“But what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.”
– George Eliot, Middlemarch
Chapter One – Escaping the Yanks
George delighted in the bake-shop in Manchester, England. To inhale the glorious aroma of fresh breads, doughnuts, Cornish pasties, steak and kidney pie, shepherd’s pie, assorted biccies, and other warm sweeties made her feel full of hope and alive as a brand new exchange student in the United Kingdom. She longed for the clerk (pronounced clark) with her starched white apron and rosy pink cheeks to think she was British. Why not? George practically was as she had the accent down pat (mostly).
True, she still needed to tackle the British vocabulary, but not bad for a twenty-year-old exchange student from East Tennessee, spending her junior year at Manchester University in the gritty industrial north of England in 1981. The pesky fly in the ointment was that she was still living on a dorm floor loaded with other Americans on the same exchange programme, but she was making plans to move away from them as soon as possible. What was the bloody point of coming all the way to England only to be forced to dwell with a pack of Yanks, the majority of them pathetic and homesick, whingeing on about the lack of pizza and hamburgers?
From the back of the bake-shop a man yelled, “Them that don’t like it can lump it me old friend. That’s what I say. Bloody Thatcherites!”
“Good on you mate!” George wanted to call back in friendly solidarity since her group of British Drama friends had explained to her that the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was an “evil cow,” but gratuitous outbursts were so American, and she didn’t want anyone in the bake-shop to suspect that a “Yank” was skulking about in their midst. Her new and rather brilliant mates also informed her that her journalism major was “a grotty trade school occupation” and that Drama was the more elevated course of study at University. George loved how they called it “University.” As advised by her British friends who were a billion times smarter, she quit journalism cold turkey and made up her mind to become a playwright just as soon as she learned how to write plays.
She had also recently met the most extraordinary Indian girl, Madhvi, the star of the Drama Department. George had never met an Indian girl before, and she hoped they’d become friends for life. Madhvi’s eyes sparkled when she talked about Shakespeare and Chekhov and what it was like to play Cordelia in King Lear and Sofia Alexandrovna Serebryako from Uncle Vanya. Her one-woman show (which George had seen three times) was about a factory worker who wore BIG BEN on her head, and Mahdvi did one bit of the show in stilts except the bit on the unicycle pretending to be Margaret Thatcher. It was hilarious, poignant, and as far as George was concerned the most original piece of literature ever created.
It was only October, Michaelmas term, and already George was spelling everything the proper British way typed on tissue-thin blue aérogrammes back to her Deep South relatives in “the colonies.” Colour, not color, theatre, not the-ATER and realise, not realize – as in George “REALISED” she and England were made for each other, and she did her best to convey that in her weekly letters home to East Tennessee.
Mahdvi is dead brilliant, Mum! She’s one of my new British mates, which reminds me, I’m actually looking for a flat (translation – apartment) because they’ve gone and lumped all the Americans together, which is utterly gobsmacking! Why come all the way to gorgeous England only to hunker down with Yanks? It’s pointless, so I’m looking for someone to sublet my dorm room, as I have found two British mates, who are wanting to share a flat as well. They are absolutely cracking, and they’ve kindly invited me to move in with them. You would absolutely adore Garreth and Philip who are reading English and Drama at University. Garreth is a designer, and Philip is going to be a famous actor one day. We’re hoping for a three bedroom flat in Rushholme, the Indian neighborhood right next to campus that serves up hot curries and loads of fish & chips to go. Bloody marvelous it all is. Kisses to Dad!
P.S. One more thing, Mum, I no longer go by my former name so please address all correspondence to me by my new proper first name: George. I’ve been inspired by George Eliot and Boy George. Please do think of coming for a visit. We’d have such a laugh. I could be your tour guide around the British Isles. They say it’s ever so lovely in the springtime. Give Gilbert and Sullivan my love. xxoo
George reread her PS and saw straight away that it was a big fat lie. It would be hideous if her parents actually came to visit, but she had to say it even if she didn’t actually mean it. That was the southern way. Be polite. Never say what you truly mean, heaven’s no! But George felt like she could extend the invitation without regret because it was unlikely that her parents would ever set foot on British soil in a million years. They didn’t like to travel but even more they loathed the idea of parting with money.
Truth be told, George’s family saw no reason to ever leave the great state of Tennessee, but George was different. No more “All-You-Can-Eat-Sundays” for her at the Shoney’s Big Boy out on Alcoa Highway, ta very much, a two-lane motorway appropriately nicknamed – “I’ll-Kill-Ya-Highway” – and no wonder with all the drunken smashups along its frumpy fast food corridor of Pizza Hut, Krystal’s, Captain D’s, and Wendy’s on the way to the Knoxville Airport. No more dull Sunday dinners with Uncle Gudger describing the police state of Tennessee because of his own lengthy arrest record.
People were truly alive here in the British Isles. It was like being on a movie set called “Great Britain” and she was playing a part. Back at the Shoney’s Big Boy, come to think of it, she wasn’t even George yet. But her old boring name wasn’t even worth mentioning. It lacked purpose and vision. It was rubbish.
“Hello luv, what’s your fancy today?” the clerk smiled at George, who stepped forward in the queue to the counter.
“One scone, please. Ta very much,” she spoke in clipped, efficient syllables.
“Cuppa tea with that, luv?”
“Yes, please. Lovely. Ta.” George smiled at clerk at this fine establishment located between a Tobacconist and a Dispensing Chemist. There were no “Dispensing Chemists” back in East Tennessee either. There were Walgreens and Rexall Drugs and a Winn Dixie pharmacy. A “Dispensing Chemist” was regal sounding. George grabbed her breakfast at the local bake-shop whenever she could afford it, which was not too bloody often, mind you, living on a student budget.
In fact, having any extra pocket money meant swallowing all pride and self-respect to plead with her tight-fisted mother to wire just a wee bit of money into her Barclay’s account… please, oh please, I’m begging you! Pat Pitts, George’s mum never minded dropping hundreds or even thousands on the pot-bellied pigs, Gilbert and Sullivan, at the vet but when one of her own children needed cash, cue the chorus of mourners and let the keening begin.
The clerk handed her a white bag. “One currant scone, luv, and your cuppa tea.”
“Lovely, ta,” George smiled her most polite British smile.
“Thirty P, luv. Wet and horrible out there, blimey, so stay warm today.”
“Ta very much. Indeed it is wet and horrible!” George handed the clerk three ten pence coins called “Ten P’s,” extraordinarily thick coins, which made the American dime or nickel seem like mere toy currency. She stepped out into the torrent of Manchester rain feeling loved. She loved to be called “luv.” No one in her family had ever called her “luv.” They yelled instead, “HEY SHELLEIGH! GET THE LEAD OUT!”
Yes, that was her former awful name. Shelleigh. Shelleigh Grace Pitts. So being called “luv” by a stranger in England made the warm tea and scones taste even more scrumptious in the cold rain. She didn’t mind that everyone called everyone “luv” in Manchester. She felt singled out, treasured (finally!) and dead-chuffed, actually, to have this golden opportunity to become a brand new person in a foreign land.
Besides, what kind of name was “Shelleigh Grace Pitts” to lug around England? Her British professors didn’t bat an eye when she informed them of her name the first day of each intimate tutorial where proper learning happened every single day with exchanges of superior ideas and loads of thought-provoking discussion.
I’m George Pitts, and I couldn’t be more pleased to be in your tutorial.
No more cavernous Astronomy lectures or sleep-inducing Econ lectures on campus TV in Big Orange Country either! Real learning might occur. Finally! How did she ever get so lucky? And best of all, nobody in this great northern city in the United Kingdom gave a bleeding rip whether or not the Tennessee Vols won or lost on Saturday. And who cared if she was going to miss the grand opening of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville with the theme of “Energy Turns the World” the following spring?
True, George wasn’t an actress or a playwright (yet), so she had no rehearsals to go to (yet), which left her feeling (only occasionally) at sixes and sevens. Classes met once a week whereas in the colonies, you had to go to class at least three times a week. So she had more time on her hands to think (fret), but she wanted to appear spectacularly busy, so she went to the library regularly, explored the City Centre, attended wine & cheese parties for foreign students, and she even signed up as a volunteer for children’s theatre in Hull, a bit of a dodgy section in Manchester, but that didn’t start until after Michaelmas term. At least she was reading Middlemarch at night in bed and that eased the loneliness. Surely Isak Dineson was lonely in Africa, wasn’t she, and she didn’t quit. She wrote all about it in Out of Africa.
Out of Manchester…
Maybe George would never go home at all.
Kerry Madden is the author the Smoky Mountain Trilogy published by Viking Children’s Books. The books include Gentle’s Holler (2005), Louisiana’s Song (2007), and Jessie’s Mountain (2008) set in the heart of Appalachia in the Smokies. Gentle’s Holler received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and was a New York and Chicago Public Library Pick. Her first novel, Offsides, was a New York Public Library Pick for the Teen Age in 1997. Her biography, Up Close Harper Lee (Viking) made Booklist’s Ten Top Biographies of 2009 for Youth. She has published stories in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Five Points, Shenandoah, Salon, and the Washington Post. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama Birmingham and has recently joined Antioch University’s low-residency’s MFA Program as Associate Faculty in “Writing for Young People.”