There are two things I miss about England. One is the church bells. In Abingdon I loved to hear the rich, round sounding bells at St. Helen’s Church toll down the Thames, marking the passing of time. The church bells offered us a pleasant, sensory connection to our past and a shared expectation of our future. For me, they provided direction and focus, particularly during times in my life when things were fuzzy and a bit wobbly.
Which leads me to the other thing I miss: the pub. There were more than a few times in my life when I needed direction and focus after a pleasant evening at the pub, and it was a lucky thing that the little cottage I lived in was next to St. Helen’s Church. The rich, round church bells were often my escort home on a fuzzy, wobbly night.
Sadly, the tradition of the English public house did not survive the journey across the Atlantic when my ancestors arrived all those centuries ago, and I find myself wondering why. The American bar is simply not the same, and I must say that I avoid these establishments at all costs. Americans – at least the Americans who I’ve had the opportunity to meet during my recent travels around Virginia – seem to favour coffee shops. The motif in American coffee shops is somewhat like it is in English pubs, but the motivation is completely different.
At the pub people find one another, cramming into impossibly small nooks or crannies to socialize. At the coffee shop people ignore one another, cramming into impossibly small nooks and crannies for self-absorption. At the pub men slow down into indecipherable gauziness with every drink. At the coffee shop, men spin up into pontificating know-it-alls with every drink. At the pub people say “Sorry” while they allow their dogs to sniff about unchecked. At the coffee shop people say nothing while they allow their children to sniff about unchecked.
I’m afraid I can do little about the paucity of bells in Chipping Norton, Virginia. However, it is patently obvious that what this town needs is a combination pub and coffee shop. I have elected to have one built in The Greene Grocer, and for this purpose I have employed the expert services of Tommy Higgins, who is eminently gifted at constructing both stunning wooden structures and captivating tall tales. He is in the midst of building one of each when he suddenly stops his handiwork and smiles his broad, boyish smile. Tommy Higgins smiles a good deal, which is a trait in him I quite like. He has blindingly perfect American teeth.
“You do any bass fishin’, Simon?” he drawls through a puckish grin.
“’Fraid not,” I reply, checking myself for mimicking his Dixie lilt.
“Well, clear your calendar Monday. I’ll pick you up at five.”
I begin to muster my most polite British refusal when Tommy cuts me off.
“Oh, look!” he says. “Mary Robins is here.”
An exquisite woman with bright green eyes and a pixie’s haircut floats into my shop and kisses Tommy on the cheek.
“Gotta go, Simon!” says Tommy, gathering his belongings. “See ya Monday!”
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