How to flood a road

I used to copy edit for a magazine whose editorial standards—I’m trying to be diplomatic here, and that’s never easy—were less than stratospherically high. (This doesn’t sound like it’s about floods, but we’ll get there. Stay with me.) Editing for them was hack-and-slash work whose goal was to create something marginally coherent. I’d clear out the irrelevancies, bolt in a few bits of basic grammar, then run like hell before the whole structure fell in.

One day, because it was grammatically correct, I zipped past a sentence that said, “Water here has no choice but to run downhill.” I’d gone three sentences further on before I ground to a halt and thought: Wait a minute. What does water do someplace else? Stop and ask directions?

I deleted it and I’ve gotten more than my share of laughs from it over the years.

Irrelevant photo: thrift growing on the cliffs.

Irrelevant photo: thrift growing on the cliffs.

Imagine how I felt, then, when I found out the writer really did know something, even if he didn’t say it in a way that gave the rest of the human race a shot at learning from him: The structure of the underlying rock in the area he was writing about—a part of southern Minnesota—doesn’t allow water to filter into the ground easily, so most of it runs off.

It has no choice but to run downhill.

Well, water in Cornwall (and possibly the rest of the country, but I don’t want to go out on a limb here) has no choice but to run downhill. Some of it filters into the ground, but less than I’m used to. During the time I lived in Minnesota, I saw a six-inch rain and a ten-incher. The streets flooded, the roof leaked, the neighbors got out hammer and nails and started building an ark, and our street, which I’d have sworn was as flat as an ironing board, turned out to have a dip where the water gathered and the parked cars bobbed around in the (literal) wake of a passing bus.

Over by the University of Minnesota campus, two people canoed down the street.

In north Cornwall, we can get that kind of drama (minus the canoe) out of two inches of rain. Or one if it comes down fast enough. Especially if it falls on saturated ground. And boy, have I learned to recognize saturated ground.

So my definition of a heavy rain has changed. Even the rain gauge we bought here reflects that: In Minnesota, our rain gauge went up to six inches. Here, it tops out at two.

What happens in a heavy rain here? Drive the back roads and you’ll see water pouring off the fields, often in small waterfalls. Wild Thing once saw it bubbling up through the pavement itself. Some of that water will flow into the ditches and through them to the nearest river and some of it, in the absence of a ditch or in the presence of a blocked ditch, will flow down the road so that the road itself becomes part of the drainage system.

But before it gets to that nearest river I mentioned, some of it will form scenic little lakes in low spots on the roads, most of them shallow enough to drive through but a few of them deep enough to kill an engine. One rainy year, a low spot on the way into our village claimed two cars. The drivers either didn’t notice the flood until they were already in it (that happens surprisingly easily, especially in the dark or just after a blind curve) or they misjudged the depth.

And when the water makes it to the rivers? They rise quickly. This is hilly country, and water around here—oh, I can’t help myself—has no choice but to run downhill. Even tame little streams can go feral and flood roads, houses, bridges, fields, villages, towns. Every so often a car gets swept off the road, and people drown. It’s nothing to fool around with.

Wild Thing and I had to drive to Plymouth once just after a heavy storm, and the roads were flooded in several places. Wild Thing grew up in Texas and Oklahoma and is used to fords. She claims her parents had her wade across so they could see if it was safe for the car. She never did get swept away, so we can’t prove child endangerment. I’m guessing the water wasn’t as high as she thought, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Me, though? I grew up in New York City and my idea of what to do when the water rises is go home and eat bagels.

So even though I was driving, Wild Thing was the one who had to decide if we could get through. An orange traffic cone was bobbing around in one flooded bit, and I did have second thoughts about going through it. And third thoughts. But she swore we could get through and we did, in spite of how low our car is.

By the time we came back, the flood had drained away and the Tamar—the river that separates Cornwall from the rest of the country, which had been out of its banks—had already dropped. The writer who taught me about water and choices might well have added that it also has no choice but to flow downstream.

Great British traditions: the boot sale

 

Let’s play a word association game: I say “great British traditions” and you say what? Tea on the lawn? The queen? Baffling parliamentary traditions? Heads on a pike outside the city walls? Chasing a cheese down a hill? Running a race carrying a flaming barrel of tar?

I’ve written about a good part of that and dutifully stuck in the links because that’s what bloggers do. I’d be banned from the internet if I didn’t. I’d But forget them all. They’re trivial. We’re talking serious British tradition today. We’re talking about the great British boot sale.

The first time Wild Thing and I visited Britain, we rented a car and drove maniacally from one end of the island to the other and then back to London along (roughly) the opposite coast until we’d made a full circuit. It’s a small country, right? We could see everything.

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

We saw a hell of a lot less than we would have if we hadn’t tried to see so much, but it was enough to draw us back. And more importantly, to introduce us to the boot sale. Why, we asked each other as we drove past yet another Boot Sale sign, are they selling all these boots? And why only one? Who buys single boots? What happens to the other one?

Hey, we know how to ponder the deep questions life throws at us. But not necessarily to answer them, because we didn’t stop to find out what a boot sale was. We were in a hurry. We had something else on our list of things to not-entirely-see that day. So the mystery remained in place until we passed a variation on the sign, which said Car Boot Sale.

Aha. Got it. The boot is the trunk. They’re selling car trunks.

No, they’re selling stuff out of the trunks. It’s a flea market!

I love a flea market.

We still didn’t stop. We were in too much of a hurry to have fun. I mean, hell, it was a vacation.

So we’re making up for it now. On a recent (and a-typically dry) spring Sunday, Wild Thing and I went to the local boot sale, which is held in a field and raises money for the community hospital. When we first moved here, we went this boot sale regularly. It was a great place to look for things we knew we needed and find things we didn’t know we needed until we saw them. Used stuff, new stuff, hand-made craft-type stuff, who-knows-what-and-why-does-it-matter? stuff. We bought kitchen canisters, bakeware, a teapot that I broke and then its replacement, a two-seat wooden bench for the front yard. Plants. Eggs. Flapjacks, which if you’re not British I should explain aren’t pancakes but sweet, heavy oat bars that leave you licking your fingers for the next half hour because they always  leave just a little more syrup than you found last time you licked. And the syrup always escapes the paper.

No, there’s nowhere to wash. It’s a field.

This time, we weren’t looking for anything in particular, it was just a social thing. We just wanted to wander through, see what was for sale, let the dogs say hello to other dogs. Dog people always end up talking with other dog people, so we got to do a bit of greeting ourselves.

We came home with two pictures that Ida bought for their frames, a knitted doll for a toddler who’s about to become a big sister, a couple of plastic cars for the toy box, and some little china cottages, which are the real reason I’m writing this.

The cottages were displayed in a small basket on the ground and I only bent down to look through them just to kill time while Wild Thing was looking at I have no idea what. We didn’t want to get too far apart or we’d never find each other again. The place was crowded, and Wild Thing’s cell phone doesn’t like me. Any chance it gets, it blocks my number. Wild Thing swears it’s not her doing and I shouldn’t take it personally.

I turned a couple of the cottages over in my hands and noticed a typed (you remember typewriters?) label on the back of one: Shakespeare’s cottage. A poet friend in the U.S., J., had asked not long before if I could find her a Shakespeare tee shirt, since we are endlessly commemorating the 400th anniversary of his death. (He seems to have taken a very long time to die.) I’d just ordered her one, and here I was looking at a tiny replica of his cottage.

Or what claimed to be a replica. How would I know what his cottage looked like? When I looked further, I saw two other cottages that were identical and weren’t labeled Shakespeare’s cottage or anything else, but I was willing to be convinced. I mean, somebody had typed that out and pasted it to one of the cottages. How could it not be true?

So I asked how much it was.

The woman selling it said I couldn’t buy just the one. It was the whole lot (twelve or so) or nothing.

Fine, then: nothing. I put Shakespeare’s cottage back in the basket and we moved on. But I kept thinking about the damned thing. Because J. wants a Shakespeare tee shirt. And because the cottages had a dollhouse quality that meant I couldn’t keep my mind off them.

Wild Thing and I used to build dollhouses for the kids in our lives, and every adult who came to the house when we had a partly finished standing around, no matter who they were, no matter how tough they were or unlikely they were, ended up moving the furniture around. They couldn’t help themselves.

And I couldn’t help myself. As we wandered around the rest of the boot sale, I argued with myself about the cottages: They’re collectibles, I told myself, meaning the seller would want too much for them. That’s not really Shakespeare’s cottage. At least not unless he was very, very small and could fit through a molded china door. J. will think it’s silly and then feel like she has to keep it because it’s a present.

Just as we were leaving, I lost the argument, as I’d known I would, and went back. How much did the seller want for them?

Five pounds.

I could probably have bargained, but having lost the battle with myself I wasn’t about to fight with her. I handed over my money and tried to give her back the basket.

Nope, I had to take the basket too.

I tell you, that woman drove a hard bargain.

I left with the cottages, the basket, and the tissue paper lining the basket, and we ran into another great British tradition: generosity in traffic. I know I lured you in with the promise of one tradition, but I can drive a hard bargain myself. Today if you read about one tradition, you get another for free.

Pushy New Yorker that I will always be at heart, British drivers amaze me, even after ten years in the country. Wild Thing and I were in a kind of feeder line, hoping to edge into the line of cars that were inching their way to the exit, and somebody held back and made a space we could pull into. As I’d known someone would but even so I was breathless with gratitude, because anytime I try to pull into traffic some tiny voice in my head starts a drone: This is going to take forever. It’s going to take longer than forever. We’ll die here and our skeletons will turn to dust before the traffic thins out. But someone always makes space. Such generosity. Such public-spiritedness. Such a sense of cooperation.

I was basking in all that good feeling when someone ahead of us made a space for a car that was waiting in the next feeder line and I snapped back into New York (or maybe that’s American; I’ve lost track) mode: You mean this applies to everyone here? We’ll never get out. Even the memory of our skeletons will turn to dust…

Well, yes, it does apply to everyone. If you’ll read the small print, right there at the end of page two…

Okay, I was ashamed of myself. So much so that I let someone in ahead of me.

I told Wild Thing I was going all British on her.

“You didn’t let the car behind them in,” she said.

“Fuck no,” I said. “I’m not that British.”

And there, my friends, we leave our ongoing saga, The Britishization of Wild Thing and Ellen. They have encountered two great British traditions and managed to not to embarrass themselves on the public stage, even if one of them reverted to type, swore roughly as much as usual, and on top of that snuck a case of spare Z’s past customs and planted one of them right here in this paragraph, where a Brit would use an S.