The bus ride from Heathrow to Reading Station is just long enough to catch my breath. I feel as though I’ve spent a lifetime walking through terminals and it’s wonderful to see something other than the inside of an airport. Fields of yellow flowers whiz by and I’m immediately enchanted, even after Nathan mentions they’re called “rape”.
We’ve kept up a steady stream of conversation, only briefly touching on our mutual favorite subject of porn websites and, quite before I realize it’s coming, we’re off a roundabout and speeding through town. I’m slightly terrified at how fast everyone goes through these narrow streets. Buildings stand tall on either side, cheek by jowl, and it feels as though we’ll go careening into them at any minute.
But of course we arrive safely and begin dragging my luggage away. Nathan is quite the gentleman and takes my giant suitcase, leaving me with purse and duffle bag, freeing me up to stare in openmouthed fascination at the new surroundings. My Sperrys are pinching my feet and the day is quite grey, but I could care less. I’m in complete awe, head swiveling back and forth, trying to take in everything at once. Striding amongst these beautiful buildings, hearing the traffic noises, watching these people go about their business…its sensory overload.
It isn’t a long walk and soon we’re struggling up the stairs to the flat. I’m given the tour, shown the spare room and bathroom, and sit across from Nathan, content to chat for awhile. The front room is very tall with giant windows overlooking the street. It’s cozy and unassuming, modern and definitely a reflection of its inhabitants. Overflowing music shelves are in the corner and a lovely contemporary looking light fixture hangs nearby. All around I’m catching glimpses of their life that, up until this point, I’d only read about. Like their little wooden replicas on the mantel and the new couch. It feels like I’ve stepped into a parallel universe – from the pages of Mr. London Street to actual London Street.We’ve left today open, not knowing what I would be up for after hours and hours of travel. To my surprise, a nap is the furthest thing from my mind. I’ve got loads of energy and I head off for a quick shower, ready to go out and explore.
I gather some clothes and my shower bag, make my way to the guest bathroom, and stand staring at the tub. My quick peek during the earlier tour obviously hadn’t registered, because now that I’m giving it my full attention, I’m a little confused. There isn’t a shower, exactly, but a detachable head and hose sitting on a stand atop the cold and hot taps. There isn’t a curtain to stop the spray from getting all over the room and I’m wondering if this is what European showers are like. Do they all sit in tubs and hold the hose over their heads? Do they stand so that, when they spray themselves, the water goes toward the wall behind the tub and not toward the door?I could go out and ask Nathan, but I’d really rather not. It’s much too early in my trip to be this confused, and about something like a shower. Instead I decide to leave my hair dry and my makeup intact, which would take me the better part of two hours to redo anyway, and just wash my body. I strip down, turn on the taps and spend the next few minutes twisting around the tub like an eel – sometimes kneeling, sometimes sitting, and once attempting to stand...which doesn’t work at all. I do manage to get clean, but I’m doubtful about how well this is going to work out for an entire week.
We’ve got all afternoon to pass, waiting on Kelly to get off work, and we don’t waste a minute. We wander through town, without the burden of luggage, and I get a proper look. There wasn’t much about Reading on a tourism front when I did research for this trip and I can’t help thinking how wrong that is. There’s an interesting mix of historic and modern, with a few odd fixtures, like the Oscar Wilde “shaped” gate, thrown in. A brief pop in a church, a peek through the closed gates of the Abbey Ruins and a glance around Forbury Gardens with the giant lion statue in the center, have me wishing I’d brought my camera along. I realize that I’ve been throwing in the occasional skip and attribute 75% of this unusual movement to excitement, 25% to keeping up with Nathan’s long legged gait.We eat lunch at a tiny table under an awning at Pret a Manger, watching the steady stream of foot traffic. Nathan is a lovely tour guide, though he has a tendency to keep apologizing for his town that I don’t quite understand, knowing how much he loves it. I’m a bit in love with the place myself – the architecture and the river views, the quiet pockets of park and bench, the long cobbled streets, the statues and gargoyles. My little corner of the world is so far removed from anything like this that even the everyday shops and cafes are exciting.
We end the afternoon in a pub called The Alehouse (or Hobgoblin, as it was once known). It’s my first pub experience, my first taste of cider and Perry, and I’m immediately hooked. We take our drinks to a cubby round back and settle in. Scarred wooden walls rise up on either side, leaving a small opening to get in and out. The tiny table and benches are charmingly battered, the walls covered with residue from old beer mats used as decorations – it’s the perfect place to have a drink and unwind, the perfect place to meet Nathan’s famous other half.I’m relaxed and slightly buzzed when Kelly appears, but no less eager to meet her. She is everything I expected and then some – energetic and warm, beautiful and funny. We’ve become friends on our own terms already and it’s a different dynamic than Nathan and me. Our friendship is, I think, very much “a girl thing”.
When I’ve had enough drinks to be brave, I tell them about my embarrassing shower experience. Kelly looks at Nathan in reproach, asking if he didn’t explain that I was meant to use the ensuite. I laugh at their exchange, I can’t help it. They are everything I expected and nothing at all. I feel a little like a scientist, connecting and comparing letters and words to faces. Kelly has the poker face of the two, a trait I expected to belong to Nathan. He has a countless number of facial expressions, one for every situation I suspect, and he is much less intimidating in person. I’ve no idea what they see when they look at me, but I don’t waste time dwelling on it. I’m in a bubble made of perry and excitement, sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for what’s next.My experiment, so far, is going well and as I follow them out into the evening, on our way to dinner, I know it’s only going to get better. But there’s still a sense of unreality to it all. I feel like Dorothy, only I’m clicking my heels together, asking to stay a little longer, to see a little more. Ten days is simply not enough and I wonder if, when I go home, anything ever will be again.