Before you start, did you miss the first two chapters?
Kate had never felt more thankful for the plush, leather airplane seat than she did when, after a long day of heavy traffic, security lines, airport food and rushing to another terminal for a last minute gate change, she released a long breath of tension-filled air. Her carry-on bag, meant to be lightweight and manageable to ferry through the airport, eventually began to feel like a hundred pounds of dead weight. It occurred to her that David had always handled both of their carry-ons and she had been responsible for her purse and computer bag. Now she felt a moment of guilt for placing that full burden on him every time they traveled. There were unmistakable benefits to flying first class, as evidenced by the sparkling glass of Prosecco sitting on her tray and the warm towel folded neatly across her aching neck. Kate allowed herself to smile for the first time since she had left her house that morning. Was she really doing this? Was she going to live in England for several months residing in a home she had never laid eyes on? She had to trust that the “friend of a friend” had not rented Harriet a shanty with a leaking roof. Images of a medieval lean-to with a dirt floor and mice scattering hither and fro crossed her vivid imagination and she laughed aloud. Checking her phone one last time, Kate noted that Mark had sent her a final text. It read simply “xxoo.” She turned her phone off and settled in as the plane lifted off of American soil.
It is actually quite surprising what passes through one’s mind at an altitude of 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. Normally one may have contemplations such as “did I unplug the coffee maker?” or “did I lock the back door?” For Kate, her mental ramblings ranged from “does Mark hate me now?” to “did I let him down gently enough?” She had chastised herself a dozen times for not saying certain things she had intended to tell him. Once she settled in England, she would write him a handwritten letter and try once again to explain the reasons that compelled her to leave. Not an email, not a voice mail, but a handwritten letter which was more personable and what he deserved.
The morning after their dinner date had started well before dawn for Kate. “Do not go gentle into that good night” echoed through Kate’s sleep-weary mind. She inwardly laughed. There had been nothing good about her night. Finally at three-thirty, she gave up any pretensions of sleep and instead, she rose and made the bed, showered – and waited for the car service to pick her up for the four hour drive to Atlanta. Luckily, she was able to cat nap along the way, in-between texts from Jillian and an early morning call from David Michael to see if she had chickened out altogether. If he only knew how close to the truth he had been.
Kate stared out of the plane’s window at the pillowy clouds which seemed to pass by so unhurriedly. For the hundredth time that day, she questioned whether she was doing the right thing. Last night, Mark had seemed surprised and yet – not so much. He admitted he had sensed a restlessness in her the past few months, but confessed he was completely caught off guard by her sudden news.
“Katherine, can’t you just go to England for a few weeks and come back to Charleston to complete your book?” he had asked her.
“I could,” she replied, “but I think there are far too many distractions right now, and I seem to allow them to sway me more than I used to. I need to be somewhere where I can ensconce myself in my work and have fewer of these distractions.”
He looked forlorn. “So, I am a distraction now?” he asked.
“Yes, you are,” she smiled, “but, a distraction doesn’t have to be a bad thing, Mark. You are a good distraction. The leftover Valentine chocolate I have been eating entirely too much of is a bad distraction,” she tried to joke.
“I could come with you. I could take some leave from the law firm. After all I am a partner. Maybe we could hop across the Channel and take this trip to Paris while I’m there,” he offered.
Kate smiled forlornly. “Mark, I just need to work. I am under contract to finish this novel. Maybe if I can wrap things up sooner than expected, we can make some plans. Right now, I just need some solace and quality time with my laptop,” she tried to explain.
They talked for what seemed like hours – Mark trying to create reasons she should stay and Kate countering each argument with a reasonable rationalization to explain this sudden trip. The more Mark asserted his viewpoint, the more Kate felt herself withdraw from the conversation. A small part of her wanted to run home and close the curtains and hide from the world. On paper, the plan seemed perfectly sensible. Mark made Kate doubt herself, and that was not a position she liked to be in. By the end of the night Mark, not completely accepting her departure, kissed her softly on the lips and said goodbye, his eyes wistful and longing as Kate drove away.
Kate pulled the cover to the plane’s window closed and checked her watch for the hundredth time…seven more hours before they landed at Heathrow. She closed her eyes and hoped her laden mind would relax long enough to find restless slumber.
The thoughts of driving on the wrong side of the road can be extremely daunting for someone who has never driven in the UK. Kate caught herself smiling when she remembered the first time she and David had come to a “roundabout,” the British version of an intersection. That would be the first of many wild driving experiences until they both became more adept at the British road system. After an amazingly quick shuffle through Customs at Heathrow, Kate hurried to the car rental agency so she could be on the road before nightfall. She had an hour and a half drive ahead of her to get to Bourton-on-the-Water. The major highways didn’t concern her so much, but driving the narrow lanes and hedge-lined back roads were distressing – even in the daylight.
“Hello, my name is Katherine Parker, I have a reservation,” she said when she reached the car rental counter.
“Hello, Ms. Parker, welcome to England,” the young male attendant replied. “Will you be visiting us for long?”
“Yes, several months.”
“Oh, brilliant. Work or pleasure?” he inquired, making conversation while he pulled up her information.
“Mostly work, but I hope to squeeze in some pleasure while I am here,” she offered, smiling.
“Brilliant. Okay, here we are. You have reserved a basic car, right-hand drive?”
Kate looked surprised. “No, no, a mid-sized car with American style steering. Here is my confirmation ,” she said, handing the attendant a printed sheet. “It states that right here,” she said pointing to the information.
“Dear me, that is not what I have in the system at all. Would you like for me to check to see if we have anything else available?”
“Absolutely,” Kate answered. “I have never driven a British car before, and an hour before sunset is not the time to learn, would you not agree, Mr. – ,” she paused to look at the young man’s name tag, “Mr. Barnaby?”
“Oh, absolutely, Ms. Parker. That would be quite barmy.”
Kate looked at the attendant perplexed. Barmy? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? “Barmy?” she asked confused.
“Oh dear, that would be quite insane I should have said. Ms. Parker could you please wait right here and let me go get my supervisor, please?” And with that he scurried away to a back office. A few moments later, a distinguished middle-aged gentleman sauntered out, wearing a blazer in one of the most hideous shades of green Kate had ever seen. His hand smoothed his already perfectly-placed hair back while approaching.
“Ms. Parker, it seems we have a bit of an issue with your reservation. Unfortunately when the reservation was made,” he stopped to look at the confirmation date, “which was very last minute I can see, we were already overbooked for the vehicle you selected.”
“Overbooked? But, how is that possible,” she argued. “I have a confirmation number right here. That number is verification of the reservation which was made, is it not?”
“I understand your stress, Ms. Parker, and we will do everything we can to accommodate you. Unfortunately, when you make a reservation through a third party site, there are no guarantees that the vehicle you requested will be available. It’s stated on our website.”
Kate was trying not to become visibly stressed. She and David had been reserving rental cars in the UK and Europe for years and this had never once been an issue. “Look, I didn’t make the reservation, my Editor’s assistant did. How can you say you cannot honor it when I clearly have a confirmation? Excuse me, Mr. Abney, but I have been awake for what seems like days. I am tired, I have a long drive to get to my final destination and I just want to get underway. Is there any way you can check your system again and make sure you don’t have an American car somewhere out there in that mass of cars, ” she waved, indicating the lot outside.
The manager, noticeably sheepish, replied, “No Ms. Parker, I am quite disappointed to inform you we have no more American style motor cars at this time.”
Kate sighed. Was God trying to tell her she had made a mistake and she needed to run back to the airport with all haste and take the next flight back to the States? Certainly, these were just small obstacles on this little journey, right? Kate straightened her shoulders, raised her chin slightly higher in well-renowned Parker style, and smiled. This situation would not best her. “Well, I guess this American gal learns how to drive a traditional British motor car today. Okay then, let’s get this started.”
A half hour later, Kate found herself standing in front of a small blue car with an unrecognizable name. Everything was opposite. She had no clue how she would maneuver this “motor car” for the next few minutes much less the next few months. Sheer determination rose from the depths of her unwavering and purposive inner soul and then and there, she resolved that she would confront this challenge head on. It was either that, or hop from one rental car agency to the next throughout Heathrow trying to secure an American style car. Nope. That wasn’t Katharine Parker’s style at all.
She sat behind the wheel, trying to orient herself with this strange anomaly of transportation. Steering wheel, check. Gear shift, check. Turn signal. check. Brake pedal, check. How hard could it be? She pulled out of the rental car lot. There was no turning back now.
Kate only had a few experiences in her life where she felt her true Southern spirit and her grandmother’s inherited willpower fail her. Taking the SAT prior to college was her first true moment in time where she understood how acute anxiety can cripple someone. The second time was when she went into labor with David Michael; and, faced with the reality of having to bury her husband was her most recent challenge. Now, she could add driving down the M-2 Motorway alone at night, with an unfamiliar car and a stomach full of nerves. Kate kept reminding herself this was an adventure. “Katharine Parker, it’s just a car and this is just another road!” she kept repeating to herself. “This slab of metal with the steering wheel on the wrong side is not going to best you.” Perhaps if she kept repeating those words as a mantra she would eventually believe them, but at the moment all she could do was try her best to stay on the left side of the road while listening to the authoritative-sounding British voice on the car’s GPS giving her directions to Bourton-on-the-Water. An abundance of large trucks, or lorries, surrounded her on each side, as well as, annoyed and overzealous British drivers who were obviously impatient with her on-the-road training in British Driving 101. A mist was starting to fall, but it didn’t seem to slow any of the drivers who were in a rush to get home from a long work day – and get to their local pub for a pint or two. Kate kept a safe pace and carefully maneuvered into different lanes as the GPS indicated for her to do so. After about an hour, she felt more comfortable and at ease behind the wheel, but Kate knew the real test was yet to come. Those cringe-worthy hedge-lined narrow lanes leading into Bourton-on-the-Water awaited her. “Lord, if you can hear me right now, I could use a little assistance from you,” Kate said out loud. “Okay, Mr. British Direction-Giving thingamajig,” she said to the GPS, “take me home!”
Bourton-on-the-Water, considered the little Venice of the Cotswolds, was a small village in the center of this well-known and much-visited region of England. Typical of most Cotswolds towns, many of its homes were built of sturdy stone and most had conventional thatched roofs customary to this area. This village had been a favorite of David’s because of the Cotswold Motoring Museum which was located at one end of town. Kate loved it for more simplistic reasons…the small “river” – which was more of a stream by American standards, flowed gently through the center of the town, filled with hundreds of floating and bathing ducks and mallards. At least a half dozen stone bridges allowed passage from one side of the small river to the other. The River Windrush, with its crystal clear waters with an average depth of only about ten inches, was lined by houses, pubs, shops and restaurants on one side and a green park and small War Memorial on the other side. It wasn’t a large village by any means. You could easily get around with a bicycle or by walking anywhere you needed to go. Kate remembered a small market she and David went to several times when they rented a small cottage at the outskirts of town for a few weeks. It carried a decent variety of groceries and personal needs. There was a drugstore and a few very nice restaurants if one grew tired of pub fare. “How could anyone ever grow tired of pub faire,” David joked on their last stay here.
When Harriet, Kate’s Editor, informed her of the village where the cottage was located, Kate admitted she was almost instantly sold on the idea.
“Kate, the publishing agency rented this charming little cottage for you. It wasn’t easy finding something so last minute, but a friend of a friend owns several properties in the area and this one just came open. So, it will be Home Sweet Home for you for several months.”
“Thank you, Harriet. I can’t think of a better location to work on my book. Do you know where it’s located? Is it in town or outside of town?” Kate asked.
“I really don’t know, but I am sure it will be perfect. Darling, I have to run. My assistant is emailing you over all of the information, to include the name and number of the caretaker who is supposed to meet you with a key upon your arrival. And Kate?” she paused. “They are really breathing down my back for this book to be completed. I don’t mean to rush, of course…” she ended.
“Harriet, I understand. Really, I do. I am grateful for the extension, but I know it’s time to finish and I won’t disappoint.”
“You never do, Kate Parker. You never do. And you have some faithful fans who are just chomping at the bit for your next release.”
Kate thought back to their conversation which had transpired just days before. If there was ever a more apt description of the word surreal, this was it. She wakes up one morning at her home in downtown Charleston, and then a few days later she is driving towards a cottage in a Cotswolds village. The voice of the GPS brought her out of her mental reflection…”your destination is 100 meters on the right.” It was getting harder and harder to see. Night had fallen and the mist combined with the road sludge on the windshield from all of the passing lorries made a slushy mess. Kate squinted to try to get her bearings and find the cottage’s driveway. “You have reached your destination,” the GPS voice announced almost gleefully, as if he was quite surprised that Kate had managed to arrive, no more worse for wear. Kate saw a small gravel parking area behind the cottage and maneuvered her car in. Having a smaller vehicle wasn’t a bad idea after all, she surmised. It was certainly easier to guide between the narrow streets and back roads than with a larger car. Kate grabbed her purse and overnight bag. The contents of the bag would have to suffice for tonight. She was too tired to deal with dragging in a heavy bag, especially since the mist was starting to fall a little heavier. Kate noticed a small, exterior light glowed next to an arched wood door at the back of the cottage. She looked around to see if there was another vehicle parked at the cottage. Mr. Mortimer Alfredson was the gentleman who was supposed to meet her with the key to the cottage, but she didn’t see anyone in sight. She worked her way through a small, herb garden which appeared to be surrounded by a short, stone wall. Kate couldn’t help but be excited about exploring her new home by daylight tomorrow morning, but for now she just wanted to get inside, take a hot bath and go right to sleep. As she made her way up to the cottage, she noticed a small envelope sitting on the stone stoop. The paper was starting to become drenched and soggy from the oncoming rain. A hand scribbled note was on the front of the envelope which Kate could hardly make out as the ink had already blurred. She could make out the words “apologize” and “key” and a few others, but that was about it. She opened the envelope, and an old skeleton key fell out into her hand. “Well, Mr. Mortimer Alfredson, I guess I can take it from here.”
Kate slipped the old key into the lock’s opening and turned. Nothing. She tried the other direction. Again, nothing. She pulled the key out and looked at it. “Okay, let’s try this again.” Once more she pushed the key through the lock and turned one way and then the other, wiggling and turning, turning and wiggling. Frustrated, she withdrew the key once more. She picked up the envelope to see if perhaps there were two keys, but it was empty. Kate suddenly thought of something – maybe this was the front door key. She left her purse and her carry bag by the back door and hurried back through the garden where she had entered to reach the back door. The few street lights in the town did not offer a lot of light, and the darkened rainy night didn’t help at all, either. A side gate led to another walled garden with a narrow stone walkway to the front door. Kate had to use her cell phone to see where the lock was located. She thrust the key in, hopeful that she would be inside within minutes, and soon thereafter ensconced in a nice, warm bubble bath. Jiggle, jiggle. Turn, jiggle, turn. Nothing.
“Oh, son of a bee sting!” Kate yelled. “This cannot be happening. Lord, is this your final sign to me? Am I to spend the night here on the front step of this cottage and contemplate all of the signs you have sent me that I have thus far been ignoring?”
Kate looked around to make sure no one saw her talking to herself. There was not a soul in sight, nor any cars on the streets. “Of course no one is outside tonight because everyone but me is inside right now. Warm and toasty!” she said aloud. Indeed, most of the villagers were settled in for the night, out of the cold and miserable rain, exactly where Kate wished to be right now. “Okay, Katherine Parker, what now?” She remembered she had been given Mr. Alfredson’s phone number, so she quickly retrieved her cell phone and dialed the number she had programmed in earlier. It began to ring. Surely he would have the actual key to the cottage and could scurry right over to meet her. Kate allowed herself to conjure up images of a vintage, clawfoot tub filled to the brim with warm water and luxurious bubbles and a nice cup of tea sitting nearby. No answer. Kate hung up and dialed again. Nothing. Not even a voicemail. Who didn’t have a voicemail or even an answering machine in this day and age?
Frustrated, Kate made her way to the back of the cottage again. Standing in the rain becoming soaking wet was not getting her anywhere. All she could do was keep trying to reach Mr. Alfredson or possibly find some other lodgings for the night. That’s when Kate remembered there was a small Pub with rooms in town, near the War Hero Memorial. In fact, she vaguely remembered seeing it as she drove into town. It was only a few blocks away, easy enough to walk to. Kate didn’t want to drive to the pub only to discover there was no parking. It made no sense, even if it was drizzling at a faster pace now. She picked up her bags from the back door and started making her way up the street towards the Pub. It wasn’t exactly how she imagined spending her first night in England, but a warm bed and a decent bathroom was all she really wanted or needed at the moment. Kate caught her short heel on a cobblestone, halfway stumbling before she caught her balance. “Note to self, wear flats these next few months” Kate said verbally. It could be worse, she thought to herself. Thank goodness the rain was nothing more than a steady drizzle.
About that time the British skies opened up, and a torrential downpour fell upon Bourton-on-the-Water.