Guns. A divisive bullet between British and American cultures. If I had one, I would hold up this C2C Quiet Zone until the perpetrator of the seeping sewage confessed. It’s a cornea piercing stench that doesn’t move when the train doors open at Pitsea, Basildon, or Benfleet. Those of us standing, waiting for seats, experience a weakening of the knees. Three more stops ‘til freedom.
I glare at those exiting the train, particularly the suits hiding behind class and professionalism. They expect us to blame this stench on the orange and silver striped construction workers. Common men with thick fingers and dirty nails. One’s an escape artist, the other a scapegoat.
Friday. A long day of staring at computer screens, yearning for the new spring sun. I only work four days a week but am over my hours…again. Requests for time off always seems to collide with bank holidays, other national breaks. It’s not that I mind. The 17 days of vacation on a year’s contract is exquisite, but acclimating to this pace is a struggle. At night or on Mondays when I’m not working, I panic that feigning a life will turn my job to vapor. It would in America. Land of the free. Home of bankruptcy’s shadow.
No way am I the only one choking on this. No way the man whose armpit I’m under or the woman carving a divot in my hip with her bag are enjoying this. Yet I’m the only one for three stops — until a dispersion of bodies nullifies sulfurous molecules — who looks like she just ate a shit sandwich.
The British, unbelievably, invented the sandwich. Two pieces of buttered white bread holding shredded cheese to fall out the back, a thin almost imperceptible piece of ham, prawns in a sickly pink sauce, or tuna and sweet corn, a delightful combination, happenstance unknown. Americans, of course, improved on this as we have most everything else layering hearty whole wheat with cold cuts, stable pieces of cheese, veggies and sauces. Like our salads, many of our sandwiches teeter on gluttony but oh do I miss real food. Unbattered meals full of veggies and spices, not a root vegetable or smear of coleslaw in sight. When I open my British sandwich, jam it full of the lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes served on the side, I may as well plunk a gun on the table. The looks I get. Jamming. Fingers. It isn’t polite. But neither is the sandwich I eat now. I turn my nose, twist my face. I am the only one. In Britain, the stoic is revered.
This irritation with Britain is new. When I first arrived three years ago — younger, in love, a Norfolk village rather than the drudgery of Essex my rest stop— I’d thought I’d landed in a fairy tale of soft, cute, fuzzy things. Millions of fluffy bunny tails on the side of the road, dotted among the snowy ankles of baby sheep. Diddy dear with swishy white tails and carte blanche protection from the queen. Hedgehogs. Waddling balls of cuteness mashed into the road by a flurry of cars playing chicken on hairpin curves. Landscapes as soft as a cashmere covered bosom. Crops the color of sunshine. Triangular red and black street signs warning of duck and ducklings or nan and granddad — both with canes — crossing. It was heaven. How, I wondered, could anyone from a land of cartoon creatures conquer the world?
Staying in someday husband’s parents’ country home, I expected Snow White and her animal friends to wake me with the ‘a ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” song, fresh sheets stretched between the beaks of morning doves.
“Where are your predators?” I asked my soon-to-be.
“What do you mean, predators?”
“Animals that attack, eat other animals. Bears. Coyotes. Wolves. Cougars.”
“We have foxes and badgers.”
I patted his leg, laughed. “How cute.”
“Not everyone lives with mountain lions, bears and rattlesnakes, cock.”
Cock. Prick. Tosser. Fuckin’ hell. I love these expressions but they roll of my tongue like a bowling ball through a flower garden. It doesn’t work.
“You have skunks, which may not bite, but they count because they stink and that’s offensive. I smelled one the other day.”
He laughed. “No, we don’t have skunks. Where do you come up with this stuff? Hollywood?”
But he’s wrong. Britain has skunks. They cluster on trains, dress as humans, look at the tits on page three from under furrowed brows.
I met my partner, Jamie, while we were both on assignment in Abu Dhabi. I commuted countries for a few years before her majesty granted me the right to stay. The edges of the fairy tale rusted on my third visit, which started as a two-week break and seeped into a four-month honeymoon during which a travelling rove of head lice infested my long, blonde hair.
I was sitting in the living room of Jamie’s circa 1500 beamed house interviewing a Fortune 500 executive over Skype when, after scratching my neck, something small and living landed on the key board of my Mac. I picked it up. Red body, flea looking. I smashed it on my assignment sheet and screamed. A louse. Recognizable from the dozens I’d helped Jamie pick out of his daughters’ hair a few short weeks ago.
“Don’t worry,” I was told when Jamie handed me a nit comb, which with its tiny tines, looked like something a music teacher would use to pique a small child’s interest in strings. “All kids get them. They only like young shoots. You can’t get them.”
But I had them and as I stared at the vermin smear on the sheet of paper, a deafening munching filled my ears blocking all comments regarding success, profit margins, innovation. I wanted to tell him — beg him — to stop talking. “Oh my God! “I have head lice!” I wanted to yell. “I have to call you back.”
And the CEO, being of first world, hygienically obsessed America, would commiserate, ask if there was anything he could do because we both know in America only the poor, the dirty, the scuzzy, get head lice. In America, head lice is of the ghetto. Here it is of every child. In a country where nothing is discussed, this miniscule blood sucker is a cultural icon written into countless TV story lines.
Because the magazine pays well, because I couldn’t bring myself to say head lice in relation to my own blonde locks, I mm hmmed my way to the end of the interview, thanked him, hung up and burst into tears. Half an hour in the shower with conditioner and nit combs yielded 38 Godzilla-sized louse, which I kept in a green plastic cup of water. Evidence. The difference in our two cultures presumes Jamie will assume I’m overacting. I am not.
Jamie was out of town on business so I called on my future mother-in-law — bless her in the what a wonderful person sense — who rushed over to disperse the treatment — bless me in the I pity you, you psycho sense. That’s a turn of the British tongue, the use of one phrase or word to represent heaven or hell and all shades in between, bless her/him being the most classic of examples.
The trauma of the head lice incident left me tearing at my skull for weeks. I resisted wrapping the children in cling wrap when they came to the house. In the name of humanity. Their mother — unfortunately — has gray and black shoots dotted with mascara. She does not notice three weeks later when the girls again develop head lice. Again this transfers to me. For a week I sleep with anti-head lice cream in my hair, going through three treatment bottles when one would suffice. Lying in bed, my pillow wrapped in a towel, hands at my chest, praying God will lift this Dickensian misery.
When I go back to the states, mention the second bout of head lice to my siblings, they curdle, scan their cerebral microfiche of possessions to see what my head may have touched. To them, head lice is untenable.
During the second lice scare, nasty, itchy red bites collect on our legs and ankles. This is the consequence of living in one of the quaintest places on earth. Death by head-to-toe digestion by oval bugs.
The fringe of my formally fuzzy British landscape is dotted with pleasant looking, vicious stinging nettles. The stinging nettle — England’s metaphor. Everything best left to superficiality. Surfaces best left unscratched. Look, but don’t touch.
When the fleas turned out not to be bed bugs, I relaxed. Horrifyingly, this was me easing into bugs, accepting the lesser of two evils. Yes, I spent a long night G-chatting and Skyping with friends from the floor of the living room, our bedding, linen and couch cushions in a corner pyre ready for burning, but after the bug man came, delivered the news, I backed down. Fleas I could live with.
Last night, Jamie’s oldest daughter, who is learning about stereotypes, said a stereotype of Americans is that we over exaggerate.
I screwed up my face. “I’ve never heard that stereotype. Sometimes people think we’re loud, or fat, or overly optimistic, but over exaggeration? Never heard it. Who told you that?”
“I think it’s just your perception. You’ve met my dad. He has a tendency toward overexcitement.”
And that’s the end of that.
As polite as the British may be — the national anthem is a wind chime of sorry — Americans are more hygienically advanced. Or obsessed, depending on the origin of your species. To go on about British teeth is to go on about American love handles. So I’ll be brief. There’s a reason for the teeth — once a day brushings, socialized medicine — but the lack of obsession with the superficial is refreshing if a bit of a sour perfume.
We are at Chalkwell. The stench breathes its final breaths from inside the upholstery. Although nearly all middle seats are free, most prefer to stand near the doors. Their disappointment is a badge of politeness. It’s better to stand than squeeze down an aisle, temporarily displace the fallen bodies of not one, but two people. But farting, “doing a poppy,” which is a sick, deceitful description for something so vile, is OK. Maybe that’s the point, another caveat in British social law. Disruption is acceptable if it isn’t obvious in a visual sense. Poppies. Stinging nettles. Head lice.
I hyperventilate into my coat until Westcliff, where I gratefully stumble out of the station into the fresh air and the sidewalk, which is puckered with little piles of dog shit. Chiaroscuros left by those who cannot read the pictures pointing to the bright red dog waste bins. This reminds me of Wembley, where grown men line the exterior wall, fags dripping from lips, urine spraying from open zips, reservoirs of stank, barely processed beer running into the parking lot. Surely this barbarianism, this Viking mentality, is a mistake. This is a polite society. But later, when the Viking exhibit comes to the British Museum, we learn the Vikings, too, were advanced. They just had a bad wrap. Oh how history rewrites itself.
A woman walks by, her daughter straining against the harness of her pink leash. A leashed human child weaving her way along a dog turd sidewalk. A bankrupt American flashing a $20,000 smile. At the core, are we really that different?
I walk into an empty house, which is a shame because I feel like talking about my feelings. This urge is a one-way activity forced upon Jamie and his daughters. Sometimes, now that real things occasionally knock against the hardening walls of Jamie’s oldest daughter’s mind, when I steeple my hands, eyes alight, and say, “So, who wants to talk about their feelings?” I know she wants to volunteer. Once, she admitted as much. But never in front of her parents.
My family — the American one — carries on, but we do not keep calm. Everything is discussed. Eating disorders. Relationships. Affairs. The other day my dad asked me how I felt about he and mom selling the house I moved to when I was 15. The question pissed me off. A new feeling. Evidence of cultural assimilation. Is this toughness a requirement for surviving this wispy little island? I hope not. Sometimes it’s helpful — poppies on a train — but my elevation rises each time something is swept under the rug upon which I stand.
Whenever an immigrant icing in America bitches about living in America, the sentiment is, “go home.” I assume the sentiment is the same here. Less explicit. Perhaps a bless her, she’s homesick in public. A bless her the Yank, go back to America behind the curtains. Fair.
But an aspect of taking on a new home, a new country, a new culture, is familiarization. On the floor of our flat is a council bill and the answer to why my quaint little British bunnies metamorphosed into annoying, poppy blowing skunks. Real life. Everything is what it is until it isn’t. Small though they are, cars clog here the same as they do in America. People annoy as much. And bills scream for attention.
Ivy Hughes has written for several newspapers, magazines and literary journals including Success, Entrepreneur, The Boston Globe, Interval World, Cleaver, Syndic, and Litro. She grew up in Colorado, but lives in London, England.