My wife and I didn’t have to wait in the foyer for very long.
V swept toward us from what smelled like the direction of the kitchen, two glasses of champagne in her hand. A swirling vengeance of friendly German Shepherd activity surrounded her. Simultaneously apologetic and friendly, she deposited a long-stemmed glass into our hands, yelled viciously at the dogs, then turned to us again with a beautiful smile and asked about our day.
I was stunned. She looked equally at home in her beautiful silver gown as she had earlier that day when she wore work gloves and humongous boots while hefting a dead sheep into the back of her vehicle. Something about her was younger than us, even though she was in her late fifties and we were still 24 and 23. She led us gracefully into the kitchen so that she could finish the preparations while entertaining us.
Before long J made his way into the kitchen, hair still wet, showering apologies on us for not being ready when we arrived. He also exhibited this amazing combination of extreme graciousness (toward us) and complaining hostility (towards the three dogs, whenever they began thrusting their snouts into improper places).
“For goodness sakes!” V finally shouted in a shrill British accent that reminded me of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland. “Out! Out! All of you!” And while the three dogs seemed completely oblivious of J, when V spoke their tails dropped and they whimpered their way into the laundry room.
“Hm,” V said with a smile on her face. “That’s much better.”
Then the doorbell rang. Butterflies. Who were their guests? Would we add up? Feel awkwardly American? Make complete fools of ourselves?
Before the first couple made it inside the house, three more sets of headlights drove past the kitchen window and parked at the back of the driveway. Then the doorbell rang again. Soon voices flooded the house. Then V’s voice in a kind of happy shout, “Everyone to the dining room!”
Maile and I took a deep breath, then walked back down the hall, following the slowly shifting tide of humanity. Everyone chatted loudly, sipping the champagne V had similarly thrust into each of their arriving hands. The crowd bottled up outside one of the doors for a moment, then stood waiting as V directed everyone to their assigned seat.
Couples would not sit together. V arranged the seating in the order she thought would provide the most discussion among attendees. Everyone else seemed used to this, laughing with delight when they saw who V had put them beside. Maile and I were separated by a few seats. I squeezed her hand before she went to her seat. She smiled nervously.
The room was about 12 by 24. A large rectangular table, covered with 14 place settings, sat under a modest chandelier. Every square inch of the table was covered with either glasses or wine bottles or serving trays or tea pots and tea cups. Each plate was flanked by four forks, multiple spoons and varying knives. I eyed up the encoded silverware and prepared myself for what was sure to be a stressful meal.
But one of the gentlemen dispelled this myth quickly.
“My God, V, how the hell am I supposed to eat with so many pieces of cutlery? Do I use just one piece at a time?”
Everyone laughed, and the sound filled me with relief and happiness. V waved her hand.
“Just start on the outside. Besides, no one cares which fork you use.”
Everyone laughed again. I had a feeling that everyone laughing knew which fork to use, but they were all old enough to not really care about it anymore.
It was one of the most spectacular evenings of my life.
They were clearly old friends, both in age and in years spent together. The only other couple under forty was one of V’s sons who had come with his girlfriend – he, along with J, were the two axis around which the party revolved. V, once the crowd was organized to her liking and the food was proven to be perfect, seemed quite happy to fade into the background.
Something about this group made me feel safe. They were all so friendly, so kind, as if we, too, had grown up with them, had grown old with them, had started businesses and became fabulously rich with them. Perhaps they did it just to be nice, to be polite to the guests of their hosts. But I think they did it because they saw, in us, something of themselves. Adventurers moving to England to start a new life, a new business. Young hope.
Towards the end of the night J stood and raised what was probably his 7th or 8th glass of white wine toward the ceiling. He put one hand on the table to steady himself. His words were slightly slurred, but endearingly so.
“And to our special guests, Shawn and Maile, for joining us tonight. Cheers!”
Everyone raised their glasses and toasted us, then drank. But J kept going:
“They’ve come very far. Practically deep into the jungle” (at this everyone had a good laugh). “But it’s true! It’s true. They’ve left the comforts of their home. They’ve left their families behind. They’ve come into this foreign land to introduce the savages to a new product” (more laughter). “But we wish them all the greatest success. We hope that with hard work, and perseverance, all their wildest dreams will come true.”
A more serious “Cheers!” rose up from the crowd, as if all of them, at some point in their lives, had taken a similar trek into the jungle.
The night went too quickly. Soon we were saying good-bye, walking down the dark lane, lit now and again by the headlights of other departing guests, some of whom rolled down their windows to say good-bye to their new American friends. The three German Shepherds accompanied us home, their large paws making light thumps on the grassy bank beside the lane – somehow we were their friends now, after just one night in the house on the hill.
We could hear the occasional bleating of sheep in the dark meadows. When we arrived home that night the house was finally empty – no longer filled with homesickness and anxiety and the little pangs of fear. It was simply empty. And waiting to be filled with new things.
(continued here: Driving On the Right Side of the Road)
(to read the first installment about my life in England, click HERE)