“Get your huge hands and horrid face away from me this minute, sir!” the agitated woman in the flowered frock and plaid overcoat shrieked at me.
“Now! Do you hear me? Now!”
The shrill words, which poured in quick succession from the now severely-pursed lips of the woman who abruptly turned and strode rapidly from me, sounded like the incantations of a high-pitched Gozor from “Ghostbusters,” not Liz, the woman I’d referred to as my English “mum” for decades.
Vicky, the kind lady in charge at the front desk of Silverleigh Cedars rest home in Axminster, a village in southwest England known since 1755 for its fine carpets, gently reminded Liz how excited she’d been earlier in the day to be reminded that her friends from America, Keith and Millie, were coming to see her; but she would have nothing of it now.
“Tell them to leave at once. I don’t know these people, and I don’t wish to see them,” she commanded imperiously.
I left the building, crestfallen, to move our rental car from the spot where it was blocking the exit from the parking lot of the residence. When I returned to collect Millie, Liz was overjoyed to see me and insisted I stay for coffee — though she wasn’t quite sure who I was.
“I’m sure he’s an imposter, pretending to be Keith,” I heard her whisper to a fellow resident as she glided past Millie, of whom she was even less certain.
To establish my bonafides as the real Keith, I decided to invoke the ghost of “Niven,” British actor David Niven’s happy-go-lucky brother who served as verger of the village church and semi-official handyman on Liz’s farm.
“Oh, yes, Niven,” Liz cooed. “You’re right. He was always in the kitchen looking for a mid-morning cup of coffee, wasn’t he? Niven. That’s right, Niven.
“Did you know him? Oh, yes. Of course you did.”
Bingo. We were off and running.
“And Maurice,” I continued, evoking memories of the short, roly-poly vestryman at the village church. I reminded Liz how he’d begged my mother to send him a “picture postcard” of Madewood. Liz then recalled that he’d shown it around the countryside, touting it as “the country estate of my frightfully well-to-do American friends.”
We reminisced about Christopher, the organist who enjoyed a pint or two at the pub in Uploders after service. And Gregory, the high-church Anglican minister who admonished Liz, whom he’d invited up to London for dinner at Simpson’s in the Strand and a West End show, to be prudent in the number of fresh asparagus she ordered.
“Be careful, my dear. They charge one pound per stem this time of year, you know.”
I think that was the last time she slipped away with the vicar.
We parted late in the afternoon, with none of us quite sure who the other was.
My thoughts drifted to the telephone call that had prompted this trans-Atlantic visit. A strange man, who turned out to be the father of Liz’s niece, had answered the phone at Coombe Farm, and, with genuine concern in his voice, advised me that Liz was no longer able to manage the farm on her own.
“She’s moved to a lovely rest home in nearby Axminster. Quite nice,” he assured me. “They have a staff member for every three or four inmates . . sorry, residents.”
His slip of tongue convinced me a personal visit was in order, so off Millie and I headed.
On another day of our visit, the receptionist returned with a blunt message: “Tell them I don’t want to see them just now. But be tactful,” Liz had added added with an appropriate amount of noblesse oblige. “Say they can come back later if they like.”
Liz was all atwitter when we retuned after lunch in the village at River Cottage Canteen and Deli, a landmark for gourmands of a healthy, organic bent.
“Oh, do come along. Would you like some tea . . . or coffee?”
We took our places at the same table we’d occupied previously in the airy conservatory, where Liz was solicitous of our need for refreshment.
Conversation turned to our mothers, whom Liz seemed to have merged into a single personality, though memory of distinct characteristics persisted.
“Now Naomi, you wouldn’t tangle with her; she knew what she wanted, didn’t she? But Millie, your mother, she always wanted a bit off the price of the antiques in our barn, I suppose because she had a shop of her own.
“Oh, yes. And Keith. He could look down his nose a bit every now and again, you know. Very grand.”
I recalled one night of our honeymoon in our river-view room at London’s Savoy Hotel, when we’d decided to have an intimate dinner in the room. Millie ordered Chicken a la King from the menu; I chose Pheasant Under Glass. Was Liz right about me?
I objected, and maintained I was a humble lad when I stayed on the farm for six weeks that spring of 1970 to read everything I should have read at Oxford the previous two years.
“Oh, my dear boy, you’re incorrigible,” she said with the kind of laugh I remembered from decades ago. Then turning to Millie, she continued, “I do like his quips; but you must know he took most of them straight out of my drawer.”
Millie began to describe our little condominium in the mountains of western North Carolina.
“Condominiums?” Liz Drew back in mock astonishment. “I always thought those were salt and pepper.”
The old Liz was still there, pleased with her quick repartee.
“You know, Keith and Millie were soft, but never silly,” she replied when we brought up our mothers again. We nodded in agreement. Soft. Not silly.
But who did she think we were, sitting there listening to her speak of Keith and Millie?
Then it was time to leave. Liz was concerned we wouldn’t have a proper dinner on our drive to Southampton, but we bid adieu and walked slowly out of the conservatory.
“You will write?” Liz implored.
“Of course,” I replied. “I’m good with words. It’s the only thing I still do well.”
“That’s a good thing,” she mused aloud. “For whatever else would you do?”
An excellent question — more incisive, perhaps, than she realized.