Death by Cheese...

Hay-on-Wye, Wales... The Three Tuns pub....

This story is set at the beginning of a round-the-world foray that I embarked on when I turned 50.
I hoped that I had gambled wisely in the intervening years by postponing the Great Trip to a later phase of life.
Not too late, mind you...65 was the cultural norm, but travelling in one's declining years made little sense to me.
As well, travelling-like youth-is wasted on the young.
There is that excess of enthusiasm which is akin to madness and one still lacks real capacity for taking in the experience.
Timing is everything in life...

In my earlier years, I would have opted for an ambitious itinerary...a fast and furious race to step foot in every country on the globe.
(see )
Approaching 50 called for a fresh consideration.
I was a vastly different person 30 years later...
My interests in travelling centered around writing, hiking, a more specific kind of exploration of life, the world and its people.
Editing in in writing...has its distinct advantages...

So what more fitting place to embark upon the great trip and the aspect of writing than the Village of Booksellers...Hay-on-Wye in Wales.
This most enchanting and inspiring hamlet had turned up on my radar in the 70's, during my own decade of bookselling in New York City.
I vowed to return and spend more time there one day...

It was a chill spring afternoon when I stepped off the bus from London.
I breathed in the sweet country air with a sense of excitement and anticipation for what lay ahead!
I made my way up the hill toward the castle at the heart of town.
Clouds raced overhead and a light sprinkle was felt now and then.
I found a café patio with a wrought iron table and chairs.
I settled in with a cup of tea and took in the scene.
Thankfully, very little had changed in the intervening years. Hay was every bit as quaint and charming as before.

A young man, no doubt curious about a stranger in the village,introduced himself and asked if he could join me.
We enjoyed a lively chat. He marveled that I was marking the start of a world tour with a sojourn in Hay.
"Books were my first trip around the world!" I told him. "My trip began in childhood!"

I asked if he could recommend a good B&B.
In response, he graciously took me on a walking tour of the village.
He helped me choose the perfect inn.
After introducing me to the owner, he wished me a good stay
and a good journey.
I was shown to a lovely, well-appointed room.
I unpacked my bag and made things cozy for my stay.

A few minutes later, there was a soft knock on the door.
My companion from the café...bearing a single long-stemmed red rose.
"A gift for your journey..."
He handed me a card with his number.
"Call me on your return at the end of the trip!"

A lovely token of blessing for the journey...
That rose, placed between the pages of my travel journal graces my writing desk to this day, 16 years later...

As the first day was drawing to a close, I eagerly sought out the lanes of booksellers.
I was a bit late and out of season. Only one shop remained open. I ducked in, hoping to browse awhile.
There was only one other customer in the shop.
We exchanged a knowing smile that only another bibliophile could offer...

A few minutes later, the clerk announced that the shop was preparing to close.
I was stricken!
At that point, the only other customer struck up a lively conversation with the proprietor. Thankfully, that bought me more time!
I found just the perfect small tome for my trip and approached the register.
As the man behind the counter rang up my purchase, the other gentleman engaged me.
There was something familiar about old memory tugged at me.

Before I could quite place him, I had been invited to dinner that very Hay Castle!
I was in the presence of the King of Hay...Sir Richard Booth!
I had seen him from a distance many years before on my first visit. Richard Booth was legendary...the inspiration for villages of booksellers that began in Hay and have proliferated around the world in the decades since.

A VERY auspicious beginning, indeed!

The following morning, I packed my belongings and headed off in search
of a writing warren. The inn, though lovely, was bustling with visitors.
I needed some place peaceful and solitary.
Now Hay is filled with inns like it is filled with booksellers.
So many to choose from...and all so charming!
It should have been easy, but I found myself tracing and re-tracing my steps through the village, unable to settle on a place that felt just right.
Why was I being so fussy?!
A bed, a desk, a window and tea service were all that was required.
I was wasting valuable time, but a 3 week stint here called for a place where I could rest and concentrate on my writing.

I finally wandered off to the edge of the village.
It was there that I saw a humble yellow house that had perhaps seen better days. No overflowing flower baskets ornamented its windows, no climbing ivy or cozy hedges. No 'Vacancies' sign...
But it continued to pull at me.
I thought it would be too plain and uninspiring.
Perhaps I was trying too hard to stretch a dollar...
After trying to settle on one of the nicer ones, I went back and stood in front of the yellow house a bit forlornly.

I knocked at the door with some misgiving.
No answer.
'Ah good' I thought.
As I turned to leave, however, the door opened and a tall elderly gentleman stood staring at me as though he'd seen a ghost.
He became terribly uncomfortable when I asked if he had a room available.
He said he wasn't quite open for the season yet.
In fact, he wasn't sure if he was opening the inn at all in the coming year.
I must have looked so disappointed. He lingered a moment.
"I'd really like to stay here if..."
Why was I being such a nuisance? I'd put the poor man on the spot.
"Well, if you could give me an hour, I might be able to prepare a room.
You see, we're not really..." and his voice trailed off.
"Oh thank you so much! Would you mind if I just left my heavy bag with you I'll just go down to the town and give you all the time you need."
He took the bag, but I could see that this gentle fellow was at odds with the unexpected arrangement.
When I returned later on, he showed me to a simple room upstairs, apologizing along the way.
The house had such an empty feeling...damp and still.

My host said I was the only one staying and added that breakfast might be a simple affair as his wife had always prepared breakfast for the guests...
His voice trailed off again.
I realized then that he had lost her.
Everything was clear...his inward stance, his discomfort.
He was having a hard time picking up the pieces.
I had crashed into their home and his mourning like a bull in a china shop.

Had I made a terrible mistake? Quite likely, I thought...
But I had felt so strongly about THAT house...

There I was unpacking, the only guest in that big empty house.
Both he and the house were suffering her absence.
I made a cup of tea and tried to write, but I couldn't get past the chill and the emptiness. The house itself seemed to intrude on my thoughts.
I was restless...unusually so.
I put on a heavy sweater and went for a walk in the surrounding countryside to clear my mind. The sun-dappled farm fields with grazing sheep and clucking chickens, the ancient stone fences and walking paths were a welcome sight.
Nothing like a brisk hike to get things off to a good start, I thought!

Once back at my desk, I could feel the damp seeping into my bones.
No amount of hot tea could warm me. The house had been closed up too long, I reasoned.
Unable to concentrate, I tucked myself into bed much too early with every available quilt and shivered through the night. My sleep was fitful and punctuated with troubling dreams...

At breakfast the next morning, my host made a bit of small talk. He was trying so hard. I wanted to put him at ease.
When he asked about my travelling alone, I shared a bit of personal history. That gave him the opening he needed to share his widower status.
Keeping things delicate, I asked about his family...
He had a daughter and a son, both with families of their own and living at some distance. He was too alone...
We then broke off to take care of our various errands for the day.

When I was by myself in the house later that afternoon, I began to feel like there was someone over my shoulder... watching me.
A woman... His wife.
It was more than casual.
Was she jealous? Did she want something from me? Was there something undone? She had a strong presence.
I became quite curious about her...about them.
I wandered through the common rooms of the house, imagining their lives together. In a small hallway that led to his quarters, I saw several family photos along with those of a woman...his wife.
I took a deep breath!
I was nearly a dead ringer for her!
No WONDER he had looked at me as though he'd seen a ghost!
I understood why he was so jumpy and nervous around me.
Everything was clear now...
There was more to my being there than writing...

As the days went by, I could tell that my presence, though unnerving,
was a bit of a comfort. It gave 'P' a reason to get moving each day.
He had a guest to provide for.
He was gaining strength day by day.
Our morning chats were becoming more comfortable.
I asked if he felt he might open for the upcoming season.
Later that day, I helped him air the rooms, dust cobwebs, hang quilts
in the sun.
The old house was returning to life...

"'P'...I heard there was a village festival this weekend. I would love to go, but I don't know anyone. Would you mind going with me?"
It was a bit of a ruse to get him back in society.
'P' fidgeted. He hadn't been out of the house for months except to handle the absolute necessities. I knew that kind of isolation in a small community like this could not be good. He needed to get out among his neighbors and friends. I was sure they had reached out to him, but he had made excuses over the long winter. I pressed him to accompany me...

When 'P' came downstairs at the agreed time, I was surprised at his transformation. He was dressed smartly in a good shirt, vest, woolen sweater and cap. He had made quite the effort!

We walked down the street leading to the festival.
I could feel his struggle...still so tentative.
I also felt unseen eyes from behind lace-curtained windows...curious, appraising eyes.
Winding our way to the festival grounds, we talked about the history of the area and its notable inhabitants. I listened as 'P' shared stories about his time in the war and how it had impacted his life.
It took his mind off things...

We bought our festival tickets, purchased an ale and savory pies and found a couple of empty chairs at the long tables under the tent.
I felt the eyes again....the curious stares. He was terribly self-conscious, wondering if he should have ventured out...and with a strange woman
at that!
Before long, some of his old friends sauntered over...come to greet him. Wonderful!
I listened to the music performers while he caught up with the news.
He was letting down and taking his place among them again.
I wandered off for a bit to look at the local handcrafts of lace, woolen shawls and the like.
I was happy to find him laughing and surrounded by friends on my return. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening!
The next day, I shyly asked if he would accompany me to the local pub.
I'd heard it was strictly for the locals...not the sort of place a tourist would wander into.
'P' rose to the occasion after a moment's reflection.
He was already cheerier, standing more erect, less bent over with sorrow.

The Three Tuns was crowded when we arrived. Nearly every seat in the small place was taken...and not a tourist in sight.
Not a few of the patrons looked up in surprise when they saw 'P' enter.
The young female stranger on his arm was noted, as well. A couple of people moved chairs around so we could squeeze in.
I'm not sure who was more reserved...'P' or myself.
Tankards of ale were promptly delivered. We sipped and observed awkwardly at first. The place was dense with earnest conversation.
After a bit, some jovial fellows began to gently tease 'P'.
Before long, he cracked a grin. The evening was off to a great start.
A few polite questions were aimed at the tourist from America. I'd been spotted around town. They made me welcome.
I was fascinated by the caliber of conversation that surrounded us.
I felt out of my league around these quick-witted folks.
This was certainly the most literate crowd I'd ever been exposed to.
Such lively debates! It was really fantastic!

Lucy, the 83 year-old proprietess held court behind the bar.
She was as sweet as she was spry with a twinkle in her wise eyes.
The bar was the size of a couple of modest bedrooms, low ceilinged and exceedingly cozy. It was like stepping back in time several hundred years.
Its accumulated atmosphere could never be duplicated.
The male patrons took the greatest care, heaving the crates for Lucy, serving the patrons, keeping the coal stove stoked properly.
It was clearly a labor of love and respect.

My head was spinning from all that was going on around me.
Perhaps the ale was making itself felt...
There was a gentleman at my elbow whose conversation had piqued my curiosity. I began to eavesdrop.
He was an older fellow wearing a worn cap, looking a bit daft, really, but his mind was sharp, if unconventional.
I couldn't help myself as I turned toward him, hoping to join in eventually.
Just as I thought I might have a chance, there was a disturbance at the bar.
A burly fellow was banging his mug on the bar, trying to summon people's attention. By the look of it, he'd had plenty to drink. He was making a nuisance of himself, by the reaction of the other patrons.
Conversations were interrupted or stalled. People tried in vain to return to them. The fellow persisted until the entire place quieted in exasperation.
In the lull, the barrel-chested man raised his glass...and his voice.
He then proceeded to quote passages from Chaucer at length in a wonderfully theatrical display. His baritone voice silenced everyone and the patrons began to give somewhat less reluctant heed to his discourse.
Annoyance gave way to appreciation...
At the finish, he bowed slightly to the applause they gave. He closed his eyes, raised his glass to his lips and took a long draft.Then he spoke once more...this time quoting his own poetry for nearly a quarter of an hour.
It was really quite fine work.
There was a hush as he concluded with a bow and a last flourish of his glass, followed by boisterous applause.

I leaned forward to ask 'P' who he was.
"The village postman," he replied.
That said it all. The most ordinary-looking of bar patrons, supremely erudite. I shook my head in amazement and appreciation.
I wanted to stay forever in this brilliant company.

As people drifted back to their conversations, I was introduced to the gentleman at my elbow. He possessed a fascinating inventor, botanist and historian. He also dabbled in stocks. I was a trader at the time. We exchanged ideas. He had developed the most unique trading scheme.
As whimsical as it was improbable, it worked for him. He gave the air of a true eccentric.
We talked philosophy, religion, life...
He had a surprising intellect at every turn.
And then we proceeded to discuss death.
In his matter-of-fact way, he had, once again, forged a unique path.
This fellow declared that he had determined the manner of his own death.
Talk about facing it head-on...
"Oh?" I mused. "Does one have that option?"
"Why, of course!" he said with firmness.
"It will be death by cheese!"
A magnificent way to go, we all agreed!
We raised our glasses to his splendid choice!
There's something to be said for his positive approach!

The next afternoon, I took a break from writing and strolled down to the farmer's market.
Laid out on tables was the most marvelous array of fruits, vegetables, jams, homemade bread and cakes...and cheeses.
Each farm had its specialties.
When I reached the tables bearing the local cheeses, I found a dizzying array of choices! I didn't know that such variety existed!
Cheese could very well be my downfall, too!
How would I ever choose? I wanted a bit of everything!
As I agonized over the offerings, I heard a voice over my shoulder.
"This one would be lovely with port. And this one over here has an exceptional creamy texture...."
It was the wonderful man from the evening before!
He took me under his wing and guided me through the cheese market.
Truly the connoisseur! As he waxed eloquent, an artist friend of his joined us and plans were made for an impromptu evening of wine and cheese at his home. It was another unforgettable evening of wit and wine and cheese.
It was a wonder that I ever left....
Perhaps in my heart, I remain.

My three weeks were nearly up. It was time to continue my travels.
'P' and I were at a delicate stage.
I was too much the image of his deceased wife.
It was time to go...and quickly...
Gently, if possible.
I slipped back to the guesthouse and packed my things.
I composed a thank you letter and left it along with a gift of jam.

Carrying my bag, I made my way back to the center of town
for one last fond farewell to Hay.
To my chagrin, I was spotted by 'P'.
Perhaps it was better this way...
His disappointment was evident when I told him I was leaving a day early.
I gave him a quick hug and thanked him for his hospitality and wished him well.
We both had lumps in our throats as I walked away...

Next stop...India.

Debra Robinson ......