Historically and culturally there is a connection between the UK and the USA: politicians like to refer to one aspect of this as the 'special relationship'. I think for most Brits this is a meaningless term which has little to do with everyday life.
More relevant is the interchange of ideas expressed through science and art, for example. There is an oft quoted/misquoted saying, regarding the shared verbal and written communication, used in films, literature and music; what has now been termed British English and American English. I quote here the idea which was expressed by Oscar Wilde in The Canterville Ghost, 1887, which predates a similar expression that George Bernard Shaw was supposed to have used:
"We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language".
I have seen interviews with contemporary American musicians who openly acknowledge the influence that British musicians of the 1960's and '70's in particular have had on them; and by the same token, British musicians reciprocate by naming their own American musical heroes of the early twentieth century.
As a 'Brit' growing up in England during the decades straddling the new millennia, I was raised on a diet of US television programmes, including films made in Hollywood more than half a century before my birth and some even before my parent's birth, as well as reruns of American TV shows of the 1960's and onwards and now considered 'classics'. And as a self-confessed 'petrol-head', as we call fans of all things automotive, as a boy I spent hours poring over my father's prized collection of Hot Rod magazine, with their content of eponymous hot rods and muscle cars.
Sadly, for most of us on this side of the pond, as we affectionately call the watery expanse that divides the two nations, these heavy metal monsters remain largely the stuff of fantasy: for even if we could afford the imported hardware, the high cost of mandatory insurance, the shortage of readily available spare parts, and the combination of low mileage fuel returns and high petrol prices make them impractical and unattainable to most peoples' pockets. However, by contrast, the relatively low price of air fares has led to the popularity of North America itself as a now affordable holiday destination, and even provides the opportunity for a number of British nationals to live and work there. Such were some of the reasons that saw me, James Maclean, better known to family and friends as 'Jim', arriving on American soil for the first time.
After the long transatlantic flight the Virgin Atlantic airplane landed in New York. After all those hours of confined space, even the interminable wait to get through immigration control was a welcome diversion. Prior to my trip I had spent a long time on the Internet at home looking at my options, regarding travel, accommodation, and what, realistically, I could achieve during my six-week stay. My exact itinerary was flexible, to say the least, but as a music fan it seemed logical to head down the east coast to the southern states for rock and blues, New Orleans for some jazz, and perhaps even Nashville. I reckoned that if I spent my hard earned cash sensibly, I should be able to eat well, sleep comfortably, and see a lot of sights, and experience some of that legendary American hospitality.
I had pre-booked a seat on a Greyhound Bus that would leave the New York bus station at 6:15 in the evening, then travel through the night until it reached Richmond, Virginia in the early hours of Sunday morning. I would then have a layover of several hours, until another bus left Richmond to continue on down through Virginia and North Carolina until we reached Charlotte, at just after mid-day. I figured that after that epic journey I'd deserve a good, long rest in a proper bed! The cab from JFK airport got me to the bus station in plenty of time, but to be honest, I was wiped out and the last thing that I wanted to do was play tourist, so I found a place to eat and sat and watched the world go by until it was time to board the bus.
Over the course of the next eight and a half hours or so there were brief but welcome stops in Raleigh, Durham, Greenboro, and Winston Salem where I got to stretch my legs. There wasn't a whole lot to see during the journey, but when sleep eluded me I read. This mode of transport may have been relatively cheap—but, Man, was it tedious! But at least I had plenty of time to think, and what I thought, was that a new plan was urgently needed. Don't forget that in the UK Land's End, the extreme south of England, to John O'Groats in the far north of Scotland—virtually the whole island—is only 874 miles by road, whereas New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina is only a few hundred miles less. Consequently a journey of 100-200 miles is a big deal for most Brits. I just couldn't see myself sitting on another bus again for a repeat of the sort of journey I'd just done.
While still back in the UK, I had considered the idea of hiring a car and driving from New York to wherever and back, but I had rejected the notion on the grounds of expense; but, I now thought, why not see if I can buy something that I could perhaps sell on later. I'd worked as a mechanic since I'd left school, so I knew more than a little about them, so the best thing to do was buy a local newspaper to see what was available and for how much. Several vehicle ads caught my eye, but the one I kept going back to was for a 2000 Honda Civic Sedan. I knew the ones sold in Europe were well-built and pretty reliable, so I thought I'd at least check it out. I saw the driver of the bus I'd arrived on still in the station, so I walked over to him:
"Excuse me, do you know if the town of Stallings is far from here?"
"I do, and it's not: I reckon it's about 15 miles, give or take."
"Oh, that's not too bad. And do you know if there's a bus goes that way from here?"
"Surely, but if you're in a hurry, you might wanna take a cab, Son."
"Yes, thank you; I might do that, but first I need to make a phone call."
The public telephones were a little different to the ones I was used to, but after taking a few minutes to work it out, I was listening to a dialling tone:
"—Oh, good afternoon! I was wondering if the Honda Civic was still for sale."
"—It is—do you wanna come by and see it?"
"—Yes, I'd like to, but I'm in Charlotte at the moment and I'll have to get a cab there; is that convenient?"
"—Sure, no problem! I'll see you when."
"—Thank you! My name's Maclean, by the way."
"—Okay, Mr Maclean."
A short walk took me to a line of cabs.
We pulled up outside a modest-looking single storey house and I paid the driver.
"You want me to stick around?" he asked, handing me my backpack out of the trunk.
"No thank you, I'm not sure where I'm going from here yet."
I saw what I assumed was the object of my visit: someone at least kept it washed, and from a distance first impressions were good. I rang the doorbell and waited, and shortly afterwards a young woman holding a small child opened the door.
"You must be the guy that rang about the car. You want coffee and we can talk?"
"That would be good, Mrs—"
"Jim Maclean," I replied, extending my hand. I followed her into the kitchen where I was invited to sit. My host poured me a coffee, then sat at the table opposite me. As I was sipping my coffee, another child—older, and a girl—came into the kitchen and stood by Ellie, but stared at me. "Hello!" I said. She moved closer to her mother, who ran her fingers through the little girl's hair; the girl now smiled slightly at me.
"Now Mr Maclean—"
"Now, Jim, about the car. She's pretty reliable, and I'll miss her—but, well, money's tight, so it's got to go. I was pretty much hoping for the price in the advertisement, so if you're hoping to beat me down some, maybe we shouldn't waste each other's time." I smiled: I liked her.
"That's fair enough—may I call you Ellie—and excuse my curiosity, but may I enquire why you need to sell something that you still need? I know that the town isn't far from here, but it must be awkward with two young children without a car." Ellie sighed.
"Shall we go somewhere more comfortable and sit, Jim. By the way, have you got to be somewhere soon?"
"No, not really. I need a place to stay tonight, but I think I saw several motels on my way here."
"This is Kari, by the way," Ellie said, indicating her daughter, "and this is my baby, Sammie. Well, it's like this, Jim, five months ago my husband was killed by a drunk driver. We never had a lot to start with, but the medical bills and funeral costs have used up most of what savings we had. I'm living on what the insurance company paid out on John's life; the fool who killed him and himself had no insurance, so as I said, times are hard."
I think Ellie was glad of the company, so we sat and talked for some time, I told her that there was no hurry to see the car, as it was Sunday and I couldn't get the money until Monday, anyway. As we'd been talking, I'd been thinking:
"Ellie, how many bedrooms have you got here: I've been planning on staying in motels for the six weeks that I'm on vacation, but if it's agreeable to you, I'll rent one of your rooms and use this town as my base; and of course while I'm staying here we can both use the car, as necessary. We've probably got a couple of hours of daylight left, so why don't I go and look over the Honda while you think about it. If you decide that you don't like the idea, I'll find a room somewhere for the night, then come back tomorrow about the car."
"Okay, sounds fair," she said, "I'll get the keys for you. There is some gas in it; take it around the block if you want."
As I thought, the engine started on the first turn of the key, and there were no unwelcome noises or obvious signs of excess wear or neglect. As I had no insurance, I only put it into gear and drove forwards and backwards on the driveway so I could listen out for transmission noise: but whatever Ellie decided, I was happy to meet her price. After shutting off the engine I returned to the house and rang the bell once again. Ellie greeted me with a smile.
"This way, Jim, I accept your offer. I've already put your things in the spare bedroom. I'll show you where everything is, then maybe you'd like to wash up before supper."
The room was quite sparsely furnished, but all I really wanted was a comfortable bed. A nice shower did wonders to revive me, and after changing my clothes I returned to the kitchen, where the family ate. Kari Devereaux, whose other name is Marie, was then 4-1/2 years old, I found out; her baby brother, Samuel Charles Devereaux, was just turned 3. They were both wary of me, still, but I hoped that they'd come around before too long. Ellie had told me that she was 26, which was a little older than my 25.
It might sound a bit crass to say that I had looked at the way that Ellie was put together, but guys, and I'm sure women, too, often do that without realising it. I had no intention to hit on her, or anything, but I have to say that from the first time that I saw her I was attracted, and the more that I got to know her, that attraction was reinforced. She wasn't wearing make-up or fancy clothes, but she honestly didn't need them, and she obviously looked after herself as well as she looked after her children and home—yes, I was impressed.
After a simple but filling meal we talked for a while, partly to agree my rent, then I had to excuse myself, as fatigue was really catching up with me.
After a solid ten hours sleep, unusual for me, I awoke feeling pretty refreshed. Another quick shower, then I was ready to face the world. Ellie was in the kitchen, but her offspring were elsewhere.
"Help yourself to coffee, Jim. We've got cereal, or I can fix you pancakes."
"Cereal will be fine, thank you. If you don't mind me asking, Ellie, I've listened and spoken to a few people in Charlotte and your accent is different: I take it you're not from around here."
Ellie gave me a bowl and spoon, then handed me the cereal box and a milk jug from the refrigerator. She then got herself some coffee and sat down opposite me.
"No, you're right, Jim: John and me were originally from a small town in Indiana. We were high school sweethearts and after we graduated we decided to travel some. John was orphaned when he was just a kid and he was sent to live with an uncle in the place that I lived. They were never real close and John couldn't wait to get away. I think my parents were only waiting until I finished school before they parted. My father soon took off for parts unknown and my mom headed for Chicago, so there was no real reason for me to stay. So we left town together and travelled, working whenever and wherever we could; then we got here and John got took on by the sawmill and we decided it was time to put down some roots. John was earning good money so we got married and I soon got pregnant with Kari. Things were going okay, then he got killed, and, well, you kind of know the rest. How about you, Jim?"
"Not too similar. I was born and went to school in a part of Greater London, in the north eastern suburbs. Although it's technically part of the London conurbation, it's a small, self-contained market town. My parent's are both alive and still together, and I have a younger sister, Maureen. I did okay at school, but I left at 16 to get a job. My father has always been interested in cars and I got the bug from him. I'm an apprentice trained mechanic and I work for a large main dealer in their workshop. I like my job and I'm happy there. I'm well-paid and buying my own house. It is unusual to take six weeks vacation in one go, but as I've been saving up for it for several years and it's probably a once in a lifetime thing, I worked it out with my employers. I like all kinds of music, but classic rock and blues in particular, so this vacation was meant to be a bit of a pilgrimage. However, my plans are open-ended."
"Well, it sounds like you know your own mind, Jim, and you're settled; I kind of envy that," Ellie said; I thought somewhat wistfully. "You got any plans for today?"
"I thought that if you've got a bank account, I'd see about transferring the money for the Honda into it. I also need to see about getting some temporary insurance cover. I'd also really appreciate it if you could give me a driving lesson: I have a car in England, but we drive on the left and I'm sure there are other differences that I should know about."
"Well, having that money in the bank would sure be nice! Why don't I drive you into town and you can sort everything out and afterwards we can go to the stores. I just need to get the kids ready."
I was sitting on Ellie's sofa waiting for her to finish with Sammie, when Kari came up to me:
"You kind of talk funny, Mr Maclean." I smiled.
"That's because I live in England, Kari. Do you know where that is?"
"No, Sir. I heard the name on the TV, but I don't know where it's at."
"Well, it's thousands of miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean. It took the airplane about seven hours to get from London to New York."
"So, does everyone talk like you over there, Mr Maclean?"
"No, not really, Kari. It's like here, it changes depending on where you live. We have a queen, and she sounds different to me, and it's different all over." Kari smiled.
"I like the way you talk, Mr Maclean!"
"And I like the way you talk, Kari!"
"You guys ready?" Ellie announced.
Sammie had a child's seat in the car, but Kari sat on a booster cushion on the back seat. As we drove I asked Ellie questions about negotiating road junctions and anything unfamiliar that I saw along the way. When we got to what was clearly the small town's centre, she parked the car and we walked the short distance to a building that housed a bank. I was pleasantly surprised when we got out of the car and while Ellie was releasing her son, Kari reached up and took my hand. We just looked at each other and smiled.
It took a while to transfer the money, as I had to explain to someone what I wanted to do, then the actual transfer from my English bank to Ellie's American one. The Devereaux's waited patiently as all this took place. As we left the bank Kari once again held my hand as Ellie led the way to her insurance broker's office. This was a somewhat easier process as I paid for the temporary premium with my credit card.
"You want to drive to the store, Jim?" Ellie asked me when we got back to the car.
"Sure—I'll ask if I need to know anything." I had occasionally driven a Honda Civic and also left-hand-drive cars in the UK, so it didn't take too long to get comfortable. The big supermarket on the edge of town had an equally huge car park, and it took a few minutes to find a parking space not too far from the building. Sammie was placed in the shopping cart, but Kari was happy to walk with me; occasionally taking something from a lower shelf when her mother asked her, or I lifted her up to reach something higher. Ellie and I chatted as we walked. I was surprised that neither of the kids asked for anything as I'd seen children back home doing. We ate in a fast food place before I drove back to Ellie's.
Kari and Sammie took a nap when we got back and Ellie and I put her groceries away before stopping for a drink; Ellie had bought some tea bags in case I fancied a change from coffee, and she even let me introduce her to the habit. We sat on the sofa facing one another.
"You're good with kids aren't you, Jim; Kari doesn't usually take to strangers, but she's really taken to you."
"Yes, and she took the initiative and started talking to me. My sister isn't married, but she has a fourteen month old daughter. They live with my parents but I see them quite often. Sarah, that's my niece, seemed to take to me, too, and I have several married friends with children."
"Is it okay to pry and ask you about ladyfriends, Jim?"
"Of course! I've had girlfriends, but there's been no one special. I enjoy women's company and I hope to get married one day. I guess it's too soon for you to be thinking about marrying again."
"Mmm, maybe. I was with John for twelve years: he was my first proper boyfriend. There have been other guys hitting on me before John died and since, but you always get that. I do wonder if I should be looking for a new daddy for my kids, but I guess I can hold out for a bit longer."
"Do they ask about John, Ellie?"
"Kari did for a while. To be honest, Jim, John wasn't the sort of father I hoped he'd be, but he was her daddy and I guess she loved him. Sammie was too young to understand; he doesn't really talk much yet, but people tell me that's normal."
"Ellie, I hope you don't think I'm being presumptuous, but I'm here to see some of your country and I'm sure that I'll enjoy it more if you and Kari and Sammie were with me: how do you feel about that?" She looked at me and smiled.
"I think we'd enjoy that, Jim. We've never had a real vacation as a family, and lord knows if and when we'll get another one! I guess the danger is that we'll all get too attached to each other, but sometimes you have to take chances in life."
"You're right—we've got nearly six weeks left to form some great memories. We'll go out tomorrow and get some maps and see where we might like to go. I've one or two ideas already, so you have a think as well, then we can make some plans."