A Thames Moment

Chapter 1: August: In Search of Toffs and Twits

Ah, Reading—city of magic.

Linda and I are on the expressway that rings the city’s downtown shopping district. We have been at a dead stop now for about twenty minutes, which gives us ample opportunity to admire the way the dark brown exterior of our rented Rover absorbs the August sun. On the plus side, this also gives me a chance to pull out a tourist guide and read about our new home. The annual Reading Festival of contemporary music is on today, which goes a long way toward explaining the military fatigues, facial metallica, and skullhead tattoos we’ve been seeing since our arrival—and that’s just on the girls. We are passed by a strolling troupe of buskers playing plastic recorders. I tempt them with a handful of coins, but they refuse to cross between my bumper and the car in front. I must say, for entertainers, they really don’t have much sense of fun.

The traffic jam finally eases, and we are able to advance to our hotel. Even though it is 3 PM, our room is not quite ready; the reception clerk recommends we go for a stroll through the centre of Reading, which has been renovated into a pedestrian mall. This proves to be an illuminating suggestion; the street is lined with quaint Victorian buildings, their façades of molded terra cotta frescoes and finely carved sandstone lintels all cleverly concealed by billboards for cellphone retailers and fast-food outlets. We reach the entrance to the Arcade, a sparkly new indoor mall specifically designed to reinvigorate the downtown core. It consists of a quarter-mile or so of emporiums where the good folks of Reading can buy their Nike shoes, Nokia phones, and FCUK jeans, all the while protected from the harmful effects of English air. It is also an excellent place to observe the locals in their native habitat. I stop to marvel at the thighs on a woman eating an ice cream sundae in the food court. Imagine if you will, a Volkswagen Beetle crammed into pink Lycra tights, and you’ll pretty much have the right visual.

We return to the hotel, where the clerk announces it is safe to take up residence. The décor in our room has an African theme; it resembles a mud hut. The walls, curtains, and bedspread are decorated in beige, ecru, and several variations of bentonite. For relief, I stare out the bay window. To the north is a panoramic view of the gasworks, and to the south, terrace estate homes roll into the distance in grey waves of brick. I pick up a welcome brochure that has been left upon the bureau. “Modern Reading is a revelation to most people,” proclaims the title page. Tragically, I can’t agree more. Linda cranks the bay window open; the breeze has shifted and the gentle aroma of a hide-rendering plant drifts into our room.

“It says here that suicide is Reading’s favourite pastime,” I note.

“I don’t doubt it,” says Linda. “We should find a place in another town.”

I look up from the brochure. “Like, where?”

“How about Henley-on-Thames?”

Located a little under ten miles northeast of Reading, Henley-on-Thames isn’t one of those places that top the list of most well-known British tourist attractions. It is promoted as “a quaint Thames enclave,” best known for its annual rowing regatta and as a hub for “caviar eating, champagne swilling, and antics.”

But when we ask our British friends about that town, the response is unanimous.

“Full of toffs,” says Zoe.

“Inbred twits,” asserts Brendan.

Well, in my book, any town that’s renowned for its champagne swilling beats Reading any day. Grabbing the car keys, we head out in search of Toffs and Twits.

After an hour of dodging faux Rasta kids, we finally clear the edge of Reading. Almost immediately, the grey terrace homes give way to idyllic English landscape. To the right, the River Thames is a distant, sinuous flash of crystal and silver. To the left, gentle mounds of emerald pasture rise to the horizon. Above, white clouds dawdle across a pastel blue sky. It’s as though Reading never existed, which, I suspect, is a wish a lot of people make.

After a fifteen-minute drive, we pass a sign marking Henley’s official boundary. As we enter the town from the south, we encounter a boring procession of red-brick terrace homes, petrol stations, building supply stores, and dry cleaners. On the plus side, we’ve been here almost three minutes and haven’t spotted a single hippie. I park the car in a municipal lot and we set out to explore the centre of town. The Market Place is picturesque and charming, with a rather imposing town hall at one end. I am immediately struck by the fact that the square is free of the souvenir stores so favoured by Stratford-upon-Avon, where Ye Witches Brew Kitchen Shoppe and rubber Hamlet skulls abound. Apparently, Henley hasn’t gone in for that, although I’m not quite sure what kind of mementoes might be engendered by alcoholic excess during a boat race.

We walk down to a pub by the bridge, the Angel. I order two pints of bitter and join Linda at a wooden picnic table on the patio adjacent to the water. The outdoor area is filled with cyclists in orange shorts and girls in tank tops and silver nose rings. A trio of large lads is laughing loudly enough to drown out the ten-tonne lorries rolling across the bridge above us. We ignore all this and stare out at the vista. Along the far bank of the river, weeping willows dangle languidly over slender rushes. The sun is beaming down against the forest-covered hills in the distance. Rowers, their backs erect, scull under the bridge. An elderly man in a blue blazer and straw boater hat putters upstream in an antique wooden boat. It’s as if every cliché of every English countryside landscape has been plopped down in one place.

“This is where we’re going to live,” says Linda.

“How will you get to work in Reading?”

“We’ll lease a car.”

“What will I do here?”

“You can write a book.”

“About what?”

A tall man comes goose-stepping across the bridge. He is about fifty, with a big handlebar moustache, green beret, and a long golf umbrella cocked over his right shoulder. When he reaches the end of the bridge, he marches out into the centre of the road, tucks the golf umbrella under the crook of his left arm, and smartly salutes the church tower.

“You’ll find something,” says Linda.

The next morning, I return to Henley, park the car in the large lot adjacent to the train station, and head toward the centre of town. Christ Church stands at the head of Station Road; the handsome hexagonal tower rises some eighty feet, capped by a cock’s weather vane and fronted by a large clock. The church sits adjacent to a baptistery, wedding chapel, funeral parlour, and tombstone retailer—kind of a one-stop shop to Eternity. These English are damned efficient when it comes to metaphysics.

Further north, Reading Road turns into Duke Street for no discernible reason. The buildings along this stretch of road are a monotonous series of two-storey brick edifices, whose appearance has been improved, if anything, by the addition of garish plywood signage, including an advertisement for a Chinese buffet announcing “Eat as Much as You Like,” which, judging from the look of it, is more of a warning than an invitation.

I continue on to the Market Place, where I hope to spot some realty offices. The square is lined with the usual collection of banks and video chain stores, although there are also some one-offs, including a butcher and a men’s clothing shop. A sign in the window of the clothing store promises “The finest in British fashion.” If you ever want to make a Frenchman laugh until he squirts Pernod out his nose, mention Britain and fashion in the same sentence. This is the same country in which the city of London—in a move that would have been deeply ironic in any other country—decided to locate their new fashion museum in a factory that had once manufactured garbage bins.

The road north of the town hall is lined with a dreary stretch of Dickensian terrace homes, so I turn and retrace my steps back through Market Place to Hart Street. On my left is the Catherine Wheel pub, named after St. Catherine, an early Christian convert who annoyed the Roman emperor so much with her prattling that he chopped off her head and then tied the rest of her to a torture wheel in case she didn’t get the point. The wheel spun round and round, throwing off sparks until it finally burst asunder and the body flew off toward Mount Sinai. I haven’t a clue why anyone in Henley would name a pub after her, but my estimation of the town rises two notches.

The rest of Hart Street’s architecture is pleasantly more varied than Duke Street, with styles ranging from Tyrolean Alps to Oxfordshire Gothic. One thing that disappoints me is the lack of allusions to George Orwell. Although the man who would grow up to write Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t born in Henley, the former Eric Blair certainly spent enough of his formative years here for the town to make a credible claim on him as one of their own. Yet, I haven’t spotted a single Big Brother TV Shop or Piggie’s Trough. This town’s got a serious case of good taste.

I finally spy a realty office near the end of Hart Street. The agent is a young man in his early twenties with spiky blond hair, black suit, and fluorescent purple tie. I pry him reluctantly away from a pornographic Web site to view some lettings near the centre of town.

My taste in homes is relatively modest. My only prerequisites are that it be within staggering distance of the nearest pub and has never served as a baboon sanctuary. Linda is more specific. She has furnished me with a list of twenty requirements and strict instructions not to deviate. Like most of my gender, I understand the consequences of disobeying.

The first home we look at is only a few hundred feet from the Thames, but the kitchen is tricked out in avocado green appliances and the carpet features an orange, red, and green pattern. There is nothing on Linda’s list prohibiting a carpet that induces epilepsy in direct sunlight, but I make a judgment call. The next stop is a Victorian terrace home. The exterior has been renovated to show off the authentic brick façade, but the rooms are so tiny that I envision sleeping with our feet hanging out the bedroom window. Since Linda’s feet are already notoriously cold, I scratch this off the list as well.

I am about to give up for the day when I spot a second agency. Taped to their window is an ad for a home located on the waterfront. The townhouse is part of a small development adjacent to a marina and is clad in red brick, white wooden trim, and grey slate roofing. It even has a name: Boathouse Reach. It looks rather charming. The monthly rent is several hundred pounds out of our budget, but the thought of living directly adjacent to the river fills me with romantic visions. Sue the realtor, a petite, animated woman in a brown suit, agrees to arrange a showing that evening. I head back to Reading feeling, for the first time, a glimmer of hope.

After dinner, Linda and I drive back to Henley and meet Sue at Boathouse Reach. She opens the door and we walk through to the dining room overlooking the river. The interior of the home is done up in rather drab ivory walls and dark green carpet, and I am already considering ways to politely end the inspection when we come to the rear balcony and are confronted with an absolutely gorgeous view. Directly in front of us, tiny rowboats painted in yellow, blue, and red bob in their moorings. Across the river, tall columnar aspens sway in the breeze and, in the distance, the Chiltern Hills rise in oak-covered glory.

“We’ll take it,” says Linda.

Sue holds up a finger. “There is just one further requirement; you need to be vetted by the landlord.” She dials her cellphone and makes a short call. “He’ll meet us at the office.”

We walk back toward town. Linda and Sue are engaged in an animated conversation regarding kitchen appliances, furnishings, and other non-essentials. I, on the other hand, am worried about meeting the landlord. Renting a home in England can be a nightmare, with endless delays. I envision a country squire in a tweed jacket and hairy eyebrows pounding back a succession of gin and tonics as he gives us the once-over. Is this going to be our first encounter with one of the Henley Toffs that Zoe had warned us about? I try to comport myself as something more presentable than an ink-stained wretch.

When we arrive at the office, Andy is waiting for us. He is perhaps seventy, with snow-white hair, large ears twisted by countless rugby scrums, and a face burned deep brown by a lifetime messing about on boats; I can’t think of anyone who looks less like a Toff. I stick out my hand and he crushes it in a vicelike grip. His eyes, ice blue, stare at me for several seconds. “Where you from?” he finally asks.

“Canada.”

“Ah.” I get the distinct impression he is relieved I am not from Mars, or worse, the United States.

“When do you want to move in?”

“Monday, if that’s all right.”

“Fine by me.” He calls over his shoulder as he turns to the door. “See you on Monday.”

Linda has to work on Monday, so I drive to Henley to do the honours. At the appointed hour, Sue meets me at the house and formally hands over the keys. I enter and open the foyer closet to hang up my coat; inside, a large square metal box is chuffing and bubbling in a manner that indicates either acute indigestion or internal combustion, neither of which I particularly welcome in a receptacle for coats. Attached to the device is a bright red label warning one not to twiddle with the knobs unless death by scalding is one’s hobby. I quickly close the door and continue my inspection.

The kitchen has been laid out according to classic British ergonomics, which means you can’t open the cupboard doors without splitting your skull. The freezer portion of the fridge sports enough ice to build a snowman, and the oven interior is covered in an impressive coat of dark brown grease.

I go upstairs to the living room. The view from the balcony is just as magnificent as the main floor, but I now have the leisure to observe that the chairs and couches are covered in the same red, green, and yellow geometrical swirls seen when someone punches you smartly in the eye. A chaise lounge lurking in the corner wouldn’t look out of place with Mae West in feather boas draped over it.

I retreat to the main bedroom on the top floor. Clinging to the side of the vanity by the window is a black blob that I first mistake for a false eyelash, but discover is a very large spider when I try to peel it off. I redeploy to the kitchen to fetch an oven mitt and spatula and adroitly detach the arachnid and fling it toward the window in a manner that would have been highly effective had the window actually been open. Fortunately, a spatula is also handy for flailing, and I reduce the spider to a carpet stain that is hardly noticeable from ten feet.

Such exertion, of course, is thirsty work, but the previous tenants have neglected to leave so much as a can of lager in the house. A quick scan of the fridge and cupboards reveals nothing more than a jar of mustard (full) and a box of mouse poison (half-empty). I conclude this is insufficient to make dinner, and since I am in charge of cooking a meal this evening, I decide it is time to go shopping. I grab my coat and wallet and head for the grocery store.

As I step out the door, I spot a woman standing with her back to me, peering around the corner of the adjacent building. She has a small dog on a leash. The woman is perhaps fifty, with a sharp, beaklike nose and a dye job that started out as Tuscany Auburn but now looks more like Toyota Sunburn. The dog is a Yorkshire terrier cross, white with black markings. I step quietly outside then slam the door as loudly as possible.

The woman spins around so fast that she jerks her dog almost clear of the ground. Rather than being embarrassed, however, she bursts into a brilliant smile.

“Hello this is Princess and I’m Edwina and we live just around the corner we were just on my way to visit your neighbour Meg who’s feeling poorly but who can blame her what with her husband Norris running off with his dentist to some nude beach in Ibiza and I always told her there was something funny about him but no he was so kind and gentle not like her first husband Dennis who would chase anything in skirts and if you ever saw the rector’s wife you’d know I mean anything but what can one do honestly?”

She finally stops for breath and blinks both her eyes slowly. “And what’s your name?”

I must say, up to this point, I had feared that I might be dealing with an example of the Henley Inbred Twit, but I am so relieved by Edwina’s effusive nosiness that I break into a broad smile. I have pursued many professions during my lifetime, including geologist, dynamite courier, and bowling lane jockey, but by far the most rewarding job I have ever had is that of journalist. Not only does it require a minimum of physical effort, but you can also gratify any ingrained nosiness and get paid, to boot. For most people, gossips are about as welcome as a dose of clap at the nunnery, but for a journalist, they’re like manna sent by a benevolent, higher authority. I introduce myself and explain that my wife and I have just moved from Canada.

“Canada!” she effuses as the torrent begins anew. “My youngest nephew has been living in Edmonton he got a job there after graduating from Oxford first in his class we’re so proud he’s engaged to a wonderful girl from there apparently her father has a large household fixtures store and they call him the ‘king of doorknobs’ hah if you can believe it what some colonials …” She once again blinks both eyes slowly. “And what brings you here from Canada?”

I lean over to give Princess a pat and she licks my hand. “To convalesce. I just had a brain tumour removed.”

“Oh, that’s ghastly!” She leans forward, hopefully. “Cancerous?”

“No, thank God. But it was the size of an apple. They had to saw off the top of my skull and put in a hinge.” I lean forward to show her my pate. “They did a great job—you can’t even see the scar.”

Edwina can barely conceal her delight. Tugging on Princess’s leash, she bids adieu and scurries off to tell Meg. As I walk to the grocery store, I am filled with the warm glow I get when I do my civic duty.

The grocery store that dominates the centre of Henley-on-Thames belongs to the Waitrose chain. Unlike supermarkets in France, where you are just as likely to find toothpaste mixed in with the bacon, grocery stores in Britain have a certain predictability about them that is a testament to the solid, no-nonsense society that flourishes on this majestic isle; the vegetable section is on one side, dairy and meats on the other, and row after row of other tasteless stuff in the middle. Palatability is not an option.

This perception lasts as long as it takes me to read the label on a jar of Samoan Islands BBQ Sauce. I’m used to reading cooking suggestions like, “Tastes great with ribs!” so I am somewhat surprised to see that it says, “Suitable for vegetarians.” I assume they must have a different flavour for missionaries, but I don’t see it on the shelf. I put the jar carefully back, wipe my hands on my trousers, and retreat to the fresh vegetables.

I spot a young clerk throwing cabbage heads with furious agility into a display bin.

“Excuse me; do you know where I can find the red onions?” I ask.

The clerk gives me a look as if sizing up if there’s room for one more head in the bin. “No red onions today.”

I decide to have a gander for myself and, within about a minute, discover a large tub of red onions in the organic section. Taking one, I walk back to the clerk, waving it in his face. “You said there were no red onions.”

“That’s organic red onions. You didn’t ask for them.”

The next time I’m looking for a can of pickled herring, I’ll remember to specify the left-handed variety, just for the sake of expediency.

That night, I cook a traditional English meal for Linda: bangers and mash. The dish consists of slowly roasted sausages served with creamy mashed potatoes and smothered with fresh onion gravy. As we gaze out onto the river from our dining room, we toast our new home with a glass of French Médoc. It is such a romantic evening, and the wine is so good, that we opt for a second bottle and soon abandon the dining room to check out the romantic view from the upstairs bedroom. Maybe that’s why they say that red wine is so good for the heart.

Our first morning in Boathouse Reach dawns very early, with the light of the sun flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the master bedroom. I get up and gaze out onto a scene of transcendental beauty. Before me, a mist rises from the glasslike water and shrouds the Thames in a blanket of white. A lone sculler cuts through the water, his rhythmic strokes startling a swan near the shore. The bird splashes along the water then slowly gains the air, cutting along the boundary of the mist and clear sky. I stare out at this tranquil, almost ethereal scene, and one thought stands foremost in my mind: I’d better buy some curtains before they arrest me. For whatever reason, nobody has bothered to put up any sheers along the bottom of the window, and I am making a decidedly indecent show to a woman walking a greyhound through the marina below. That’s the sort of thing that can get the neighbours talking, you know, and not in a complimentary way.

After breakfast, Linda departs for work, leaving me with a long list of chores. I opt to start with British Telecom. The phone company combines the efficiency of government bureaucracy with the service ethos of the Mafia, all delivered with the joviality of a Barbary pirate. I call BT’s toll-free number on my cellphone and connect with a customer service agent.

“I’m sorry, sir, but there is no record of that house,” I am told.

“What do you mean?”

“Your address doesn’t exist.”

Nice little Twilight Zone touch, that. “I’m sitting right here. Of course it exists.”

“Perhaps you’ve made a mistake, sir.”

Keeping her on the line, I take my lease and go to speak with my landlord directly. In addition to owning several rental properties in town, Andy also runs the main tourist marina in Henley, which happens to be located adjacent to Boathouse Reach.

As I round the corner, the marina staff is busy topping up the petrol tanks and scrubbing the poop deck of a large sternwheeler tour boat moored at the dock. It is perhaps a hundred feet long and twenty-three feet abeam. The hull is painted blue and the top decks white. Its name, The New Orleans, is inscribed in gold and black just below the pilot’s cabin. A pair of thick smokestacks and a stern paddlewheel complete the Mississippian allusion.

The marina office is housed in a small brick building set back from the river; Andy is sweeping the front stoop with a broom. As I approach, I hold up the lease. “Is this the correct address?”

Andy glances at the document. “Yes it is.”

By now, Miss BT is losing her icy charm. “Could you repeat the postal code?”

“RG9. That’s R as in Robert, G as in George …”

“Oh! I thought you said B as in Bob! Here it is …”

Normally I don’t give in to psychological torture so fast, but this one’s good. I quickly agree to all her offers of additional service, including broadband, voice mail, caller ID, and monthly carpet shampoos. “Thank you for calling BT.”

I hang up. Andy takes one look at the tears streaming down my cheeks. “You look like you could use a pint.”

We walk around the corner to the Anchor. The interior roof of the pub is approximately five and a half feet tall, although much of this clearance is obstructed by thick oak timbers. Black-and-white photos, including one of a much younger Andy and his oar mates manning a scull, decorate the walls. We take our beers and retreat to a small garden at the rear of the pub that has been planted with wisteria and rose bushes. Andy tilts his glass in my direction. “Welcome to Henley.”

I take a sip of my beer. It is nutty and sweet, and very delicious. I turn my attention back to my host. “Have you lived here long?”

“All my life.” In fact, as Andy explains, his ancestors first came to the area some five hundred years ago, just after the last plague created numerous openings in the river transport business. In addition to towing corn barges into London, his family has owned pubs, hotels, and docks along the river. His grandfather founded the marina and Andy hopes to pass it down to his son.

I have found in my travels that there are two types of people in life: those who never stray far from home, and those who are always eager to see what’s over the next hill. If you don’t know which you are, here’s an easy quiz. Do you live less than ten kilometres from your parents? Did you go to kindergarten with a sizeable number of your adult friends? Are most of your religious holidays spent deciding who is going to cook the turkey and invite Uncle Vince? If you answer yes to two out of three, then you are likely the former.

Personally, I fall into the latter category. I don’t live within a thousand kilometres of my family, most of my kindergarten friends were in jail by Grade Three, and I would just as soon spend Christmas Day lying on a beach in Australia roasting my hide as basting a bird. “Have you ever wanted to live anywhere else?” I ask Andy.

He shakes his head. “I’m already living in the best place in the world. Why should I leave?”

That evening, after dinner, I pour myself a large glass of wine and step out onto the front balcony. The sun is just setting below the Chiltern Hills to the west, and the trees across the way are lit in a fiery orange light. Ducks bob on the sparkling surface of the river, occasionally disappearing as they chase a minnow below. Far in the distance, white clouds billow across the horizon.

I sip my wine and ponder Andy’s attachment to Henley. I have never understood how someone could limit an entire life to one country, let alone one village. As I ponder the vagaries of the human heart, a full moon rises over the distant hills, its white face reflecting upon the Thames. The swans head for the shore. Even though they could stretch their wings and fly to the farthest corner of the earth, they clamber up upon the marina pavement, tuck their heads beneath one wing, and fall into slumber—at peace and content. I suspect that even a rolling stone could be inspired to stop upon this restful sanctuary, lulled by the beauty and tranquility. Will this paradise, too, capture our hearts?

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