My daughter Bea’s spring break didn’t coincide with her Dad’s, so we took our first overseas trip together, just the two of us.
She was a sophomore in high school, but I knew she would be college bound before I could blink twice, and her spring breaks and summers would likely be spent on internships, summer jobs, or traveling with friends. Each moment felt precious and fleeting, except perhaps our first night in England, when my darling girl got very sick. There was nothing fleeting about that night–it lasted an eternity! But Bea rallied, and we made the most of every moment.
Each day I studied the map and planned our route, which ‘A’ road led to which ‘B’ road which led to tiny country lanes with no names.
“Why bother, Mom? We always get lost anyway,” said Bea.
Good point. If we asked a local for directions, the answer went something like this: “Right! Take the left fork, then the second right, go past three fields and take a left where the old oak used to be…” Once I even had to knock on a stranger’s door to beg directions.
But a dandelion is only a weed if you don’t want it, and getting lost was an interesting diversion, so long as we were in no hurry, and we never were. Our oft-repeated motto was, “We always get where we’re going…………………………………………….eventually!”
I wanted to share some of my favorite places with Bea and do a bit of research for a historical novel, but mostly I hoped to discover exciting places new to us both. On previous trips, I’d never made it to Canterbury, though the town had played an important role throughout English history. So we moseyed to Canterbury, and stayed at Blackfriars, an inn that was once a 13th century friary.
At Canterbury Cathedral we had our tour guide all to ourselves. I’d have sworn he’d stepped right out of a BBC special, with his gray hair, proper English accent, and Mr. Rogers sweater and tie. He also carried a cane, and I suspect that he’d suffered a mild stroke. Yet here he was, kindly sharing his expertise and his precious time with us. We asked questions about the cathedral and even ventured into politics, current events, and other matters I’d always wondered about, such as, “What do contemporary English people think about Henry VIII?” When our tour ran over–too many questions–our guide called the front desk for permission to spend another hour with us. We felt so honored and grateful. After saying goodbye to him, we went to the gift shop for our pilgrim badges.
We heard great stories from John the Boatman on the canal tour in Canterbury. When we came to a particularly low bridge, he warned us to duck. As we passed under, he pointed out the groove worn into the center stone by the heads of boatmen not quite fleet enough, at least when it came to ducking. How many times, I wondered, would you have to smack the back of your head before you caught on? And how many boatmen had it taken over the centuries to wear a grove in the stone?
Some of our discoveries were due to fools’ luck. On an evening stroll we stumbled upon this little coffee shop where in 1620, according to its proprietors, America began. (It was the place where the Mayflower was hired to carry pilgrims to America. Using that logic, the soda fountain where Mr. Disney popped the question to the future Mrs. Disney is the place where Disneyland began.) Nevertheless we took a photo for future reference, since we have a personal history and interest in the Mayflower.
We visited castles, museums and took high tea, but a trip to the grocery store was as much fun as Disneyland.
We love to try new things, especially when the second ingredient listed is sugar.
…and I think there should be a monument erected in honor of Mr. Kipling, for his contribution to the world–Mr. Kipling’s Exceedingly Good Cherry Bakewell Tarts.
But Bea and I don’t need a tourist attraction to amuse ourselves–we talk history, life, story and more story. Wherever we go, Bea and I inevitably produce an outline for a novel based on this era or that event, and England was a fertile and storied land long before we arrived. We took turns brainstorming and talking each other through rough spots in our writing projects. I’d just finished a draft of a women’s contemporary, Real Troopers. One of my characters is Walter Clark, a retired F.B.I. agent, poet, and amateur astronomist. He is older, with white hair, a good looking sixty-something. But was he too good to be true? Could someone like Walter exist in real life? Bea and I invented a game, ‘Where’s Walter?’ On country lanes and city streets, we kept a discreet eye peeled for him.
“How about him, Mom?” asked Bea, casually nodding her head in the direction of a man walking toward us in the crowd.
“Too young,” I said.
“How about him?” asked Bea.
“Too old,” I said. “Oooh, don’t look, Bea! Turn slowly and check out that gent by the phone booth. Could that be Walter?”
Bea pretended to stretch, discreetly twisting her head for a look, then gave her report. “Walter would never have frown lines.”
She was right, of course. We left Canterbury and The Walter That Wasn’t to depart for our next destination. Not knowing if I’d have another chance, I had splurged for a night in a very spiffy 15th century B&B, The Olde Moat House, in Ivy Church. There was a tiny hamlet with only a church and a pub, where two men were having a pint at an outside table. We were coming from a different direction than we’d planned, but figured we would find our way there…………………………………….eventually. After a mile or so, we realized we’d overshot the town and turned back. As we passed the pub for the second time, one of the men jumped up and flagged us down. I stopped and rolled down the window, and he said, pointing,“The Olde Moat House. It’s in that direction. Look for a gate with two white posts.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“A mother and a daughter.” (He did NOT say “looking confused,” but he didn’t need to.)
For one night, Bea was a princess.
The next day we had tea at The Mermaid Inn in Rye.
The inn was there at the time of the Conquest. It was so old they had to remodel in anticipation of a visit by the first Queen Elizabeth.
Our bartender was Paddy Mortimer, whose ancestor had come over with William the Conqueror. (We forgave him.) When he heard Bea had been ill, he mixed her the special orange juice concoction his mum always made him when he was sick, and served it to her on the house. He had us wait five minutes for his shift to end, so he could escort us to our car park. Thank you, Paddy, dear lad.
True ghost stories from Dover Castle must wait, as will the story of our visit to Battle Abbey, where we walked the battlefield on which the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, was defeated by William the Bastard, thereafter known as William the Conqueror.
I also wanted to take Bea to Battle, because it is the starting point of my historical novel, The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, which I co-authored with my sister Deborah. It was a really special moment to share with my daughter.
So we had our eating moments,
and our bleating moments…
…and even our cheating moments.
That happened on the Underground. We were returning from London to our hotel when I saw him. Among the bustling crowd on the subway I saw Walter! “Look, Bea,” I whispered. “It’s him!” Bea confirmed. Yes! We had a positive identification, but we needed documentation. I whipped out my camera and said, “Smile!” Bea did, and I shot right past her head to snap a creeper photo of Walter, concrete proof that he did, indeed, exist! But the shot was out of focus, soI tried again…
By that time I was laughing so loud that I embarrassed Bea, and drew unwanted attention. Thank goodness, the train stopped, and we all went our separate ways. But now I know, somewhere in the streets of London, Walter exists!
I will tell you one more story, about the 650 year old Clergy House in Alfriston.
In the 1880s it was in a state of decay, and church authorities wanted to tear it down. Living there was a ninety year old woman who had been renting the house from the church for many years. She cried and begged them not to destroy her home and put her out onto the streets. They took pity, and granted her permission to live out the rest of her life in the old clergy house, and then they would raze it. She surprised them all by living another three years, just long enough for the right folks to found The National Trust. They got organized just in time to purchase The Clergy House, raise the funds to restore it, and maintain it as a priceless national treasure, the very first property of many such historic treasures acquired by The National Trust. When we toured the house, there was a smooth-edged little hole in the lintel over the front door, worn into the wood by six centuries of coming and going of the furry little bats living among the rafters. Who would have thought such fleeting appearances by such tiny creatures would make such a lasting mark?
Fleeting moments occur, and often reoccur. I think of the Canterbury boatmen who wore down a stone bridge with the backs of their heads. But then there are the bats who have done much the same thing at The Clergy House, only they created a pathway to home, a far worthier pursuit than banging your head against a wall. I’m more like a bat than a boatman. Every expression of love, every shared smile, every conversation we have is a precious fleeting moment in time. Just like it did for the bats, that moment builds upon itself, and the effect is cumulative. I think of the empty nest I will be living in next year, but I will try not to feel too sad. Bea and I have shared a lifetime of fleeting precious moments that have worn a pathway from heart to heart, and that will never go away.
Copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck