21, 2020 Leave a Comment



“I’ll make you a bet,” he said. “I’ll bet you that if we come back here in 20 years we’ll find the world indistinguishable from today. The loser buys dinner.” 

“Wait, Dad.” I said. “What’s the bet? If I’m right the world is laid to waste and I win. If I lose, I have to buy dinner. I’m not sure I like that bet.”

“OK, I tell you what.” My father arched an eyebrow. “We’ll come back to this restaurant on March 21, 2000, and flip a coin. The loser pays.”

At 18 years of age, twenty years seemed like more than forever. If it amused my dad to make a bet for twenty years in the future, it was fine with me.

We had arrived at that dinner table during my senior year in high school. It seems that my parents had become increasingly concerned with what they considered to be my overwhelming case of adolescent angst. Apparently, I had become insolent, lazy, and sloppy. As far as I could tell, I had become a typical teenager. They were convinced that something had to be done to snap me out of this rut. So, in March of 1980 my father let me skip a week of school and took me with him on a business trip to London.

Our final night in London he had taken me to dinner at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, one of London’s fine old restaurants. As our plates of prime rib with Yorkshire pudding worked their way down to rinds of fat and crumbs, our conversation had turned to the future. From my arrogant, nihilistic, “child-of-the-bomb” point of view I opined that either the flower-children of the ‘60s would assume power in the government, resulting in a world of peace, love, and free drugs for all, or we would destroy ourselves, leaving the planet in a state of ruin. Furthermore, my money was on the latter. My conservative father, perhaps goaded on by my extreme position, asserted with Ivy-League certitude that in the year 2000, the world would be virtually indistinguishable from the place we knew and loved in 1980.

“All right, Dad,” I said, “you’re on. March 21, 2000.”

Over the years, from time to time my father would remind me of our appointment. Of course, I was busy growing up, going to college, getting jobs and building a career. The year 2000 was still infinitely far away. I didn’t think much of it.

In January 2000 I was arranging a round-the-world trip as part of my new career as a travel writer. The planning was not going well. I decided that to get a handle on things I needed to map it out on a calendar. I went to my computer, launched my schedule program, and had it spit out monthly calendars through June. There it was, smack dab in the middle of my trek through the Australian outback: “March 21: Dinner with Dad in London.” I couldn’t recall when I had put it into my computer - it must have been years prior. Frantically I picked up the phone and punched the digits for my father’s office. “Uh, hi Dad. Do you remember that bet we made to meet in London?”

“Sure do. March 21st, wouldn’t miss it for the world,” came his reply.

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I met my father on the morning of the 19th at the Oxford & Cambridge Club of London, a place chosen not because of its unique charms but for nostalgia: it was where we had stayed in 1980. Desperately I searched for signs of change to feed my argument that the world was indeed different, but few institutions change more slowly than the O & C Club. The deskman still looked down his nose at me for wearing jeans and sneakers; the lobby still had a tomblike silence in which every whisper echoed; the elevator still ran at geriatric speed. The only distinct difference was that on our prior visit my father and I had shared a double. This time I was able to afford my own private room to avoid his snoring.

We had arrived in London two days early for a little father/son re-acquaintance time. He had flown in from Boston, I from Prague, he from the 19th century, I from the 21st. I was both excited and nervous; three days as an adult with my father – a man I barely knew. Because of his workaholic bent we had spent very little time together as I was growing up. My deepest insights into his personality seemed to come from examining myself. When I was furiously impatient waiting for a table at a restaurant, I would recognize my father in myself, nodding silently at the new understanding. When girlfriends complained that my face was an impenetrable mask of stony silence while I felt cheerful and connected, I realized that maybe my dad was not the cold gargoyle I imagined as a child. At times I have said or done things that have given me the strange sensation that he is inside me, looking out through my eyes. How many of my personality traits were his? How many of my beliefs about him were wrong?

That first day we went for a bit of culture at the Tate Gallery. We compared our tastes in art and I was shocked to find that mine had become quite stodgy - preferring Flemish and Dutch masters - while my father regaled me with praise for impressionism. Go figure. Following the museum with a leisurely stroll through London, we managed to carefully avoid any talk of how the world may have changed, favoring instead light conversation about the family, the town, and issues of the day. With two days until our dinner, we had to pace ourselves.

That night’s dinner was my opportunity to push us outside the stream of our former visit. If there’s anything that had changed in London in the past 20 years, it was the quality of the food. I had chosen a restaurant called Quaglino's, a stylish, see-and-be-seen place full of handsome people of all ages with a very chic attached bar. We both agreed that the food was excellent – certainly the match of restaurants in any metropolitan center of gastronomy. Further father-son bonding occurred as we realized that we were each ogling the same buxom woman at a nearby table. I had ceded my father the seat with the better view, which he seemed to fully appreciate.

The next day my father took me on my first trip into the English countryside. We took the train out of London to visit a friend of his in Kent, where we spent a pleasant afternoon. Riding back to London, regarding this man snoozing in the seat next to me, I couldn’t help recalling how difficult our relationship had been when I was growing up. Long days at the office left him short tempered and craving only peace and quiet. Time with children was not big on his calendar. I was a grownup before I began to understand. I have never known how to deal with kids. I’m sure he was the same way with me. The day I comprehended this it was like a curtain being pulled aside, affording me a new insight into my youth. Although it was illuminating, this recognition had provided little comfort. Now that we were both adults, a meeting of the minds was finally possible.

For our final day, what better way to gain perspective on the way things had changed than a visit to the British Museum - full of antiquities that even my father must declare “old.” Along the way I pulled us into a coin shop. This evening would be the big dinner. I felt sure no ordinary quarter would do for our bet. I asked the dealer for a coin from 1980, one with heft, weight, and significance. They had the perfect thing: a one-pound coin commemorating the birthday of the Queen Mother. Full of pomp and history, the coin showed a bust of the Queen Mother surrounded by bows, arrows, and stylized lions.

That night we took a taxi to Simpson's-in-the-Strand. My father had alerted them to the historic nature of our dinner, a fact that was not lost on this august edifice. On our arrival the maitre d’ welcomed us, shook our hands, and presented us with complimentary glasses of champagne as we were seated. The restaurant hadn’t changed a bit. Our booth in the back corner was dark oak padded with leather. The dark paneled walls, cream colored ceiling, and subdued lighting only added to the elegance of the place. Though the restaurant was full, I hardly noticed – my concentration was absorbed by our conversation. From our exclusive corner we ordered a meal from our past: prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, steamed vegetables, and a bottle of wine.

Suddenly it was all very real, and in our own private way it was important. Like opening a time capsule buried in the town square of our family, we were here to inspect the passage of the years. In my case it spanned more than half of my life – from lost, confused adolescence to the independence of adulthood. For my father it had covered the no less significant transition from middle to old age. Though we discussed the changes in the world, it was the changes in ourselves that were noteworthy. He asked me why I had never married, and why he had no grandchildren. I asked him what it was like to be closer to the end of life than the beginning.

In a rare display of emotion, he tried to convince me to move back to the city of my youth. He said that my mother missed me and wanted me closer to home, but the crack in his voice told me that the request was his own. I tried to convince him to take more time off from work, to enjoy his life and relax. He reminded me that it was work he enjoyed; without it he couldn’t relax.

As beef and bread transitioned to crème caramel, we tossed the Queen Mother commemorative coin. When we had made the bet long before, paying for dinner would have wiped me out. Such a coin toss would have been met with clenched teeth and raw nerves. But now, as the coin landed heads up, it really didn’t matter. My Dad lost the toss and would pick up the bill, as he had twenty years before. The food, and who paid for it, was not the point.

“So, Dad, we’ll meet here again in twenty years?”

“Hah! I should live so long,” he replied.

“Oh, I think you’ve got a good twenty years left in you.” This time I was the optimist.

“All right,” he said, “you’re on. March 21, 2020.”

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Postscript: It turns out that my father was right twice. First he was right that in the year 2000, the world was remarkably similar to that of 1980. Second, he was right that we wouldn't have dinner at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand in 2020, as he passed away in 2018. Sitting here in "shelter-in-place" lock down during the Covid-19 crisis, I have to wonder, will I go to Simpson's-in-the-Strand in 2040? Will I be alive? Will there be a Simpson's-in-the-Strand in 2040? Will international travel be possible? Will prime rib be a foodstuff that people eat? And if I can go, who will I take with me, and who will pay? Perhaps I will live long enough to find out.

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