Tag Archives: northern Arizona

Notes from a Broad: a ticket to Paradise. March 2016

I inadvertently do things which seem normal to me but which immediately mark me out as being different. Today I walk to the supermarket. In a culture where the car is King, this in itself is sufficient to cause people to stare. The only other pedestrian is Safeway’s resident beggar. Every supermarket in town has them. Usually a disabled veteran with no Federal benefits, or a young, haggard Hispanic woman, old before her time. More often than not a small child or a dehydrated dog features in the tableau. It occurs to me, rather ironically, that they are more a part of this society than I am; my visa is expired and I have no legal status in this country until the Department of Homeland Security decides to grant me residency. I am not allowed to leave the country until this process is complete; I am a stateless immigrant.

I am gradually getting used to the differences between American supermarkets and those in England. American stores are more reminiscent of the English grocery shops I remember from my early childhood, in the days when self-service was still a novelty. Food is more expensive, and the concept of the ‘value’ brand and fifty varieties of baked bean has not yet arrived. The jars of ‘Pigs’ Feet’ and piles of fresh cactus hold no fear for me. Potatoes are carefully arranged individually on display, as if they are rare fruits, which I suppose is what they are here. They are expensive, and of poor quality. The desert is not good arable country, and anything requiring a large amount of water to grow is a luxury item.

As I pay for my goods, Angie on the checkout offers me a third carrier bag which I refuse, explaining that I have to carry the shopping as I’m on foot. She looks at me as though she doesn’t quite grasp the concept. ‘You want a ticket to paradise?’ she asks. For a moment I wonder if Angie is going to turn out to be some kind of checkout evangelist, but it turns out she is just handing me my lottery ticket.

Being English and coming from a very rainy part of the country I am used to hurrying everywhere, coat buttoned to the chin and head down against the elements. The image of America I used to have in my mind was one where everyone is in a rush. That may be true in the cities, but here in the high desert, no-one hurries. It’s too hot, for a start. Today, in early March, shortly before lunchtime, it is just shy of 70 degrees, and that means a slow walk home. Arizona even has its own time zone. Imagine that in Somerset.

When I arrive home, hot and sweaty in the underwired department, I discover a note left wedged in the doorjamb, left by the Jehovah ’s Witnesses. Last time they came to the door I patiently explained that I was a Quaker and very happy with that, thank you very much. Again this prompted a look of bafflement. ‘Well, we get folks claimin’ to be all sorts of weird religions’ one of them said…the words pot and kettle sprang to mind, but I was too polite to say so. I unfold the leaflet, to find an invitation to a ‘free public event: You Will Be With Me In Paradise’. Superfluous capital letters aside, I spend a moment pondering on being with Jesus in Paradise, Paradise being apparently located at the Adult Center of Prescott on a Wednesday evening. If I attended, I was assured that I would hear ‘an explanation of how his death can benefit you and your family’. Trust the Americans to turn crucifixion into a development opportunity.

I feel brighter today, deciding to revert to good old British cooking making the most of the limited local resources. I improvise Cornish pasties with ready-made pastry cases and frozen veg. I’m not homesick exactly; there are not enough wild horses in England capable of dragging me back to the Somerset Levels, but I miss something of the familiarity of the land of my birth. So, I set about making familiar comforts: jelly with fresh Californian strawberries suspended in glorious, artificial ruby red nectar. I shall produce them from the fridge at teatime, as if by magic, and transport the two of us back to childhood Somerset. This will break all the food rules of the house, of course, this orgy of disodium phosphate and Red 40, and as I whisk it up I am almost drunk with the powdery candyfloss aroma of crystallised gelatin. I breath it in, and decide this is what Paradise smells like. It smells of red, and jelly and ice-cream, and candyfloss.

 

Notes From a Broad: In case of emergency, grab your seat

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.

A Big Old Love Story

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.

Loving at Altitude

Your love. Clear and shocking as the chill mountain air
Catches me, breathless, as if unaware.
Not the raven’s ragged flight
Nor the hare’s bold scavenge
Can trump the joy, unequalled,
Which lodges itself, solid as the mountain, in my breast.

Your love. I drape it around me like new clothes;
I twist and turn to see the fit,
To check for flaws, and finding none,
Enjoy the warmth of its fabric on my flesh.

Your love. It plays the coquette with my heart.
It teases, girlishly,
With unexpected laughter and sudden tenderness.
The twilight stargazing
And tousled waking
Welcoming me home.