Natalya lost

More than forty years have passed since my last personal encounter with the international “jet set,” in the London (England) of the late ‘seventies. It was in the form of a ridiculously spoilt and gratuitously demanding little girl, not yet out of her teens.

I had no reason to know her. I was squatting peacefully in a modest stone workman’s cottage on a drab, once working-class street in Vauxhall, that was scheduled by the socialist borough council for replacement by glossy welfare stacks. But this building project was delayed by their bankruptcy. Meanwhile the neighbourhood was occupied by hippies. We were indeed encouraged by the (pre-Thatcher) socialist authorities to move in, for London had a “housing crisis,” and rows of empty working-class houses made for “poor optics.”

It was a simple life, with almost no modern services or appliances, in a tiny house then well into its second century of decline. Yet it was well-enough built to survive perhaps five, ten, or twenty centuries more, had the bureaucrats been persuaded to ignore it. Already, as a young man, ideologically opposed to all things glossy, I preferred “the margins” of 20th-century urban life. London was after all my Athens, my Peripatos, and for a moment I was left to explore it.

Cars, even taxis, never pulled up at the door of “65 Wilcox,” or did not until this one slightly fateful evening. The car contained trunks, suitcases, bags, unrolled clothing, hatboxes, loose feathered hats, and Natalya.

It was driven by an older, quite elegant lady whom I would have guessed was Natalya’s mother, but she identified only as a “friend of a friend,” aware of my “special situation.” (I lived rent-free.) This woman had a cultured accent, and a voice of confident authority. She presented Natalya as a daughter of the poet Robert Lowell, which she could not have been. Later I would place her as the daughter of Lady Caroline Blackwood, then the aging Lowell’s high-society mistress.

I was told, in effect, to take in this stray. I say, “told,” for I wasn’t asked for my opinion. One of the advantages of private property is that it (often) gives the owner the power to ban or evict people. But I now had an aristocratic tenant, with abject habits of dependency (in her cloud of marijuana), and expensive tastes. Had I realized that this little girl was probably an heir to the Guinness fortune in Ireland, the story could have been made more interesting, but at the time, I was not so corrupt.

As it happened, a writer also came to stay with me (let’s leave his name out, he is still alive), who needed just one evening to seduce my bored young charge. Then, in another flash, both of them were unaccountably gone — leaving me with the task of disposing of several outlandish headpieces.

Some weeks passed, before Natalya turned up in the tabloids. She was now a spread in the Evening Standard, for she had died while taking a heroin overdose in a (grade II listed) Kensington flat. She was news because of her relations, as I was then more systematically informed.