by Claire Daniel
We took the Gatwick train out of London and made our way 25 miles southwest . The day before, we were ducking out of all-you-can-eat buffets in Chinatown, still waiting to see if the job-any job-would come through. We had met in Prague: he as traveler, and I as an English teacher. He is Australian and employable in the UK; I am American and was not. Then the word came: Positions available, couples preferred. Bar and server experience a must. All pay under the table. Room and board inclusive. Start tomorrow. And so Dan and I left.
Watching from the window, my eyes followed the changing panorama. We noticed the industrial cityscape, baguette stalls lining the commuter stops, and row houses, all identical, except for the garbage littered gardens. We passed bleak urban villages, now indistinguishable amongst the city’s sprawling grasp, differentiated only by their names: Chiddingfold, Effingham, Limpsfield, Titsey, Leatherhead.
A vendor passed through the aisle but there was no hoping for a baguette. (We had fled our Highbury share early that morning, leaving only a used speaker and a PlayStation to make good on last week’s rent.) Our pockets were empty, save a pound, and our stomachs tense about the uncertainty ahead.
And then it happened. The city, its sludge and the awful months spent there—poor and squabbling over one another’s personal failings as travelers, lovers, or even friends—all disappeared. My thought: I should have stayed. He should not have come. It all gave way—almost instantaneously—to the white snow and the pastoral palette of the English countryside. We were now in Surrey, and quickly approaching our final destination within the village of Betchworth: the Red Lion Pub and Inn.
The chalky cliffs of Box Hill marked our arrival. Our next stop was Dorking, where we were to await our transportation to the pub. Descending the train, we dropped our baggage and stared up at the surroundings. Gripped in place by the prospect that this new vista was now ours, I gave secret thanks for all that room to run away in.
Our remaining change was spent on dinner at the petrol station: two tins of spaghetti. Michael, the manager of the Red Lion Pub and our new boss, easily spotted us as newcomers amongst the world-weary locals. Polite conversation followed introductions, and we embarked on the final leg of our journey. Down a street known only as “The Street” and then “The Old Road,” we had arrived at our destination.
Tucked neatly into the elbow of the road, The Red Lion stood tall, lean and ancient in its 300th year. A banner, reading “Under New Management,” was tacked onto its front face. There we were, our anticipation at its peak. Our new home. Our new world. And perhaps, our new “us.”
“Here you go, through the kitchen and up the stairs,” said Michael as he herded us inside. “Come down for a curry later tonight. Pub’s closed now, but Gary will see to it that you’re well fed tonight. Room’s second on the left. Hope you don’t mind sharing the toilet.”
After unloading our baggage, we descended upon The Red Lion with sheer excitment. We ran our fingers over everything, delighted in every eccentricity and imagined the many ways our lives would be transformed and enhanced by our new surroundings.
The tobacco-stained walls and the well-worn tracks set in the faded floral carpet suggested a timeless history of past lives that we too would soon become a part of. The bar stretched out, dark and slick, with taps of exotic sounding lagers and ales. In the coming days we would be tending that space, minding the patrons’ pints and keeping tabs on the cricket match taking place on the pitch.
But for this day, we were free to do as we pleased, so we took to the hills. We carefully traversed the back paddock, where the soil had been turned up for the spring’s planting. All we wanted to do was climb up the chalk hills we had seen on our journey. We wanted to breathe this good air—the air we had been deprived of in the city.
Halfway up the hill, we stopped and took in our surroundings. Down below, now but a tiny smudge of smoke, was our pub. Beyond, only the countryside, rising and falling like swells into the distance. Looking at him, looking at all this, I saw a trace of something—maybe confidence, perhaps hopeful expectation. Whatever it was, I welcomed this change. But then again, it might have just been the reflection of the snow.