I was born and raised in rural North Carolina. I left the South in my mid-twenties, but the South never left me. Now on the other side of the country–out West–when I talk about home, I’m usually talking about eastern North Carolina (lightening bugs in summertime; Southern Pig barbecue, the best in town; the green tunnel of the Dismal Swamp road; endless cornfields and rusted tractors; kudzu-covered barns…).
Charming Bed and Breakfast in English Countryside
“No, no. Izz OK. I let you to come in.” The tall girl says when I open the door to the hallway bathroom, blinking in surprise.
“Oh. Sorry.” I start to back up and she repeats the sentence, this time with her hand waving me forward. I hover as she slips a toothbrush and some plastic bottles into her bag. We exchange broad smiles in place of more words as she shifts past me and out into the hallway.
I’ve never been out of the country before this trip, and aside from public restrooms never shared a bathroom with a stranger. A phrase keeps looping through my thoughts “at my age” and right now it’s preceded by “sharing a bathroom with a stranger.” After Eddie passed, I promised myself I’d see some of the world. His reluctant agreement to travel after we retired never quite panned out. I left European tour brochures on the kitchen table regularly, with stars by ones that looked most appealing, but he was perfectly happy letting the world come to him from the TV in the living room.
I started working at the Winn-Dixie when I was 15, worked straight through high school and then went full time after I graduated. That’s where I met Eddie. I retired at 62 with full benefits. Say what you like about the union, they looked out for our pension plan when it was on the chopping block. Eddie kept working, said he’d retire soon enough. I never understood what he was waiting for.
It surprised me how dry-eyed I was when Eddie died, right there in his Barcalounger, watching TV. Just flat out had a heart attack without making a peep. I was calling him to come sit down for supper and, frankly, was getting a bit miffed thinking he was putting on his man ears and just acting like he couldn’t hear me. But when I went in to the living room, I saw he had wet himself, and then I saw his face. I knew he was dead right away. I called 911 and told the lady that my husband had had an accident, as if wetting his pants was the problem. When she asked for the details, I told her that he couldn’t move and maybe he was dead. Well, I knew for sure he was dead, but it seemed wrong to say so while he was still sitting there.
The showerhead in this bed and breakfast place is a removable hand-held contraption, and you have to turn the whole set up away from the little sliding doors before you turn it on or it will spray the bathroom floor. Everything is so small here. The shower is about the size of a coffin, so that I have to squat, not bend over, to pick up my shampoo from the stall floor, not easy at my age. Even the public toilets here are confusing. Sometimes there’s a chain you have to pull to flush, some have no seats—just the bowl, and one even had a peddle flush under the seat that took me so long to figure out that I almost left a dirty toilet. But, I’m vacationing abroad and who would have thought that! At my age. And on my own, too. Eddie, God rest him, would have never taken me on that Magical Sites of Europe tour I kept starring, and I guess I always knew that. I decided after we laid him to rest that by God, I would see something of the world before my time came. I had always dreamed of seeing the Eiffel tower, all sparkling lights, and those romantic bridges of Paris. When it came right down to it, though, I got the jitters about going somewhere where I couldn’t speak the language. I figured England would be just as magical in its way. At least for the most part, I can understand what folks are saying here.
I’ve never stayed in a bed and breakfast before. It sounded adventurous, while still offering the comforts of home. That sweet girl at the travel agency told me how charming they are, and how England and Ireland are chock full of them. “It’s the way to go,” she said, “no need to bother with expensive and impersonal hotels.” Just three months after Eddie’s funeral, I made an appointment at World Travel on Main Street. I told the agent, Jenny was her name, that I wanted to see Europe, but felt that England would probably do, the countryside, away from too much hustle and bustle. In my mind, I was picturing a village like the one in Downton Abbey, maybe with a nearby castle I could visit. She understood right away. The prices, though, Lordy! The airfare and hotel packages she first presented me with caused my blood pressure to rise. Even with Eddie’s life insurance settlement, I couldn’t just fritter money away. Jenny was such an angel, and spent days helping me. She looked up special flights and told me about staying in B&Bs that were clean but not fancy. The package she eventually put together for me was such a good deal that I was able to arrange a two week stay for less than it would have cost me for one week with the first prices she quoted. It pays to have someone who knows what they’re doing help you out. I plan to bring her a nice souvenir.
Folks are a lot nicer here than you’re led to believe, too. Before I came, everyone wanted to tell me stories about how snooty Brits are, how they look down on Americans. I know half of them are just plain jealous. They think I ought to stay planted in my living room mourning day and night because I lost my husband of over 40 years, but I don’t want to die before I’ve seen at least some of the world, and not just on TV.
Still, it feels strange to wake up in someone else’s house, walk downstairs, and be waited on. Mrs. Budge, also a widow and owner of this house, brings a pot of tea out as soon as I’m seated at one of the small tables in the front room. Then, in minutes, she’s back with a hot breakfast of eggs, ham—they call it rashers here—tomatoes (which seems odd for breakfast to me) and toast. Pots of jam and a butter dish are set out, too. Every day I fight the urge to help her, to at least clear my plates and take them into the kitchen. She’ll have none of that, though. And she expects me to be gone after breakfast, too, so she can get on with her housekeeping, including tidying up my room, which no one has done since I was a 10-year-old girl. I find myself turning to comment to Eddie about how strange this all feels, then instantly realize he’s gone. You get used to a person being there.
Eddie never was much of a talker, but he was always there. When it was clear we weren’t going to have children of our own, he let me know that I was enough for him, without ever actually saying it. We shared that disappointment as all of our friends had kids, as their families grew, and our house stayed quiet, just us two. He was a good man. He took care of the car himself, but he made sure I knew about the financial side of things. He could see when I was just wore out, too. He’d say, “I think I’ll just have a bowl of cereal tonight. Don’t have much appetite.” It was his way of letting me off from cooking supper after a long shift at the supermarket. He was good like that.
The girl who is the other guest here has told me her name twice, but it’s strange and I can’t remember it. I’m too embarrassed to ask again. I’m grateful she leaves earlier than me. She’s kind enough to always speak English to me, but I just don’t understand most of what she says. She wears shorts, tee shirts, hiking boots, and carries a knapsack on her back. Her legs are long and muscled. My own legs are ruined by varicose veins from years of standing at the checkout register. I only wear long pants with elastic waistbands and blouses that don’t need tucking in. Leaving my room each morning in my robe makes my calves visible in our hallway crossings. It feels embarrassingly intimate. As an adult, I’ve never been undressed in front of anyone except Eddie. Even with him, he usually rose before me, dressed, and was out of the room first thing, leaving me my privacy.
After breakfast, I go back upstairs. The bathroom is mine completely at this hour, so I’ve trained myself accordingly. From my room I collect my windbreaker, umbrella, and purse. I’ll walk into town again, as I have every day for the past week. I’ve been all over this tiny village, which is as quaint as advertised—a nice old church, a lot of “shoppes” and places to have tea with all kinds of treats, including clotted cream, which sounds awful, but tastes wonderful, and these hearty meat pies called pasties. My knees can’t handle the long winding trails that lead all over the nearby countryside, where the foreign girl hikes all day. In town, I’m too intimidated by the loud, friendly voices spilling from the pubs to go in for a meal on my own, as Mrs. Budge recommended. I usually just pick up a packet of cookies, biscuits they call them here, for dinner in my room. I’m careful not to get crumbs anywhere. I even put the wrapper in my purse to dispose of the next day. I don’t want Mrs. Budge to know I’m eating in the bedroom, as I look through my magazines. I don’t expect she’d approve.
Back in my room that evening, I watch the sky turn rose then twilight blue. I can hear the muffled sound of a television from Mrs. Budge’s living area on the first floor. Before turning the lamp on, I lean my forehead against the chilly pane. Why did I come here? How will I occupy myself in all these days I have left? My throat tightens and suddenly I can’t bear the thought that I have to spend another week in England. If Eddie were still alive, I would never have come.