After we arrive in Bedwyn, I tell the Man that my right boot is still making funny sounds.
“Funny sounds?” he says.
“Yeah. Like a horse clopping down the road.”
I shake my right foot. I can feel something jiggling. I’ve had this feeling off-and-on since we came back from New York. He follows the movement of my leg.
“It’s because your HEEL IS ABOUT TO FALL OFF,” he tells me.
I look down. The heel of my boot is dangling from several rusty nails. Several questions pop into my head all at once. How have I not noticed this before? Why did I somehow think that the jiggling was coming from the toe of my boot? And, more pressing still: how am I going to cope with a broken boot in a village so small that the first cab driver we call says, “oh no, sorry, I’m just having myself a cup of tea, I can’t pick you up”?
In Avebury, where we end up after a pint and a perusal of the Guardian whilst waiting for the third cab driver we call to arrive, we meet up with friends and I am able to borrow the wellies of an 11-year-old boy whose feet are definitely at least a size bigger than mine. The Man gestures wildly as we stand on a windy ridge overlooking a circle of giant stones (only in England); he punches a hole in his Barbour.
“We’re a mess,” I say. I like our mess, but still.
It’s overcast and the children want to climb the stones, roll down the hills. A humourless pair of English hippies in moon-patterned trousers and tie-dye jumpers tries to stop them: in future re-tellings of this story (and there will be many), they say, Don’t climb the rocks. This is our temple; this is our Church. But in all truth they do not say this, just look disapprovingly, just bark . They remind me of the puckered old woman in the Great Tew church telling us: What do they think this is, a nursery? In my day children would never be allowed to play in a place like this. The hippies with their sour countenance, their wild hair and ugly demeanor, move on. Ned the puppy pulls me along the side of a hill. We have no time for hippy temples, for rules or regulations. Only time to stand windblown on a ridge, to watch children rolling so fast and so far it makes us fret (but briefly).
In Mildenhall which is pronounced Minal we sleep above the pub. There is no store in the village and no school; the people are rooted to the place only through a town hall and an eating-and-drinking establishment. We mention we might want a taxi to the train station after dinner.
“A taxi?” says the woman.
“Oooh I dunno about that,” says the man. We feel like the city-slickers, even in our torn Barbours, our too-big wellies.
So we stay; in a room which is the essence of the English bed-and-breakfast. Shabby floral curtains, pulled back to reveal the pub sign, the cobbled pavement, the thatched cottages across the narrow street. Upholstered chairs, worn and soft. An ugly purple duvet, a flowery third pillow.
“Why are there three pillows?” I want to know. The Man holds up the third pillow.
“Just look at it,” he says. Then he hits his head on the mantelpiece-above-the-bed.
“Why is there a mantelpiece above the bed?” I also want to know, but the simple answer is that there is no why; the why is in its existing at all. And in the morning, we have a greasy and delicious full English breakfast while the owners’ three black poodles wander around the front room like a trio of furry balloon animals.
Passing through Marlborough; the widest High Street in Britain, though you wouldn’t think it now. Just a parking lot now–a thick row of vehicles clogging up the centre. But look at a picture of it a hundred years ago and it is impressive. Like a sea between the two sides of the road.
Now past the place where the Thames starts.
“Look, you know the Thames, the Thames in London, this is where it begins,” says the boys’ mother, one hand on the wheel, pointing over the bridge.
“We know the Thames is in London,” says one of the boys, pouting, pressing his face against the side of the car. “You don’t have to keep saying, ‘the Thames in London.'”
“But look,” we say, “this is where it starts, isn’t that incredible?” And then the Man adds, “and it goes through Oxford, too. It splits into two, but it’s still the Thames.”
(And then we can’t remember, for a bit, which is the Isis and which is the Cherwell.)
Burford suddenly feels like home, because it’s the Cotswolds–Cotswold stone, Cotswold colour. I am lost in the map of England, it’s swallowed me completely, and every foray from the city where we live feels like magic and mystery (and so does every re-entry).