Me (upon finding a snake on the trail): Are you any good at identifying snakes?
Them: Yup. That’s a snake.
Me (bangs head against wall).
Me (upon finding a snake on the trail): Are you any good at identifying snakes?
Them: Yup. That’s a snake.
Me (bangs head against wall).
It slips from your fingers, abandoned like flotsam on the deck.
I daren’t look down. Your skin.
It’s warm, and salty, and smells of promise.
Soon it will be dark.
The tip of my tongue. The sweet muskiness of you. The air cooling on my naked arms,
sweet, crisp and cold.
Anything is possible, and I dare not
take my eye from the telescope.
The faintest scent of wildfire, barely discernible.
And from the desert
the distant sound of gunfire.
An exercise in creative writing, using the senses, that yielded a surprising result. Part of my portfolio for my BA in English.
This time last year, Dr Nick and I were travelling in Europe. We spent two weeks in Italy, where he delivered a lecture at the University of Bologna, and then we moved on to Serbia for a week-long conference. This year, by way of contrast, we are more or less confined to barracks. A radical hysterectomy means that the furthest I can travel at the moment is, by means of a very tentative stagger, to the end of the road and back, and this can take half an hour or so. The last ten days have passed in a fog of (prescribed) narcotics, sleep and frustration as I take small steps, literally, back to fitness. I have learned that I am a very impatient patient. It’s not that I was a super-active person prior to having what feels like half my internal organs removed, but being unable to accomplish simple tasks such as putting on a pair of socks, or reaching up to take a plate out of a cupboard makes me feel old and helpless. Dr Nick has, of course, been an absolute angel. The night before I went into hospital he brought a dish of honeysuckle petals to my bedside ‘to help you sleep.’ The yellow, green, and white petals infused the air with invisible clouds of icing-sugar sweetness, and I felt truly loved.
My surgeon’s mantra, when I saw him this morning, was ‘small steps’, and he’s right. Each day I am growing a little stronger, although a brief bout of over-confidence yesterday resulted in my baking a fruit cake and going for a walk, with the inevitable result that by the evening I was exhausted and very, very sore. Today Dr Nick made me promise to rein it in a bit and take it easy, hence the reason why I am now sitting in a shady spot in the garden, watching the birds and applying a healthy dose of positive thinking towards getting better. It helps that I now have cake to speed my recovery.
My beloved’s kitchen is poorly equipped for adventures in baking. I doubt that he has ever baked a cake, so this combined with the fact that I was botching an English recipe using American measurements and ingredients, means that the resulting fruit cake tastes even more delicious.
Now, baking a cake would normally be a pretty straightforward affair. However, I hadn’t anticipated the several ways in which this simple venture would highlight, once more, the differences between England and America. It’s impossible to buy cake as we know it in the UK. Ask for ‘cake’ in Arizona and you are offered either deep-fried and heavily glazed donuts, or blousy confections smothered in artificial whipped crème. I was a woman on a mission, to make a good, old-fashioned fruit cake, the sort of cake which would accompany a lovely cup of strong British tea. My first challenge came when shopping for ingredients. After much searching, I was able to track down a bag of ‘self-rising flour’, a bottom-shelf novelty item at my local Walmart, and I managed to cause further confusion by asking if they had sultanas. The humble, juicy sultana is another thing which is clearly not ‘a thing’ in Arizona. Nor is the glace cherry. Or mixed spice. Who’d have thought? Some serious improvisation and substitution took place, with finely-chopped apricots and cranberries going in the mix with the raisins (yes, I found those, although not in the baking aisle at Walmart; raisins are strictly ‘snacking goods’, apparently).
My beloved possesses neither mixing bowl nor, until today, a cake tin, but with a few work-arounds I was able to turn out a jolly good almost-British fruit cake. I bent, gingerly, to the oven and lovingly lifted the pan to pride of place on the worktop. Warm, spicy, and crammed with fruit (the cake, that is), Dr Nick looked on in wonder as if unable to comprehend how on earth his kitchen could produce such a thing. Mind you, this relatively simple task had taken me most of the day, if you count the time it took to buy the ingredients and equipment. As far as I was concerned, it was a major achievement. My child-bearing days might be over, but I can still create, cajole and nurture something beautiful into existence. It might not be another European ‘Grand Tour’, but, as my surgeon would say, it is a small step to recovery.
This morning we are up before daybreak to catch an early morning flight to Los Angeles. We are attending a wedding in Pasadena and I will be introduced to, and inspected by, Dr Nick’s surrogate family in the US. ‘Don’t worry, they know all about you’ he says cheerfully, as if that will help.
Prescott’s Municipal Airport is tiny. The staff multi-task, especially today as their electronic system has gone down, so everything has to be checked manually. Our little plane is basic, no frills. We are advised in the departure lounge that there is no toilet on board ‘So now would be a good time to go.’ You don’t get that kind of personal care advice at Heathrow. Security checks are comprehensive; with no air crew but for the two pilots, you don’t want to take any unnecessary risks. The man in front of us is frisked extensively. His driver’s license is taken to a supervisor and examined with a magnifying glass. ‘They’re worse than the Stasi’ mutters my fiancé, grumpily. Our passports (yes, we are only flying from Arizona to California, but this is America) are scanned with a light pen. The security guy does a double-take at my eight-year-old passport photo ‘You cut your hair,’ he observes. ‘I’m older, too,’ I reply. He says he didn’t notice, which I take as a compliment, especially this early on a Saturday morning.
Our plane appears to be piloted by two highly-efficient fifteen year olds. It is strange and refreshing in this day and age to be able to see into the cockpit and watch the teenagers perform their pre-flight checks. The screens which divide the flight deck from the passengers, when closed for take-off, form an arch, a triptych before an altar of blinking instruments. As we have two pilots I am reassured that Dr Nick, a qualified pilot, will probably not be required to step in should there be an emergency. This plane is small, a nineteen-seater, but it is still bigger than anything he has flown.
I am filled with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, with a touch of nervousness due to the flight. I don’t bother to read the safety notice in the pocket in front of my seat. This plane is so small that, in an emergency we would all, as my beloved would say, be toast. The emergency exit seats are occupied by two Japanese lads in hoodies and baseball caps and an elderly, well-dressed gent with a watery cough which he is generously sharing with his fellow passengers. Despite being required to provide a verbal response to the co-pilot’s instructions to operate the exits in any unforeseen circumstance, I don’t hold them in great confidence. The Japanese lads grunt and the old man coughs in reply, both of which are taken for a ‘yes’ by our co-pilot. I guess he’s had worse. Suddenly we are in the air, banking sharply to the right. I look down and all I can see is desert. Mile after mile of rock, sand and scrub. I hadn’t realized how remote Prescott is; a true oasis. There is a lake of low-lying fog to our left, and we fly just above the cloud line, bumping our way upward.
A freezing cold breeze blows continuously around my bare legs. I am seriously under-dressed for an early morning flight. Dr Nick has come well-prepared. Warm clothing, earplugs, neck cushion. Lack of caffeine and sleep means he is volatile and grumpy, so I let him snooze. We fly low enough that I can see highways criss-crossing the desert, like the Nazca lines in Peru.
The Beech 1900 is a very basic plane. Our seating is comprised of hard, thin plastic seats which double as flotation devices should we land on water. Someone has thoughtfully provided guidance notes in case this should happen, even though we are in the middle of the desert. I examine the FAA safety guide which pictures a lady floating calmly in the sea, ankles delicately crossed, skirt modestly arranged, hair just-so and both shoes still on, despite them obviously being slip-on loafers. She is hugging her plastic seat cushion in an apparently karmic, dream-like state of bliss. I happen to know from bitter experience that if I should fall into a large body of water fully dressed, I would not look like the lady in the picture.
Halfway through our flight, and the landscape below is beginning to change. I see a few isolated farms. Fields appear in grid patterns, bisected by long, long roads like so many tray-bakes left to cool. As we fly into daylight the sky turns ice-blue. We fly over mountains, their craggy surfaces a deep iron-ore red. Lazy pink sunlight strokes the wings, slowly warming what promises to be a beautiful morning, despite yesterday’s thunderstorms.
The last time I flew in a plane this small was thirty-five years ago. At the age of nineteen I left home and a disastrous love-affair to work in the Outer Hebrides, a remote group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. The landscape there was very different. A filigree of tiny streams and lochs barely connected by thin strips of peat bog. Brown, just like this landscape, but 90% water, the polar opposite of this desert. Both locations are remote, both breathtakingly beautiful.
We fly low over another small airfield, and I see we are nearing civilization. Swimming pools, sports fields and factories spewing smoke. Over the city now, a long, winding river snaking its way over the mountains to one side. Then into thick cloud, turbulence throwing me against the wall of the plane. You feel everything so much more intensely in a small aircraft. How terrifying and exhilarating the early years of flight must have been, navigating blind and seriously cold. We continue to bump down through the cloud toward LAX, bright blue sky to one side, on the other grey-black cloud. LA sprawls for miles, the freeway below us busy with ant-like vehicles even at this early hour. Suddenly we are flying level with the mountain tops; I see tower blocks and skyscrapers, reservoirs filled with murky, grey water. We pass over ‘Crenshaw Christian Center, Home of the Faith Dome’, its painted sign visible only from the sky, in case God decides to parachute in for an ad hoc visit.
Our pilots (or ‘the kids’ as we fondly refer to them) land the plane with more enthusiasm than finesse, and taxi for what must be a further hundred miles to a far corner of this massive airfield. They take the transfer bus with us, laughing and checking their Facebook profiles on their mobile phones as we bump along to the terminal. I look back over my shoulder: the city goes on forever, and I long for the desert, and northern Arizona.
The USA is in its infancy. Colonised by the English in 1620, it became the United States, an independent nation, in 1776. That’s only 240 years ago. Is it any wonder then, that its people are so naïve when it comes to politics, culture and gun law?
In the UK we marvel at how a sad, dangerous and uncomfortably comedic figure like Donald Trump can possibly be allowed to hold a position of power. Since moving to the USA I’ve been trying to comprehend how such a ridiculous turn of events has come about, and I have been fortunate, in a way, to experience the Trump phenomena from both sides of the Atlantic.
In England, Magna Carta, the Great Charter of the Liberties, or the first written laws, if you like, was signed in 1215, or shortly after lunch. The Declaration of Independence, arguably the American equivalent, was signed in 1776. That puts England roughly 560 years ahead of America in terms of social and political maturity.
560 years ago, in England, we were in the 1450s. Henry VI was King, and we had just lost the Hundred Years’ War to the French. If you believe Wikipedia, the earliest known reference to knitting in England occurs around then, and more memorably someone up north started the Wars of the Roses. We were still fighting battles with longbows; firearms had only recently been introduced as weapons of war. Executing women for ‘practising witchcraft’ was still 200 years in the future. We probably made up the rules as we went along.
Imagine a politician or a soldier from 1450 having access to modern weaponry, the internet, nuclear technology, motor cars. Imagine, if armed with little education, or mindfulness, how dangerous that could be. That’s where the Americans are today. They have all the bravado, enthusiasm and naivety of a new nation, but with none of the hindsight, maturity or lesson-learning that England has gathered in the intervening 500 years. It is a frightening thought, but goes some way to explaining the air of invincibility that the US wears like a suit of armour. Trump blunders around like a petulant teething toddler on the verge of a tantrum because he is a product of this dangerous combination.
Here in Arizona, folks are still living in the Wild West. Gung-ho, gun-toting enthusiasm is rife, privacy laws virtually non-existent. It’s like living in a culture which is a cross between The Virginian and 1950s Britain. Men strut around town wearing Stetsons and holsters. I can’t get a decent radio signal. This part of the state has a pervading small-town mentality. Is it any wonder, then, that when it comes to voting habits, its inhabitants want to be on the side they see as the winning team, with all the accompanying glitz and glamour? Policies really have nothing to do with it. You might as well have a shiny new convertible running for President, or a brand-new washing machine. Small town America just wants to win the Star Prize, regardless of whether or not it breaks down after the first couple of weeks’ use.
Marnie Devereux is an English writer living in the south-western United States.
Alone, Marguerite sits in the cool shade of the cherry tree, pondering today’s problem. Above her, glass vases brim with nectar; they are garlanded with bright red ribbons. The perfect temptation for hummingbirds. Yet they do not come.
Frowning, she considers this conundrum.
Marguerite knows she is perfect. Her slight frame ageing, yet scalpel-thin, her apple cheeks Botox-plump and rosy, skin tucks no more noticeable than paper-cut scars. She has starved herself to be every man’s wish, an example to her failing, fat friends in the WI whom she secretly pities. Shifting slightly in the warming afternoon, she remains puzzled as to where the elusive hummingbirds could be hiding. She has provided everything they could possibly want: sugary, syrupy goodness, bright colours, the perfect quiet of an English garden. She has seen the photographs; back home in Ecuador her dull little friend Daniela has them visiting in swarms, and look at the state of her! Surely if she can attract these rare beauties, Marguerite should have no problem. No problem at all. Perhaps she needs to add some more scarlet ribbons to the swags now knotted to the tree branches above her head. In Marguerite’s experience, if you want something badly enough, you get it. After all, that mantra has always worked when it comes to attracting the opposite sex. Youth and beauty is all, and she has paid hard cash to her surgeon to ensure, absolutely, that she will always be young and beautiful. She squints up through the dappled sunshine at the glass bowls; she knows she has filled them with just the right proportions of sugar and water. She has peppered the cherry tree with every scrap of red ribbon she could find – raided from Christmas decorations, her sewing box and dressing table. She will have the biggest, the most colourful and the best hummingbird garden of anyone she knows. As soon as she saw those photographs, those delicate, brightly-coloured Sunangels (Sun angels! how perfect!) she just knew it was her job to attract the brightest and the most. Feigning interest in poor, dowdy Daniela’s achievement, she had gleaned the knowledge that hummingbirds love a strong sugar solution, and the colour red. So, naturally, the cherry tree with its under planting of crimson camellias was the perfect spot to attract attention. Marguerite has positioned herself here, on the love seat under the cherry tree, every morning for the past week, and willed those beautiful, delicate creatures to come to her. No larger than bees, apparently, though bees were the only creatures that seemed to be attracted so far, and their numbers were growing. They buzzed incessantly just a few feet above her head, and Marguerite wondered vaguely if that was the reason the birds were keeping away.
The afternoon is growing much warmer now, and Marguerite begins to feel drowsy. She takes a sip from the wine glass on the table beside her, absentmindedly shooing away an inquisitive bee with a flick of her hand. The lack of avian attention is beginning to trouble her; she doesn’t like being ignored, either by men or animals. It makes her snippy.
Rummaging in the carpet bag she brought with her from the house, she pulls out a few more reels of scarlet ribbon. Carefully, she winds them around her wrists and neck, the blood-red streamers rising gently in the afternoon breeze. She garlands yet more around her head, tying makeshift bows in her carefully-coloured blonde hair. She knows she looks magnificent; no bird would be capable of resisting. Why, they might even come and land on her hands; if she could tempt them to drink from her fingers that would be a definite one-up on her loser friends!
Grabbing her phone, she takes a quick selfie ‘Me in my Hummingbird Garden!’ and posts it on Instagram. ‘That’ll show them’ she sniggers to herself. ‘I’m the one with the rich husband and the good looks. I’ll prove who’s best at attracting attention.’ Setting her phone to record, she positions it on the table so that it will capture what she does next. Standing on tiptoe, Marguerite grasps the bottom of one of the glass bowls above her head, tilts it gently and lets the cool, sweetened water run over her face and arms, giggling in delight as she does so. Now she is a living, breathing, hummingbird feeder! Giving what she considers her most adorable pout to the camera, she raises her glass to the lens and polishes off the last of the Merlot. Arranging herself delicately on the grass beneath the tree, in what she hopes is a pose attractive to wildlife, and to the camera silently recording her every move, she turns her face to the sun and lets her eyes close, just for a few minutes. Then, at last, she hears it. A distinct hum, growing louder, filling her ears and hovering around her head. Keeping her eyes closed, she can feel their gentle caresses on her skin, tickling her arms and hands as they kiss her beautiful unlined skin. A smirk of deep satisfaction on her expensively-tucked face, she drifts off into a self-satisfied slumber just as the first of the swarm of worker bees lands on her mouth.
In the mid-1970s, Nick and I were at school together in a small town in the south-west of England. Nick was my boyfriend Simon’s best mate. We were all the same age, and were a very close-knit little group of friends. Nick was the coolest kid in school. Always immaculately dressed, always had the beautiful blonde girlfriend. A bit of a bad boy, cheeky grin, black leather jacket, curly black hair, Italianate good looks. We used to call him ‘The Fonz’ after a character in a popular TV show of the time. Nick and Simon were inseparable.
Simon, my boyfriend, died, in very tragic circumstances, when we were twenty years old. When things like that happen, it either brings you all closer together, or splits you all up. It split us up. Nick moved to Hawaii to do his PhD; I got married way too young, and we lost touch.
Fast forward forty years, and I’m living in a different town in Somerset, and by complete coincidence, living next door to Nick’s step-mum, Lorna. I was managing the local public library, and Lorna would come in and tell me news about Nick: how he was a big, important Professor of astrophysics, how he worked for NASA, how he had got married, been awarded a Fulbright scholarship and moved to Ireland, got divorced, moved back to the USA. I never bothered to get back in touch with him; after all, he was a high-achiever and I had done nothing with my life, and there was no way he would remember the shy girl from school who wasn’t very bright.
In 2014, Nick’s step-mum passed away, and Nick was over in the UK arranging her funeral; staying in the house next door to mine. I had been separated from my husband for two years at this point, and had been through an extremely difficult time. But I couldn’t let my old school chum disappear back to the United States without letting him know I was thinking of him, so I plucked up my courage and knocked on his door. I had convinced myself he would have absolutely no idea who I was, so was completely taken aback when he cried out in surprise and recognition and gave me a great big bear-hug! The next evening we went out for dinner and caught up on more than thirty years of ‘So what have you done with your entire life, then?’. It turned out that Nick lived in a small desert town in Arizona, and I had stayed in that town for one night the previous year as part of a road trip whilst visiting my son who had studied in California for a time. Nick and I could have passed each other in the street and not recognised one another. ‘Come and visit me in Arizona!’ was the invitation I received, though an air fare was the last thing I could afford. I was just moving out of the marital residence and buying my own house for the first time, and money was tight. But a voice in my head told me never to turn down an invitation, and I scraped together the money for a plane ticket. Nick had said I could stay with him for a couple of weeks, or he could help to pay for a hotel, whichever I preferred. The last thing on my mind was a relationship. I was still trying to piece myself together after a 25-year controlling marriage, and had no thoughts of getting into a relationship with anyone. So, a few months later I was on a long-haul flight for only the second time in my life, for a much-needed holiday in the sunshine. Nick had agreed to meet me at the airport in Phoenix, and as we drove the two hours north to Prescott, he told me a little about his life in the States and how he had been through a difficult year. I had found him to be quite a private person, and wasn’t even sure if he was gay, straight, married or had a partner waiting to greet us at home.
Well, waiting to greet us was the girl with whom Nick had shared his life for the past fifteen years. Her name was Sooty, Nick’s elderly black-and-white cat. Nick and I talked long into the night about our schooldays, our precious friend we had lost, and the paths our lives had taken. We laughed, and cried. I realised then that here was, quite simply, the sweetest, kindest man I had ever met. We are a lifetime older, and have our fair share of grey hair and wrinkles, but I look at him and see the boy I knew forty years ago. Nick Devereux. The Fonz. Nick Devereux from school. Wow.
Two years later…after too long apart, we jumped through the final hoop for me to be granted an immigration visa. As I write this I’m looking out over the banks of the creek where we live in northern Arizona, and I wonder if that terrible time we went through as teenagers happened so that, a lifetime later, we could find each other again. Nick and I are getting married next week, just after Valentine’s Day. We may not have a lifetime left to share, but we will treasure every moment.