Two Inch Heels Part 2 – England

[This is part of a rewrite in August 2021]

It was late afternoon Monday September 17 when Angie’s mom drove Angie and me, and our big full backpacks, the thirty some miles to Metropolitan Airport outside Detroit. I felt an unnatural calm, akin to the reverse stage fright I would get before going out on stage in a theatrical performance. I was once again throwing myself in the deep end of the metaphorical pool of life experience. Like when I first decided three years earlier to perform on stage, particularly my first big lead part singing and dancing in the musical Oklahoma. It was how shy, reticent me conducted my development, resisting and procrastinating until the fear of being a total chickenshit overwhelmed the fear of the leap into the deep end of the pool.

If Angie was having any second thoughts about our trip at this point, I did not notice. I was so deep within myself. She was quiet as well, sitting next to me in the backseat, probably going through her own version of something like a pre stage performance ritual. Her mom seemed uncomfortable with our silence and kept trying to make conversation. All she got were short answers from both of us.

Somewhat surprising to me, Angie’s mom shared with us her plans to fly to London with Angie’s dad on September 27th, and from there head up to northern England and Scotland to see extended family. Angie had not said anything about that to me and the timing seemed weird, but I filed it away and went back to my own self focus.

We saw the sign that the exit to the airport was just three miles ahead.

“Okay you two”, her mom said, glancing back at us in the backseat together, “Your parental types are counting on both of you to be smart and be safe, always look after each other, buddy system. But most of all, have a great adventure together.”

Angie rolled her eyes and wrinkled her nose and scoffed. “Yeah mom, thanks for the pep talk. We’ll write when we find work.”

I chuckled. I loved watching Angie in action. Her facial expressions, and her pithy comments delivered with good comic timing. Lane would always say to Angie, “You’re such a PIP!” And I guess it was true. I’m not exactly sure what a “pip” was, but whatever it was, Angie was probably that. I was so looking forward to doing this “European Tour” with her.

Ours was an overnight flight from Detroit to London Heathrow. We checked our packs as baggage. At the gate, I was surprised when Angie’s mom gave me a goodbye hug before giving a longer one to her daughter.

“You two take care of yourselves now”, she said to both of us. Then focusing on Angie. “And young lady, you call me if anything comes up!”

“Yeah mom”, Angie said, wrinkling that nose again, “I’ll call you before I call Interpol”.

Angie and I found our seats in the crowded 747, in the very middle of the row between the two aisles, with people seated on either side of us already. Neither of us had ever been on one of these giant new “Jumbo Jets” before.

“Jeez”, she said, “This thing actually flies? It looks more like the house of a theater than something that can actually leave the ground!”

As we sidled past the person sitting on the aisle seat, she eyed our two seats and looked back at me.

“Guess I’m…”, and then she sang, “Stuck in the middle with you.”

“Ha ha”, I responded, always happy to play her sidekick and/or peanut gallery. “Good one!”

She plopped down in her seat with a sigh. I followed suit. She looked straight ahead, puffed out her cheeks then blew air out of her mouth, opened her round blue eyes wide and turned her gaze to me.

“Dang”, she said, “Are we really doing this?”

“Didn’t you read the program?” I responded, trying to get in on the witty retorts, “Act 1 Scene 1… main cabin of a BOAC 747 from Detroit to London.”

She got quiet for a moment as she looked up at the ceiling and blew more air out of puffed cheeks. “On with the show”, she said, then she turned and looked at me, and dropped her hand on mine on the armrest. I felt the electricity of her touch. We had never done anything like that before. We were “just friends” as they would say. Not that deep down I wasn’t hoping that during this trip we couldn’t become more, since it was just us two and no Lane. Needless to say, Angie had my attention.

She gave me her guilty little kid look with those rosy cheeks below the strawberry blond curls. “If forced to be kinda honest here”, she put her far hand behind her back and pretended someone was twisting it to make her talk, “I’m a little out of my depth right now. I mean, I went away to various overnight camps for a week as a kid, and Lane and I went to Chicago that one time together. But THIS. This is a quantum leap.”

“Oh wow”, I said, nodding, and trying to think what to say in response so she felt it would be okay.

She patted my hand. “So I’m counting on you Coop to take the lead. Be my ‘Lane’ as it were. I mean you’re the man of the world here. Went to England for the summer.”

“With my mom and brother”, I noted.

“Still counts”, she replied, continuing to pat my hand.

“Went to the Soviet freakin’ Union”, she continued, “Excuse my almost French!” And then as a quieter aside, “I guess we’ll find out if French people really swear all the time!”

“With my classmates”, I noted.

“Still counts”, she repeated, then continuing, “Year in college already. Smoked weed. Drank to excess. HITCHHIKED for cryin’ out loud. I ain’t done none of that stuff!”

“Yeah, okay”, I chuckled, “Fair enough. We’ll figure it out together. It’ll be great!”

She nodded, and parotted me, “It’ll be great.”

The plane took off and once we were up at cruising altitude they served drinks and dinner. We both got the Chicken Kiev. Angie suggested that we both buy a glass of champagne, for a “proper toast”, and the flight attendant filled our little clear plastic cups from small bottles of Moet and Chandon. It cost a pound ($2.40 US) for the two.

She raised her cup. “To the man of the world and his cute but surprisingly wily sidekick and travel grasshopper”, she said, that last reference, referring I assume to that new TV show, “Kung Fu”.

I laughed, and a feeling of excitement went through me that maybe Angie and I would become a couple after all. I would check at least two of the boxes. Seasoned traveler AND real girlfriend. Maybe that second would lead to the third, “virginity lost”. I just had to get her through the first week or so so she could get her “travel legs”.

After finishing dinner and the champagne, in my new casting as “man of the world/tour guide”, I suggested that we try to get some sleep, so we might be fresh for tomorrow morning when we got to London. We both tried to sleep but neither one of us managed.

We got to our destination in the late morning local time, both of us pretty bleary. Heathrow was a maze of hallways, corridors and stairways, including moving walkways I had never seen before which I noted in my journal as “horizontal escalators”. The airport officials checking our passports were brusque and even snotty, but in the end let us and our backpacks into the country. After asking four people for directions and some wrong turns, we finally ended up on the bus to the London subway station closest to the airport.

The bus traveled through oldish residential areas to the suburban London town of Hounslow, letting us off in front of the West Hounslow Underground Station. We took the District subway line to Earls Court, for a fare of 15 pence each. Recalling riding the London subways three years earlier, when I spent the summer in England with my mom and brother, I noted that ticket prices had doubled since I was last there. We had read the book Europe on $5 a Day, and based on that, our goal was six dollars a day, realistic or not. So I was immediately thinking about money and the cost of things, particularly transportation. Our two-month student rail passes had cost $150 each, but they didn’t start until October 1, and even then would not cover bus or subway fare.

The youth hostel we had headed for turned out to be full, and it was getting into the afternoon, and we both had been running on adrenaline and could barely keep our eyes open. We looked up another hostel in our guide, thought to call them first, and they were full as well. Outside that first hostel we encountered two Americans, the first two since our arrival, who happened to be from Ypsilanti of all places, the town just east of Ann Arbor where my dad used to teach. They told us of a hostel two blocks down the road from where we were. So we went there and were able to get in. The man in charge was about 40 years old, talkative, friendly, a little uptight and pushy though. We said we might stay one or two nights, so he had us give him two pounds each, and said he would refund us one pound each if we only stayed one night. We weren’t in any shape to argue.

The place was one in a series of row houses, with a basement, ground and second floor, plus attic. Angie’s bed was in one of the female rooms on the second floor while mine was with three other guys in the basement. The place was rundown, with peeling paint, yellowing tile, and sort of makeshift beds. The room I was in had clothing and other personal items from the three other guys scattered all over it. It was about 2pm and Angie decided to go upstairs and take a nap.

I sat downstairs trying to pull myself together. I felt kind of scared and rattled by what we had been through earlier at Heathrow. I realized that getting anywhere by cheap transportation would always be a hassle, even here in England where we spoke the language! Every day we were going to have the same struggle, particularly in a big urban environment like London. Getting out of this big city seemed very appealing to me then, and I thought that we ought to get ourselves to Oxford the next morning and escape the dingy hostel, and the big confusing city.

With the sun now just below the horizon and Angie still upstairs, I got another rush of adrenaline and decided to walk around the neighborhood a bit. The manager of the hostel gave me directions to the post office, and I figured I would pick up a postcard or something to write home to my mom. The post office was right across the street from the Earl’s Court Underground station. As I walked along I noticed all sorts of people on the streets. Men wearing ties and maybe even sport coats coming out of the subway station coming home from work, some looking a bit worse for wear. Other men in overalls or work shirts perhaps coming off work as well, seeming a jollier lot. Mothers with their young children. Young women walking in pairs or threesomes. Old women walking alone. I saw a couple other obvious Americans of our cohort with their backpacks and scraggly hair. Also some Asians who were obvious tourists, which I had noticed at the airport as well. It was a very different bunch of people than I would typically encounter in my American Midwest college town.

At the little store I couldn’t find decent postcards so I bought an aerogramme at the post office instead. They were cheaper too, just 6 pence including the postage. I also stopped at a small food store and after much pondering and consternation bought a can of Campbell’s “Scotch Broth” for 10 pence. I felt like I was copping out, but this was the only food that was both appealing and the Campbell brand reliably familiar. I wasn’t ready to experiment with British convenience food quite yet. I WAS willing to go for a couple familiar British candy bars at the Underground station and headed back. I quickly ate the candy bars, but decided to stow the soup away because I didn’t really have any way to heat it up. I sat down and wrote my aerogramme to my mom and brother. I wrote about my sense of overwhelm.

A bit later Angie reappeared from upstairs. I was relieved to note that though she still had bags under her eyes, she seemed relaxed and in the moment, and said that she had taken a nap and was a bit refreshed. So we both walked back over to the post office. She bought three aerogrammes and I got one more. We found a little fast food place and stopped and ate their fish and chips and discussed our plans for the next day, things we had wanted to see in London. There was not much enthusiasm about any of the items on our list – the changing of the guard, Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park, the British Museum. Angie then mentioned that one of her roommates said that she thought the room had bed bugs, the kind that crawl into your sleeping bags, suck your blood and breed in your bedding. We were definitely not getting off to a great start! I could feel my own deep fatigue from little or no sleep, and concern that Angie might be relying on me initially to navigate us through all this.

To do damage control, I suggested that we leave London in the morning for Oxford to hopefully hook up with the Clay family, who my mom, brother and I had lived next to that summer in England three years ago. We could circle back to London after making our other stops in the country before heading on to the Continent. Angie agreed, seeming somewhat relieved that we weren’t going to stay in London another day, and we decided to head back to the hostel and make a very early night of it. Because of that thing about bedbugs, pests I had heard about but never had to deal with before, I didn’t open up my sleeping bag. I slept in my clothes on my bed’s mattress with just the mattress pad on it. I was so tired I pretty much passed out and slept through the night, despite the “field conditions”.

The next morning, after sleeping in, Angie and I found our way to the bus station and onto a bus to Oxford. We both felt good to be leaving the big city and driving through the English countryside on a warm sunny day. There had been a radio on last night in the room I slept in and the station had played Ron Argent’s song, “Hold Your Head Up”. So this next morning, all during our bus ride, its opening organ riff and lyrics were repeating in my mind’s jukebox…

And if it’s bad
Don’t let it get you down, you can take it
And if it hurts
Don’t let them see you cry, you can make it

Hold your head up
Hold your head high

My Greek chorus, even several thousand miles away from home, was speaking to me and giving me a mantra to get through this. During the bus ride I tried my best to play tour guide, and refresh Angie on our invitation to stay with the Clays. That they were the family who had been our nextdoor neighbors in the little village of Horspath just outside Oxford, when my mom, my brother and I had lived there for the summer three years ago. I played up how nice the Clay’s were, hoping that would still be the case. Plus hoping that even though I had not thought to call ahead from London, that they would be home and able to accommodate us, at least for a couple nights.

“Sounds good”, said Angie, “I couldn’t take another night in that fleabag flophouse we slept in. Was that a real youth hostel?”

“Not sure”, I replied, “But it certainly wasn’t in our youth hostel guide, so maybe there’s still hope for cheap lodging going forward.”

“Eww”, she said, doing an exaggerated shiver, “That place was practically Dickensian!”

“Yeah”, I said laughing, trying to make light of our failed first night, “All it lacked was Mr. Bumble threatening to feed us ‘cockroaches served in a canister’”.

“I might prefer cockroaches to bedbugs”, she noted, “At least you can see the little critters coming!”

When we got to the Oxford bus station, it turned out that the bus to Horspath did not leave for some three hours! Remembering my greater Oxford area geography, plus armed with a city map from the visitors display, we finally figured out we could take another bus at least to the Cowley roundabout, which was just about three or four miles from our destination. Never much of a planner, it finally hit me that I better call the Clays sooner rather than later. If I couldn’t reach them by phone there would need to be some sort of “plan B”. To my great relief Madge Clay answered the phone, and said she was thrilled we had really made it, and she’d love to have us as “honored guests” for a few nights, or however long we needed to get our bearings. She said that Bill’s shift at the “plant” ended in an hour, and then he could drive into town to pick us up. I told her we could at least catch a bus to the Cowley roundabout. She said that was even better and he’d meet us there.

Bill was soon there in his new VW, full of his good friendly energy, very glad to see us. My brother and I had befriended their kids, Kevin, who was my age, and his younger sister Kate, who was about my brother’s. Bill cheerily filled Angie and I in on his family’s goings on. He said Kevin was in trade school studying to be an auto mechanic and now working part time at a gas station, and Kate was into the whole teenage thing going to the little high school in Horspath that Kevin was going to back when we lived there.

When we got to their house, the neighborhood looked unchanged from how I remembered it, with the five hundred year old manor farmhouse across the street and the thousand year old church behind their backyard. The couple next door to the Clays, the Cane’s, who my mom had traded houses with, had since sold their house and moved to Colchester, and Angie and I would hopefully visit them too before the end of our journey. Madge’s mom had had a lot of health issues since I was last there, and was now confined to a wheelchair, seeming unlike three years ago, very bossy and impatient. Madge seemed thrilled to see us and gave both me and Angie big hugs, and I was so hoping my travel companion would have the chance to relax and get her bearings after the awful first night in that fleabag hostel.

Madge and Kevin agreed that Angie would sleep in his room, and he and I would sleep on the living room floor in our sleeping bags. Kevin went right back to where he and I had been three years ago, like we were still neighbors who saw each other most every day, and was excited to show Angie and me the new motor scooter he had bought. She and I were still a bit on overwhelm, so after eating supper with the five of them, all squeezed around their dining table, we made an early night of it. As all others retired to their rooms, Kevin and I lay on the living room floor in our sleeping bags and he continued to regale me with the highlights of the last three years of his life, and quizzed me for details about my own. I could barely keep my eyes open, but I felt it would be rude not to listen to his stories and answer his questions. Plus it just felt good to be around people I knew, sleeping in a place that was not completely strange to me.

The next morning the five of them were up early, Madge fixing breakfast for all. Since Kevin and I had slept in the living room in full view of the kitchen, it felt weird for me not to get up once they were all gathered at the table. Kate with her books, dressed in her school uniform, ready for her short walk to school. Kevin in his overalls to head off on his scooter to his automotive classes. And Bill in his work shirt headed out in the new VW off to work at the factory. I did not want them to feel they had to keep talking quietly on my account, so I got up, and Madge suggested I come and eat to give the hot water in the water heater a chance to recover before I tried to take a shower. There was no sign of Angie, cloistered off behind the door to Steve’s room, and we all agreed we should let her sleep.

Kate, Kevin and Bill all quickly ate their scrambled eggs, toast and “bangers”, that is sausages, Kate first to excuse herself to head off to school. Kevin and Bill were next, but before they left Kevin suggested that they should take Angie and I to the village pub when they returned from their day.

After the three had headed off and I finished my plate, I took a shower. When I finally came out, all clean and refreshed in fresh clothes, Angie was sitting at the table eating with Madge and her mom. I was happy to see that my travel partner seemed reinvigorated, and was happily answering Madge’s questions on where she lived, her family, and how she and I knew each other through our theater group. I took a seat at the table and listened, trying not to disturb the nexus of the three women connecting with each other. Madge changed her questioning to the future.

“So where are you two headed on your journey? Your mum’s letter said ‘England and all over the Continent’.” She directed the question to both of us, but returned her gaze to Angie, who she seemed quite taken with.

“Well…” Angie said brightly, then stopped abruptly. She looked at me, like somehow I could better answer that question. It was not like she hadn’t contributed to deciding on our itinerary, particularly Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, and especially Vienna with its history of opera and theater. Maybe she was just giving me the chance to join the conversation.

So I rattled off the list of destinations, and Madge made appreciative oohs and aahs and other noises.

“I’m so jealous”, she noted, her lips forming a pout. “I have grown up with all that just across the Channel, but I’ve never been, except to holiday once in Portugal after Bill and I got hitched.” She looked off out the kitchen window. “I’ve always wanted to go to Paris, but life just caught up with me.”

Madge’s mom mumbled some words that I couldn’t make out. Madge chuckled and shook her head, laying her own hand on her mom’s quivering hand.

Still holding her mom’s hand, Madge looked at us again. “So you two are going to be living out of those packs the whole time? What did your mum say in her letter, ten weeks? One thing for a lad perhaps, but for a lass?” She looked at Angie and shook her head. “You’re more of an adventurer than I am dear. I think I’d trade it all for a big trunk full of my clothes and two weeks at a nice little hotel in Paris.”

Angie laughed but it seemed a bit forced to me.

Once Madge had finished her friendly interrogation, Angie and I were happy just to sit and drink hot tea with milk and sugar and listen to Madge fill us in on the major milestones in their household since I had been there three years ago. Her mom’s worsening health and confinement to a wheelchair. Her daughter Kate’s emergence as a “teenybopper”. Kevin’s acquisitions; scooter, job, apprenticeship, and now a girlfriend. Bill’s new “bug” and continuing job at the Morris plant that paid the bills. Her own volunteer work at the church.

Before Madge could even ask, I told her about my brother, how he was still doing his art, and also theater like Angie and me. I told her how my mom had gotten involved in local politics and the women’s movement. She laughed and said that that made perfect sense to her, remembering my mom’s gregariousness and strong views from back then.

Madge suggested that I take Angie on the bus into Oxford to show her around. She said that it was much busier now in the fall, with all the students back, than it was in the summer when I was here before. Angie thought that was a good plan, so we headed out, with a small bag of cheese sandwiches Madge packed us for lunch, along with a map of the campus. Remembering the geography pretty well from three years ago, I played tour guide and showed Angie around the storied university with all its different cloistered colleges. Since both of us had grown up in a college town, it felt not too strange to wander among the brick and stone buildings in the midst of a crowd of students.

Letting me play tour guide, Angie commented about this and that with glimpses of her patented wit and bright effervescence. Still she seemed not fully present somehow. We were both actors of course, playing characters on stage with energy and verve that were different from who we really were, she was probably more skilled at the craft than me.

“So you still feeling jet lagged?” I asked.

She rolled her big blue eyes in that endearing way she could, a “take” she often used on stage to great comic effect. She nodded and grimaced. “I still feel like a fish out of water”, she said.

I figured, maybe “hoped” is a better word, that another good night’s sleep at the Clay’s would make a big difference.

This time we managed to get the bus back to Horspath in a timely fashion and I took Angie for a walking tour of the village. First we stopped at the little store across from the bus stop and I treated her to a “Cornish”, a plain but delicious vanilla ice cream bar with wafers on both sides. She ate it lustily which I took to be a good sign. We took the road up the other side of the village past the stone building that was the village pub, past the runty little thousand year old church, and the village’s jarringly modern looking secondary school for kids 11 to 18. We then continued on the road up the hill to the Shotover ridge just above the village. It was still as I remembered it, with fields of waist high bracken. We waded through the ferns as I told her the tale that Kevin had told me three years ago. How in medieval times the “horse path” from London to Oxford went right along this ridge, and outlaws used to hide in the trees and bracken and waylay rich travelers and rob them. Farther along the ridge we waded out of the sea of ferns and down through the cow pasture of the still operational manor farm across the road from the Clay’s house. Unlike me, Angie had no sense of where we were.

“So Coop, I feel like we’re completely lost!” she said.

“You know”, I responded, feigning concern, “You may be right”, playing along with her concern though I knew exactly where we were. “Let’s try going this way.”

We walked a hundred feet to the left through a line of trees and over a waist high split rail fence and suddenly we were across the street from the Clay’s house.

“You little shit”, she said, giving me a playful punch in the shoulder. That punch felt so good in the moment, intimate in its way, maybe suggesting the possibility of more physical intimacy to come, at least that was my fantasy. At the very least, it seemed like an indication that she might be more relaxed and genuine, and maybe getting those “travel legs”. Other than putting her hand on mine briefly to get my attention on the plane, or our shoulders maybe rubbing when we sat next to each other on the bus, I think it was the only time we had physically touched each other since we had left Ann Arbor. Not that we had the kind of relationship back home where we would have the occasion to touch each other, except maybe getting the other’s attention by laying a hand on their shoulder to point something out or deliver a witty retort. We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend after all, just friends. And we weren’t even best friends like she and Lane. I remembered sometimes how Lane would tossle Angie’s frizzy hair and scowl at her with mock anger, before breaking out into a hearty belly laugh. Or how Angie would wiggle Lane’s chin and nose.

That evening after supper at the Clay’s, Bill and Kevin took Angie and I as promised to the village pub. I, an experienced beer drinker from my year in the dorm at college, had a beer on tap. At Kevin’s suggestion, Angie had a shandy, a mixture of beer and fruit juice. He and his dad quizzed us about how we knew each other, and we shared with them we were schoolmates, but became friends working together in our Youth Theater Unlimited group. It seemed like a kick to both of them that Angie and I had both been in a number of plays including singing and dancing on stage. I was so hoping that Angie’s comfort level with our whole adventure ahead was being increased by this much more friendly and domestic third day of our journey together.

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