Johnny England

I have always loved England. It feels familiar but is different enough to also feel like a learning experience every time I come here. The people, the food, the sounds are ever changing, while the customs, architecture and history are pervasively constant. Last summer I went to Scotland for the first time, specifically to Edinburgh (inspired by my love of the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith) where I rented a flat for a month and afterward traveled around the countryside when I met someone with a motorcycle. Those first few days with him, riding along the foggy windswept west coast of Scotland, past rocky outcroppings and green hills covered in heather and scotch broom, sturdy sheep and long-haired cattle, supplied my first living breath in over two years. Sharp little droplets of rain pummeled us in between short intervals of sunshine as we skimmed along empty curving roads and I felt like I’d never seen grass so green, smelled air so fresh. I felt free and light for long moments at a time, for the first time since Jackson died, and the possibility that I might continue to live flashed across my mind; that this wasn’t just a last hurrah before my inevitable impending demise, by my own hand or, more likely, as a direct, cumulative result of grief, what some people would call a broken heart.

A couple of weeks ago, after leaving my friends near Hereford, I took a train to Devon to meet up with Mark, one of the kind souls who responded to my travel post. We met at the 3-day HU event and got to know each other well enough that he invited me to ride around southwest England on one of his two older (80’s) BMWs, and I accepted. An intelligent, thoughtful guy, he’s good-natured and widely traveled, with plans to ride a bicycle around Nepal in October then head into India where he has been numerous times. A friend in Mumbai stores his Royal Enfield for him there in exchange for being able to ride it when he needs to. He told me he intends to be there by early November, and added “You’re welcome to join me if you like.”

We spent a couple of days in his quintessentially English village (it only takes a church and a pub to make a village, I’m told; this one has a church and two pubs), then rode through the beautifully wild and lonesome moors of Dartmoor National Park to Cornwall where we spent a few days with Tiffany, his friend and one of my roommates from the travel weekend. She lives in a small town called Porthcurno a few miles from Lands End, the southernmost point in the U.K. We hiked along the coastal path between the two towns our second day there, and on our third and final evening we saw a play at Porthcurno’s open air Minack Theatre, carved into the side of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean meets the Celtic Sea meets the English Channel. A lone seal swam and dived below us. The play itself was okay, the setting spectacular.

We returned to Devon for a couple of mostly rainy days, then I bid Mark farewell and caught a train to Eastbourne to meet John. Another respondent to my travel post, John has been a fairly regular email correspondent for over a month. His plan, he wrote, is to ride through various countries, starting in Europe, for the next four months, beginning with France and winding up in Turkey, a country he tells me he has grown to love after multiple trips there. He’d prefer to have a companion than to ride alone, so “You are welcome to join me for any or all of it,” he wrote. We agreed that I’d ride with him in July, after which I’ll be returning to England to house/dog sit for my friends while they go on holiday in August.

I arrive in Eastbourne late on Saturday night. My train was delayed so by the time John finds me and we drive back to his apartment it’s after midnight. Except for the emails and one brief phone call, I’m flying blind here. I think we’ll be compatible, I think we’ll travel well together, but at this point I’m only guessing, hoping really. And we’re talking about a month together, not just a few days like it was with Mark. I reserve the right to bail, I tell him in my last email before I catch the train. Of course, he says. No questions asked. You have that right too, I assure him. No problem. If we’re on the road, just drop me at the closest bus station, that’s all I ask.

He puts me in his bedroom in spite of my protests that he shouldn’t, and he sleeps on the floor of his living room. It’s a tiny apartment that he has just sold, and he has already cleared out most of his belongings before I arrive. The check should be in the bank on Thursday, he explains; that’s the day he turns in his keys, the day he’ll have the funds to purchase the bike he has had his eye on, the day we can start moving. Until then it’s a waiting game. He shows me around Eastbourne. He takes me on walks along the waterfront and into the surrounding hills and farmlands. He gradually clears his apartment of the remainder of its contents. We take turns making dinner. We get to know each other.

He talks a lot. Rambles I might say, except it doesn’t feel aimless, it feels pent up, like he has had no one to talk to in a long time and is trying to get everything out before he finds himself alone again. I understand the sentiment but I hold back, rusty when it comes to revelations, until he says something, an accidental trigger (how can he know, when I don’t know them all myself?) and I am in tears. He has a daughter who is the same age as Jackson, and when he talks about her he has the warmth of tone and wide wet eyes that speak my language. When I look up I see that he is crying too, slow silent tears to my messy puddle, and I am reminded yet again of how many of me there are out there, waiting to happen, praying for anything but. Please god, take this, take that, take me. Take anything but my child (husband, wife, mother, brother). He knows this kind of love, and he knows lost love too.

The ice is broken, and I begin to relax. Over the next four days he tells me about the circumstances that have brought him to this point in time, where he’s selling an apartment in a place he didn’t like to begin with and preparing to set off for several months, maybe longer, on a new motorcycle with an almost complete stranger: the failed relationships; playing drums professionally first in bands then in shows; the transition to this job and that job and finally no job when it all felt wrong; the child he had, and the child he almost had. He tells me things about growing up in the slums of Glasgow in the 60’s that wring me dry; the kinds of things that a generation ago nobody talked about, that evoked words like dirty laundry, and feelings like shame even in the hearts of their young, innocent victims. I am reminded that the power of secrets is lost when they are let loose in the public domain.

I tell him about my travels of the past year, about how I fell in love with my traveling companion against my better judgement – given my state of mind, given that he told me from the beginning he didn’t want a “relationship” – and how it all fell apart when, after close to eight months of traveling together around Europe and Asia, I realized he was probably never going to see me as anything more than just another lover in a long string of lovers. John and I have both been very clear and honest from our first email exchange to say that we don’t want anything but a companion on this ride, and I am committed this time to keeping my boundaries intact. “It isn’t that I regret my time spent with him,” I tell John. “Just that if I’d resisted the temptation to sleep with him, I’d have saved myself unnecessary heartache that I could ill afford.” He nods his head. “I know what you mean,” he says. “But you can’t blame yourself for wanting it, or for trying.” In the silence that follows I remember what someone said to me last summer while discussing men, women and relationships. She said, “We have a string that goes directly from our vagina to our heart.” It sounds crude perhaps, and overly simplistic, but in my case it seems to be true.

Tonight we are out in the country, a few miles beyond Brighton, on a piece of land where some musicians are getting together to practice one more time before John leaves the country tomorrow. I sit on an old rusted iron chair outside the mobile home inside which a keyboard, guitar, bass, drums and vocalist are all packed together amidst cords, microphones, amplifiers and miscellaneous musical paraphernalia. A gorgeous ginger and white cat called Zeus comes calling, wrapping himself around my legs. He belongs to Max, the owner of the mobile home and the keyboard player. This cat, I’m told, is from Cairo. A street cat, he was picked up by an animal rescue and taken to a shelter, where someone came along and chose him as their pet. They set sail from Egypt, taking the cat with them, for several months. Eventually they got to England where at some point and for reasons unknown they couldn’t keep him any longer. They relinquished him to yet again another shelter, which is where Max found and adopted him. “I figure that’s at least three or four of his nine lives, don’t you think?”

On the drive home John tells me an amusing story about a trip to the US during which he rented a hang glider (he is experienced in the sport and taught lessons for years) in Orlando and a couple of hours later realized he was not headed south as he’d intended. He found a field to land in, in front of a parking lot of a big grey building, which turned out to be a bowling alley. He walked up to three men sitting on the front steps, pulled out his map of Florida, and asked them if they could show him where he had landed. Quickly picking up on his accent they narrowed their eyes and asked, in a pronounced southern drawl, “You’re not from around here, are you?” “No, I’m from England,” he told them. “Well, actually I’m from Scotland, but I live in England,” at which they took one look at his hang glider and concluded that he’d glided all the way from England and crash-landed there in inland Florida. He tried to explain that he had rented the unit in Florida, that he’d flown by plane to Florida from London, but they only heard flown and England and were so stuck on the false notion that he eventually stopped trying to explain. In the end a cell phone rang and one of the men answered it to be given an earful from his mother, so loudly that he had to hold the phone away from his head so that everyone present could hear her shouting, berating him for not being in church. Eventually when she paused for breath he took his chance. “Mama!” he said. “Listen to me. We got a situation here. We got Johnny England here, just crashed his hang glider in a field.” Eventually the man was able to persuade his mother – still enraged that her grown son was at a bowling alley rather than in church on an afternoon in the middle of the week – to send someone with a truck to collect John and his hang glider and transport him the 40 miles back to Orlando.

I laugh, and I laugh, and I laugh.

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