August in the UK, Part I: East Hampshire
On August 24th we landed in London at 7 am. After nearly an hour shuffling through customs, we met our driver who took us through the countryside. The highways led us to smaller highways and eventually, a one lane road in the quaint English village called Chawton, where we would visit Alistair's friends and attend his ten-year-old goddaughters birthday party. Our car pulled up to a stone wall with an iron gate -- just like the beautiful country estates in the movies. A plaque listed the name of the house, and beyond the gates I saw the rolling English fields of my childhood dreams.
You see, I grew up romanticizing the English countryside. It was a few viewings of "The Secret Garden" and "The Little Princess" and a smattering of Christmas phone calls from our English friends in Swindon, that started it. As a child I lived in the suburbs of Florida and Alabama which had their own charm, but were not gardens that I day dreamed about. For me their grass was greener, literally. I noticed as we walked the yard how it grew like a carpet, soft to the touch.
I was jealous of Alistair's friends. Their kids guided us through their eight acre garden, just as beautiful as that of the films I'd loved as a child. We followed them through hedges, under brush, across a plank over a ditch, and into the apple orchards. One of them reached into the grass and plucked wild rocket.
"Eat it!" she said. We each took a bite. It was the most flavorful arugula I'd ever had.
There was a wall of hedges with a secret opening that we slipped through, into a garden with a sun dial and roses. We passed through another opening on the way out. The girls paused and pointed up into the "ceiling" of the hedge. The branches arched up like the vaults of a cathedral.
At eleven o'clock a bouncy castle arrived and we helped our hosts prepare for a birthday barbecue. In an assembly line we made beef patties for burgers and arranged tables on the lawn.
I knew the moment I came down carrying a tray of food, that everyone who didn't recognize me would think it: "she must be the help?" Fifteen minutes later in the kitchen I introduced myself to a guest.
"Are you here to help out?" he asked. Before the question: "to help?" came out my mouth, I realized, he thought I was the help, the caterer.
"Oh no," I laughed. I explained that Alistair was my boyfriend and that the birthday girl was Alistair's goddaughter.
"Oh, I see!" he said. If I could blush, I would have, but only my ears turned hot. He turned red too, chuckling.
It was funny until it happened again. Another guest in the kitchen, who did not see me with the tray but assumed -- from what I wonder! -- that I could take care of his plate. He motioned in a half whisper, to not disturb a conversation already going on.
"Where should I put this?" he asked. "Should I give it to you?"
For the first time in my life, the right words came to me in an instant.
"I'm not sure, I just put my plate in the sink," I said.
He only nodded.
After lunch my inward anger dissipated and guest excitement mounted about the "puddings" -- which I learned, meant "dessert." There was a birthday cake, a gigantic bowl of Jello, fresh fruits and tarts. I took a bite of chocolate cake and a woman standing beside me said -- with the most frothy English accent, the kind I hear in British TV murder mysteries -- "Lovely, isn't it?"
I was in my version of heaven.
People joined a game of croquet and when the sun started to set, I realized that Alistair and I had been up for nearly 24 hours without sleep, we took a nap in the guest room and came down to see everyone off home.
The next morning we went on a walk through Chawton. We passed Jane Austen's house and started on a trail through the fields. I tried to imagine Austen walking down that path. What things that might have caught her attention? What ideas filled her head? And was she lonely?
After our walk we packed our things. Our friends drove us to the train station to Gatwick for the second portion of our trip: a birthday party in Scotland.