The title does not refer to anything sinister, but rather to a joyous moment, at least for some. Yesterday I wrote those words upon completing the first draft of Prospector’s Choice, the working title of the third and final book in the Artifact series. Excitement all around!
Okay, rant time. (If you ask The Lovely Marianne it’s always rant time with me. That’s unfair and in another post I’ll mount my soap box and deliver a vigorous harangue in my defense. )
The City of this blog post’s title is Denver and these words triggered my rant: “The lure to Denver comes from the desire to reach its majestic peaks…” The writer was moving across the country and gave the above as one of the reasons for his move: Denver’s “majestic peaks.” Over the course of my life, I have heard countless talk about moving to Denver to be in the mountains and it drives me nuts because while if you squint real hard from Denver you can kind of make out what are possibly mountains on the distant horizon, being in Denver is no where close to being in the mountains.
Now, contrast that with the view from my home. I live in Sandy, Utah a suburb of Salt Lake City. I took the photo at the head of this post a five minute walk from my home. Don’t believe me? Here’s another one.
That park in the foreground is a five minute walk from our house. A twenty minute drive takes us into the mountains.
And with an hour and a half hike from such a drive we can be here:
From Denver, you’d have to drive hours, just to find a trail head for a hike like this. Grrrr.
Look, I wouldn’t describe my house as being in view of “Sandy’s majestic peaks.” Other places in the country can more credibly claim to have majestic peaks than my home. I’m just saying that Denver’s marketing department has gotten away with some serious misdirection here.
Okay, end of rant. The Lovely Marianne had threatened to take my keyboard away so I’d best stop. Just remember when you hear the name Denver think of plains not mountains.
Last time on Stranded on an Island, we made it to Amesbury. At this point you really should revisit Part 1 to remind yourself of the adventure thus far because this next bit followed hot on the heels of that first (mis)adventure and contains a recurring theme. This is a long post. Settle in, grab your favourite drink and join the adventure in jolly old England.
At Amesbury, we stayed the night at the Mandalay.
I know, it’s not much to look at from the front, but it has a beautiful garden behind and at the time we really didn’t care what it looked like, we just wanted a bed.
After rising and enjoying a full cooked English breakfast
we were on our way to Stonehenge.
From Stonehenge we made our way to the Eden Project in Cornwall. It should have been relatively easy to travel from Stonehenge to the Eden Project–they are both well known destinations after all. But our GPS decided that as pampered American tourists, our vacation would not be complete without a runaround. Ignorant of our machine’s malicious intent I blithely followed its direction when it told me to turn left on this road.
Now, heaven knows I’m not Sherlock nor even Watson, but I sensed something amiss. This did not look like the approach to a tourist attraction that sees more than a million visitors a year. It looked instead like an accident waiting to happen because that road was as narrow as it looks and I expected death (or at least serious injury) around every bend. But in my naive innocence I trusted the infernal device. We followed this track for about ten minutes then were instructed to make a couple of turns and finally another left turn to
Yeah, it was the same road. To the consternation and furious honking of the car following, I slammed on the brakes before entering the lane and after backing up managed to squeeze my way past the entrance to this “road”. With great reluctance, seeing that I wasn’t falling for its trap, the GPS gave us appropriate directions and we ended up at the Project.
Our daughter Catherine picked this destination. The project is a series of lovely greenhouses (I think they call them Biomes, but they look like greenhouses to me) hosting different ecosystems.
As I mentioned, the Eden Project is located in Cornwall. You know what else is in Cornwall? That’s right Doc Martin!
In the year before our trip I had consumed all the Doc Martin episodes available and loved them. The show is set in the mythical town of Port Wenn and was filmed on location in the actual town of Port Isaac on the Cornish Coast close to the Eden Project. Well that was enough for me. Totally fanboying it, I booked a room in Port Isaac and that was our next destination. But we had to get there first.
On our way out from the Eden Project I was driving on a road that merged into another at an angle from the right. I had a yield sign for which I duly slowed down while checking over my right shoulder for oncoming traffic and seeing none proceeded on my way only to have a car appear from nowhere whipping past me, the driver laying on the horn. A hundred yards down the road he pulled up at a stop light with me right behind. His door opens and out steps scarecrow. His limbs were sticks and his hair was wild–Christopher-Loyd-Back-to-the-Future wild.
And he was pissed, screaming at me like I’d killed his dog. It didn’t help that I couldn’t stop laughing–that just provoked increased intensity. He wanted me to get out of the car and take him on. At least, that seemed to be the gist of his spittle flecked rant. I didn’t think he really meant it though. How could he? He looked older than I, was five ten and must have weighed a hundred and twenty soaking wet as they say. I let him rage until he got it out of his system and got back in his car after flinging one last gesture in my direction.
Okay, off we went glad that the drama was behind us–next stop Port Isaac.
As we approached Port Isaac, our GPS instructed us to make a left turn down a road that would lead us to town. Still not aware of the electronic devil’s plans, I obeyed its command. A few minutes later we approached two sets of poles set in the roadside. A sign set next to the poles announced that if your care wouldn’t fit through the poles, it was too wide and you couldn’t proceed. I inched forward with a sharp eye on the side mirrors. We had a good two inches to spare.
On we drove not appreciating what lay ahead. In a few minutes we discovered the reason for the posts.
Now, the truth was we did not have lodging in Port Isaac itself, but about a mile further down the road in Port Gaverne. Getting there was a trip as well.
Fine, easing our way along the strait and narrow, we made it through town. But that wasn’t the end of our worries.
Yeah, it was that narrow and the question in the caption wasn’t rhetorical because
I’m not making this up. I don’t have an actual photograph but an actual photograph would have looked worse. We rounded that bend and faced two cars coming up the hill. Hill, you say? That doesn’t look like a hill. Okay,
It’s easier to see from this angle and the two cars we faced were at the bottom of the hill. Fortunately, they decided that we had the right of way (maybe because they knew a crazy American was driving the other car and if he’d had to back up on that hill would have driven clean over the cliff killing the car’s passengers and driver) and backed down, as in drove in reverse to the bottom of the hill.
So, we made it to the bottom and our hotel. I was prepared to heave a great sigh of relief, but the English Road Gods had not finished with us yet. We had to find some place to put our car.
So, yeah. A sign promised that a short way past the hotel we would find a car park. The lovely Marianne agreed to investigate while I waited clutching and releasing the steering wheel, sweat pouring down my back, fearing the need to move my car through another dimension to get out of some mad Englishman’s way because there was no way I would be able to maneuver it in this one.
The Lovely Marianne returned forlorn because the car park was full. I was pretty much at the end of my rope by that point, ready to abandon the entire adventure and catch the next plane home.
Yes, you see down at the bottom of the hill right across the street to the west from our hotel was a little car park.
And right where that blue car is on the left, that car (well, not that car, but the car that was parked in that spot when I was in the depths of despair) left. Shouts of joy and thanksgiving rose to the heavens as soon as our car was firmly ensconced in that spot.
The only lingering fly in the day’s ointment revealed itself when the Lovely Marianne opened her door to a loud crack. Upon inspection, I discovered that during one of our mad dashes around the Eden Project, I had grazed an obstacle and put a crease in the door right by the joint where it connected to the body. Not great news, but we were safe in a beautiful place.
So, once settled, the Lovely Marianne and I walked back the way we had come to Port Isaac. I had the LM take a snap of me opposite Doc Martin’s surgery (upon which a prominent sign was posted declaring the place to be PRIVATE PROPERTY upon which NO TRESPASSING was permitted.
And we returned to our hotel at sunset.
In my memory, the night we spent in that hotel has a magical, otherworldly feel to it. Our room was just above the little out door seating area you can see in the picture. It was a warm night. We propped our window to enjoy a little breeze. Along with the breeze subdued conversation murmured from diners below, occasionally punctuated with gentle laughter. I drifted off to convivial sounds of good friends enjoying a pint.
The next day dawned clear and bright. Before we departed we took a walk to a little headland and drank in a sweeping view of the Cornish coast.
Upon returning from our morning constitutional we were off again. Being in Cornwall, Catherine wanted to experience a cream tea for which Cornwall is famous. Our hosts at the hotel had pointed us to a tea house in Tintagel only a few miles up the coast. Our destination that day was Liverpool where we had reservations on a ferry for an overnight crossing of the Irish Channel to Belfast. The LM had relatives in Belfast and our itinerary called for us to spend a few days there.
Our ferry reservation required us to be at the terminal in Liverpool at 9:00 pm. Our trusty GPS told us it was a four hour trip–plenty of time to stop by Tintagel, grab a cream tea and visit King Arthur’s birthplace. I was not and am not an Arthur buff, but I’d read the Crystal Cave and Once and Future King and The Dark is Rising series, so Tintagel sounded cool (even if I still have not mastered its pronunciation. Every time I say the name the person I’m talking to says “You mean Tintagel?”)
Being a slow learner, I input Tintagel as our destination into the demonic machine and away we went. Winding our way along a narrow coastal road from Port Garverne, we soon came to a larger roadway. Relieved at not having to repeat our Port Isaac experience, I calmly turned onto a road that was a boulevard by comparison. Little did I know what fate had in store.
A few miles down the road, the unholy device demanded a left turn onto a narrow track. Truly, I cannot say what came over me. Had I been in its thrall the entire time? Or had I pledged my soul to it only in that moment. Whatever the case, I obeyed the fiendish voice and made the turn.
As with all such mistakes, at first the going was easy and my confidence rose. Then
Yep back on the one track roads. Only this time the two cars coming in the other direction decided they had the right of way and I needed to back the car to a suitable turn out spot which it happened was a few hundred yards away.
I crumbled under the pressure of backing while operating the car from in what God intended to be the passenger seat. Catherine had to get out of the car to guide me. Even then I wandered into the verge before straightening out. After a few moments of terror, we let the others pass and were on our way.
To this day, I’m not quite sure what happened next. We arrived at an intersection. I recall the blasted machine telling us to turn left, but after we had done so, it wanted us to go back the way we had come. I couldn’t turn around so we continued on until we came to a car park.
I pulled in to try to get our bearings. When I got out of the car, Catherine had already exited and stood with her face screwed up as if she were fighting tears.
“Catherine what’s wrong?”
She lost the fight. Tears flooded down her cheeks and she sobbed unable to speak. I gave her a hug and she blurted out between sobs, “We have a flat tire.”
Sure enough on the passenger side where I’d run the car into the verge the rear tire was flat. I reassured her that I could change the tyre. The Lovely Marianne suggested that she and Catherine try to find someone who could direct us where we needed to be while I changed the tyre.
As I finished they returned. The woman they spoke with said that GPS mis-directions were legendary around there. Last year, she told them, a bus driver transporting German tourists foolishly heeding his GPS had taken the route we followed. The bus had wedged into one of the narrow bits. It took three days and heavy equipment to free it.
Well, tire changed we loaded back up. Catherine declared at that point her desire for a cream tea had escaped along with the air from our tyre. She wanted no more English back roads but insisted (fortunately for us) on proceeding straight to Liverpool. It was 11:30 or so and our GPS told us we’d arrive at the dock at 4:30. I wondered out loud how we were going to occupy our time between then and 9:00 pm, but figured we’d find something to do.
Our route to Liverpool took us on steadily more roomy roads until we arrived at the M6. M for motorway–the equivalent of an Interstate Highway in the US. Ah, the freeway. Yeah, that lasted about fifteen minutes.
At the fifteen minute mark we slowed down and slowed down and stopped. Okay, traffic slow down. I can deal with this. We will still arrive at 4:45. Time passed. Our arrival time ticked forward. 5:00. 5:30.
We moved again things opened up. We were on… Nope another slow down. 6:00, 6:30, 7:00. Moving agai….7:30, 8:00. By this time we were seriously panicked. We had moved and made some progress, but when our arrival time hit 8, well. We had booked accommodations in Belfast and spent four or five hundred dollars on the ferry ride. We had no idea whether we could catch another ferry the next day or if everything was booked.
8:15, 8:30. They had told us if we hadn’t checked in by 9, we’d lose our spot.
Finally, the traffic thinned and at 8:55 we were at the dock.
We made it! Those were an exhausting three days (Parts 1 & 2). But there we were on the ferry and ready for a good night’s sleep. The rest of the trip was incredible and beautiful and thankfully calm.
As a post script. You will recall from Part 1 I paid $300 per tyre at the rental car place for the Mercedes tyres. Maybe it was the Mercedes tyres and maybe the rental place ripped me off. You will also recall that I had creased the passenger side door where it joined the body resulting in a huge cracking sound whenever it was opened. So, when we got to Ireland, I found a tyre shop and a body shop. I bought my own replacement tyre and got the body guys to do what they could for the door. It almost looked okay, but at least it didn’t crack when we opened it. The rental car place didn’t charge me for any damages.
We were supposed to return to England and Ireland this year, but you know that story. Maybe it was providence and we were spared even more harrowing adventures. I suppose we’ll never know.
That’s right! Dawn’s Reach (Artifact Book 2) is now available from Amazon.
This thrilling follow on novel from Prospector’s Run is certain to delight and amaze. Grab your copy today!
A number of years ago (five, to be precise) I was perusing the internet and ran across a blog with a post titled Friday Fiction: 100 Word Challenge. The post included the image above and the challenge was to write a one hundred word story inspired by the image. I accepted the thrown gauntlet and penned (well, keyboarded) the following.
She had brought the money. Raggedy girl like that, I didn’t think she’d pay. It was just like one of them dime novels. Sneak into the room at night nab the doll and leave a note. Andy told me it would work; I didn’t believe him. It was his idea really, “done it lots,” he’d said. “They pay every time. They sure love them dolls.” But where had Andy gone now?
The girl raised her eyes with a smug half smile.
I heard gravel crunch and the snick of a shell pumped into a shotgun.
“That’s him Daddy,” she said.
This year the Storymakers writing conference was virtual (of course). Yesterday, I listened to a class on using nuance in writing. One of the exercises the instructor suggested was writing ten word stories. So, being the obedient and dutiful student that I am, I composed a few. Some work better than others and with some I explored what a different feeling I got from changing a single pronoun. Anyway, here they are. If you have suggestions for improvement, let me know in the comments.
The ticking clock echoes in our…my empty house.
My day began with bliss and ended in agony.
Your friend request has been declined.
After the accident, my second call went to voicemail.
Unsigned, the papers on my desk screamed failure.
I stare at the papers awaiting my signature.
He slams the front door. Tires squeal. I’m alone—finally.
Trembling with anxiety, I open the envelope and shout for joy.
The question hangs in air between us. Yes, she says.
My father’s shoulders slump. I could offer comfort, but I don’t.
I chamber a round. Almost finished. I won’t miss again.
The monitor line flattened. He is free at last.
The monitor line flattened. I am free at last.
Puzzled, I considered the stranger. “I’m your sister,” she said.
“Can I help you young lady?” “Hi dad,” she said.
Across the crowded room, he mouthed the words: “I’m sorry.”
In my Masterclass writing class Neil Gaiman suggests as an exercise that we write something while imitating another author’s writing style. On occasion I attempt this when writing announcements for Thanatopsis, our book club. In the following as you will see we read Stuart Turton’s book The 71/2 deaths of Eveylyn Hardcastle. I’m not sure how successful I was. Incidentally, the person responsible for sending announcements, putting together reading lists and taking care of other Club miscellany has been called “The Girl” since the Club’s founding in 1984. When I volunteered to undertake those responsibilities a few years ago I adopted that title.
Tree limbs lash the air, the screaming gale wielding them like whips. Steel clouds shading to black in the west stream overhead, distant lightening stabbing the ground amid a low, delayed, continuous grumble. The storm is not here yet.
But it’s coming.
Fear, a heavy, icy blanket, drapes itself over my shoulders, weighing me down and freezing my limbs into immobility. I shouldn’t be here.
Before me on a slight rise, a house droops in decay. Brown it must once have been judging from bits of stain clinging forlorn to the gray siding. A single dim lantern glows behind vaulting windows, its subdued light concealing more than illuminating the room within the glass. On crumbling concrete, I’ve halted my ascent up the cracked, broken drive toward the structure sagging in mourning for its lost youth and vigor.
I must continue.
I ransack a shattered memory for any shard that might explain my presence, my terror and my compulsion. Flickers of light entrance me only to wink away when I reach for them before I even manage a glimpse. I’m here, now, but how I came here or what my purpose, hides behind a curtain as black as the approaching tempest. A curtain that also obscures my name.
Unable to contain the force that drives my limbs against all my power of resistance, I plant a foot then another convulsing like a rusty, broken automaton up the steps to the weather-beaten, faded front door. The universe splits white as the Gods arc from heaven to earth shaking its foundation and loosing a torrent on my unprotected head, icy streams flowing under my clothing along shuddering limbs and torso.
A woman, wide-eyed and trembling, cracks the door peering at the apparition dripping ponds on her doorstep. After a heartbeat she flings it wide. “Kevin!” she exclaims and gestures me within. “Inside with you this instant. You’ll catch your death out there.”
Kevin. I roll the name, but it doesn’t fit easily on my tongue. It’s not me, though the woman believes it to be. My fear does not flag at the sight of the woman, middle-aged, trim and pretty, but she is not the source of the dread crushing my lungs and slamming my heart against its cage. That lies beyond the threshold in the dimly lighted room.
She grabs my naked arm, her hand warm on my pallid, clammy flesh. Unable to resist the woman’s insistence and still driven by an unseen force I stumble inside the doorway and puddle in the entry. In the gloom, hardly relieved by the sole, dingy, yellow lamp, sagging, torn couches resting on threadbare, unravelling carpet face the towering rain-streamed windows.
The woman speaks. But a thunderous explosion envelopes her words and rumbles them away in booming echoes. On one of the couches, I glimpse an open laptop and its baleful, blue white glare is a knife in my eyes. I flinch from redoubled fear at the sight of my terror’s source. Not willing to leave me be, the woman clinches my arm, forces my gaze on the machine and speaks again, urging and insistent. “The book club notice.” Her voice rises on her own wings of fear. “You have to send the notice!”
Suspended between duty’s irresistible force and horror’s immoveable object, my limbs rattle like the writhing storm-thrashed trees without. Inch by inch, duty overpowers fear and I approach, then take up the machine. My fingers dance across its accursed keys as if each threatens to burn my flesh to bone. I type:
Tuesday March 31st
Host: Virtual on Zoom. See log in link below.
Book: The 7 and ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.
I hit enter and my missive flies—electronic packets fleeing to their destinations. Fear, having failed to obstruct my goal, collapses in a smoldering ash heap, leaving me spent and hollow. In tandem, as if its fury was gathered in terror’s service, the storm falters and passes and a single ray of light limns the now smiling woman in a golden halo. My consciousness flickers, its entire force having been expended in this one task. But before blackness descends an odd inner voice etches a curious salutation on my mind.
Ever diligent in my duties, I remain,
your humble servant,
As a Christmas gift this year, some of my children gave me a Masterclass by Neil Gaiman on storytelling. One of the writing assignments in the class was to take a fairy tale and retell it using one of three prompts: you’re a psychiatrist analyzing one of the characters, you’re a newspaper reporter reporting the story or you have the character explain his actions to a jury.
Well, it wasn’t hard to choose from that list. So, I give you
JACK ON TRIAL
Hands clenched to still their trembling, Jack rose from the table and walked stiffly to the witness stand.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?” Mashed together and drawled in a bored tone, the words lost all their meaning to Jack’s ears. The bailiff stared at him and yawned. Just another in a series of witnesses—nothing special here. Nothing special unless you were on trial for your life.
“I do,” Jack said, a quaver in his voice despite having rehearsed this moment ad nauseam with his lawyer. Seated, his hands out of sight below the witness box, he worked them open and closed trying to subdue his screaming nerves. The Bailiff shuffled off to his seat and closed his eyes almost immediately nodding off. With an effort of will, Jack stopped himself from shifting in his seat and wiping the sheen of sweat from his upper lip. His lawyer and drummed that into him.
“You’ll look unreliable, like you’re nervous and have something to hide. You don’t need to smile and pretend you’re happy, but sit up straight, don’t move around and when you talk address the jury and look them in the eyes.“ He stopped pacing and pointed at Jack. “People like it when you look them in the eye. They don’t trust you if you don’t.”
Jack was happy to look toward the jury now and away from the gallery where two giants sat on the front row glaring at him, their unblinking, beady eyes glittering with hate under huge shelves of bone, topped with eyebrows resembling nothing so much as wild forest undergrowth.
His lawyer rose and moved to stand in front of the jury allowing him to answer his questions and talk to the jurors at the same time and not coincidently avoid the hulking masses of vengeful malice on the gallery’s front row. His lawyer smiled at him and although he knew he didn’t have to return the smile, he tried to anyway only to have his lawyer widen his eyes in alarm and give a subtle shake of the head. His attempt must have been as bad as it had felt and he allowed it to fade away.
“Jack,” his lawyer said, “tell the jury a little about yourself.”
“Objection,” the prosecutor said, not bothering to stand. “Calls for a narrative.”
“Sustained,” the judge said.
After an annoyed glance toward the prosecutor, his lawyer had explained that on this kind of opening background material such a question was unlikely to draw an objection unless the prosecutor was being a jerk, his lawyer said, “How old are you Jack?”
“And how long have you lived in Midsomer County?”
“All my life, sir. I was born in the same farmhouse I lived in all my life—where I still live.”
“Do you live alone?”
“No, sir. I live with me mum.”
Like they’d planned it, when he got to this part, he lowered his eyes. Then he got an idea and pretended to wipe a tear from his eye. When he raised his eyes to talk to the jury like his lawyer had told him to do, his lawyer looked annoyed and he remembered him telling Jack not to overdo the emotions because jurors didn’t like faked emotions. Sure enough two of the jurors looked back at Jack with open disbelief. Jack didn’t have to fake the burning red cheeks from embarrassment. “Me dad died when I was a baby.”
His lawyer nodded. “I see. And how does your Mum make a living?”
“We’re farmers. Well, she’s a farmer and I help out around the farm doing odd jobs, chopping wood, weeding the farm, milking the cow, you know, stuff that needs doing on a farm that me mum has a hard time with.”
“How well does your farm do?”
This time the prosecutor stood. “Objection, relevance, he’s on trial for murder and last I looked impecuniosity was not a defense to taking another’s life.”
Annoyed again, his lawyer said, “It goes to his state of mind your honor, the charge here involves premeditation.”
The judge massaged his jaw. “I’ll allow it, but you’re on a short leash here, counselor.”
“How well does your farm do, Jack?”
Jack shook his head. He was starting to relax now as they moved into his story. “We’re dirt poor. Most years the Farm gives us enough to live, but that’s all. Mum makes all my clothes from the little wool she’s able to buy with money. She cards and spins the wool then weaves it on our home made loom.” Jack glanced down at his homespun and pulled at his shirt. They had debated whether to have him wear his old clothes. He certainly would have been more respectable in the clothes he’d been able to afford after his adventure, but in the end they decided that looking pitiful was more important. “We’ve been poor all our lives.”
At this the prosecutor visibly rolled his eyes and shook his head. One of the jurors glanced in his direction with a half smile. The jury had already heard testimony about how the goose had made them rich and changed their lives. The prosecutor had tried to coax the singing harp to testify, but all he got for his trouble was a series of sad lullabys.
“The prosecution will be counting on the jury to forget about how poor you used to be and think of you as having always had money. We need to remind them that at one time you were down and out,” his lawyer had told him. “Stick with the homespun.”
“We never had much to eat and we never had much money. What money we did make from selling our crops we had to spend on seed for the next year and on the few things we needed that we couldn’t make for ourselves.”
“Did you always have enough money to buy seed for the planting?”
“Until this last year, we managed every spring to buy some seed—not always a lot, but we managed until this last year to buy at least some.”
His lawyer looked concerned and swept that concerned look across the jurors. “But not last year?”
“What happened last year?
“Last year the harvest was too small. We needed everything we had just to stay alive and when the spring came, we had nothing.”
Jack shook his head and had no trouble allowing sadness to reflect on his face. He remembered that conversation. His mum had been in tears on the floor, sobbing because they were hungry with little in the house. Without the seed they wouldn’t be able to plant and when the food ran out they would starve to death. This time he didn’t have to pretend. He allowed the tear to run down his cheek.
“Nothing. We had food for a couple of months, but with no seed to plant after that….” He shrugged.
His lawyer paused allowing the jurors to experience his client’s despair. “After that?” his lawyer prompted in a soft voice.
“We would die.” Jack couldn’t keep the hardness from his voice or his face. “Have you ever seen someone starve to death?” He looked each juror in the eye with the question. One by one they met his eyes and looked away. “I have. Our neighbors one year. Just like us, they had a bad harvest and had no money for seed in the spring. We couldn’t help. We had just enough to keep our bodies and souls together. But they…It was hardest to watch their little girl. She was three and couldn’t understand what was happening. She cried—a lot. Until she was too weak.”
The words hung in the air, his lawyer leaving them there for the jury to taste the desperation. In his mind Jack saw Katie again, listless eyes, sunken cheeks, hair falling out in clumps, stick limbs and bloated belly, lying in her mother’s lap as flies crawled across her staring eyes. Neither she nor her mother had the strength to move.
“What did you do?”
Jack shook himself into the present. Haunted by his vision of the past, he forgot for a moment where he was. Had someone spoken?
“What did you do?” his lawyer asked again.
Jack closed his eyes to give himself a moment to think, but Katie was there waiting for him. His eyes snapped open. She haunted him enough in his dreams; he didn’t need her following him awake. “We, uh,” Jack massaged his forehead. “Mum said we had to sell the cow.”
His lawyer looked at him urging him to continue.
“So, I took Bess and started off to market. On the way, I met a strange old man.” He resisted the urge to look to the gallery for his mum, knowing that the giants blocked his view and glad of that for the moment. He had a hard time facing his mum with the next part. “He, uh…he offered me magic beans in exchange for our cow.” Jack lowered his head. Despite the fact that his adventure had turned out well, except for the part about being on trial for murder and theft that is, he was deeply ashamed of this part. “And I agreed,” he said in a low voice.
Jurors stirred at this, some with indrawn breaths, some with quiet chuckles, some with anger.
“You exchanged your cow for ‘magic beans’?”
Jack looked up sharply wanting defend himself reminding himself that he’d been right.
“He said they’d grow right up to the sky overnight.”
“And you believed this strange old man you’d never seen before.”
Jack nodded. He had a million excuses at the ready—he’d been tired, hungry, delirious—the old man had cast a spell on him. But as when he’d returned to his mum, they all rang hollow in his ears.
“How did your mum react when you returned home?”
“She was furious, said I’d been swindled, that I’d been a fool and now we were going to die.” Jack’s cheeks burned again as he recalled the feeling like he had awakened from a dream to discover he’d committed a horrible crime. Renewed shame at his having been such a dolt sending streaks like lightening down his limbs. He tried to console himself with the outcome, but the feeling wasn’t so easily displaced.
“I ran to my room and tossed the beans out my window. I couldn’t face Mum that night, so I stayed in my room and after a long time fell asleep.”
“And when you woke, was anything different?”
Jack beamed. Now they were getting to the good part. “Yes, sir, something was different! There was a giant beanstalk growing outside my window straight up to the top of the sky, just like the old man said. I was so excited, I wanted to wake Mum and show her the man was right and here was this giant thing. But then I thought how is this better than before? Can we eat the beanstalk? Can we get seeds to plant on the farm? No, I says to meself I have to reckon how this can help us before I tell mum.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I did the only thing I could think to do with it. I climbed it.”
“Did you find anything when you climbed it?”
“Yessir. Right at the top in the clouds I found a giant house. I thought that was strange ‘cause I’d never heard tell of houses in the clouds, so I thought I should explore. I went to the door which was open a crack and slipped inside–”
Jack stopped abruptly at his lawyer’s upraised hand.
“Now think carefully before you answer the questions I’m about to ask.”
His lawyer stared at him expectantly. Jack nodded.
“Were there any signs before you reached the house or on the house itself telling you not to trespass?”
“Any signs saying it was private property?”
“You said you’d never heard of any houses in the clouds. When you saw this house, did you expect to find anyone living in it?”
“Nossir. People don’t live in clouds. Well, me mum sometimes says I have my head in the clouds, but I think she means something different by that.”
Some of the jurors chuckled at this and his lawyer looked pleased. Maybe he was getting the hang of this testifying thing.
“Okay, continue. What did you find in the house?
“Well, I saw this huge table and chairs and what looked like a giant kitchen and in the kitchen was this enormous, giant woman. She must have heard my footsteps though I was being ever so quiet, because she turned and when she saw me marched toward me. I turned to run, but she was faster and grabbed me by the back of me shirt.” He reached behind his back and hauled up his shirt at the collar to illustrate. Once again a few giggles rippled through the jury. “She hauled me into the air like I’d lift a cat and turned me to look her right in her horrible face.” Jack had forgotten for a moment that the very woman was on the front row. He didn’t look, but in his mind saw her glower deepen. “I was ever so scared, but then she talked to me and acted real nice like. ‘Do you want some breakfast’ says she. Well, thought I, I don’t remember my last decent meal. So, even though she looked ever so fearsome and I knew it might be a trap, ‘yes,’ I told her, ‘that would be kind.’”
Again with an upraised hand, his lawyer called on him to stop. “You were in court yesterday, weren’t you, Jack?”
“And you heard Mactildis the giant testify?” He pointed to the female giant on the front row. Having gathered courage from reciting his story, Jack leveled a defiant look at the giant. “She testified that you crawled under a closed door that was prominently marked with a sign that said ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING ESPECIALLY HUMANS’. Do you recall that testimony?”
“Yessir, and it’s not true not a word of it. It happened just like I said.” Jack scooted back in the witness box as Mactildis shifted and, with a menacing growl, half rose in her seat.
Jurors gasped and shrank away; the unseen gallery buzzed and the courtroom echoed with the sound of the judge’s gavel. “Order,” the judge said pointing at Mactildis. “I don’t want to have to have you removed.”
Mactildis shifted her glare to the judge and growled, then lowered herself in her seat. “We knew.” Mactildis said and her voice was stones tumbling in a landslide. “No justice for Giants among humans.”
“Continue with your account, Jack.”
“Well, she set me down on the table and gave me milk and cheese. And I’ll tell you, I was so hungry it was the best food I ever had, only when I had a few bites I hear this great rumbling stomping noise coming from somewhere past the kitchen. And all of a sudden, there was this great booming voice. And I’ll never forget those words. They chill me even now. ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ he says ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.’”
The gallery buzzed with outrage and the jurors were aghast. Mactildis snorted and looked away, but her somewhat smaller companion leaped to his feet while the judge pounded away with his gavel. “Liar,” he shouted pointing at Jack, “Dad would never say that. We only eat Frenchmen or Germans if we’re really hard up.”
“Order!” the judge shouted until the crowd quieted and the young giant had resumed his seat. “One more outburst from either of you,” he pointed at Mactildis and her son, “and you’ll both be taken from here to a holding cell. Are we clear?”
Sullen, the young giant held the judge’s eyes for a long moment, then bowed his head in submission. The judge motioned for Jack to continue.
“Like I was saying, this giant was stomping on his way to the kitchen and Mactildis gets all worried. ‘It’s my husband,’ she says. ‘He’ll want to eat you for breakfast.’ So she picks me up she does, throws me into this pot. Jack rubbed his shoulder. “That hurt it did. Thought I’d broken me shoulder.”
His lawyer nodded in sympathy. “What happened next?”
“‘Don’t stir until he’s asleep after his breakfast,’ she says and slams a lid on the pot. Nearly took me head off, but I wanted to see what was happening so I lifted the lid just a bit. And this really great giant stomps into the room then stops, lifts his head and sniffs. ‘You’re sure there’s not an Englishman nearby?’ he says. ‘Because that sure smells like one and it’s making me hungry for Englishman Bone Bread. You know, the kind you used to make back when we had a steady supply of Englishmen.’”
Mactildis’ son scoffed and shook his head and the judge shot him a warning look.
His lawyer nodded. “Were you afraid?”
“Yessir, scared to death I was. Here was this bloody great giant wanting to kill me and grind up my bones for bread. You bet I was scared. I was shaking in my boots, weak kneed, faint hearted–”
The lawyer frowned and shook his head a fraction and Jack stopped.
The lawyer eyed the jury with a meaningful look. “Afraid for your life?”
Annoyed at the repetition until he remembered their script, Jack nodded emphatically. “I was afraid for my life. I knew if he got his hands on me, I was a goner.”
The lawyer shook his head in mock horror. “Go on.”
“Well, while Mactildis was getting breakfast ready her husband opened a closet and dragged out this hen.”
“Yeah, scraggly, sickly looking thing and he plunked it down on the table in front of him. ‘Lay,’ he says to this poor critter. I almost gave myself away at that point laughing so hard. Who’s ever heard of a hen that lays cause you tell it to? ‘Lay,’ he says again and when nothing came out he reared back and smacked the hen off the table. ‘I said, lay.’ There he was hitting and screaming at this poor hen, no wonder she looked awful.”
Shocked, and letting the jury see the full extent of his outrage, the lawyer said, “This giant, Mactildis’ husband, was cruelly abusing that poor animal?”
“Yessir, and for a long time by the look of that miserable creature. Well, he picks her up–”
“Picks up the hen and slams her on the table again with this horrible glare until the hen laid an egg. But it weren’t no ordinary egg, nossir. It was a golden egg.”
“A golden egg?”
“Yessir, an egg made of gold.”
Jack puffed out his cheeks and scratched his head pretending that he was thinking about what came next, just like they’d practiced. “Well, the giant ate his breakfast and afterwards pulled out this golden harp with a young girl’s face on it. You’ve seen it,” he said speaking directly to the jury. “’Sing,’ the giant said, but the harp wouldn’t so the brute reared back,” Jack lifted his arm behind him to demonstrate, “and smacked her face.” Jack brought his arm down to illustrate, misjudged his swing and slammed his hand into the witness box. Through eyes tearing with pain, Jack saw his lawyer close his eyes and shake his head. Jack shook his hand and bowed forward holding it. When the pain had subsided, he glanced up. His lawyer stood cupping his chin in his palm looking annoyed. A few jurors looked alarmed, the rest were smiling.
His lawyer twirled his finger. “Let’s wrap it up, Jack.”
“Well, anyway,” Jack continued, “The harp played and sang a lullaby and the giant fell asleep. Once he was asleep, Mactildis took the lid off me pot and told me now was my chance. I was about to run for it when I saw the miserable abused hen and the poor mistreated harp and I decided I couldn’t leave them behind, so I gathered them up and took off. But something must have awakened the giant because when I got to the beanstalk he roared out of the house calling me a thief and shouting about grinding me bones for bread, that whole fee fi fo fum bit again.” He stopped and looked each juror in the eye. “I was afraid for my life,” he said slowly and distinctly, proud of himself for being able to make that vital point once again. “That giant was going to kill me if he caught me and beat up on the hen and the harp again, so I was afraid for their lives too.”
“Afraid for your life,” his lawyer gave the jurors a significant look. “Did you think to try and defend yourself.”
Jack shook his head. “Against that bloody great giant? Are you bonkers? I knew I didn’t stand a chance. There was only one thing I could do to save meself, the hen and the harp and I did it.”
“What was that?”
“The giant was on the beanstalk now after me. So I got to the bottom of that beanstalk as fast as I could and I chopped it down.”
“With the giant on it?”
“Did you know your actions would kill the giant?”
“Yessir, but I didn’t have a choice. He was going to kill me and hurt the hen and the harp. The only thing I could do to save my life was chop that beanstalk.” Jack sat back in the witness box, pleased that he’d almost made it through his testimony until he remembered he was supposed to be sorry about killing the giant. He’d never understood that part, but he snapped his face into reluctance.
At this point, something stirred the gallery, but Mactildis and her son blocked his view, until a man showed up and bent over saying something to the prosecutor.
“Now, Jack,” his lawyer said. “You indicated before, you were in the courtroom when Mactildis and her son Jep testified, do you recall that?”
The man speaking with the prosecutor pointed back toward the entrance to the courtroom and the prosecutor glanced back in that direction then turned his attention to Jack and smiled.
“Yessir, I was here and heard everything.”
“You heard them testify that you snuck into their home and stole those valuable possessions the hen and the harp.”
“And haven’t you admitted to that theft here today?”
Okay, they’d practiced this over and over. He had to get this right. With sadness he looked at the jury. “The only thing I’m guilty of is saving the hen and the little girl in the harp from slavery and pain. That’s all they were for that giant–slaves to be beaten until they performed. That can’t be a crime, can it? Saving someone from a life of pain?”
His lawyer nodded in agreement. “You also heard their testimony that their husband and father tried to reason with you before you descended the beanstalk? And that when he followed you down, he was pleading with you to return the hen and the harp?”
“I heard them say that, but it weren’t true.” He turned to the jury. “You know giants,” he pointed to Mactildis and Jep who were seething with anger. “You saw their tempers. How can you believe the fairy stories they told?”
His lawyer addressed the Judge. “Your honor, the defense rests.”
The judge turned to the prosecutor. “Any cross?”
The prosecutor stood and buttoned his suit coat. “No, your honor, but the state does wish to call a rebuttal witness.”
Confused, Jack looked to his lawyer. He hadn’t mentioned any rebuttal witnesses and he’d said the state had to disclose all witnesses they were going to call.
Concerned, his lawyer said, “The state hasn’t disclosed any rebuttal witnesses, your honor.”
The judge looked at the prosecutor. “Oh, but we did, but I said we hadn’t been able to locate him. I’m informed just now that we have and he is here ready to testify.”
Dread settled in the pit of Jack’s stomach. He could only be talking about one person.
“The state calls Vassy Heymon to the stand.”
Again the gallery stirred.
Thump, something wooden struck the courtroom floor.
From behind the giants Vassy emerged, his peg leg thumping as he made his way to the witness stand.
Jack watched his progress with horror until he stood at the base of the witness stand. “Hello, Jack” he said.
“What are you doing here?” Jack hissed with a furtive glance at the jury. “I thought you were out of the country?”
Moving slowly, Jack stepped down from the stand. Vassy caught his arm as he passed by and breathed in his ear. “I’m sorry. They caught me and offered me a deal.”
Numb, Jack couldn’t move.
His lawyer took him by the arm and guided him to the defense table. “Who is he?” his lawyer whispered. “When we saw his name as a potential witness, you told me he was no one and not to worry about him. Well, he’s clearly not no one. Who is he?”
Jack waved him away, staring as Vassy settled himself into the witness chair and with a grunt, pulled his peg leg straight until the peg, starting just below his knee, stuck out the side of the witness box. Age and experience had etched lines deep into his face and weather had stained it mahogany and coarsened it. Wizened. He’d heard Vassy described that way once and after looking it up had decided it fit.
The bailiff who had perked up at Vassy’s appearance stood to administer the oath. He waited on Vassy. The prosecutor rose with a smirk in Jack’s direction then faced Vassy.
“It’s customary to stand while taking the oath Mr. Heymon.”
Vassy scowled, a vile look the lines on his face reinforced as they fell into an obviously well worn pattern. “Well, I’ve heard tell,” he said in a deep, hoarse voice as worn as his face, “that it’s customary for prosecutors to go—“
A shot exploded from the judge’s gavel. “That will do, Mr. Heymon. Bailiff, please administer the oath.
“Raise your right hand, please.” Vassy lifted his hand from his lap. The Bailiff frowned and glanced at the judge who remained impassive. The Bailiff continued. “Do you swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?”
“Sure,” Vassy growled, “stranger things have happened.”
Flustered, the Bailiff gave up and scurried back to his chair.
The prosecutor, lips puckered as if he’d bitten into a particularly sour lemon, approached the witness. “Mr. Heymon, do you know the defendant, Jack?” He pointed at Jack.
Still in shock from seeking Vassy in the courtroom, Jack twitched his head to the side.
Vassy contemplated Jack, his scowl softening into sorrow. “Yes.”
“How do you know him?”
“Couple months ago, I ran into him on the road to the market. Him and his cow.”
“Was that the first time you had seen the defendant, Jack?”
Vassy sighed and he shook his head. “No.”
Puzzled, Jack looked a question at Vassy. Vassy shifted his gaze to the prosecutor.
“When did you first see the defendant, Jack?”
“A couple months afore that.”
“How did that come about?”
Vassy sighed again and inspected his fingernails. “I was checking him out, watching him from afar, watching that little farm of his and his mum’s fail. Watching them scrape and scrimp trying to stay alive.”
“Because I had a project in mind and I was looking for some help.”
Outrage kindled in Jack’s heart. He’d been tricked!
“What project was that?”
Vassy leaned back in his chair and laced his hands across his ample stomach, settling in. “When I was young, about Jack’s age, I met an old man who told me what I thought at the time was a tall tale. He claimed that he’d visited a land in the clouds where giants lived. He said he used to visit them all the time; got to know ‘em real good. Said they was friendly folk. Oh, sometimes they’d eat the odd stranger who showed up in their lands, but they was always Frenchmen, with the occasional German when they was really hungry.”
On the front row, Jeb nodded vigorously a vindicated smile on his face.
“He told me they was all rich on account of their magic. They all had golden harps and hens that gave them golden eggs. And he wanted to me to help him steal one of them geese that laid golden eggs. He invited me to go with him and get the lay of the land. So, I did. He had this beanstalk and he took me up there to the giants for a couple of months and showed me around. After that he and I decided on the best house to rob. He was going to distract the giants in this house, while I went in and took their hen. Well, we needed a new beanstalk, so I could sneak up without being seen so he gave me three beans. The day came and I planted ‘em and climbed. I snuck up on the house and sure enough, there he was in the front room yaking away with the giants. I wiggled my way into the house and headed to where we knew they kept the hen.”
He shook his head. “I almost got away with it, but before I could get out of the house, the darned hen cackled. They caught me and figured out that the old man in their parlor was working with me. They ate him first. Then they came for me. But young and strong as I was, they decided to eat me a piece at a time.” He slapped his peg. “They took part of me leg first. But before they could get to the rest of me, I escaped and practically fell down that beanstalk. I chopped it down right quick before anyone could follow.”
He stopped and closed his eyes. “I tried to forget all about the giants and their treasure.” He opened eyes glittering with greed. “But that gold. It burned in my imagination, taking my sleep, stealing my appetite. So, I set out to find more magic beans. It took all me life, but finally last year,” he smiled, “I found them.” His smile faded. “But what was I going to do?” He slapped his peg again. “I couldn’t climb no beanstalk. No I needed someone young, someone desperate, someone like Jack.”
Resentment boiled Jack’s blood and he wanted to scream at the old man, at the jury, at the prosecutor. They had no idea what it was like scrabbling in the dirt for meagre handfuls of grain, not even enough each day to cut hunger’s gnawing, sawing edge.
“When I met Jack on that road, I already knew he was my man. I explained my whole plan, a plan I’d thought on long and hard for forty years. Even so, he almost got caught.” Vassy lapsed into silence.
The prosecutor cleared his throat. “So, you and Jack agreed that he would rob the giants and you would split the profits?”
Vassy nodded. “Yeah, that was the plan. And it would have worked, but he roused the giant…and murdered him.”
The courtroom erupted. The giants, both leaping to their feet, screamed at Jack while in the unseen gallery cries and moans competed with the bellowing giants. From the gallery Jack heard “Help her she’s fainted.” Was that his mother? The judge’s gavel rang out almost unheard in the commotion.
All the noise faded from Jack’s consciousness as the import of what just happened shut down his senses. Was that enough to convict him of murder? Of theft he was now almost certainly to be seen as guilty, but murder….If they got him on murder he’d hang and that would almost certainly kill his mum.
After a few moments, the judge’s gavel began to have an effect and the chaos quieted. Breathing hard, the red faced judge finally stared at the silenced crowd. “One more outburst like that and I’ll clear the room.”
“The prosecution rests.”
“Cross?” the judge asked Jack’s attorney.
His attorney eyed him for a long moment then shrugged. “Nothing, your honor.”
Hours later, the Judge excused the jury for deliberation. Jack had sat through closing statements and instructions in a fog. Nothing registered. His mind rang with the imagined words: “guilty, taken and hung by the neck until dead.” They couldn’t do that to him could they?
“Now we wait,” his attorney said.
And wait they did. Five hours after being excused, word came back. The jury has reached a verdict. As the jurors filed in none looked in Jack’s direction. To no avail Jack tried to catch the eye of a few.
“Has the jury elected a foreperson?” the judge asked.
A woman stood up. “I am, your honor.”
“Have you reached a verdict?”
“We have your honor,” she said and held up a piece of paper.
“Please pass it to the Bailiff.”
The Bailiff took the piece of paper and delivered it to the judge. The judge studied the paper for a good minute in the midst of a silence so profound, a cough from the gallery echoed like a gunshot. The judge handed the paper to the Bailiff who plodded back to the foreperson and delivered it.
“What is your verdict?” the judge asked.
The foreperson cleared her throat and looked down at the fluttering paper in her hand. “On the count of murder in the first degree, we the jury hereby find the Defendant….”
Yesterday I finished a fascinating book. Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder.
In the course of her book, Dr. Hossenfelder describes in a general non technical way how at times in the past theoretical physicists have predicted the existence of particles that had not yet been seen in any experiments. It seems, if I have this right, which is no sure thing by any means, that physicists form theories by extending mathematical formulas that have been shown to describe our reality. In performing such extensions, on occasion theoretical physicists will posit the existence of a particle or particles because that particle or those particles are necessary to the proper functioning of the formula. For example, as I understand it, please see caveat above, for many years the Standard Model of particle physics as generally formulated posited the existence of the Higgs Field and its corresponding particle, the Higgs Boson even though it had not been seen. Physicists were confident of its existence because it was necessary to complete the Standard Model’s formulas. And in 2012, the Higgs Boson was observed confirming the theoretical prediction.
So, last night the Lovely Marianne and I were watching a Hallmark Movie (yes, we will occasionally view Hallmark movies, but I feel I must now make a ritual denunciation of them as shallow and cheesy and…fill in the blank). Anyway, last night’s fine piece of cinema was A Princess for Christmas.
In the movie, we meet Jules who after her sister and brother-in-law (Charles)’s tragic deaths is responsible for their two children Maggie (6?) and Milo (14?). Charles it seems was the estranged son of Edward, the Duke of Castlebury (Castlebury being one of the many tiny European monarchies desperate to marry off their royal offspring to American youth). One day out of the blue Duke Edward’s butler shows up on Jules’ doorstep. Duke Edward wants to mend family fences and invites his grandchildren Maggie and Milo to spend Christmas at Castlebury Hall. Jules, of course, is invited along as well.
Okay with the stage set, here is where we combine Hallmark and Theoretical Physics. Jules and the children had just arrived at Castlebury Hall when the Lovely Marianne asked, “When do we get to meet Edward’s other son?”
“His what?” I ask because there has been no mention thus far of a brother to Charles. As far as we know, the deceased Charles was Duke Edward’s only child.
“His other son. The Duke has to have another son.”
And sure enough, not a minute later Ashton, Charles’ brother, Duke Edward’s second son drives up in a sports car.
And it hit me. Just like a good theoretical physicist, The Lovely Marianne postulated the existence of a thus far unobserved character. She was certain of his existence even in the absence of any factual basis for her supposition because he was necessary to the formula. Her perspicacity was demonstrated when we observed that character, thus confirming her theoretical prediction.
Who says formulaic, cheesy entertainment can’t be educational?
Yeah, okay, the island was England and the stranding part involved two flat tyres (see what I did there?) and thereby, as the Bard says, hangs a tale. So buckle up–it’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.
I’m not a world traveler by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m also no novice when it comes to long flights over large bodies of water. So, when we arrived at London’s Heathrow airport after an overnight flight from Salt Lake City by way of Cincinnati the exhaustion weighing on my limbs, the grit in my eyes and the sensation I was walking through a dream had a familiar feel to it. After an interminable wait we made it through immigration and customs and I stood at the car rental counter.
“I see you have prepaid for a compact.”
“Yes, I have,” I said, proud of having made the arrangements in advance.
“And you have the car for three weeks?”
Still floating in dream land, I wanted to get this over and on the road. “Yep,” I said.
“How far are you driving?”
With a bright, cheery smile, the agent seemed genuinely interested in my trip. How nice and friendly, I thought. “Oh, I don’t know. We’re driving to Dover then to Colchester and Stonehenge and Cornwall and Wales then across the Irish Sea to Belfast and up to the Giant’s causeway, then back across to the Lake District and up to Scotland and back here.” Fatigue had me a little punch drunk–chatty (I’m normally rather taciturn with people at the rental car counters) and off my guard. It’s the only excuse I can offer for what happened next.
“Well, driving that much I think you’d be much better off in our most fuel efficient car–a Mercedes.” In my weakened state, I didn’t respond which the agent rightly took as a sign of interest. “It’s only two hundred dollars more. You’ll likely save that much in fuel costs.”
Right here I want to reiterate my mental incapacity from lack of sleep. It’s the only reason I can imagine allowing the agent to issue such a patently absurd statement without a challenge. Well, that and “hey, we’re on vacation and we will be spending a lot of time in the car. And our daughter Catherine’s with us and she’ll be so much more comfortable in that nice roomy back seat. “
“You what?” The lovely Marianne was not pleased with my spur of the moment decision. She also had been sleepless and so was abnormally testy. Well, it was done and off we went on our way to Dover.
I have often wondered how someone from the sixteenth century might feel were she magically transported from life in a hovel where all water is carried home by hand, fire of various sorts is the only form of light and entertainment is listening to gossip about the wretches next door to the world of computers, streaming, iphones and flatscreens. The closest approximation I’ve found is the leap I made from a low end Toyota Camry (what I drive at home) to the Mercedes I rented in England.
The car mystified me. Sure, I could put it in gear, hit the gas and the brake, but there must have been five hundred functions in that thing that were indistinguishable to me from magic. I tried to use the cruise control; it seemed to operate of its own accord. I tried the sound system and nothing then blasting music then nothing. I eventually figured out the wipers; I was determined not to have to figure out the lights.
Daughter Catherine, it turned out, was less than thrilled with my choice, roomy backseat and all. In the rear view mirror I could see her latched onto the door as if removing her hand was a death sentence. (Her knuckles were actually white and here I’d just thought that was an expression–and over the top at that.) Muscles bunched in her jaw and at the look of horror on her face I glanced around to see who was about to attack us. “Are you sure you’re okay driving this car, Dad?”
You shouldn’t view that question, by the way, as her doubting my competence behind the wheel; she’s always been supremely confident in my abilities. “Absolutely,” I said as I drifted just a little too far to the left. In fact, I was discovering that, while driving on the side of the road heaven has decreed as the One True Side I had a good sense of where the right side of the car was, here in the land of the heathen where Divine Law is ignored I was having a wee bit o’ trouble knowing where the left side of the car was. That was not too much of an issue on the motorway, but when we moved from the motorway to smaller rural roads with curbs along the edge, I found myself drifting into said curbs.
I was not surprised then when we finally arrived at our first destination, upon examining the tyres on the left side, I saw scuff marks on the sidewalls. I clearly needed to be more careful.
The next two days passed without incident (if you don’t count the mounting number of scuff marks on the passenger side tyres’ sidewalls). On the third day we planned on visiting grave yards of various churches where ancestors of mine might be found (well, their tombstones anyway). We visited a church near a little village called Pitstone (population 2,900; location middle of nowhere England between Ivinghoe and Marsworth).
From Pitstone we were to drive to just outside Stonehenge where we had a bed and breakfast reserved for the evening. So far, so good. The roads in and around Pistone were narrow, but I was getting the hang of the whole driving on the devil’s side of the road thing. I made my way in to Pitstone just fine.
Take a good look at that picture and read the caption. Do you see any traps for the unwary driver from the civilized world? Because it was coming out of Pitstone where the trouble occurred.
Do you see that little post with the red strip on it? What’s it standing on? That’s right! It’s on a piece of curb that juts out into the road! Who does that? People who want to lure unsuspecting yanks in Mercedes autos to their doom, that’s who. Yep, there I was driving along trying not to wander into oncoming traffic and BAM!
Not one tyre, that would have been very sad, but I have been known to change a tyre in my life. No, it was TWO TYRES. So, it’s a little before noon and we’re stranded because, not anticipating the stupidity of certain drivers, the good folks at Mercedes Benz neglected to put TWO spare tyres in their cars. Not panicking yet, because it’s only about a two hour drive to Amesbury, to our B n B there. But I need some help.
Did I mention that Pitstone was tiny and in the middle of nowhere?
Still not worried because I had planned for this. Before we left the states I had purchased a cell phone that could be used in England. I’ll just call the emergency number from the friendly rental car folks. So, out comes the phone and…I cannot for the life of me get it to work. I get a tone, but when I try to dial, nothing connects. That little exercise takes an hour or so.
Still not worried. This is the modern age and England is a first world country, so a solution must be at hand. I had parked the car right in front of a house, so I went to the door and knocked. A very nice man answered the door. When I explained my difficulty, he kindly let me use his telephone. I couldn’t raise anyone on the other line.
Now worry’s peeking its head up and waving to me because we are stuck in, have I told you this? a Little. Tiny. Town. in a foreign country (I know, England, but still–not home) without a means of communication, two flat tyres and a deadline. It was now going on 2:00 pm.
So, picture this–three forlorn Americans trudging along a road, bewildered and searching for answers or at least a phone box where they can try their luck again with the rental car company and failing to find one. See them there on a street corner huddled together heads bowed as they pray for a miracle.
When no miracle appeared, we made our way back toward the car. Averse though I was to exposing my folly and ignorance to the world, I said I thought we should stop at the convenience store along the way and beg them to let us use their phone so we could try to call again.
I was deeply grateful that they didn’t let us see them snicker when I made my request. Out came the phone and with fingers crossed, I tried the number again. Eureka! success. The people at the rental place were nice, but I had to trudge back to the car to retrieve information they requested. At the car, my daughter told me that she had met the nice woman who operated a studio next to the house our car was in front of.
She told Catherine that we were welcome to wait in her studio and use her telephone. This was fortunate as I had to make several more trips to the car for information the rental company needed. The upshot of these conversations was that presently they would send someone along to help us out. Hallelujah! It was now about three pm and although worry had advanced much closer it refused to leave as the time ticked by and no one showed up.
4:30. That’s about when the man with the tow truck showed up. He told us very politely that he couldn’t fix the tyres. He’d have to tow the car to the nearest rental car facility (Luton Airport about half an hour away) where we could secure a replacement car. By 5:15 we were in the rental facility where I discovered how expensive Mercedes tyres are (for the record $300 a piece, yes $600 for the pair). I also discovered that the only car they had available was a Peugeot compact with a stick shift. (I had rented an automatic because I didn’t want to have to shift with my left hand on top of driving on the devil’s side and dealing with tiny, obstacle strewn roads). ‘And for the privilege of driving that car I would pay the same rate as for the Mercedes.
But rock and hard place and all that I agreed to the deal. By this time it was getting on to about 6:30 and we had a two hour drive ahead of us. We prepared to leave when Catherine expressed in rather forceful terms her distress at the situation. She was, uh, concerned (she put it a bit more bluntly) for our safety since we hadn’t eaten all day, were driving at night in an unfamiliar car with a stick shift on the wrong side. She wanted to find the nearest hotel and hole up for the night. I assured her with as much confidence as I could muster, that I was okay driving and wouldn’t put her or her mother in danger. I could see that the confident father routine was wearing a bit thin, but she agreed to go along.
Needless to say, we arrived safely at our B n B at about 8:30 pm.
And we wandered down the road for a fine meal at the
Whew, quite a story, huh? Well unbeknownst to us, we were just getting started! Stay tuned for Part 2.