Arriving in London that day was like waking up in a new world. We had taken the red eye from Newark, where the earth breathes smoke through its cement-covered skin. I had watched the sun set behind smokestacks and the outlines of factories and artificial clouds. When we woke up the next morning, the hum of the plane’s engines tried to put us back to sleep, and sunlight streamed through the windows. We struggled to wake up while flying over Ireland, and then Wales, the greenest pieces of land I had ever seen. They were like giant lime lollipops floating in a sea of blue raspberry kool-aid.
Ben and Shar picked us up from the airport. Soon we were leaving the city on a massive highway – west, and out of London, was an easy direction to go during morning rush-hour. The cars on the other side of the motorway, heading into the city, crept along. Then, without warning, we were off the highway and on to small country roads and roundabouts. We passed old, mostly brick, houses that seemed to grow in groves, like trees. Finally, roads even more narrow, where passing cars were forced to slow down and both slide over into their respective ditches just so that they could get by.
Maile and I were so tired. Everything felt like a dream.
Then a quick left into a at-one-time-invisible-suddenly-appearing driveway. The iron gate was wide open. A sign on one of the ancient trees said “Rocketer”. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the name of the estate. In the US, nice houses have big addresses, like 20964 Merchant Mill Terrace, but in England they just have names like “Rocketer”.
A fork in the driveway, and we went off to the left, drove a few hundred yards, then parked in a small cobblestone courtyard surrounded by horse barns and storage sheds. If we bent down and looked through the trees, we could see the main stone house on the massive estate, gardens pouring down the hill in front of it. Three large German Shepherds snarled and played with each other in the distance, rolling over in the lush grass. A flock of sheep ate their lunch, nothing moving but their slowly rotating jaws.
Our new landlords lived in that house, but on that morning all was still. The large windows were empty. No one stirred.
“Here we are,” I told Maile. “Welcome to your new life.”
We walked toward our small cottage through one of those beautiful English, October days: windy, bright and green. The tall hedgerows made every road or path feel like a hallway in some never-ending house.
The lane was full of potholes. There was a small greenhouse just down the hill – escaping grape vines still held marble-sized pieces of fruit. We turned the corner around the small cottage, entered through a side door.
The kitchen was tiny. A year or so from then I would surprise Maile and replace the floor while she was back in the States. The bathroom was nothing more than a lean-to off the kitchen – the shower head was at the lower end, so we had to crouch to get under the weak flow of water. The fireplace in the living room warmed the radiators. The fireplace in the other room was so shallow that the fire seemed to be out in the room with you, yet the smoke was magically drawn up the narrow chimney.
Ben and Shar said good-bye. We walked upstairs. Suddenly feelings of adventure were replaced by feelings of insecurity and homesickness. We pulled one of our blankets from a suitcase and spread it out on the carpeted floor in one of the small, empty bedrooms. There were only a few pieces of furniture. We wrapped ourselves in the blanket, exhausted. Maile cried for a little bit, missing home, then fell asleep.
I looked out the window at the sky, thinking that, somehow, even the clouds looked different in England.
(continued here: A Dead Sheep, and a New Friend)