(This is 7th in a series that begins with A Night in Steerage)
Burnham-on-Sea is a small resort town on Bridgewater Bay, which is itself a dip in the Bristol Channel. I was here in 2009 when Mervyn was alive and Pam was herself. I stayed with them in their semi-detached house on Love Lane. From my big upstairs bedroom I could look out onto the garden and see Mervyn pottering around overseen by what he called the “whacking great pigeons.” The pigeons are still there. Pam and Mervyn were only there by association and imagination this time.
My first order of business after a lazy morning was to go around the corner to Tesco and get something with fat in it. I can’t bear this semi-skimmed milk and faux butter spread Sue and Wendy use. I got some “single cream,” which turned out to be like our whipping cream (yum) and real British butter.
I pushed the cart backwards around the store wondering why it was so difficult to maneuver. It was funny how everything was the same as what I was used to but just slightly different enough to throw me off. There was no earthly explanation for why a cart shaped the way that one was should be pushed from the other side. I couldn’t figure out the stove or the dishwasher. Showers were hand held. Keys in doors didn’t turn the way I expected them to. Once I tried to get into the house next door because it looked like Pam’s house.
I spent a long time in Tesco trying to find some hand cream. I hadn’t brought nearly enough. I expected Pam would have dozens of bottles and tubs of cream falling out of cupboards. The elderly always do. The only bottle of cream she had was ancient and when I squeezed it, the bottom exploded and old, runny stuff came out all over me. I wanted something I couldn’t get at home. I settled on a big tub of something called Astral.
Later I showed it to Sue. “What can you tell me about this?”
“Astral? Oh, my mother used to use that.”
“Oh, great. I’ve bought Ponds cold cream.”
“Joanna Lumley uses it and she looks fabulous.”
Sue and I looked at each other, a beat went by and we said simultaneously, “Absolutely fabulous!”
I walked the half a mile into town and made for the esplanade and the beach. The tide was out so I walked on the beach all the way down to the Old Pier on the far side of town. There used to be a train station across the street but it’s gone now. So is Jackie Welch’s tea shop. Most of the shops are thrift shops and 99p shops (Dollar stores). The Home Hardware and DIY is still there and the proprietor I chatted with seven years’ ago was as jolly as ever. When I was here before we talked about different meanings of the word “solicitor.” This time we talked about Brexit and Donald Trump.
Back on the beach, I walked along looking toward the funny little lighthouse and thinking, “I’m really here. I never thought I’d be here again.”
It’s a funny little place, really. It’s small and middle-class and not posh at all, which is one of the things I like about it. There’s not much to do and I like that, too. There’s a sign on the esplanade that points to a “Community Toilet Scheme” that sounds a little alarming.
The next day I went to meet my friend Janet. When I was here before, I went to services at St Andrews Church because there were bells. They actually rang the bells fifteen minutes before the service started so you’d know it was time to join the stream of people issuing from the their homes. There I met Janet, an older woman who clearly was one of the energizing members of the church. She took charge of me, took me to the coffee, bought me a biscuit, and introduced me to everyone. We have been exchanging Christmas cards ever since.
Last fall I wrote to tell her I was coming in June. In her Christmas card, she acknowledged my visit. I wrote again in the spring to tell her the exact dates I would be in Burnham and where I would be staying. No response.
Once when I was staying in Rye in Sussex I met a couple who told me they lived down the road from Charles Darwin’s house and that I should go see it and then come knock on their door. I asked Mervyn if he thought they meant what they said. Because when you say something like that to an American, they’ll take you at your word.
“I think if you knocked on their door, they’d be shocked,” he said.
When I didn’t hear from Janet, I began to doubt the existence of seven years of Christmas letters. But the night Wendy and Sue left me at the house I found that Wendy and Joy (sister) had stocked the place with fruit and vegetables, Mary Beary dressing and a sampling of every gluten free cake, cracker and biscuit in Tesco. In the midst of this plenty was a note in Janet’s familiar handwriting. She suggested I pop into the church the next morning because she would be there and we could make some plans.
At 11:00 the next morning I popped. I was greeted by Penny, the Schnauzer, and the newest member of Janet’s household. I was ready for her with dog treats. Janet and three other women were seated around a table. They were there to pray and Janet invited me to stay. I was horrified. But it turned out to be very C. of E., that is to say civilized and short.
I went home with Janet, saw her garden, and her house, Field’s End, overflowing with correspondence and church business affairs and knickknacks in an owl motif. The bags of woolies in the living room will be given to a teen shelter in Weston Super Mare, but the paper clutter and the 10,000 owls are, I fear, there to stay.
We made a lunch together and ate in what Janet called her conservatory and I called a sunroom. Then she took me to Church Field, the school where Wendy is the headmistress, in the town of Highbridge, two miles from Burnham.
It was a good day to visit. Wendy and her deputy head were touring all the classrooms to help judge the best poster, card and crown made in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday. My favorite card was one a boy had made from a box. Open the lid, and it said “Dear Queen, Happy Birthday.” Wendy calls this “teaching British values” with more than a raised eyebrow of irony.
Janet picked me up later for supper at a pub called The Dunstan Arms. We had fish and chips and a blackcurrant sorbet so sweetly tart it made my eyes water. Later, feeling very full, I went round to the Tescos to see what they had to say for themselves in the way of spirits. I found a bottle of Talisker just the right size to last me the rest of my stay in England and I went to bed happy.
The next day was set aside to go to one of my favorite places: Wells.