The rising sun glittered off the ocean. Waves were distant, looked calm, steel grey between dirty clouds. Or maybe the porthole was dirty. Even with my greasy nose against it, covering a child’s nose-imprint with my own, I saw the frame. A blurry Prince Caspian was on the 7” x 5” screen on the seat in front of me and the earbuds would not stay in unless I jammed them in so my ears ached more than they already did from the altitude difference. Men were not meant to fly so high.
The stewardess came with immigration cards. Visiting or moving? Business or pleasure? Was your bank account ready to empty paying entrance to castles so you could look at old rocks and a well-watered lawn? Have you visited any farms recently?
I filled out the card and it seemed my pen was the only one on the plane. How did these people function in daily life without a pen? After I shared with my neighbor, who shared with the lovely Arab girl behind us, who passed it across the aisle to a Queen impersonator, who gave it to a stewardess to give to a Brit returning home, I never saw it again. Hopefully it went home with someone instead of being dropped on the floor and wedged with pretzel crumbs between the seats.
The line took several hours to get through. Those from the EU arrived and left within half an hour but I was stuck behind every Chinese, South American, and African, who spoke with their family in the most astounding accents with mixed levels of English and even when it was a language I couldn’t understand, I listened. But customs found them less interesting than I, so the line slowed for them to be searched, questioned, quizzed on their life and luggage.
When I made it through, Maria was waiting. She sat in the baggage carousel on a suitcase with a busted zip. She filled out a form requesting the airline send her absent bag to Bangor Uni’s address, but the bag was in Russia. She didn’t bother the airline with a form requesting they refund her for her broken zip bag. She wore a woven cardigan and had a leather coat folded over her arms in case it was chilly out. I hadn’t slept but was more awake than her. The turbulence had upset her stomach and as sea-sickness (or perhaps air-sickness) had drained her stomach, it also drained her energy. She still managed a polite greeting with closed eyes. “Guten morning” she said, blending her languages as many in the custom’s line had.
People hear rumors about the mythically impenetrable fog in the UK. Or rain. Or chill. In my British Novel class for juniors and seniors, I attribute them to the popularity of Charles Dickens who wrote urban gothic descriptions. Lots of dark alleys on foggy nights. But the morning sun shone between clouds and warmed the dew till it lifted off the pavement of the car park. The breeze was welcomed.
A bus waited for us. I had called it while in customs, despite the signs that said “No mobiles in the terminal.” The old man chauffer had grizzled stubble and eyes half-closed from glaucoma. He greeted us in a lyrical Welsh accent. “Where you get in from?”
“America,” Maria answered.
“America!” he yelled. “Of course it’s America! Look atcha! ‘America’ she says. Which state?” he said so his meaning was as clear as his annoyance. “America.”
“Illinois.” She had been embarrassed by the driver, feeling like an ignorant first-time traveler though she’d been to more countries than me. She’d studied in France and Germany and taught in Austria then went to festivals in Nigeria and Spain with Herr Hoffman, her husband.
“Chicago, huh? And headed up to Bangor, eh? The wind will have you at home presently. Did you get roughed up in the skies at all? I’d never fly over the pond.” Had he ever left the UK? I was too sleepy to find out.
“It wasn’t a bad flight,” she said.
“You were inches from peril all the skip over,” he insisted. “The Yank attendants properly told you to sit so you’d be near your floaties when you sank. First timer or are you another Anglo-loving Amerk that forgoes the iPads and filth to flit over frequently?”
While they talked, I loaded our luggage into the space under the coach. It was sent by the company that would provide all our coaches as we toured the UK with students and so this one was big enough for 35 including the driver. I tied my leather belts around Maria’s luggage with the busted zip so it wouldn’t spill while it rattled beneath on the drive to Wales from Manchester.
I got on the coach and said, “Dioch” to our driver. Thank you.
He rambled some Welsh for me and I shook my head. “I can count to ten and thank people but I’m lost after that. I haven’t been here in a decade,” I said.
Maria and I sat opposite each other in the row behind the chauffeur so he could talk to us but I slept through the travel till we hit a bump and the suitcases thudded. We were between mountains of blue-hued slate that was mined then dumped on the side of the mountain in “slate tips.” They were the rubbish pieces. The road beyond the highway twisted round the piles and only wire fences and well-rooted shrubs kept them from burying us, though there were signs warning of possible danger. To Maria they read “Certain Death” and she eyed them as we passed and even eyed their aluminum backside for hope in the glimmer of the sun but found none till we passed without danger.
Fenced-in sheep gnawed anything green. Plants were inch-high but on the other side of the barrier, great bushes and trees, greener than a painting, dominated the land. The government had outlawed 11 million sheep from certain areas to protect the biological diversity. Only quick-growth shrubbery survived the diet of sheep. A stray had escaped over a river, over a log, while his companion had followed forgetting the bridge and drowning. It walked to its death. Did it attempt to save itself? No. It bleated, “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” as eloquently as Shakespeare’s favorite Macbeth player, but really it was the sheep’s stupidity that doomed him. Not fate, not the stars, not the tragedy-writing gods. And did another sheep act heroic, save its compatriot? No. It chewed its meal. It watched its buddy die. And when it saw the other sheep, the happy sheep, on the far side of the river munching on new plants that were tall enough to feed any sheep for a day or two, the other sheep trespassed onto the watery grave of its friend and died too. Sheep were stupid. But the happy sheep had been lucky to find a bridge and so it lived in the heather, slowly making trails – not by trampling the flowers but by devouring whatever blocked the path. And in a day, there’d be a maze for the sheep. Those across the river would get jealous and drown themselves trying to reach it.
The driver still gabbed to Maria, telling her the history and explaining the slate tips and miner’s lung and talking about how they got more rain per year than England especially in Bangor and how there were two Bangors but Wales had the better of the two and that “bangor” really meant a walled place and how Wales had more castles per head than England and Ireland. Maria looked queasy but smiled politely and nodded as he spoke. “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh….”
I spent the bumpy trip scouring the every forest we passed for a trace of smoke, shimmering or sooty, but saw none. No hearts, no pedestal, no dark curtains. Nothing. I saw nothing.
I had time.
I had cities to explore, to tour, to show my students on weekends. And I only taught one class a week on Monday night about Welsh history. Tuesday through Fridays were free. Free to fight my fate. Whatever this cursed mark was supposed to mean, it signified nothing to me.