Small-Town Chick in the Big-Time World

Kathleen had already missed the first ten items on her itinerary. But then, who puts being arrested—

“I’d like to call my lawyer, please?”

“L’il gal wants ‘er solicitor, imagine that, ‘Erman.”

—and deported—

Asking: “Please, may I call the Embassy?” was met with a derogatory snort. “Please? I’m being polite.”

—on their itinerary?

“Po-lite, she says, ‘Erman.”

Maybe #12 on the itinerary, right past Watch a game of boules, should have been: Be chased by a dignified mob for a crime you don’t understand.

While she was at it, #13: Get berated for a crime you couldn’t possibly have committed.

And then #14: Join in with the mob chasing you for littering by loss of one’s mitten. Of course, considering everything else she’d been accused of, #14 had already gotten lost in the shuffle.

Perhaps if she was the type to be tragically bored. Right after the changing of the guard, yes, yes, that’s a brilliant time to annoy the natives. But Kathleen was not the type to be tragically bored. “Where’s my phone call? Where’s my tin cup? Where’s my—”

The guard reared back, spittle flying from his lips. “You jumped the queue!”

“Yes, about that—”

“You admit it!”

“I don’t even know what it means!”

He frowned, purple lips, beady eyes, a mustache thick as a Brillo pad.

“If I did it, I’m sorry.”

“She’s sorry, ‘Erman.”

“I am. I don’t know what I did, but see, that man—”

“’Erman.”

“Herman?”

“Yeah, ‘Erman.”

“He was chasing me.”

“’Erman ‘ere was chasing you? And where were you?”

“I had just stumbled upon this great memorial to Canada… I was in a park… Green Park? And then I got really excited because it was near the Palace! I’ve never seen a palace, not at all. Come to think of it, I still haven’t…” She drooped.

“And that’s when ‘Erman started chasing you?”

“Yes. He started yelling and chasing me and I got scared and I thought, I’m here in this big park and there are no witnesses and he’s going to kill me.”

“You thought ‘Erman was going to kill you.”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t you see what ‘e was wearing?”

“He had a really big hat. And he was wearing all black. When it’s dark out and a man wearing all black in a deserted park comes running at me, I don’t think that’s a sign that he wants to welcome me to the country. I haven’t slept…” She sniffled. “My plane had just gotten in… and my room wasn’t ready yet… but they held my luggage at the hotel… and I was just going to get something to eat and some coffee… did I mention I haven’t slept since we left O’Hare? That’s a terrible airport. It’s awful. I never want to go there again.”

“Yer on yer way back, you know.”

“Please, I just want to go to my hotel and sleep. The last thing I ate was on the plane. I took the coach from Heathrow, and that was awful. I’ve never been so sick. The coach just kept going ‘round and ‘round in circles. It was awful.”

“You don’t travel much, do you?”

“I’m American.” She lifted her chin with dignity. “I don’t have to travel. No one in my family has ever been out of the country.”

“And you’re ‘ere because…?”

“Because I won! It was a contest. You come up with a snappy jingle or a poem, and you send it in, and I won! I was the snappiest!” She started to cry as she laughed. “So snappy.”

“And yer ‘ole trip’s been awful.” He tapped his hand against the thick bars of the cell she was in.

She looked up at him and blinked and tried to stop crying, but then she looked at the bars and the little cot and the tall man with the purple lips in front of her and she couldn’t think of a single good thing to say. “The… the plane didn’t… it didn’t crash.” She hiccupped. “Can I have a tissue?”

“Tell me why you thought ‘Erman was going to kill you.”

“He was chasing me! Any man chasing a woman… maybe he was just going to mug me, I didn’t know. But usually, when you’re in a city, and London is a city, isn’t it? It’s a big city! I’ve never been to a big city. I’d never even been to Omaha before I had to go to their airport to come here, and trust me, I didn’t go there to sightsee, in fact, I kept my eyes closed most of the time. When you’re talking decadence in Nebraska, you’re talking about Omaha. And then here I am with all these sidewalks and concrete and these great big amazing buildings that are older than I am, and there’s all these people, and believe me, that’s scary when you’re from a town of two thousand. Then here was this man and he yelled at me! No one’s yelled at me since I was three and I touched the stove—see? I still have the burn mark, just here, you could see it if the light was better. People just don’t yell at me. I go out of my way to make sure no one yells at me. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word he said. He’s not from around here, is he?”

“Eh?”

“Well, um, I’m sorry. I guess you’re not from around here, either, are you?”

“I very well am, thank you very much! Londoner, through and through! Born and raised and don’t you say otherwise!”

Kathleen moved away from the bars. She wished there were a wall between them, not just a few flimsy iron bars three inches thick. “Um, well, Herman…?”

“’Erman, yeah, tell me about ‘Erman.”

“He was—well, he was a very big man. Intimidating.”

The guard laughed. “’Ear that, ‘Erman? You were a big man, you was.”

“I’m sorry about that… I don’t know what happened.”

The guard snorted. His eyes bulged and his nose wrinkled.

“A lot of muggers kill people… or rape them… I don’t know much about your crime rate. I should have looked. I really should have looked it up before I left. You always want to know what to be most careful of. If he’d just wanted my purse, that’s one thing, there was nothing in it. I keep my valuables… well, you know. There are secret places. For travelers. You know, you saw! You took them from me! Just like you knew they’d be there! You patted me down! I’ve never had a man—” She turned away and put her hands over her face.

“There, there, no reason fer you to feel violated. Just doin’ my duty, mum.”

“You touched me! And Herman came after me, waving this stick! Like it was a euphemism! I’m a virgin, but even I know that when a man waves a great big stick at a woman he’s trying to get her to think something else, and that just isn’t right, not right at all, especially not in the line of duty, who trained you policemen to do such a thing? He should be ashamed!—do you think… he can still be ashamed?

“I really… don’t know what… happened to him. I can tell you it’s never happened before, and I don’t think I had anything to do with it. I didn’t! I just can’t turn people to dust!” Kathleen wiped her eyes on her sleeve, then turned her head to her other sleeve, which was dryer. “So I ran, and there were all these people standing in line at the bus, so I got in with them. Witnesses, you know.

“But then they got mad, too, and they turned on me and I had a lot of trouble understanding what the problem was. They kept talking about the Q. I’ve never been on the L, either, and I certainly hoped I didn’t have to take the Q. Then they pushed me! They pushed me off the bus and I was just going to go away, but then the bus left them all standing there, and the people turned and started running toward me. I haven’t the foggiest why. So I started running, too.

“And then we got to the next bus stop, and I’m not very fast, I know I could stand to lose a few pounds, but all you people are just too skinny, and it runs in my family, I’ve got a slow metabolism. It’s not like I needed a second belt in the airplane… Anyway, all the locals passed me, and so then it was like I was chasing them. I would have stopped except your man Herman was still behind me.

“We got to the next bus stop, and everyone stopped, all in a line! It was amazing! They were all standing right in a line, and it was like they hadn’t ever chased me at all. They went back to greeting each other and reading the newspaper and sorting their change. But Herman was still chasing me, like I said, so I crept up to the front of the line, thinking maybe I could hide behind the tall man, but they all turned on me again, and it was such an outrage! Whatever it was I’d done. But then the sun came up, it was dawn, you know, and that comes pretty early when you’re this far north, and poof!”

“Poof, she says, ‘Erman.” He patted the little urn in which they had swept up their colleague after he had turned to dust on the pavement.

“Well, they stopped bothering me after Herman turned to dust, you can just imagine. They all backed away and didn’t come near me.”

“You poofed him.”

“Now wait a minute! I can’t turn people to dust!”

The guard backed away and picked up Herman’s urn. “Just you tell me ‘ow to explain to ‘Erman’s wife, now, you tell me that.”

“I didn’t do it!”

He backed against the door.

“What about my phone call?”

“That’s for criminals, but you’re a—you—you’re a—” He shook the urn, holding it in both hands. “You jumped the queue.”

Kathleen sat back on the little cot. She pulled her sweater up to wipe her eyes again. She was getting wet and cold, the more she cried. And she couldn’t even get a tissue! And British people turned to dust with no provocation! “This is why I don’t travel,” she muttered.

#

The second trip to England left Kathleen even more bewildered than the first—and she still hadn’t been to the Palace. The British people had decided, after dumping her on the first flight from Heathrow to O’Hare, to repatriate her for trial. A trial! And she still hadn’t slept. Just gone from one flight to jail to another flight to another flight and back to jail. She felt like a bad game of Monopoly. After she was thrust back into her cell, the police and bobbies and what-have-yous all tiptoed down her corridor and whispered, pointing, “There she is, there’s the woman who turns people to dust!”

O’Hare got worse each time she was there, and the American police who’d raided the airplane at the gate hadn’t helped matters. She was stuck in sleep deprived dreamtime fangs-and-fog-and-dark-shadows, but worse, with Chicago O’Hare’s corridors and terminals and escalators and running people dribbling, drooling, screaming, pounding, luggage luggage everywhere luggage and lighted bulletin boards to say the flight to Hell was on time. Chicago O’Hare was the scariest thing she’d ever seen. Worse yet than when the neighbor boy had been gored by a bull, worse yet than being chased by a black-clothed man with a great big hat in a foreign country near the Queen’s palace, and worse yet than being arrested for charges of witchery. Chicago O’Hare was quite awful.

Shortly after they’d locked her back in the British jail, the familiar guard came in carrying Herman’s urn and shaking it in her face to remind her of her crime. He asked her if she’d repented; she told him she was very penitent, yes indeed, very. Whoever’s crime it was, it was rude and unforgiving.

The guard seemed to accept that and he gave her a nice plate of breakfast, filled with ham that he called rashers and a black thing that he called pudding, then there were scrambled eggs and toast and baked beans and cooked tomatoes and mushrooms and an entire pot of tea, so much food that Kathleen was frightened. She burst into tears. This had to be her last meal! They probably planned to hang her! But, if she didn’t eat, her mama would disapprove. She couldn’t be rude.

“That there’s a full English breakfast, mum, meant to give you strength. No need to cry in your beans.” He held up the urn accusingly. “Unless you’re feeling blue? A bit o’ remorse?” He laughed meanly. “Eat up.” He slammed the cell bars, waved Herman in her face, and left her crying. Which isn’t something a gentleman is supposed to do.

#

Kathleen played hostess for the head of MI6, a delegate from the American Embassy, the head of the regular police force, and Herman’s wife Emma. Kathleen poured out the tea and tried to act civilized, despite the fact that she still hadn’t slept, had spent the better part of three days on trans-Atlantic flights, and her suitcase had been sent to Beirut. And here in the ritzy 1600s-era marble floored high scalloped ceiling room, she found she couldn’t cope with the finger sandwiches. She had been taught a proper woman doesn’t nibble; it’s rude to the cook. Kathleen sat contritely with her hands clasped between her knees and tried to look humble.

Emma argued with the MI6 man. “It was bound to happen sooner or later.”

“Herman was a good man. A good man!”

Kathleen stared at her shoes. They weren’t at all surprised! That Herman…!

“Not without his faults. You didn’t have to live with the man.”

“Upheld the law, even when it put him at risk of his very life.”

“Personally, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.” Emma reached over and patted Kathleen’s arm.

Kathleen whispered, “Personally, I’m surprised it happened at all.” Everyone stopped talking and stared at her.

Telling them the very thought of a man turning to dust surprised her, well! That she was surprised was what surprised them. “Don’t you think?” She shrank back in the Louis XIV chair with ornate designs covered in gold leaf. “It sure surprised the heck out of me, pardon my swearing, I usually don’t. A woman doesn’t… though it sure is appropriate today. Well, I didn’t even know a man could turn to dust. Did you?”

The head of MI6 stood up, looking outraged. He was far too tall to be so skinny, Kathleen thought. Just like a stick bug, with a bulbous head and barely enough shoulder to keep his shirt up with. “You didn’t? Or you want us to praise you for doing so? Give you a medal of valor?”

“Oh, no no no, I wouldn’t dream of—I mean, I didn’t do it!”

“Typically American. A man chases you and you turn him to dust. Just ‘cause he fancies you.”

Kathleen jumped up. “He didn’t!”

“Sure he did. Herman was known for being… indiscrete.”

Emma snorted. “As I said, should’ve happened far sooner.”

“No, you see, Herman wasn’t chasing me because he, well, he couldn’t have found me attractive. My hair was a mess, I was rumpled from the plane—”

“Indiscrete men aren’t overly picky.”

Kathleen decided not to be offended. It wouldn’t be polite in these circumstances. “I mean, he was chasing me for another reason.”

“Which is…?”

“I told you. It’s in the report.”

The silent head of the police force smiled slowly. “She confessed, she did.”

“To what?”

“I dropped my mitten. But of course, I didn’t know that I’d littered. Not until after Herman went poof and I found it lying next to him. By that point, it didn’t matter so much, though. Everyone was in a panic.”

Emma tapped a finger on her teacup. “Then why was his stick out?”

Kathleen looked at her gravely. “As I told them, it was clearly a euphemism.”

“Let’s send her back to O’Hare!” the head of the police force said, poking a mean-spirited finger in the air. “That’ll get her to confess!” He tipped his finger to point at her, his nose quivering in anticipation.

Kathleen burst into tears. It wasn’t long before she was on her third trip to England. And it certainly wasn’t going as planned.

 

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