The Undressed Man

Maile and I left our mostly empty cottage and, with quite a bit of nervousness, began walking up the two-track lane towards the “big house on the hill.” I say our cottage was “mostly empty” – it was actually still rather full of homesickness and uncertainty. But we don’t give much credence to unseen things, no matter how real they might be.

We probably walked slow. We probably didn’t say much – we had only been married for about two years at that point, and in the early days of a marriage it is easy to believe you are still your own person, capable of smoke-screening your emotions. We probably held hands, and the protected area, inside our palms, would have grown warm while the October air laid a thin screen of coolness on the exposed portions.

The drive took us between two sheep pastures lined on all other sides with forest. The tips of the trees were turning colors, like the edges of a piece of paper just starting to burn.

The countryside watched in near silence as we rose up the side of the hill, walked the driveway behind the large stone house. We had never seen it up close before: ivy covered the house on all sides, a rising flood of green threads; a large retaining wall defined the forest side of the lane, kept the hill and the trees mostly at bay, uphill from the house; cords and cords of split firewood lined the one side of the house, stacked neatly outside French doors. The wood’s flesh was the color of honey.

Three German Shepherds came skidding around the corner of the house, offended and howling, their nails scratching on the now-cobbled drive. Their greeting (slobbering snouts thrust into my palm, as well as every other nook and cranny) was rough and questioning. They barked and whined at us until we walked up to the front door and rang the bell, at which point they ran around to some side door, looking to make their own entrance, perhaps preparing to guard the house from us yet again.

We stood there, the two of us, shrugging and raising our eyebrows at one another as if to ask What are we doing up here? or Crazy, huh? Small town USA was about to collide with high-English culture. Who knew that friendship could result?

I pushed on the buzzer door-bell. Only silence. I looked at my watch. We were right on time. We rang the bell again. Still nothing.

Then an upstairs window flung outwards. We looked up. A gentleman, probably in his late 50s, leaned out through the large window. His hair was wet and he didn’t have a shirt on. I could see a towel wrapped around his waist.

“You must be Shawn and Maile?” he asked, the broadest, friendliest grin on his face. We nodded. He lifted his shoulders as if to say, What can I say about the state you have discovered me in?, then he laughed out loud. He ruffled his wet head with one hand, his other hand holding his towel in place. “Please, come in. Make yourselves comfortable. V and I will be right down.”

He pulled the window closed, waving one last time. “Five minutes!” he shouted again, and in the sound of his voice I detected something familiar, like the crunching of leaves underfoot, or wind blowing through well known trees. Don’t misunderstand me – I had never met J in my life. But he spoke to us as if he knew us, or had at least already committed to getting to know us.

I pushed on the door latch and the heavy thing swung open. We stepped into a small foyer area. An endless hallway stretched to both our right and left. Through a large window in front of us I could see the daylight beginning to fade.

(continued here: A Story of Four Forks, and a Surprisingly Empty House)

(to read the first installment about my life in England, click HERE)

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