the thatcher’s house




I was in southwestern England years ago with my friend Willie Nininger the folksinger . He was playing some of the pubs in Devon and Somerset . He had gigs in England for a few weeks every year and he had local friends and fans .

I went to a birthday party with him . It was a freewheeling  affair , inside a pub and outside in the car park . Welcome , welcome , they all said to me , not knowing who I was , operating on the principle that any friend of Willie’s is a friend of ours. So we raised our pints to the birthday girl and drank and celebrated and sang For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow  Which Nobody Can Deny .

One of the guests invited Willie and the other American  ( me ) to his house for a special meal . No , no , I said . Willie doesn’t come without you , he insisted . O.K. , then , thanks . He’s got a three-hundred year old house , Willie said , and he’s a gourmet cook . Great ! , I said facetiously . But the die had already been cast and my immediate destiny was set .

Part of the problem was that I had been wearing the same shirt for three days and the same blue jeans for five because I had no other clothes . I had taken an early flight from Berlin to London , had left Poland at four in the morning to make it to Tegel in Berlin  by six . I was second in line to check my bag . No other passengers around. There were two conveyor belts behind the sleepy airline employee : one to London and one to Ankara . I didn’t watch her put my bag on the Ankara belt . I would be in England for ten days. My bag went to Turkey without me and only arrived in London on my day of departure . So , I bought a couple of shirts , a toothbrush , underwear , and waited in vain for the airline’s help getting my clothes to me . I got a daily dose of  empty promises .

So we went to the house . Everyone had been drinking throughout the afternoon . A small group of us gathered in the main room of the house  . A fire crackled in the hearth . There was a third American there , a university student on break . Our host produced a bottle of liquor and a glass for each of us . We’re going to celebrate ! What ? said Willie . The house , the birthday , England , the shepherd’s pie he had cooking , America , music , he said . A toast to music !

And another. And another .

And then we just drank , and talked , and tried not to fall off the chairs , and admired the house , and praised the upcoming food , and discussed the characteristics of the blazing  fire burning in the hearth and shared in depth analyses of modern England and America , and swallowed more booze .

The man’s wife had banished herself to a back room . His son was coming home later . His son worked with him .  They were  thatchers  . There wasn’t much thatching work being done nowadays — not like in the old days . He fixed an assiduous gaze on me . Oh , you were in Poland ? Most of the thatching material is shipped in from Poland . Indeed . It’s a small world .scotch

And then the food came . Something English . Something special . Heesh a gourmet , slurred Willie . Pass the bottle , if you will , someone said. If I can . If I can. Oh , so delicious ! What do you call it , again ? Yorkshire pudding . Shepherd’s pie . Fool .

Did he call me a fool ? asked the American student . No , no . It’s a dessert .

Have some more , have some more ! You American guys came so far to be here . Have some more ! No , no thanks . Please !  You’d be doing me a favor . Have it , said the old man near the door . The American student looked at me , asked with his eyes : would it seem rude not to accept  ? Help me.

Come on mates ! There’s just enough for two !

Hesitation . We’re both on the spot now . In a foreign country . In the face of unrelenting hospitality . What to do ? The room full of revelers waits .

The student speaks first : O.K. , sure . I’d love it , he says . I follow . Me too. Thanks. If you’re sure . If you’re sure , repeats the student . Our plates are slapped with extra fool . The fool is finished . Pass that bottle if you please .

With a mobile phone in her hand the wife comes into the room and calls us a den of drunks . She tells the husband that  son Edgar is on his way . He’ll be hungry . His favorite food is fool and the fool is gone . Your drunken friends have eaten the fool !

I saved some for Edgar , says the thatcher , but the two Americans ate it ! It was there , right there , a few moments ago ! And now they’ve eaten it !

My fellow Americans , I thought , it’s time to go . Willie was already up and stumbling  for his coat . I could see panic in the student’s eye . But he insisted , he said to me . But he insisted .

Get out ! Out of my house !

And then  waves of undue invective spewing  forth from the room propelled us out the door and out into the cold dark English night .

Nice house , I told Willie as we stood outside in an empty road in the open air  and the American student fought with the zipper of his jacket in a frustrated competition with the cold .

Did you like the food ? Willie inquired  .

I didn’t even want that extra helping , the poor guy with us mumbled .

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