The heavy rains had ended. The Chinese students in Bangor for summer term had picked up slang from their classmates and professors and described the weather as “boiling.” I wore my Everlast fleece. Compared to Illinois, compared to last January in Illinois, 55 F was chilly. But after a mild summer with much rain and fog, walking up hills in constant sun and a stylish fleece, it was a steam-pot day.
Americans had called in when they reached London or Manchester, the frequented international airports, to tell us they had landed safely and would be venturing through the British cities and staying at hostels. While half the students were from our university, the others attended schools throughout the Midwest and we even had a girl from New York. Her school didn’t have a program in Wales so she piggybacked onto ours and the school said we were happy to have her – and her $17,000 tuition.
Of the 16 students I might’ve known from campus, I recognized one number: Elli’s.
She was a frequent student of mine. I had had six classes with her in the past two years. Possibly more before that but classes for younger students, Brit Lit 1 and Irish Lit, are big, 40 or more students, and I often forgot who attended those. Many would be enrolled without showing up and we were a college, not a high school – I wouldn’t waste ten minutes each class with attendance. So long as students turned in their essays and did their presentations, they got a grade. Often poor because I gave quizzes at the beginning of each class. Elli’s name usually showed up in the stack and her handwriting was fanciful cursive with swoops and dips and purple ink. The first day of class, I wrote my number on the board. They were free to call anytime. The number was also on the syllabus and I wrote it again before essays were due. There was a myth among students and some faculty that a professor is not to be bothered at home. While I have gotten the occasional drunk call and even drunk text (usually addressed to someone else), most students don’t call and those who do genuinely seek advice. Elli was one of them.
And so, she was a permanent contact. Molly didn’t like this.
I ducked out of the seminar on professional standards that Bangor Uni expected all visiting professors to attend. Instead of taking notes, I had marked my map of towns I’d visited without success. Anglesey had a big X through it and then scribbles till it tore. I had been frustrated. I answered Elli’s call.
“Pro Leo?” It was her nickname for me. “I got a little problem.”
“Don’t call me that.” She wouldn’t stop.
“I’m in Bangor. At the train station. Where do I go?”
Outside PJ Hall, I gave Elli directions but I didn’t know street names: “Take the street north, but not towards Domino’s. Unless you’re hungry. They’re cheap. You can get a personal pan pizza for a pound. That’s about two bucks American. But never mind that. Head up the hill. You’ll go past a bus stop with an enclosure. There’ll be hedge fences too. Actually there are hedge fences everywhere. You might have to cross a few street. I forget.”
“Uh…Can you just come get me?” she asked.
I peeked through the window on the double door to the grand hall full of bored professors. An old Scotch lady was reading her power point slide like a student. “Yeah, I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Walking a town imprints a map in your head. Driving it, you forget it. But walking gives you the true details of the land. The hills. The smells of shops. The adrenaline rush as you use the crosswalk only to forget cars in the UK drive on the wrong side of the road and so a bus nearly smashes you. I prefer driving.
So I took College Road from the Main Arts building to Holyhead Road, by the Crepe Café. I passed Morrison’s before crossing the street at a roundabout. The UK has the craziest roundabouts. Three roads fed into a circle of pavement with a safe-zone in the middle where pedestrians could wait for the constant flow of traffic to be kind and let them pass. The Brits were fearless about crossing. They sprinted through the smallest gap and cars blared their horns because the pedestrians couldn’t hear the driver’s colorful swearing: “You clunge-diving whack!” There were no stop signs or yield signs but local drivers knew to yield. They didn’t. The same swears thrown at pedestrians were suitable for motorists. “I’ma bang you in the gob if I catch up!” Often the largest vehicles, coaches and lorries, were most cautious because their accidents had fatalities and lawsuits, but the Mini Coopers were free to zip ahead in line because the worst they could do was run over a stray cat. I kept on Holyhead Road, down the hill, past the bus stop I mentioned, past Fairway Nursery and Sherwood House, till I met with Deiniol Road and could see High Street.
There was the train station. There was Elli.
She had her bug-eyed sunglasses that covered her face but even so I recognized her. She tugged at her tube top. She was fiercely tanned, burnt almost, and her swimsuit had left pale triangles up to her clavicle, but not on her back. She had just returned from a stint in Italy. And she had all of her bags.
Two rolling bags large enough to fit a body. A large purse. A book bag. A sports bag for each hand. And shopping bags. In fairness, those were mostly empty. But everything else was full. And we had to go back up hill.
“You walked?” she asked and strolled towards me with her arms open so she could hug me and hit my back with her sports bags. But she stopped. She saw a mangy homeless man sleeping against a retaining wall and so she went back to her luggage. “I thought you’d bring around the car. How far we going?”
“Gas is something like fifteen bucks a gallon. I’d be bang out of bank if I had a car. Your dorm isn’t set up yet. Summer students are parked there and you won’t have a room for a few weeks.”
“NO! But! NO! I skipped out on London with the girls to visit early. I thought I’d explore my new home. Take in the culture. Lounge at a pub. But! NO!” She looked to the homeless man. “Will I have to sleep outside?”
“We’ll put your bags in my flat for now.”
“In your what?” She lifted her goggles to her hair. There was a faint tan-line around her eyes.
“Flat. Apartment. We’ll get you set up in a temporary dorm. There has to be one. It’ll be fine. Follow me up the hill. I’ll give you a quick tour as we go. This is Holyhead Road. It’s spelled like ‘Holy head,’ but it’s pronounced Holly-head.” I pointed to High Street and Deiniol Road and where Domino’s was. It had been a staple during my stay here ten years ago and now. They were cheap and despite the grease, I’d lost weight from all the walking.
Elli even noticed. “Wow, Pro Leo! These hills are getting you fit. Think you could help drag these bags? There’s kind of a lot. I’ve got a lot of stuff! I need it all though. I’ll be living here till I’m slinging slang as well as you. That could take a while. You’ll have to teach me some.”
I grabbed a rolling suitcase and her sports bags. “First you should memorize which side of the street they drive on or a lorry will flatten you. A lorry’s a semi.”
“I’ve got a friend named Laura that everybody calls Laury. She’s as big as a truck. We love her anyway.”
We chugged along up the hill, stopping for Elli to adjust to the incline. Illinois was flat.
“It’s boiling, isn’t it?” I said as we came to the roundabout. “This is Morrison’s. Their prices are fair and it’s near your flat. If you go that way, you’ll get to student housing. Keep going and you’ll see Menai Strait and across that is the Isle of Anglesey. If you go this way, you’ll get to academic buildings. The campus isn’t like ours where everything is grouped, but English courses are that way. This hill will be hell on your calves for a while; it’s why they call it ‘Bitch Hill’ but its real name is Alt Glanrafon. Down there is all the shopping. That’s Lower Bangor. The academic buildings are mostly in Upper Bangor.”
Her mouth gaped. Was she panting or confused? I was overloading her with information and she might be jetlagged or partied out from Italy. She just nodded and got out her iPhone from her pack so she could snap pictures of everything: walls, birds, houses, plants, buses, the sky, me, me and her. I forced a smile.
“I’ll give you a map later so you don’t get too lost.”
We continued till Holyhead Road curved near College Road and the hills on the horizon rolled into the distance. Suburbs sprawled to Port Penrhyn. We reached a path that diverged. “Do you want to take the main road or the scenic route along the beach?”
“The beach! I practically lived there in Italy. The cathedrals were cool too.”
I led her down a dirt trail and turned to check if she was keeping up. She stumbled a few times, but so did I, and ultimately she was waiting on me to move my fat ass. I held tree branches for her to duck under. Occasionally her suitcase got stuck in the dirt, but she managed.
Calling it a beach conjures up images of Hawaii and Florida. The sand here was white, but where the water hit was driftwood scattered among boulders. The farthest ones were porous and rough but those nearer were eroded smooth and small enough to pick up. Elli walked on the rough boulders with her arms out for balance. She hoisted seaweed and chucked it back to its home in the low tide. It plopped in the water.
At the end of the beach was another dirt path through the forest. Coming through it, we saw The Tap & Spile, a famous pub among visiting faculty. It was quieter than The Octagon with better bangers and mash. The tab was steeper though. It had a beautiful view of the Bangor Pier. And so did my flat.
Bangor Uni had secured a luxurious beach front property for us American professors. It was along Green Bank, near The Tap & Spile and Ristorante Pulcinella (where we had celebrated Thanksgiving a decade ago since the Brits weren’t skilled with our traditional foods so we figured Italian food was good enough). From our window, Maria and I could watch the tides or the fog that obscured our view of Llandudno around the bay.
I walked in the front door.
“These British beers give me gas,” Molly said as I entered. She then noticed Elli behind me. They dressed virtually the same, except Molly had a halter top and was heavier despite the daily hill-climbing.
Pickles sprinted to Elli, turned to me and whipped Elli with her tail, then turned to Elli, whipping me. “Is this your dog?” Elli shrieked. She kneeled and rubbed Pickles face, jostling her jowls as the mutt lapped makeup from the girl.
“What’s she doing here?” Molly whispered, loud enough Elli could hear.