My parents rarely take the conventional route when doing things, and thus it was that I found myself escorting them to King’s Cross, and then on a train to the sticks, where we were picked up by George’s mate and taken to George’s place in order to hire George’s car. I am not by nature a leader; I either tag along or do my own thing, so to be burdened with one’s parents made me so pale with stress that George asked me how long I’d been in London, clearly not understanding how an Australian could be so white.
George was about 70. His daggy shirt, left unbuttoned at the chest, was tucked into his Speedo shorts, which were held up with a bootlace.
‘You don’t drink the water in London, do you?’ he demanded of me, once he’d found out that I’d been here for 2.5 years.
‘Uhmmm … yes.’
‘The water’s full of chemicals. It’s got heavy metals, lime, God knows what. You mustn’t drink the water. And don’t go to the doctor either. If you go to hospital, you get sick. Tell you what I do, I buy those big bottles of water, wash under my armpits. You buy those bottles, don’t drink the water.’
I struggled to maintain an expression of beatification, whilst resisting a terrible impulse to laugh, the way I do when I’m in a church service and I start laughing precisely because I’m not supposed to.
George had got mum and dad’s arrival time wrong, thinking we were to turn up that evening, and so we were driven by his son and the bloke who’d picked us up to the town where the car was. I couldn’t hear much of the conversation, though I could tell from their tones that they were nice guys. At least until I heard one of them say, ‘I’m not a racist, but …’ and I had to resist the urge to laugh again. Later, mum told me that they’d said that lorry drivers have to drive around and around Paris without stopping, otherwise the immigrants jump on the back and wing it into England. I think that says it all.
We picked up the car, which was a delightful vomity colour, and drove to West Green House gardens. These had been restored by an Australian, Marylyn Abbott, whose garden at Mittagong is the most visited in Oz. Naturally, since summer finished in April, it was raining on and off, so we couldn’t sit outside on the lovely red tables and chairs, but had to eat inside, along with a crowd of Australians whose bus had broken down. They didn’t seem too fussed about it. Later, as we drove out, we saw the track marks in the mud and a tractor next to them; it had obviously been bogged and needed the tractor to get it out. The gardens were quite good but, always a stickler for neatness, I found them too untidy. Also half the grounds were flooded on account of the rain, which was a bit disappointing because the bridge over the pond, which looked very pretty, was out of bounds.
Once we were done, we sat in the car, mum and dad poring over out the map. Then dad said, ‘Jess, look,’ and pointed out a ute driving across the adjacent field. There was a wheelbarrow stuck underneath it, and the driver didn’t know. This time I was laughing, and hard. The driver parked on the other side of the field, and it wasn’t until he tried to set off again that he realised something was wrong. He found the wheelbarrow under the ute and wrestled it out. Then, looking somewhat sheepish, he carried it back across the field to the shed like a newborn calf; it obviously couldn’t be wheeled.
We drove on to Salisbury and had difficulty negotiating the city. Dad stopped at a service station and was given instructions by a boy with two hearing aids, then again by a lady at a shop that sold kid’s clothes. That was more helpful. H had found us rooms at a very nice old pub, except that the window didn’t close properly, the shower was so vigorous that it created a veritable flood each time you turned it on and the pipe for the portable heating system fed, inexplicably, directly out another open window. God knows how that was supposed to be effective in winter.
We had fish and chips for tea, and the chipperier was a very friendly man. When he found out I was from London, and that mum and dad had been there for a few days he asked, ‘Have you been to Camden Market?’ I replied, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t take them there, they’d get knifed!’ This was obviously not the right thing to say, as he looked a bit taken aback, then retorted with something that I didn’t hear, although it sounded humorous. Later, I repeated this conversation to H and he said how weird it was to ask if you’d been to Camden Market, rather than the London Eye, or the British Museum.
The next morning mum and I had a look at the cathedral, dad having been the evening before while we were reading. The wording about the entry donation was obscure: you didn’t have to pay to get in, but they’d phrased it in such a way as to suggest that you were obliged to. Mum and I walked in, the man reading behind the counter looked at us smarmily, then we kept on going through the sliding doors.
It was very convoluted inside – all buttresses and alcoves and partitions – or at least it appeared to be to a girl who is used to small country churches, and I couldn’t see a correlation between the architecture and the religion, which had always seemed to me to be straightforward. But then, I had never paid it much attention. Still, I liked the old tombs with the figures resting on them and the small animals on their feet. I’d once read in an article on Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess that men usually had lions at their feet, for courage, and women usually had a dog, for fidelity. You can imagine how well that went down with this writer. At the end of the tombs of Sir Edward Seymour and his wife Katherine, sister of Lady Jane Grey (queen for nine days), I think there were both lions. Mum asked a volunteer nearby about them, and although he forgot half his text, it was still a very sad story. Edward and Katherine had married in secret, but while Edward was away, Katherine lost the piece of paper proving their marriage. When Queen Elizabeth found out, she put Katherine in the Tower of London, and then Edward as well, when he returned to the country. The volunteer said Katherine died of a broken heart, which was probably an embellishment, given that the stress of having a child of out of wedlock in 1561, and in the Tower of London, was possibly more paramount.
After that we saw the Magna Carta, which was thrilling, and then we had to go as Parental Unit were getting neurotic about the parking ticket and I was savage for want of a coffee. The lines at Starbucks didn’t move quite as fast as they were wont to do in the city, so I gave up with waiting and went to Costa instead. That was my last decent coffee for 9 days.