Catch the fall edition of Overland Journal for my light-hearted look at life on the other side of the pond – out now!
Time, suspended. In gathering stillness
we breathe, and the pregnant air
hushes our expectations.
Night is come, mid-morning,
lulling the birds to sleep
and we wait
then huffed away on an ancient breeze
old as the universe
cool as the ocean’s deep.
Them: So, when you lived in London –
Me: I didn’t live in London; I lived in England.
Them (thoughtful silence): Um…what’s the difference between London and England?
Me: (Bangs head against wall).
So I’m sitting in the waiting room at Taunton railway station, about to embark on the biggest journey of my life. This time tomorrow, I shall know whether or not my visa application has been approved. I haven’t slept properly in two weeks, ever since the letter arrived inviting me to the interview at the US Embassy in London. In 24 hours my entire life may have changed course. I am nervous, and excited. Trepidatious, if that’s a word. I check with my software package and it suggests changing it to ‘Cretaceous’ or ‘streptococcus’. Tempting, but I decide to stick with ‘trepidatious’. I have told one or two friends about the interview, not many. I couldn’t bear the disappointment that would be magnified so many times if the answer is ‘no’.
It is a major difficulty to get to London for a 9am appointment. No train runs early enough, and I don’t fancy my chances of sleep on the sleeper train that takes almost three times as long to get to Paddington as the normal trains.
I have scraped together enough money for an overnight hotel stay, a single room close by Paddington Station, not too far to walk in the dark.
I am up at six o’clock the next morning after a fitful night. I head sleepily to the bathroom and turn on the tap. No water. I turn on the shower. No water. The room was cheap by London standards, but I’m pretty sure water was included. After giving it a couple of minutes I ring down to reception. No water. An external problem, they assure me; not the hotel’s responsibility. I negotiate the use of a basement room which does have water (how did Thames Water manage that, I wonder?) to be allowed the use of a bathroom very recently vacated by another patron, evidenced by the unmade bed and the dirty towels littering the bathroom floor. I select one small, seemingly – and hopefully – unused hand towel and tentatively dab my face dry. On the biggest day of my life I am unable to shower first. The poor duty manager has been working all night, and now has to deal with a constant stream of complaints. He advises me to come back at lunchtime if I wish to speak with the manager. I explain that actually I have a REALLY, REALLY important appointment which may take up the entire day, and resolve to follow up with Days Inn customer services by email instead. Therein lies another long story, suffice to say I was eventually given a refund ‘by check, in US dollars. We don’t have the facility to credit’ after almost two months and a barrage of emails.
So, at 7am, map in hand, I head off on foot through Hyde Park in the general direction of the American Embassy. According to Mr Google I should be at the Embassy in 23 minutes.
Which is why I eventually arrived there an hour and a quarter later.
See, I don’t have the best sense of direction. But, I was having a lovely walk through Hyde Park on a beautiful autumn morning. It was cold, but with that lazy winter sun which makes everything look pretty. Before I knew it, I was at the far end of the park, and, as I thought, still heading in the right direction. Until I looked at the map and realised that by now the park should be on my left, and not on my right. I passed quite a few Embassies, but not the American one. Eventually I had to admit to myself that I was, quite simply, a bit lost. My saviour arrived in the form of the tallest man I have ever seen, a doorman dressed in a red hunting jacket and black top hat, on duty outside some hotel or other. I explained where I was going. ‘Oh, the American Embassy? That’s over in Mayfair!’ He said, in a broad London accent. He pointed with his huge hands off into the far distance. ‘See that roundabout? That’s Hyde Park Corner. You wanna take a left there, then turn right at the donkey. Past the Dorchester then you’ll see the Embassy’. ‘Let me check I’ve got this right’ I said, slightly confused by the sudden introduction of livestock into the conversation. ‘I turn left, then head for the donkey’. So, I retraced my steps back to Hyde Park Corner, past the Dorchester Hotel. I never did find the donkey, but worked out that it must have been the War Horse memorial to animals lost in the Great War.
Sure enough, I finally arrived at the American Embassy, a vast, imposing building crowned with a huge gilded bald eagle. By this time it was raining, and the armed police on duty at the perimeter were looking bored. So too were the 150 other people who formed a long queue reaching back down the street. I approached a lady and asked if this was the queue for the visas. ‘This is the 8.30 queue’ she replied. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘Then I’m guessing I need…the 9 o’clock queue???’ She pointed off to one side where another queue stretched away into the distance. I went to the back of the line, and resigned myself to a long wait. The whole of humanity was there: students, families, mothers with babies in their arms, seasoned travellers, tourists clutching travel itineraries, would-be migrants like myself, many of them clutching Indian passports and bundles of paperwork. I felt nervous, and excited. I craned my neck to look up at the huge eagle at the top of the building. It is an extremely effective symbol of the might of America. I dearly wanted to photograph it, but couldn’t be certain that my camera wouldn’t be confiscated by the cops – photographing the US Embassy would probably amount to espionage, or spying, resulting in several years’ incarceration in Guantanamo.
After an hour, an official came along the line encouraging us to get our papers ready for when we reached the front of the queue. She spotted mine and said brightly ‘Oh! You’re a K-1, you can jump the queue’. Not being sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I meekly followed her, glad of the opportunity to move so that I could get some feeling back into my frozen feet. I was then handed over to a security guard who put me in line for checking through security. This is an arrangement just like at an airport, and equally as thorough, and gets you through the perimeter fence to the outside of the Embassy. Then you have to walk all the way around to the main entrance, and to a very polite receptionist. He explained I should take a seat in the waiting hall and handed me a sheet of paper covered in identical barcodes. ‘And this is your number for the day’. I guessed I was going to be there for some time.
At that moment, the doors to the waiting hall swung open and a young woman made her way down the steps. She had obviously been crying, her mascara had run in little channels down her cheeks and she wore the washed out, lost look of someone who has just had their hopes and dreams dashed. I shivered, hoping this was not an omen of bad things coming my way.
The waiting hall resembles an airport departure lounge and seats 300 people. I know this, because I had plenty of time to count them all while I was waiting for my number to be called. At the front of the hall is a snack bar selling coffee and sandwiches. A minor panic erupted when it was announced over the tannoy that the coffee bar would be closing early today. I didn’t move from my seat, for fear of missing my number being called. The system works a bit like in an Argos store. A huge display board flashes up numbers roughly every 20 seconds or so, accompanied by a loud, discordant bleeping noise. But here’s the thing. The numbers are displayed in RANDOM order, so there is no chance of reading the book you might have taken with you to stave off the boredom, or of having a little walk to stretch your legs, because once your number’s gone, it’s gone. Next to the random-number-generator display board is a screen silently showing scenic views of the great American outdoors, to remind you what you’ll be missing out on when your application is refused. And just occasionally, an explanation of the procedure we are all here for today. My gaze wanders to the window. Outside it is still raining. People are still queueing. And this goes on all day, every day. Hordes of civilians, standing in line for a new life. I’m glad I’m inside now, away from the cold and the rain. There is no need for armed police officers in here. The hours of boredom, watching random numbers flash before our eyes, is enough to keep us subdued. The notion of a 9am appointment, indeed any definite time for an appointment, is long gone, but no-one seems to care. Some families talk quietly amongst themselves, most of us are silent, watching the flickering numbers. There is a strong, inexplicable smell of mothballs.
Two and three-quarter hours after I arrived, my number comes up and I am instructed to go to window number eight. The hall is lined with booths, like at the post office or the bank; perspex screens dividing the public from the officials, and microphones that make everything unintelligible.
I am greeted by a kind Italian gentleman who sports a magnificent Civil War moustache. I hand him my papers and he checks them over, saying that everything looks OK to him. ‘But’ he says advisedly, ‘It’s the Americans who will decide’. I am told to take a seat back in the waiting hall for my number to be called a second time.
After another hour, I am directed down a corridor to another booth where the atmosphere is decidedly cooler. By this point I have been waiting most of the day and I’m emotionally exhausted, hypertense, hungry and thirsty. This is the deciding moment which will affect the course of the rest of my life. I am feeling sick with anticipation. I daren’t think about being turned away. I smile confidently and greet ‘The American’ politely. He’s an innocuous looking man in his forties, and he will decide my future. ‘And who is your sponsor?’ he asks. Once I’ve translated this into a sentence my overloaded brain can interpret, I realise he means Nick. ‘Dr Nicholas Devereux’ I reply. He considers me for a moment, then says, ‘I’ll just go and get your file’.
Now, I spend every day in my job making up big bundles of evidence for Court. I’m quite good at it; it’s what I do. The bundle of evidence I sent to Homeland Security in the States has been forwarded to the US Embassy in London, and this is what I expect to see. A wad of papers approximately three inches thick, containing the many forms we completed, together with a copy of every email we have ever sent each other (only slightly censored for smut), a log of all our Skype conversations, photographs of holidays taken together, copies of both our passports. What ‘The American’ returns with, however, is a pile of papers a foot thick. A MASSIVE bundle of documents, and it’s all about me. As a Case Builder for the police I can appreciate the beauty of a well-compiled dossier, and I really, really want to know what’s in the bundle. But when you’ve travelled halfway across the country, slept in a strange bed, woken up to no running water and possible smell a little questionable, walked the length of Hyde Park (twice) and turned right at a donkey, queued up for most of the day with half of London and might possibly have omitted some vital piece of information from your application, you really, really don’t ask. This is a boat that must not be rocked. So I content myself with raising one eyebrow and prepare to be questioned.
I had brought with me, as instructed, not only essential documents like my birth certificate, medical records and police certificate, but also duplicate copies of all the additional evidence in support of my application. Two reams of paper in a briefcase. It weighs a ton. ‘The American’ didn’t ask for any of them, and again, I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or not. He asks me how Dr Nick and I met, and I brighten up at the prospect of telling him The Big Old Love Story. ‘Can I tell you the big old love story?’ I ask. ‘Just the short version ma’am’ is his reply. So I keep it short. He asks how often we have visited each other, and about Dr Nick’s work. Where I intend to live, and whether we have been married before. ‘Not to each other’ I consider saying, but remember my best friend’s advice when dealing with bureaucrats: never, ever, try to be funny.
‘Well,’ says The American, ‘Your application is approved’ and picking up a big stamp, begins stamping the word ‘APPROVED’ on my application. Just like that, it’s all over. Before I know it, I have clamped my hand to my mouth and hot, salty tears of relief roll down my face. ‘Oh! Thank you! Thank you!’ Is all I can manage to say. ‘I can’t even shake your hand because you’re behind this big perspex window!’ The American nods inscrutably, murmuring ‘Take care on your way out ma’am’ and with that, I am dismissed. I scramble my papers together, pages slipping to the floor as I am blinded with tears, and somehow make my way back to the waiting hall, where strangers, awaiting their turn, ask me if I’m OK. ‘I’m very, very happy’ I explain, and pull in vain at the door, trying to get it open. A young woman points silently to the large sign marked ‘PUSH’ and everyone laughs. I’m back at the reception desk, and pause to wipe my eyes and pull myself together. I’m getting concerned looks from the reception staff, so I tell them The Big Old Love Story, seeing as how I was denied the opportunity with The American. ‘Oh, that’s really luvvly’ says the lady at the desk ‘I’m gonna tell my mum that story when I get home. It’ll make her day’. I make my way out into the late afternoon sunshine, and take the first breath of the rest of my life.
Nothing focuses the mind on a chilly November morning like a broken central heating system. So started my Monday. The flawless blue sky had me temporarily fooled until I crept out of bed to feed the kettle and put the cat on. I was greeted by an arctic atmosphere and absolute silence where the industrious hum of the furnace should have been. Dr Nick makes an urgent call to the maintenance guy, and during the conversation inadvertently refers to me as his fiancée. I am touched, and delighted. Dr Nick’s ‘once bitten, twice shy’ approach to anything resembling marriage has been part of a difficult journey for us, so now I feel slightly less bad about accidentally calling him ‘my husband’ last week at the library.
Fortunately Dick, our repair man (‘Dick’s Fix-It’) is an efficient and ebullient soul who is on the doorstep within the hour. ‘You must be the fiancée. Cute! You have the same accent as Nick’. I launch enthusiastically into the full 5-minute version of the big love story and, looking only slightly uncomfortable, he replies ‘Um…if you could just show me where the thermostat is…’. Note to self: Arizonan men do not necessarily want to hear a big old love story when they have only just met you and are trying to get on with their day’s work.
It was the thermostat’s fault, as it turned out. Blown at some point by the electric storms during monsoon season, was Dick’s best guess. After some fiddling with wires and one minor electric shock later (‘Nah, I’m kinda used to it’), it was all fixed.
Half an hour later we are best buddies. Dick has just bought a ’91 Harley-Davidson from a Vietnam vet, and we are well into the ‘great rock concerts I have witnessed’ theme. ‘Grateful Dead. Man, I miss those guys’ says Dick, wistfully, as the conversation comes back to our prospective engagement.
‘I proposed to my wife over a bottle ‘n’ a half of Jack Daniels’ roars Dick. ‘Next mornin’ I pretended to not remember a thing about it. But my wife, she remembered every word!’
As we shake hands again, and make vague promises to get together at a decent gig some time, I make my second mental note of the morning: must buy a bottle of Jack Daniels next time I go shopping.
It was when Claire woke up on Christmas morning that she discovered her husband had grown a pair of antlers. It had started a few days earlier. Buck had been complaining of a headache, and within a few hours there were two sizeable bumps on his forehead, the bruised skin tight and shiny. Claire assumed he must have hit his head during one of his regular late-night drinking sessions, and thought no more of it. But now there were two small, but very definite velvety buds protruding from his hairline. She was almost certain that they weren’t there the night before.
It had been Buck’s idea to drive up to the cabin for Christmas. He had an almost obsessive preoccupation with hunting, and a day off from his job at the power plant meant that he could indulge in his passion. It was a long drive up to the forest. Buck switched the radio to a country station and hummed along tunelessly for a couple of hours, scratching at his forehead from time to time. Claire glanced across at him and was convinced that the bony bumps had grown another couple of inches during the course of the journey.
Finally they reached the cabin. Stretching her aching back, Claire gazed around at the beautiful wilderness. It was a cold morning, and a thick frost lay on the ground. Off to her left, Claire heard a coyote calling. “Goddamn coyotes better not be after my deer,” grumbled Buck, snatching his shotgun from the footwell of the truck. “Don’t stand there doing nothin’, get the bags inside.”
Claire made coffee and busied herself with the unpacking while Buck generously laced his mug with whiskey. Out of the corner of her eye Claire could see him absent-mindedly rubbing his head against the doorpost. He disappeared into the living area and when he returned a few minutes later, she was amused to see that he had cut a couple of holes in his baseball cap, and fitted it over the antlers, which by now were considerably longer.
Buck was, by nature, a bully, and like all bullies he liked to have an audience to witness his natural cruelty. By late morning Buck had harvested his first deer, hauled it back to the clearing outside the cabin and propped it up on its back using two large stones to hold it in place while he dressed it.
Buck got his kicks from the kill; he didn’t want the beasts for food or hide, he simply enjoyed destroying them. He couldn’t even be bothered to clear up the chaos he left behind, he just hacked off their antlers, ripped out the guts with his skinning knife and left the corpses to rot where they lay.
It sickened Claire. This time, Buck made her stand and watch while he gutted the poor creature, forcing her to hold the bucket while he dropped in handfuls of steaming entrails, laughing at her obvious distress. He clasped her face with his bloodied hands, smearing her cheeks with the slick wetness, his meaty breath making her gag as he kissed her full on the mouth, “Merry Christmas darlin’,” he drawled, taking a long swig from the ever-present bottle of Jim Beam which he kept on the porch, “Rudolph ain’t lookin’ so smart now, is he?” Once the gutting was done, Buck took the bucket of offal and emptied the foul contents under the trees, leaving it for the coyotes. “Merry Christmas, you sons of bitches!” he sneered.
Back at the cabin, Buck paused from washing the blood off his forearms to look in the mirror. Something was different, but he couldn’t work out what it was. His head felt heavy, but he decided that was because he hadn’t had enough to drink. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, he pushed past Claire as she stood in the doorway and lurched back out onto the porch.
Claire stood alone in the darkening room and wondered how on earth she had ever gotten into this situation. Her husband was a pig. Over the years Buck had manipulated and denigrated her to the point where she had eventually lost any self-confidence she had, and she no longer had the energy to fight back. She looked out at Buck who had slumped into a battered chair, where he spent the afternoon taking pot-shots at anything that moved within a 200-yard radius. By the time it grew dark the trees were hung with jackrabbits, scrub jays, ravens; even the odd skunk had joined the deer carcass, which in a moment of uncharacteristic enthusiasm Buck had dragged back to the cabin and strung up from the branches of the nearest pine tree. Buck thought it was hilarious. He stumbled into the cabin, gripped Claire by the arm and forced her to look out of the window at his handiwork. “Christmas decorations” he grunted to Claire, as she gasped in horror at the gruesome display.
As the moon rose overhead, Claire heard the coyote again. After a few moments she heard another, barking in response to the high-pitched squeal of its young. “There must be a pack of them,” she thought to herself, as the howling grew and echoed across the forest.
Later that night, Claire lay awake listening to the sounds of the wilderness. She heard the coyotes snuffling and scratching at something beneath the window. Beside her, Buck was muttering in his sleep, tossing and turning, and restlessly rubbing his head on the pillow. Claire shifted quietly over to the far side of the bed; Buck’s antlers were quite large now, and were taking up rather a lot of room. He would be angry if she woke him, Claire thought, so she turned on her side and tried to go back to sleep. Moments later, she woke with a start. An intense howling filled the room and Buck leapt to his feet in confusion. “Damn coyotes,” he snarled, pulling on his jeans and grabbing the shotgun from where he had left it, loaded, next to the bed. He threw open the cabin door and peered out into the dark. With some difficulty he tilted his now magnificently-antlered head and edged sideways through the door, closing it quietly behind him. The howls grew louder, until Claire could feel the cabin walls shaking. Then without warning the howling stopped, to be replaced by low-throated growls growing even closer, until finally, silence.
From outside the cabin door came a strangled cry, suddenly cut off.
First thing the next morning, Claire loaded up the truck and headed back down the interstate, humming along to Christmas tunes on the radio. There had been no sign of Buck that morning, only an area of flattened grass under the pines where a deer had spent the night. Claire had spotted something shining in the dirt. Stooping, she picked it up. It was Buck’s skinning knife, somehow it must have come loose from his belt. She turned it over in her hand to read the inscription engraved on its hilt. ‘Happy hunting’. Yes, she thought, as she climbed into the truck, perhaps the hunt had been successful after all. “Merry Christmas, Buck” she murmured.
‘Fractured: poems of love and desire’ by Marnie Devereux is available from Amazon worldwide
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.