While a pissed off, poorly organized Jackson headed out of Oklahoma at 105 miles an hour for an unexpected meeting in the New Mexico high desert with Destiny, let’s not forget THG herself’s equally, yet differently, mis-envisioned adventure that set this all in motion is also underway.
Deanna lifted the tall, clear, cheap glass with air bubbles pasta jar, another Pier One college apartment accessory that sat on Jackson’s kitchen counter for two years collecting change, and felt another cold shot of alone waft through her as she noted the jar’s lack of heft. Nearly full before Halloween, it was now down to a couple of inches of change. She’d never explained when Jax had asked how metal coins evaporated. She’d shoveled most of it into a pay phone in front of the 7-11 in the townie part of their college town, hoping she wouldn’t be seen calling the future “flatmates” she’d chosen from lists provided by Newnham College and a Cambridge student housing clearing house. She’d made three calls to the pair of Scottish girls, couldn’t reverse the charges or put them on anyone’s phone without getting busted. Funding the calls had fallen to Jax’s pasta jar. And he’d left the jar in the lettuce box full of her stuff. Goddammit. He knew. Some of it, if not all of it. That was why when she’d just spewed it out on him he hadn’t seemed surprised at all, gave her a time line ultimatum and walked. He was probably burning one with his artsy-fartsy friends, laughing about her “charade of secrecy,” his big joke on Deanna “empty” apartment like he was really gone.
She’d chosen the flat mates because the rent was all she could afford with the money she’d stashed from her living expenses. Mom would have to pay the rest later from the college fund and the money Gramma had left for her that her parents were in charge of and Mom….God. Based on how Jackson and Amanda had pretty much hung icicles on “See ya,” dealing with Mom boiling over was really, really going to suck. A lot. Money this and expensive that and why did she always have to go off the deep end, why wasn’t she reasonable, why was her head always off in the clouds. Which was way better than where her brother and probably Jackson behind her back said that it was most of the time. Well, fuck them and the whole head up her ass parent money thing. They hadn’t used any of her college fund except for her apartment and books, and they shouldn’t complain when they found out about England, really, because Doug’s college had been free. Well, except the lawyers. And the agent. But they’d get that back, mostly. At least the agent. Doug was off to the NFL and most of those guys bought their parents new houses and German cars and stuff so what if Cambridge was expensive?
The jar in her hand had become a gazing ball, full of everything Cambridge swirling around. One of the future flat mates, Merriam, was her age. The other, Catorina, a year older. They’d said the flat was a two bedroom, but a gift from Catorina’s fiancé had made another bedroom available, but didn’t explain. Her room would be between Merriam’s corner room and the recently remodeled up-size “loo” in the other corner. It wasn’t “posh,” wasn’t a dorm or an expensive, modernized concrete and glass box stacked on top of another, but it was close in. There was a combination newsagents’, grocer and post office shop around the corner, along with a Chinese take away, walk up fish and chips and a small, decent pizza and Italian restaurant the girls said were all mixed in with the row houses. A community green grocer’s co-op had opened a few blocks up, a Boots cosmetics, pharmacy and lass’s necessaries a decent walk or short bike away, and a homey pub full of “average” locals an easy drunk’s walk. If she fancied the high life she could drop over three blocks and trod up the River Cam to where the “Crests and plaids lot” hung about. They’d described the flat as old-ish, and new-ish, and reasonably clean and had half a sidewalk, unlike the street over where the doors opened on the curb to the street.
Merriam was headed for graduate work in Chemical Engineering with her eye on America after, Cat was in her early days of a Masters of Finance, and had a job waiting back home in Aberdeen with a Danish owned international trading and brokering house. Merriam called Cat a boring, judgmental, hard-drinking might as well be married cow. Cat described Merriam as a queerish bit of overfed perverse fetishist. They both had an easy laugh and told her never mind the age of the building, a Yank lass would ruin the neighborhood anyway, come along, bugger it all up and be quick about it.
She had no frame of reference for what they described, but in her head it was everything Blake’s “green and pleasant land,” everything every period piece movie she’d ever seen, all spinning around in a cheap pasta jar with the last of Jackson’s change she’d use to call, tell them when to expect her. It all sounded so perfect and different and scary and not at all like the postcards and the romantic, pastoral paintings of England she’d been looking at since she was little or the visions that danced in Jackson’s soon to be empty pasta jar. But it was real. And really about to be hers.
Friday morning Deanna’s furious and frightened mother pulled up to the curb at international departures and popped the rear hatch of her station wagon. She’d already laid out the Cambridge was expensive, no scholarship assistance and it cost a small fortune to fly and she would see her daughter when she came home, if she made it home, to Deanna. Repeatedly. Mom Collings, for the first time in a long time, took her daughter’s hand, rubbed it lightly between her own, and looked her in the eye.
“My baby…” Deanna could see the tears held in check behind her mother’s eyes. “I do hope you make it out alive.” She let that breathe. “You…You’re not who you think are, alone, and you never will be. If you ever realize you’re not a one woman show, come home. If not,” she sighed, studied their entwined hands before bringing her eyes back to her daughter’s. “Then set the world on fire, sweetheart. Because if you don’t and we lose you? If you, and everything wonderful you are and could be ends in nothing? It will kill me, too.”
“Mom…” Deanna had been in England in her head for a year. None of them got it. She threw her left arm around her mother’s neck, whispered “I’ll be okay, mom, really.” She squeezed the arm, kissed her mom’s temple, said “Love you” and was on the sidewalk with the big black man who’d pulled her suitcase out of the back of Mom’s station wagon, handing him her itinerary and two dollars.
Jackson had told her back in high school, before they were ever them, “Always over tip and don’t be a dick to waitresses or bellhops or valet, even if they don’t do anything but hand off your food or your suitcase or your keys.” She remembered asking, with a touch of snotty, “Why?” “Because once they’re out of sight they have more ways to fuck with you and your food and your shit than you’ll ever know.” She’d rolled her eyes, gone along with it when he was around, on the cheap side. Seeing the pile of everything she needed to hit England at stride trundled off on a cart with an unsmiling stranger eyeballing the pair of ones in his hand like they were dirty before he stuffed them in his uniform shirt pocket she wished, just once, she’d really listened.
Deanna stood in the cold evening rain across the narrow street from what was about to be her new flat. It was a far cry from Blake’s “Green and pleasant land.” Six small student flats in a hundred and ten year old, three story brownish gray brick building covered in dead ivy vines. Six bicycles scattered in front, all with baskets. Rain dripped from the plastic flowers wrapped around one of them. How six apartments could be in there seemed impossible. But there were two on each floor, they’d told her. The ground floor, the greenish door on the left was hers, the window box full of plastic flowers a token to homey-ness. The middle door was the stairwell to the upper floors. The door to the right of that a mirror image of hers.
“Mid-Victorian” Cat had told her. That was why the black pipes for sewer venting were bolted to the outside next to the gutter downspouts. Deanna had hoped it would be one of the little houses with a big window, a stone wall out front with a gate and small, crazy garden for a front yard. Instead there were narrow, barely there sidewalks on either side of a narrow street full of old row houses painted startling colors. The street itself was lined with parked cars all pointed one direction, a few small motorcycles and a million bikes. Streets barely as wide as a car. How did people drive here?
She crossed the street, her big, bright red American Tourister suitcase and make-up case in tow. She’d had to put her leather purse on her shoulder under her red London Fog. Her hair was wet and stringy and it was cold enough to make her nose red. She dropped the knocker twice.
The girl who answered had dark auburn hair, some freckles under a light dusting of face powder and didn’t miss many meals.
“You’ll be Deanna.” The girl took in the bright red coat and suitcases, shook her head. “Bloody landing beacon, you are. Come on, don’t stand about in the rain. Cat? Our lass from the colonies is arrived.”
Another girl appeared in the dark, back corner of the room. Deanna’s height, trim, blondish, angular and severe, dishtowel in hand. “Bloody hell…She’ll not be run down on Merton in that.” Dishtowel girl gave Deanna the once over, frowned at her wet, low heeled dress shoes. “No Wellies? You weren’t told it rains here?” It took Deanna a few seconds to process that from “Nwellies? Ya wernatole eh rines ere?”
“Yes. No. No wellies. Those are rain boots? Rubbers, my dad says, and mom says galoshes. Do I need them? I sort of threw all this together in a big hurry.”
“Will you have a listen to her, Cat? Sounds a bit off, but she’s a fine eyeful of lass.” Merriam had taken Deanna’s coat and hung it on a coat rack that stood in the middle of a drip pan. “Scotch, love? We’ve a beer as well.”
“Fizzy drinks are in a cold case in a shop ‘round the corner.” She pointed at a small, square box under the sink. “Fridge space is premium. Food and beer win the day over fizzy. Have a sit. Cat?”
Catorina explained the flat layout, without moving anything but the dishtowel at the end of her arm. “Down the side, our Merriam, you, our new lass, and the loo in the corner, just there. Across the back the table for study and fine dining, and kitchen, as it is. Not much in the way of cupboard, we share all that’s there, the odd cups and plates. Choose what you like, we’re not much for standing on Her Majesty’s ceremony here.” Cat’s dishtowel gesturing hand folded back in and she waited for comment from Deanna.
The kitchen, as it was, contained a recent, small, four burner gas stove top-oven combo with what Deanna would discover was the ubiquitous teapot on top. Next up an old, deep, wide, chipped ceramic sink with eighteen inches of counter space on either side over cabinets left, right and under, more cabinets above, all with mismatched patterned curtains for doors. A window by the table and a window over the sink, both looked into the alley behind, all of it open to the main room. A short, narrow door opened under the stairs to the upper floors, another door just to the left into the alley. A fireplace on the wall opposite the bedrooms was surrounded by built-in bookshelves, mostly devoid of books. The largest, newest fixture in the flat was a chocolate brown sleeper sofa two thirds the width of the room, that sat on a plush dark blue rug. Folded out it became Cat’s “bedroom.”
“Wow. Cool. Kinda small, really, but cool. And, not that I’m a bitch or anything, but it’s Dee – anna, not Deena.”
Cat’s eyes left Deanna for Merriam and they sputter laughed. “A Colonist, but not a bitch, studying English and having a go at our speech, eh Cat? Deanna it was and is, love.” It still sounded like Deena.
“Um…” Maybe it was a nickname thing. “Okay.” Deanna took in the entire flat again. “I guess that’s all, huh? Except for the rolled up blue foam thing by the fireplace?”
“You’ll have Merriam show you what she gets up to with that when you’ve set your kit and joined us proper. Wouldn’t do, you running down Newnham in tears your first night in.”