We lived in a Regency townhouse in England, with magnificently high ceilings and breathtakingly ornate, ever-elegant plaster crown molding that spread upward from the walls, curling onto the ceilings.
The house was made of Cotswold stone, with tall hedges and iron gates out front, which provided a hint of privacy as red double-decker buses chuffed past.
When she was built, Jane Austen-esque characters filled her candle-lit rooms with refined conversation, gazing upon each other demurely. They summoned for help using the bell pull beside the carved marble fireplace. A massive gold leaf mirror rested above the mantel and presided over the living room like a stately butler.
But two hundred years later, she’d housed a noisy American family who ate Skippy peanut butter and watched SpongeBob Square Pants.
Her original windows leaked. Her pipes cracked regularly, saturating the back half of our son’s room with pesky sewage. Mysteriously, ivy sprouted and grew from the interior walls. One particularly trying summer, the city ripped up the road in front of our house to replace failing Victorian sewers. At the same time, city garbage collectors went on strike. Displaced and emboldened sewer rats climbed our garden walls and scurried through our hedges and trees like squirrels, happily making a robust colony behind our cellar door.
But the old girl of a house was still a beauty.
We shared a wall with an elderly couple and their even more elderly wire-haired terrier, Teddy. Teddy spent his days tracking and barking at ghosts. The first time I experienced Teddy barking menacingly at the ghosts who were clearly taunting him, my palms sweat, and my blood ran cold, but in time, weirdly, it just became normal. Like grocery store music.
The two houses had a bajillion fireplaces back to back on our shared wall, allowing voices (but not ghosts or Teddy’s incessant barking) to travel easily between our homes.
Thank God Garth and Jean were hard of hearing and, therefore, unfazed by loud music and the late-night/early-morning parties that seemed to erupt at our house without notice. Only one time, a New Year’s Eve, Garth stood naked in his window, trying to suss out what the fuss was all about in our backyard, but otherwise, Garth and Jean heard nothing from our family of six on the other side of the wall.
When we moved in, Garth was already suffering from the kind of Alzheimer’s that makes you mean. Jean shrieked when Garth became combative. I could hear her through the fireplace. I’d run out our massive front door with the brass pull, clank past our iron gates outside, in through their clanking iron gates, and be in their house in no time to help settle Garth.
Living next to Jean and Garth was like living in a BBC dramedy.
I played the role of the fish-out-of-water American next-door neighbor who kept a key to their front door, had lots of kids, lots of friends, and lots going on. They were a stereotypically reserved, stiff-upper-lipped English couple who’d linger on the sidewalk in front of our house, staring up at it in wide-eyed wonder like they were staring into the windows of an old-timey curiosity shop. Why did we have so many children? Jean would ask. Did we actually like kids? Did the government make us have four? Remind her, what religion were we, exactly?
Their house was the mirror opposite of ours in all ways. Theirs was a properly formal, dark, and charmingly cluttered house. Ours was informal, light, and tidy in an American way that Jean found unnerving, ‘too Hollywood,’ she’d say.
Jean was obsessed with our ‘American’ teeth. Rarely did we have a conversation where she did not wonder out loud how we, as an American people, had such ‘perfect’ teeth. She’d apologize for her own teeth while inserting her thumbs behind her front teeth, forefingers pushing inward above her lip, demonstrating what it would take to straighten them. Also, she wanted her teeth to be a lovely American shade of white. ‘How do you all manage to have such perfect teeth?’ she’d garble with a mouthful of bony fingers.
Garth and Jean had been married forever, but Garth’s condition strained their marriage.
Things came to a head on a sunny, late summer day. They argued in front of The Queen’s Hotel, where they were meant to enjoy a salmon lunch. They quarreled over scheduling: should they eat their lovely salmon before or after Garth’s haircut? They had strong, conflicting convictions – I’ll edit for space – but the long and short of it is that Jean backed over Garth with her car.
Jean drove home afterward, leaving Garth on the street. Maybe he was dead? Maybe he was injured? All I know is that Jean somehow appeared like an apparition in our walled back garden, where we were all playing.
She hated to bother me, but would I mind very much if she asked for a bit of assistance? Jean gave me the thumbnail and wanted to know whether she should turn herself in to the police first? Go directly to the hospital to see if Garth had been transported there? Drive back and see if Garth was still lying on the road? In any case, whichever decision I made, would I mind very much if I drove because she was feeling unusually distracted?
‘I don’t know what to do, Jean,’ I said. ‘Give me a second to get my head around this, Jean,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to go to jail with you, Jean,’ I said.
We sat on my front stairs while I tried to figure out what in God’s name was even going on and what course of action was in everyone’s best interest and least likely to land me in jail as an accessory to a crime when I saw Garth walking in the distance.
On a good day, Garth walked slower than the slowest person you’ve ever seen in your whole life. The only person I have ever seen walk slower than Garth was not a person at all but was, in fact, their dog, Teddy. The one who barked at ghosts.
Teddy was s-l-o-w, like stop-motion animation. His every movement seemed to be manipulated frame by frame. Flipped in sequence, Teddy and Jean somehow moved down the sidewalk twice a day to the park where they fed the ducks. Walking home after the hit-and-run, Garth was slower than Teddy. The good news was he was alive. The bad news was that he was mad as hell. This seemed altogether fair to me.
Jean saw Garth coming, and the slowest chase scene you could ever imagine ensued.
After the hit-and-run debacle, everyone but Garth agreed that Garth should probably be moved to a nursing home, far away from Jean.
Alone in the house, Jean still shrieked her blood-curdling screams. More than seemed necessary, if I’m honest. Jean’s TV was in front of her fireplace, and it was often difficult to decipher through the fireplace if she was shouting at the TV or if she was in actual distress. Tennis season was particularly difficult for me because she screamed at the players. Maybe a player messed up a serve? Maybe she fell and broke a hip? I’d run over, as ever, gates creaking and clanking behind me, Teddy barking at ghosts.
My son swears he learned everything he ever needed to know about sex the night Jean watched a Kama Sutra documentary at full volume while he, still dressed in his school uniform tie and blue blazer, pretended to do homework in our living room. You cannot make this stuff up.
Jean suffered from occasional bloody noses, which weren’t as painful as they were wildly dramatic. The EMTs (I knew them by name) advised me to pack Jean’s nose with tampons to control the blood. I kept a stash of tampons near our front door to grab when I ran, gates clanking, next door. I’d insert tampons into Jean’s nose, and she’d sit, strings dangling, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. The tampons were genius, significantly reducing my time alone in her house, cleaning blood from her carpet and off the white landline phone with the ginormous buttons and amplified ringer while Teddy barked at ghosts next to me.
Over a cup of tea one afternoon, Jean wondered if someone might be living in her car, which she parked on the little lane behind our houses. She asked if I would mind very much taking a look for her. I walked to her car, opened the driver’s side door, and saw empty bottles of booze and fast food wrappers on the floorboard, a grungy blanket on the back seat, and packs of open cigs stuffed into the map pocket on the passenger side door. It stunk. ‘Yes, Jean,’ I confirmed loudly in her kitchen over Teddy’s barking at the ghosts, ‘I believe someone is living in your car, Jean.’
Garth’s funeral was held on an unbearably cold, rainy, grey day as if the BBC itself planned it. I went alone.
The sadly modern 1970s addition to the ancient stone chapel/crematorium where Garth’s funeral service was held was packed with mourners. Packed. I mean, the room was wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder, black overcoats, black bowler hats, and black umbrellas. I was, if I’m honest, in disbelief. Quite a crowd for a cantankerous soul.
At the wake, I smiled politely and made small talk with whomever I bumped into. Without fail and repeatedly, someone who clocked my American accent would whisper in my ear. ‘Do you know who you were just talking with?’ they’d ask. ‘No,’ I’d say to the stranger. ‘Well, that was the Head Of This Ministry,’ or ‘That was the Head Of That Ministry,’ or ‘That was the most trusted news anchor in the history of the BBC, nigh, the entire civilized world.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh.’ And the stranger would shudder and curl their upper lip, almost imperceptively, like the Brits do when their superiority shows.
This is how I came to understand Garth was low-key a national treasure, as national treasure as you can be in the clandestine world of espionage.
Turns out Garth was a legendary codebreaker at GCHQ, the American version of the National Security Agency. His funeral service was a who’s who of spies, intelligence agents, and all-round heroes who quietly kept the UK and, thereby the world, safe. And me.
When the undertaker herded us solemnly into the chapel, I dutifully filed in behind all the overcoats and sat down. Almost immediately, a woman asked if I would move down one seat so she could sit next to her husband. ‘Of course,’ I said politely, and I moved down one seat until the next person asked if I could move down one seat so they, too, could sit next to their husband/wife/friend/sister/banker/gardener. Monty Python style, all eyes on me, I moved down one seat at a time until no seats were left, and I had to move a few rows back. Eventually, with the entire congregation satisfied I had taken the right seat, the priest began the service.
That’s when I noticed Garth’s casket was on a conveyor belt.
A very bad feeling washed over me. A conveyor belt? At a funeral? What was this all about? I prayed for answers to come real quick because I could feel the nervous giggles rising in my throat.
The priest went on about how the world would be totally effed without Garth’s gifted brain and codebreaking talents. My mind drifted to the collection of conch shells in Garth and Jean’s dining room, shells they collected over a lifetime of exotic diving vacations. I watched their daughter twist her hands in her lap, knowing the complicated relationship with her dad would not be resolved in this lifetime. And Jean, poor Jean. She looked especially fragile. It made me teary.
But as my heartstrings were pulled, a tinny, metal-on-metal, rusty sound snapped me back into the moment.
Behind the casket, very dusty, nearly dry-rotted red velvet curtains started to grind along a metal track. As the curtain spread apart, a space slightly larger than a coffin was revealed behind it. Next, the conveyor belt lurched to a start. It belched the casket back, little by little, until the mystery space swallowed the coffin whole. Where was it going? Would it drop like a roller coaster into the mouth of the cremator? Would we watch it burn? Would there be flames? What was going on???
I looked around. No one was freaking out but me.
Everyone looked as if this was normal, as if they were witnessing a dozen eggs riding the grocery store checkout belt. I was craning my neck and twisting in my chair to get a good read of every mourner’s face and body language. Was I in some sort of hidden camera reality TV show? How did I not know the funeral conveyor belt was a thing? How could I be so grossly and culturally unprepared for this moment? What. the. actual. fuck. was. going. on? And how could the other mourners be stone-faced? Where was that casket going, for God’s sake? Was someone in a hurry? Couldn’t they start that conveyor belt after we all left?
I can’t overstate the noise. The noise. Omg, the grinding metal on metal, piercing noise didn’t let up. No one flinched and, you’ll have to trust me on this, I looked like crazy for anyone, anyone else who was driven to madness by the noise. This was core memory noise, the kind of funeral noise that’s going to leave a mark on your soul and sear itself into each individual cell in your body. You will be scarred for life. A can of WD40 would have done wonders. At least I’d only have to live with the visual, not the noise.
When, blessedly, the casket reached its final resting point, the conveyor belt stopped. The screeching of the curtains began once again, grinding the curtains to a close. At last, the casket was hidden from view. It was like Garth’s casket was never there, like a poorly executed magic trick. An eerie hush blanketed the room.
I had zero idea what to expect next, but I did know this: Garth was fully committed to the other side of that nearly disintegrated, red velvet curtain, whatever lay in store for him.
And probably Teddy would be barking at him.