(This is the second in a series that begins with A Night in Steerage.)
Butleigh is a small village in Somerset, a county west of London, north of Cornwall. In previous trips to England I have spent most of my time in Cornwall because that is where I, in a sense, came from. My great grandfather emigrated from Cornwall and ended up in Walla Walla, Washington where my father was eventually born.
My connection with the now distant relations from Cornwall began for me when my great aunt Ann died in the mid-seventies and I got a hold of her address book. I found someone called Hazel White who lived in Harrowbarrow, Cornwall. I wrote to Hazel, then in her mid-70s. We had been corresponding for several years when I went to visit in 1980 and stayed with her in the little made-over miners’ cottages she had lived in all her life.
During that first visit I met Hazel’s niece Pamela, Pamela’s husband, Mervyn, and their youngest daughter, Wendy, then 16, who lived next door. Fast forward ten years, everyone was still alive and I spent Christmas with them. By the time I visited again twelve years’ later, Hazel had died, Wendy was deputy head of a school and I stayed with Pamela and Mervyn. Next visit Pamela and Mervyn had moved to Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset near Wendy’s school. When I stayed with them in Somerset I got a better acquainted with Wendy and her longtime chum, Sue. The three of us in this younger generation began to correspond, principally Sue and I. Mervyn died unexpectedly a few years’ later: Bittersweet. After all the plans for my trip were settled, Pamela had a stroke and is now ensconced in a nursing home in Glastonbury a few miles from Butleigh.
And then there were three (plus five cats.) But there were only two bedrooms in Butleigh. The unbelievably gracious arrangement that Sue and Wendy made was for Wendy to sleep at Pamela’s house in Burnham, five minutes from her school, but forty minutes away from her home while I slept in her bedroom in Butleigh. Sue and Wendy picked me up at the train station at Castle Cary and I slept-walked through that first evening, slept nearly 12 hours that night and awoke to birdsong, tea, and five cats.
Let me get all the introductions out of the way. Three black cats are Lizzy, Izzy and Seamus. Tabsy is a tabby and Misty is a long-haired black and white cat. Seamus remained cautious of me for the duration, Lizzy not quite so much. Izzy was fearless when she was around at all. Misty got comfortable enough with me to nap on my bed and Tabsy was my great pal probably because he knew I was always good for a salmon cat treat.
That first morning Sue took me on a tour of the village beginning with “going down the drain.” My expression. The Drain is the name given to a footpath that gets Sue from the cottage to her job at the village shop. So down the drain, past the tree on the triangle, turn right, village green and bus stop on the right, Post Office shop on the left.
Carrying on up the street and there’s St Leonard’s, the parish church. Currently there is a sign on the heavy hardwood studded door that says to keep the door shut because baby birds are nesting in the portico and they might fly into the church and get into mischief. Actually I added that last bit.
Inside the church smells damp (they all do) and is cool and dark (they all are.) The pews are martyr friendly with their short seats and straight backs. The seats in the choir stall are more comfortable, which is ironic because singers would sing better with the martyr’s posture. The pipe organ has been replaced with a loo. I’m a bit torn about that.
Outside the church Sue and I ran into a woman called Jane who was lugging bags of books destined for the book stall at the upcoming fete. She halloed Sue. Everyone knows Sue except the movie folk who weekend in the manor house up the road and don’t mix with the village.
Jane looked at me but addressed Sue. “Who’s this then?”
There was a pause. I wasn’t sure if I or Sue was meant to fill it.
Sue said, “You know Wendy who you always call Barbara? This is her relation from America.”
Jane looked at me. “Do you like Alice Munro?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I read her stories and then I can’t remember any of them.”
And she went on her way.
Sue looked at me. “You’re going to write about this, aren’t you?”
I went to work with Sue at noon. There had been a big delivery the night before (Tuesday) and I flatter myself that I helped unpack it. I stacked frozen chips and Kelly’s clotted cream ice cream. I collapsed boxes and put on price stamps. I mugged behind the register. I bought 35 of the single postcard of Butleigh and 35 stamps. Everyone will get the same card. It saves me looking through the racks. I discovered Princess brand marshmallows and really wish I hadn’t. I like the pink ones best.
When I got hungry, I bought some Mary Beary salad dressing (it’s the best dressing I have ever tasted) and went home to make a salad. Tabsy was mauling a huge worm next to the rabbit hitch as I unlocked the outer and then the inner door with skeleton keys. The rabbit hutch used to be used for rabbits but now it’s a little sunroom for storing wood and garden supplies and for drying clothes, much like my own sun room except now I have rabbit hutch envy.
The next morning (Thursday)Seamus scratched relentlessly on my door beginning around 4:00. I almost got up to let him in. It felt like home.
“He may have jumped into bed with you,” Sue said later. “Or he may have had a pad around and weed on something so it’s just as well you didn’t let him in.”
“A pad around.” “Weed.” There is something so charming about the way the English use the language. I am utterly infatuated.
Tabsy had not been mauling a worm, rather a type of lizard called a slow worm. It looks like a garter snake and it can shed its tail to escape a predator and grow another one. Tabsy had pretty much shipped this slow worm south. When I left for the bus stop on Thursday morning, Lizzy was throwing the head of the now stiff slow worm around the garden.
Next stop, Glastonbury.