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Out of the Blue - It all began in the summer of 1979 ...
Sylvia Gardner is a naïve library clerk who lives with her dysfunctional mother in Richport, Illinois. Vivian tells her daughter not to trust men because they only want to use her. After being dumped by her first boyfriend, Sylvia falls in love with an English actor after watching him on a PBS drama. Researching Alexander Thorpe’s life and career for two years, she saves her money so she can visit him in his Cotswolds village. She stays at the Windrush Arms Hotel, soon discovering they share a secret connection.
Complications ensue when Harry Livingstone, the hotel’s drunken proprietor, takes a fancy to the young American. As in her dreams, Sylvia and Alexander get together – but with unexpected results.
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READ SOME REVIEWS
NEW! "This is about soulmates ... a feeling that we are known, loved and accepted just as we are. Out of the Blue is a story about a young woman's journey to emotional maturity but there is an underlying thread. That thread is the connection between intuitives which will be familiar to anyone of an introspective bent." Melbo Martin, Amazon review
"I really enjoyed Out of the Blue and found the characters cute and quirky. I thought it was really cute to see Sylvia fall in love with the grand Alexander but a little unlikely … I guess we can all hope, huh? I enjoyed watching her spend her time working in Cotswolds village and I thought Harry was an absolute hoot. Overall, a fun story with a few unexpected twists and turns."
Sara, Chick Lit +
"Good Book. Lisa does a great job of describing the setting, the characters and letting you feel the story line. I enjoyed reading this book and watching the developing romance between the two main characters. There was some romance and heartbreak within this story. It was a good romance to read." Mrsjonsey Amazon
"it will capture the imagination of the true romantics amongst us.”
Ruth Hill, My Devotional Thoughts
OUT OF THE BLUE: A NOVEL
The 17:14 train from Oxford pulled away from the platform at Windrush-in-the-Combe. It was now almost 18:00 and Sylvia Gardner stood beneath a single light and stared at the unfamiliar English village before her. She had just left her Richport, Illinois home that morning, taking her first jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean, and had spent the day in Oxford walking around acclimating herself to being in another country.
Her leatherette camera bag was slung over her shoulder and a large suitcase thumped against her thigh as she walked to the crossroads of Windrush Road and London Street.
She heard more English accents that day than she had from all the dramatic presentations on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. “Oxford, this is Oxford!” announced the voice at the famous university’s train station early that afternoon as she stepped onto the platform. It welcomed her; reminding her just how close she was to her destination.
Her brown cowboy boots echoed on the asphalt as she hurried towards the Windrush Arms Hotel. The two-story stone building had a wooden sign swaying above the doorway. A sign the nearsighted young woman was unable to read until she got within a few feet. She saw the outer door was closed and in the iron handle was wedged a thin newspaper.
Knocking on the heavy wood door, Sylvia looked around as she waited for it to be answered. Nighttime in a tiny, unfamiliar village. Across the way stood a low stone wall and a building with no lights shining from its windows. The other two passengers had gone down another street. The American stood before the door. She looked to her right at the curve of the road surrounded by houses on either side. Sylvia noticed the four dark windows above her. She sighed and decided to see if there was another entrance to the hotel.
Sylvia went around to the back and saw there was a small spotlight shining above a door. She knocked on that. As she waited, she turned and saw a couple of cars in the parking lot, or ‘car park’ as it had been referred to in one of the many travel guides she’d read before leaving America. The building looked unoccupied. She’d read about the hotel in the latest edition of Baedeker’s and while it was closed in January, she wondered if it had gone out of business? The Windrush Arms Hotel had a pub and restaurant along with the five rooms. Pubs had different hours and closed during the afternoon, according to the travel books and TV.
She moved her suitcase to her other hand and went back to the road, seeing that the door remained closed and the paper was still wedged in the handle. Maybe there’s another place to stay, she thought. Turning left, she walked along the side of the quiet road. At High Street, she saw a stone cottage with a plain sign that read The Village Store. Smiling, Sylvia eagerly approached the building and again noticed an absence of light emanating from it. Unlike the pub, the hours were posted and the leisurely schedule – most days from eleven to four – caused the American to wonder how well they did in such a place with so few hours. A knock on that door also brought no response.
The High Street, as she’d been led to believe, courtesy of her foray into travel literature, was supposedly the busiest commercial hub of any town or village. Yet only a few houses lined the narrow street, though some of them emitted warm, amber light. Dark tree branches scraped against Cotswold stone, and leaves blew around the parked cars. Sylvia saw that it was a dead end and turned, walking back to Windrush Road, the main thoroughfare in the empty village.
Sylvia didn’t know which direction she was walking; the wind was blowing her hair into its usual disarray, chilling her bare hands. A motorcycle drove past, the driver wearing a white helmet and dark jacket. She couldn’t make out his face, or even what brand cycle, but she watched intently as he sped toward her, then away, back toward the hotel. Was it him? Darkness and distance swallowed him and his motorcycle, dimming the engine’s noise, and then erasing it.
Walking on, past larger homes, placed further apart—the nicer part of the village apparently.
Her feet were cramped inside her boots and one of her socks had slipped down to an uncomfortable bulge at her ankle. She was hungry and thirsty and hadn’t slept in so long she felt ready to just…
Looking above her at the black expanse shimmering with cold, distant stars, everything seemed infinitely far away. The last house of the village was behind her. All that she saw before her was countryside. English countryside. Beautiful, painted throughout the centuries by artists as pastoral, peaceful, idyllic…only now there were no weeping willows next to a pond or cows lowing on fertile fields or any other summertime fantasy she’d seen. The harsh wind picked up, moving her camera bag, pushing her farther from the few lights of Windrush-in-the-Combe. Sylvia stood there and contemplated what she would do—continue into the unknown countryside? Or turn back into the village?
It was getting colder. A sudden noise from a tall hedgerow startled her, causing the American to turn around and head back into the village.
Upstairs, inside the largest suite of the Windrush Arms Hotel, Harry Livingstone awoke from his nap to discover that Sam was missing. It was already six o’clock and the pub had to be opened for the night.
“Sam!” He paused for a moment, waiting for him to appear. Nothing. He pushed back the covers and pulled his portly body to a sitting position. His woolen crew neck sweater was pilled, wrinkled, and scented with eau de Livingstone blended with equal parts of whisky and sweat. The trousers he had left on the bottom of the bed had no vertical creases, only irregular lined patterns. Harry’s light brown hair was its usual wiry mass of curls and his head pounded as though a full-fledged construction crew had just geared up for their shift.
The second floor suite he occupied in the hotel had a magnificent view of Windrush-in-the-Combe. It faced a majority of the homes that populated the Cotswold village of 520 inhabitants, including Sam, his golden Labrador. He could see the curve of Windrush Road merge into London Street, the latter being the main avenue winding past some of the posher homes and eventually end up in the nearest village two miles away: Norton-in-the-Combe.
The bedroom wasn’t a typical room for an hotelier from a titled family. If the bed was made more than twice a year, it was only on summer solstice and Christmas. Laundry; clean, dirty and in between, cluttered the floor space, bed, chair and dresser surfaces. It was as consistent as the carpet of dust that pervaded the corners and clung beneath the furnishings. Only some of the moldier undergarments were dust coated, though mildew also fought for attention. The blinds were usually drawn but that evening they were open, as he had been too exhausted to shut them. Behind the bed, built-in bookcases were stuffed with many books.
The sitting room next door contained more bookcases; a stereo system, lounge chair, and a half empty wine rack. A stationary bicycle was pushed into a corner and shirts hung from the handles and a small stack of clumsily folded underwear covered the wide seat. It looked like a clothes rack rather than a piece of functional exercise equipment.
Sam trotted into the bedroom and greeted his master by jumping on the bed. He knocked some clothes off, rolled about, nearly destroying a P.G. Wodehouse paperback when his paw slid across the cover.
Harry jerked the book away from further harm and Sam gazed up at the man. The animal knew he had done something wrong and cocked his head to one side. Harry’s fiery temper was frozen by the dog’s wounded expression, and when he whined, Harry knew Sam won again.
“It’s all right, Sam. Just be more careful next time.”
Sam uttered a bark of agreement and wagged his tail.
Harry had more important matters than a slightly damaged novel. The hotel was at a loss financially. A diminishing trust fund did not help. At age thirty-five, he still hadn’t contributed anything worthy to his family’s name. His father had spent most of the family fortune. Harry’s mother raced off with an alleged Baron who owned several Grand Prix racecars. She lived in Lugano, Switzerland until her death four years ago.
He pulled on his trousers and headed over to the window to check on the antiquated heating system. He touched the warm radiator and glanced outside to see if anything of consequence was occurring down below. Harry noticed a young woman approaching the hotel. She was an unusual sight, judging from the cowboy boots and shapeless coat. Her long dark hair blew in the wind and she wilted to one side as she carried a heavy suitcase. The outside spotlight was on and he glimpsed her face -- she was young. What little he saw of her long legs hinted of possibilities. Now there was another reason to go downstairs.
As Harry made his way towards the door, he caught a glimpse of the calendar and noted it was the first Monday in November. He ran his thick fingers through his hair and opened the door, feeling an urge to rush down and greet his new guest.
Sylvia retraced the route and when she approached the Windrush Arms Hotel, the American was relieved to see the spotlight was on and the outer door was open. She eagerly entered the lobby, which was really the pub portion. Sylvia found a warm room, a smiling human being, and an antique stone and wood fireplace. The bar was to one side and no customers gathered before the L-shaped surface. Behind it stood Phoebe, a girl her own age. An oversized paperback rested atop the varnished bar.
To her left was the office containing the registration desk. Unlike the few motels or hotels she had been to in America, the narrow desk was cluttered with telephone directories, ledgers, notebooks, and books. A bulky two-toned phone was perched atop a London A-D phone directory.
Just right of the office was a doorway and Harry stepped through, his bulk blocking most of the light from behind. His eyes widened when he saw her, but he quickly resumed his stoic, semi-sober demeanor and launched into his nightly act: a proprietor of a small-but-prestigious-country hotel.
“Good evening,” he greeted the American. He considered her youthfulness and knew he had the right to examine her passport [and body, he thought] for identification purposes. Yet something told him not to pry.
“Hi. Uh, good evening,” she stammered, making him even more delighted. “Um, do you have a room for the night?”
Harry kept his amusement at bay. “Yes, I do believe we have.” He thought, stay the next three weeks and there’d be a room. “But let me make absolutely certain...” He was about to fabricate a story of a party of four arriving at any moment but decided it wasn’t necessary. Harry went over to his desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a leather guest book. He leafed through it until he reached the current date: November 2, 1981. It was blank, but he continued his successful hotelier charade and nodded. “Yes, right. Room number four. Check out time is noon.” He shut the book.
Sylvia unzipped her bag and started reaching for her checks. He spotted her readiness and gave her a genuine smile. She pulled out the navy blue American Express envelope. Ever the snob, he was impressed. She was probably the daughter of a rich American. The prospect of that cheered him even more. He gallantly reached for her suitcase. “No need now...” he waved his hand in dismissal, knowing he would see the money in the morning. As he helped her with the modest luggage, he turned toward the previously blocked doorway. The notion of seducing an alluring young rich girl was very motivating.
As he led her up the back staircase, she grew edgier. The white walls glowed in the dim light but the gold carpeting was worn. She observed his rumpled trousers and wide back and shoulders. Beneath the snug sweater, his flesh jiggled. Was this man about to take her up to room number four and rape her? Sylvia realized she was exhausted. If he wanted to remain in business, he wouldn’t assault his customers.
They approached a narrow hallway that led past two numbered doors before turning left down another hall.
Harry pulled out a large key ring from his pocket and jangled it in his attempt to locate the correct one. He found it and opened the door with a grand gesture.
As she stood awkwardly at the threshold, he went inside, switched on the light, and set her luggage on the table near the window. The king-sized bed had a floral spread that matched the drapes. Two still life paintings hung above the bed and a hunting scene lithograph was on the wall next to the walnut wardrobe. It was the wrong color for the room but the correct time period. A television on a stand was across from the bed, adding a twentieth century touch.
Harry turned to see her leaning against the doorway looking around the room with her inquisitive eyes. He worried that it was not up to her usual standards. She was probably accustomed to luxury suites and his humble little hotel, though listed in Baedeker’s and Fodor’s, wasn’t posh enough for her.
“The bathroom’s to your right,” he gestured. “I do hope everything is to your liking.” He pointed to the night stand where a phone, clock, and lamp stood. “If there is anything you need, please don’t hesitate to ring me. The dining room is open until nine, but if you need room service, that’s available until ten.”
Sylvia wanted nothing more than a long sleep and smiled at the man. She was relieved to have a bathroom all to herself. Those travel books described many English hotels with water closets and bathrooms down the hall. She’d imagined waiting in line to use the loo or staying in a dingy, miniature room with no television or phone.
“Oh, that’s fine, thanks.” She entered the room and set her camera bag on the chair next to the door. Harry quickly made his way over to the doorway and paused.
“I’ll try to find a telly listing of some sort. You are a telly watcher, aren’t you?”
“Uh, yeah ... sometimes.”
He nodded and departed, bidding her a quiet good night as he sensed her fatigue. When the door clicked shut, she returned to her present situation and headed for the bathroom.
Snapping on the light she viewed the long, narrow room. The sink and mirror were nearest the door. The bathtub ran lengthwise. At the opposite end, like a mockery of a throne room, was the toilet, beneath a tiny window.
Sylvia shut off the light and went over to the bed. She lay down, her head missing the pillows and sleep overwhelmed her. Then the dreams took charge. Asleep, her slow, deep breathing scarcely audible, she was the quietest guest in the hotel -- as well as the only one.
It was summertime, a sunny day with a few fleecy clouds embellishing the azure sky. She wore a long turquoise dress with matching shoes. She carried a pale leather handbag and a small suitcase. He was waiting for her at the station that was a blurry stone cottage with the magical name, Windrush-in-the-Combe, carved onto an oak sign above a white door. He wore a silk serge suit with a blue shirt beneath it. His shirt was open a button too many, revealing his chest hair. As soon as he spotted the dark-haired American, he grinned and strolled over to hug his expected visitor.
“I’ve dreamt of you...” she began, her story so familiar to her but untold to anyone but him. He said nothing, only nodded, staring into her eyes, remembering, remembering all those conversations that occurred in another time, in another place. The perfection of the scene, the feeling of déjà vu. No one was there except for them. No film crew. No stagehands. No villagers…no one else.
The fire in his fireplace added a glow to his sitting room, but Alexander J. Thorpe wasn’t benefiting from it. He woke up; surprised to see he was at home, not at the railway station that was dingier than the one in his dream. Alone. He sat on his comfortable leather chair, with a glass of red wine on the side table, and his unnamed Siamese cat nearby. “I’ve dreamt of you…” he recalled those words and that face, so familiar to him since he began dreaming of her about a year ago. The woman was young, brunette, attractive, and American. He didn’t know where in the States she was from, but he knew the accent. Her name, what she did—none of that was known to him. Alexander wished he could see more, but the dreams were brief. The vision usually occurred with her arriving at the train station and looking so pleased to see him. There was a feeling that they both knew one another extremely well.
The auburn-haired man’s angular face was lined and his slate blue eyes were getting droopy. He often wore turtlenecks to hide his thickening neck and weakening chin. Silver strands were beginning to mar his wavy locks.
Alexander Thorpe had won numerous awards including Britain’s own prestigious screen award. His statues, certificates, plaques; badges of his trade were displayed in a bookcase and hung on the walls of the cozy sitting room. He spent time there when he wasn’t working or at the pub. A few framed posters for his noted films, Roland, A Love in Nuremberg, Up In the Air, and Champion of the Night, were prominently exhibited amongst the evidence of his dramatic career.
The script he’d put aside was a thinly bound and written work that would never receive any critical plaudits. That it came from a respected literary and talent agency amazed him. Alexander wondered what compelled his agent, a man of common sense who’d represented him for over a dozen years, to send it to him. Not only was it a horror/love story, but the character was over sixty and impotent. Alexander considered tossing the thing into the fireplace, noting it could use more fuel. He picked it up and was about to do just that when the phone rang. Alexander waited until the third ring, then reached over and lifted the receiver.
“Alexander, did you read the scripts I sent you?” asked his agent, Travis Wilson.
“Why are you sending me this shit? What’s...”
“That upstart at Universal told me that this is the hottest writer in Hollywood. He just optioned one of his other properties for $500,000 with Travolta.”
“Bloody hell, I don’t care if it was with the Muppets. I don’t want to play an ancient murderer.”
“They’re offering an obscene sum.”
Alexander felt his pulse quicken and a reflexive smile ruined his serious demeanor. “How obscene?”
“Eight hundred thousand. That’s American dollars.”
The actor did not move. His brain was put on hold and time failed to exist. He’d never been offered that much money before. A portion of his mind reopened and images of leggy topless girls on an unpopulated beach swam across his private home viewing screen. Yachts, long Tahitian holidays, white snowy mountains of cocaine, Cristal champagne, Beluga caviar. Orgies. Speed. A fiery red Lamborghini. “Oh, really?” he asked, keeping his voice calm.
“Really. I detect a bit of interest.” Travis’s voice was hopeful. “Just tell me you’ll at least consider it. We can play with them for another week. Jerk them right up to the million mark, then up again.”
Now Alexander’s greedy imagination included more coke and expensive booze. Perhaps a trip to Katmandu to pick up some pure opium. A woman wearing only black thigh high boots. His dreamy-eyed expression made him appear younger than before the phone call. “Yes,” he pronounced slowly.
“Right, then.” I’ll ring you Wednesday. Don’t spend it yet.” The line went dead.
As Alexander hung up, he noticed the cat had left during the conversation. His smile vanished and now he had guilt to add to his growing list of flaws. Some people would’ve gone higher, others much lower. However, he realized just what buttons on the till were being pushed and his attention had been aroused. Alexander picked up his half-empty wineglass and finished the contents. The crystal glass had a thin residue of dark liquid in the hollow. It resembled blood. He hurled it into the fire. The tinkling sound was not satisfying, and a few fragments fell to the stone floor. For several seconds the flames coursed higher, brightening the room. Then he turned and headed for the hallway, weaving slightly. He handled his drinking admirably; he was a confirmed drinker with half a lifetime’s experience. Just another drunken English actor, just another cliché, he thought bitterly.
He went to the front hall and switched on the outside light. The actor looked in the direction of the hotel as he did out of habit, though he usually didn’t observe many guests arriving as business had slowed since September. Rumors of the hotel closing had been going on for a while. The proprietor was a bigger lush than the actor, which was one of the reasons locals made the speculation. Harry Livingstone had an appetite for whisky and rare, expensive wines. Harry’s posh wife had left him and his drinking had escalated after her departure. Alexander understood that but hoped Harry would succeed, as the village needed the business. The Red Lion was the only other pub and locals who thought the Windrush Arms Hotel was too posh frequented it. That place provided the actor with a more varied array of visitors, although he shied away from the obvious fans that had learned of the actor’s move to Windrush-in-the-Combe a year ago.
Alexander turned and went upstairs, switching on the light, as he never walked around in the dark. It had to do with the fact that even though he and his cat were the only two in his home; he knew that upstairs was where he felt that he was being watched. Not by any star struck fans – certainly not living ones.
Sylvia awoke at eleven o’clock the next morning, and heard children’s voices. Not a heavenly choir, but shouts, shrieks and screams of laughter. She removed her coat, sweaty from her long, deathlike sleep, and slowly arose. Yawning, she went over to the window. Opening the curtains, the late morning light dispelled little gloom from the northern facing room. She cranked open the window a few inches.
Across the road was a small stone schoolhouse with a low, mossy wall surrounding the playground. The swings were occupied and the slide was teeming with youngsters. She thought they were glad to be away from the confining schoolroom. Sylvia wasn’t far enough from her own learning days to forget the sensation of those fifteen minutes away from the rows of desks and the stacks of textbooks. The kids across the road still had several years of classes before them. She was doubly glad she had graduated from high school and had quit college.
Sylvia went into the bathroom and turned on the water in the tub watching it gush out, unlike the moderate trickle back home. Returning to the room, she set her suitcase on the bed and flipped it open. She picked out a new outfit she had purchased from the County Seat store in the West Richport Shopping Center before she left the city. The green corduroys and yellow wool sweater were the same colors as her old Girl Scout uniform.
Her reverie stopped when she pulled out the large manila envelope and carefully removed the sheaf of papers. Inside the envelope contained more than two years’ worth of research -- articles, pictures, and reviews of Alexander Thorpe’s body of work. She turned to her favorite article -- the one that announced where he lived. “Windrush Days” it was called, and he was posed against the backdrop of a window, the wind ruffling his hair. The caption read, “Alexander Thorpe outside the local pub in Windrush-in-the-Combe.” That pub was the Red Lion. She recognized the wooden bench next to the low-set window. The article had been published last November. It was an American periodical, and whether any Alexander Thorpe fans would journey to the small village found on only a few highly detailed maps in older guidebooks was fairly unlikely. He wasn’t a major sex symbol like Michael Caine, nor was he that well known amongst the general American movie-going public. Alexander specialized in art films, and was more of a celebrity in his own country where he walked the boards and did television as well.
The full-page color photo from a 1978 issue of Esquire magazine had smudge marks on one corner from the countless times she had held it, gazing into his eyes. All the pictures of him were well worn as she’d spent many hours staring at them. She gave them a cursory glance that day for she knew that very soon she would see Alexander.
She grabbed her clothes and returned to the bathroom. The tub was full and she turned the knobs, stopping the noisy stream. As soon as she stripped away her two-day old clothing, she performed her daily bath time ritual. Standing in the hot water, the steam rising, she languorously lowered herself towards the water. Her skin reddened and the temperature and humidity opened her pores. As the bath water washed over and into her she let out an audible sigh, imagining that was how it would be when she and Alexander merged...but she prevented that thought from taking over as she was on a mission to find the man, not imagine the outcome of their meeting.
First, she had to locate his house. The one article that disclosed the name of his village had done most of the work for her. Before reading that piece, Sylvia had assumed he lived in London as two of the older articles had indicated.
Sylvia was famished, not having eaten anything since yesterday morning and that was just part of a candy bar. She knew it was too late for breakfast and didn’t want to dine in the hotel dining room by herself. Grabbing her camera bag, she opened a side pocket and found the half-eaten bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. She tore away the purple wrapping, foil, and ate each square, savoring its smooth and richly sweet flavor. So much better than American chocolate, she thought. Soon it was gone and she wished she’d bought another one. She got up and went over to the window to look outside at the village in the daylight. There was the school, the church, and the curve of road where London Street and Windrush Road parted ways into western and northern directions. Leaves falling from trees, crunchy dried up brown crisps lying on the grass and the asphalt, dying, dead. But she didn’t feel depressed or hopeless as she gazed out the window. There, within full view, was the sign of the Red Lion. The very pub he had posed in front of for his photograph the year before. He had stood right there, directly in front of the old building, showing the world where he spent some of his spare time. Sylvia imagined that he was nearby. All that mattered was that he was in the area now, so they would inevitably meet. She turned away, knowing she had to pay for her room and explore the village.
Yesterday, at an Oxford newsstand, she surreptitiously gazed through magazines in search of Alexander. Finding nothing on him, she discovered a small paperback entitled Cotswold Villages. Thumbing through the index, she was delighted to see the name of her favorite village and observe a tiny black and white photograph of the nearby church. It was a bright and sunny day as she’d dreamt about, but there was no sign of him, or of the train station, or of the pub. The accompanying paragraph didn’t reveal much in the way of history, and there wasn’t a single reference to the famed resident. There was a map of the surrounding area. Norton-in-the-Combe was the nearest village; Stillwell was the nearest town.
Sylvia headed downstairs toting her bag. Though her pants and top had changed, her jacket was the same. She wore a pair of motley Adidas running shoes as she’d learned that new cowboy boots weren’t made for walking long distances and she wanted to do some sightseeing. Plus, she reasoned, running shoes were a lot quieter on asphalt surfaces.
The reception area was vacant. The young woman from last night was suddenly standing behind her, and the American realized she must have walked over from the bar. Phoebe was wearing a beige sweater, a navy and red kilt, and white tights along with black flats. She smiled at Sylvia, her overcrowded teeth flashing for an instant.
“Did you enjoy your stay?” Phoebe asked, noticing the American’s casual apparel. Plimsolls, she thought, not like most Britons to wear those types of shoes unless they were training for some athletic event.
“Ah, yeah. Thanks.”
“You’re from the States?” she politely inquired.
“Yeah. Uh, yes I am.”
“What part?” asked Phoebe.
She smiled, “I was in Pennsylvania last year—that’s not that far from Illinois.”
“That’s neat,” said Sylvia.
“How long have you been in England?”
“I just got here yesterday. Um, I’d like to stay another night.”
The young woman nodded and went over to the desk, looking around the messy surface for the guest book. She was having no luck locating it until Sylvia interjected: “It’s in the drawer.”
Surprised, Phoebe obeyed Sylvia’s direction and pulled out the leather album. “Ah, yes, Harry has his own method...” she flipped through the book and found that the current date was also blank. She was glad to get Harry some much-needed business. But she was also grateful she didn’t work on a commission-only basis, as she would be even poorer than she was. “I’ll need your name and address, please.”
Sylvia nodded and just as she was about to respond, Harry walked into the pub followed by Sam. The dog’s tail was wagging and he cautiously loped over to the guest and began sniffing at her shoes. Harry was really giving her a thorough going over in the day lit room. He knew she was very young and that she was one of the welcomest tourists he had encountered in recent memory.
“Hello, Phoebe,” he greeted the young woman with the long black braid. He liked having Phoebe around, as she was literate and had recently graduated from university. She was competent and was also undergoing a bit of ill luck herself. Phoebe wasn’t interested in him sexually even though he hadn’t quite given up trying. Still, he mused, looking at the two barely-legal-aged women; he now preferred the American visitor. He would have opted for her even if she were not wealthy. Her features were finer than the barmaid’s and there was something innocent about her. Harry wanted to learn more about the mysterious traveler who’d happened by his hotel.
“Sylvia would like to stay for another night,” Phoebe informed him.
Harry was cheered with the news and his eyes twinkled; he felt like he was back in university himself. He stopped his emotions from overwhelming his facade and gave the American a curt nod.
“I see.” He noticed the guest book in Phoebe’s hands. “We’re not booked up tonight yet, are we, Phoebe?”
“No, the Rolling Stones wanted to stay next weekend but they haven’t confirmed it yet.”
Harry shook his head and smiled. “So...you want to spend another night, do you?”
Sylvia nodded. What a circus. She wondered where Alexander was right now. Was there a possibility of exploring the village before dark? She decided to offer money and admit she needed to stay a few more days. Actually, she had no other strategy planned concerning her quest to find Alexander. Her alternatives were his birthplace in Manchester, and London, his previous residence. But she felt that Windrush-in-the-Combe was where she would reside for an indefinite time period. Days, weeks, months...years? Sylvia knew it wasn’t her last day there. Even if he wasn’t in the village that day, then there was the likelihood he’d be there the next, or the day after that…as long as her money held out she would be there waiting for him. Waiting to find the man she’d seen in magazines, movie theatres and on TV. The man who had no idea she existed except in her dreams where they starred in their own intensely private movies together. They’d gotten along as though they’d known each other for several years -- or lifetimes. The Alexander Thorpe of those nighttime visitations was what helped motivate her to leave her dead end job and boring existence in the Midwestern city of Richport.
“Yes, I’d like to spend another night. Maybe even the rest of the week,” she hinted. Maybe the rest of my life, she thought. She hid her smile and glanced out the window in the direction of the pub where he had been seen by thousands upon thousands of readers in that monthly magazine.
The two English people were surprised at her statement. But neither showed it. Harry took the registration book from Phoebe, and started scanning the future pages. He kept the unmarked leaves away from the American’s sight. “Well...I can manage this week...” He flipped through the book, pretending to take longer, as though he was scanning a lengthy column of names. “Perhaps next...I will need a deposit if you’re staying longer than two days...”
Sylvia removed her American Express checkbook and took a pen from the bottom of her bag. “How much do I owe you?”
“Seventy quid. One hundred and fifty dollars,” Harry informed her.
She signed three fifty dollar traveler’s checks and handed them to the proprietor. He took them and as he went to sit behind his desk to rummage for his receipt book, she grew very impatient. Sylvia wasn’t concerned about getting a receipt. Who cared about a meaningless piece of paper that had nothing to do with Alexander? Other than reveal the address of the place where he probably frequented. Something to gaze at in a few years and have it as proof that she had been a temporary resident of the Windrush Arms Hotel? “You can give me the receipt later,” she told him.”I have to get going.” Sylvia turned and headed for the front door, leaving the owner and barmaid to watch her departing back.
The clear, chilly air jarred her. She was free from the overheated hotel. Sylvia looked around the grey horizon to see a few buildings and almost naked trees in the distance. The village spread before her as undiscovered as her beloved’s home. As she walked down Windrush Road, she scrutinized each house, as though the clue would become apparent at once. Maybe there would be a huge sign with his name on it! In garish red and yellow lights, too! Or his car might be parked in front of the house and the license plate would read AlexThorpe and not the usual series of letters and numbers.
The large homes made from the golden ironstone or grey limestone were set back from the road and segregated by low fences or walls. No bulky mailboxes boasted numbers and surnames; letterboxes were slots near the bottom of each door. House numbers were two digits, not the four in Sylvia’s community. In addition, the domiciles were named. Winding Path, read a fancy wrought iron sign, and the grand home possessed a twisting flagstone pathway leading up to the sturdily built home with French doors and leaded windowpanes.
Approaching a dull grey, abandoned looking building, she noticed the inscription, Grey House, and thought the name appropriately unimaginative. Her walk down the pavement brought her no clues as to which was Alexander’s home, but she was immersed in learning more about how the English really lived. The houses were solidly built and so much older than what populated her apartment complex.
Retracing her way down Windrush Road, she turned down High Street, a dead end with smaller, connected houses and a grocery shop. The Village Store, situated at the crossroads of Windrush Road and High Street, wasn’t like the Convenient Mart back home. She walked into the small shop and a bell tinkled above the door as she entered. There were two aisles containing cans of food and a few loaves of bagged bread. A refrigerated glass case housed the milk and yogurt. Behind a tiny counter sat a woman wearing a pale blue jacket similar to the type Sylvia wore in her cashiering days.
“Good morning to you miss!” she greeted. “New to these parts?”
“Hi, yeah, I just got here yesterday.” Sylvia smiled at her.
The clerk sipped a cup of tea. “Aye, I’d say you’re from Canada then?” asked the woman. Here was a foreigner who at least spoke English that was somewhat understandable, not like those golliwogs from the Caribbean and India.
“Close. I’m from America.” She answered politely, wondering if the woman knew Alexander. She glanced around and saw that there were chocolate bars and cigarettes and even some booze on the shelves nearest to where they were standing. Surely to God Alexander Thorpe himself had gone into the store on occasion and bought a few items. Probably didn’t do all his shopping there but what if he ran out of a necessary item like the cigarettes he was addicted to, two packs a day she’d read, then what? Suffer a nicotine fit or visit the friendly Village Store!
“What part, miss?”
“Is that near California? I have a cousin in San Bernardino. He really likes it there.”
Sylvia nodded. “It’s in the middle of the country—about 2,000 miles away.”
“Oy, America’s such a big country!”
She looked around and saw the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was available in two sizes and there was also a Fruit & Nut bar which she thought might even be healthier as it contained peanuts and raisins. She bought one of each and smiled at the shop owner. “I like this chocolate better than Hershey’s.”
“Never had Hershey’s. I like Cadbury’s best myself.”
She punched in a few buttons on the old fashioned till and the total of £1.60 was announced. Sylvia carefully counted out the change so she didn’t mix up the similar looking silver pence coins from the quarters she still had in her wallet. She watched the clerk put the candy into a thin brown paper bag with a waxy texture.
“Thank you, miss. Have a good visit. Come back soon, then!”
She thanked her and hurried out of the shop, eager to see the rest of Windrush-in-the-Combe. It was time to visit the other part of the village – near the Red Lion. She went past the church, noting a graveyard with tilted tombstones behind the low wall. On top of the church with the large, inevitable cross, was a weathervane. The arrow pointed to the west.
Following it, her journey around the church [“…boasting a Norman doorway, see especially the Seventeenth Century font, with its attractive Eighteenth Century cover, the lovely old nave roof and the Eighteenth Century box pews.”] That building wasn’t the reason for her visit. Unless he attended Sunday church services, which she somehow doubted. Alexander gave off the impression that he was more at home in a pub than a church.
Just like in the black and white photograph – the Red Lion. Only the sign showed a freshly painted crimson silhouette of a lion. The wooden bench was beneath the low-set window. And there was the spot where her favorite actor had stood. She imagined he’d just finished smoking a cigarette and had tossed the butt to the sidewalk. She looked up at the two story grayish brown stone of the pub where he had spent time drinking booze. She smiled, the thought of him being only a few feet away in the pub…did she dare walk inside it and see if he was sitting on a barstool, sipping a beer?
Nervous, Sylvia stepped inside before she had the chance to change her mind. Other than the Windrush Arms Hotel, which also had a restaurant, the Red Lion was designed for only one thing – to serve beer, wine and hard liquor. Before she noticed more of the pub’s scenery, a tall red haired man approached her from behind the long bar. Certainly not Alexander, she thought. Not even his age; younger, chubbier. “Hello!” he said, noticing her and smiling at the sight of an attractive newcomer.
“Hi.” Another friendly villager who’d ask her where she was from. Would he tell her about relatives in the other forty-eight States? Now if only Alexander would show up. A quick glance around the place revealed one customer – a middle-aged woman sat in a chair next to the small snooker table and was knitting a moss green sweater.
Better think of something else to say real fast ‘cause people will ask questions, she thought. “Oh, I was wondering where the bank is?” She smiled in relief at her natural sounding question. It gave her more time to be inside the pub and look for clues pertaining to Alexander.
“Norton-in-the-Combe, miss. That’s the nearest village. Barclays branch it is.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m closing up in an hour and am going there meself. I can take you there.”
Not the answer she was expecting! Her parents had warned her about not accepting rides from strangers. Vivian, her mother, often said that men wanted to pick you up so they could rape you and get their rocks off. In fact, she might get some information about Alexander if she talked to the man. He seemed honest. Nevertheless, she wanted to see the rest of the village, go to the bank by herself, and maybe run into the actor there. Barclays was a big international bank – the biggest one in England. That he would have an account there was logical. “Um, thanks, but I need to go now. But thanks!” She smiled brightly, and turned to go.
Observing the knitter next to the window as she left, Sylvia failed to see the public bar sign behind her. The bar she was in was the more low-key lounge bar where people played snooker [similar to billiards only the table was smaller], and darts. There was drinking in there, only a bit less of it. The public bar was for the more serious aficionados of the breweries and distilleries offerings.
Outside, she continued along Windrush Road, which led to Norton-in-the-Combe. She stepped to the opposite side of the street, glancing back to get another look at the Red Lion, hoping again for a sign of Alexander.
She passed a home named Gate Way. The title was engraved on a high wooden archway. The two story residence beyond the gate had a slate roof and near the doorway was another arch; one containing dead grapevines.
In Gate Way, beyond the dead vines, Alexander was in his sitting room reading that promising financial gain of a script. The cat was near the fireplace being entertained by the dying embers and the inside of its eyelids. Suddenly he looked up from the scene in which he was going to be screwing a far younger secretary, when he saw an unfamiliar young woman walking past his house. She wore a bulky garnet colored jacket, jeans, and plimsolls but she wasn’t running; in fact, she was ambling and looking around. A tourist in November? And not a starry eyed honeymooner who showed up in the blush of June, Cotswold season; she was alone.
The actor got up and walked over to the window to watch her stroll down his street. Young, he thought, not more than eighteen or nineteen. Alone. American or Canadian by the looks of the shoes. Although younger Brits were wearing them. He was intrigued with her. He began curling the script in his hands, rolling it into a cylinder, rubbing his hands against it, feeling its thickness, the obvious phallic symbol of the screenplay. His supposed character was shown in an earlier scene as a younger man of forty and the imaginary personality was screwing a woman in her twenties. Alexander smiled, and wondered about the synchronicity of life and art doing a replication of each other. Where did reality end and fantasy begin? Or was it where did fantasy end and reality begin? Was there even a distance? Wasn’t life just one big illusion?
Her tour of Windrush-in-the-Combe concluded a few moments later. Windrush Road led out of the village and twisted up and down the gentle hills to larger villages and even a town before it changed into the A300, a busy byway. Aside from the screaming schoolchildren, the only noises were ones made by the occasional passing car, lorry, or motorcycle. It was a weekday and people were at work, but she realized it was louder back in the Midwest. More traffic back home, she thought. People didn’t walk if they had available transportation.
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