Mother insisted that I take the red carnations with me. I tried to resist, but she was adamant. The flowers were my present to Mrs. Rhoda Lovett, 10 Hillbrow Road, Bournemouth.
I shoved the carnations into the bottom of my travel bag. On the plane, I pushed the bag under the seat in front of me. I had never given anyone flowers, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to say. What kind of expression should I wear? What kind of smile? For a British lady—a complete stranger to me.
I had imagined the situation many times, and it always felt just as impossible. Insurmountable, among all the other challenges and trials. After the flight, I was supposed to take a bus with a group of perfect strangers—young people attending the same language course—and was supposed to end up at the right address in a strange city, late at night.
I GREET MRS. RHODA Lovett. She has lilac hair, and little diamond-like stones adorn the frames of her glasses. I shake her hand, tell her my name, and thank her for accommodating me.
I pronounce my English as slowly and clearly as I can. She corrects me immediately: it’s very, not wery.
My knees feel weak. Everything is happening so fast.
“Don’t worry. You will learn how to say very here,” she says. “Welcome! You look exhausted. Your bed has been made, and the toilet is at the end of the corridor. A German girl is staying in the room next to yours. You can have tea and bread downstairs at eight in the morning.”
Mrs. Lovett articulates slowly. Her lilac hair is a round cloud above her head.
I THANK HER and climb the narrow stairs. I sit down on the bouncy bed in my room. A big black alarm clock is ticking. I am surrounded by strange scents and noises that I cannot place in any reality. Are they cars or people—or perhaps nocturnal birds? Can I smell the scent of the sea?
I open the narrow window and sniff the air. Very, very, very. I keep pressing my upper front teeth against my lower lip until I can taste blood.
Then I walk to the toilet and push the carnations into the bowl, one by one. I flush many times over.
IN THE MORNING, I wake to the sound of plumbers in Mrs. Lovett’s house and the neighborhood.
Sewage trucks have been parked in front of houses, and thick smoke-colored hoses have been drawn inside. The men are shouting instructions to each other over hedges in the yards. The sun is shining. Dogs are running around with their tongues hanging out, chasing peculiar smells. Thin curls of smoke are rising from little chimney stacks on the houses.
GISELA GERSTENMAIER, the German girl, walks down the stairs, holding a travel radio against her ear. Marc Bolan is telling her to “Get It On.” At breakfast, she hesitates for a long while before shaking my hand over the table.
She is sitting opposite a “very strange” Finnish girl, who forced twenty carnations down the toilet and caused a massive problem on Hillbrow Road.
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