Sunday, January 14, 2007

Welsh Dragon Princess: the Michelle Story Part 4

In late June, 1988, Michelle and I flew to London. Staying in a cheap bed and breakfast, we attended the Sade concert at Alexandria Palace. I tried finding Pam Jones, by taking the Tube to Finsbury Park Station, but when I came out, I must have used a different exit and didn't recognize the area where she worked. Having rented a car, I drove in Britain for the first time. I told Michelle to keep reminding me to drive on the left. We set off for Wales, so I could meet her family. I was impressed with the M4 motorway, which heads west, from London. At the time, the speed limit back in New York was fifty-five miles per hour. In Britain, it was seventy, with a significant segment of the traffic exceeding that. As we crossed the Severn River Bridge, which spans the longest river in Britain, Michelle tuned in Red Dragon radio on the car's stereo. I was in Wales, for the first time.
Michelle seemed to have difficulty remembering the way, but with the aid of a map provided by the car rental firm, we managed to get close enough to our destination that things began to look familiar to her. Back then, Michelle's folks were living in Pontypridd, Wales, not far from Cardiff, as was her older sister. Her sister was married and lived in a separate household, not far from her parents. We had been invited to stay at her sister's and it was there that we were to meet up with her parents. I was nervous about meeting her folks, but they treated me graciously. I noticed that Michelle's family all had strong Welsh accents, while Michelle had a posh, English accent. The explanation for this was that, growing up, Michelle had attended a private school in Cardiff, where she was born. The teachers had been mostly English, so she ended up with their accent. She was also taller than everyone else in her family, including both parents, her three brothers, and her older sister. Combining these facts with the fact that her hair was darker than all of them, except her middle brother, I began to wonder if she had been left to them by the fairies, rather than being their natural child.
After about a week, Michelle and I drove back to London. I bought an A-Z atlas of London, so I could find Pam's flat. London's streets are a maze of roads that curve and have dead ends, one ways, and other navigational nightmares. Even residents of London have A- Zs. I remembered that she lived just off Middle Lane, in Crouch End, so I looked the street up in the A-Z. I navigated us there and recognized the building which housed Pam's flat. Pam had provided me a place to stay when I ran out of money, during my first visit to London (see "Coming to America: the Michelle Story Part 2," December 28, 2006). I wanted to take her out to dinner, as a way of saying, "thank you." I rang the buzzer, but got no answer. A woman leaned out of a window and asked who I was looking for. When I asked if Pam Jones still lived there, she said yes, but explained that Pam was at work and would be home, later. Michelle and I returned, in the early evening. This time, when I rang the buzzer, a voice asked, "who is it?"
"Joseph, from America," I answered. "From America" seems to open a lot of doors, in Britain. We were buzzed in and climbed the stairs to Pam's third floor flat. Pam greeted me with a hug and I introduced Michelle. I told Pam I wanted to take her out to dinner, to thank her for all she had done for me. She refused and said she would cook dinner, instead. She invited us to stay for dinner, which we accepted. After our visit with Pam, we flew back to New York. Michelle stayed for two weeks in New York, helping me to celebrate my 29th birthday, then made her way back to Wales, on her own.
Michelle spent about a month back in Wales. We spoke on the phone, several times. When she first met me, Michelle had been seeing a married guy, who lived across the street from her parents' house. Now that she was back home, he tried to rekindle their relationship. Although she agreed to see him, Michelle soon realized that she wanted to be with me. She ended things with the married guy and phoned me. She was coming back to stay with me, indefinitely. In August, 1988, she returned to New York, again. To say I was pleased would be an understatement.
Michelle stayed with me for the next five months. In October, we celebrated her 17th birthday. I bought her a birthday cake and a card. She was very touched and said that her folks wouldn't have gotten her a cake. We lived off my savings and spent practically every hour together, 24/7. I remember this caused a problem when I wanted to go out, alone, to get her birthday card. She was very suspicious of why I wanted to go out without her and got very jealous. I explained why, after I surprised her on her birthday. Because she was on a tourist visa, Michelle couldn't stay more than six months at a time. After New Year's, we started thinking about visiting her family, again. Her parents had moved to a smaller town in southwest Wales, called Llandovery. They invited us to come stay with them and in January, 1989, we flew back to Britain, again.
Because I had no income at the time, we were traveling on the cheap. No renting a car, this time. Her sister's husband, Jason, drove up from Wales in a van and picked us up at Gatwick Airport. I ended up riding in the back of a work van, for over two hours, back to Wales. It wasn't the most comfortable way to travel, but the price was right. Jason took us to Pontypridd, where Michelle's father met us. He then drove us to Llandovery, in a proper car. It was much more comfortable. Our route took us through the Breacon Beacons mountain range, which gave me some breathtaking views. Her father pointed out architectural and historical sites, along the way. Finally, we arrived in the small village of Llandovery. It had no traffic lights, no fast food restaurants, and no cinema. It did have the ruins of a castle and was the smallest village I had been to in all my life.
While Michelle had been in New York, with me, her father had bought a building in Llandovery. The bottom two floors housed one of his furniture retailing shops, while the upper floors had been renovated into living accommodations for the family. I pretty much expected that her parents would insist we sleep in separate bedrooms. After all, she was only 17. I was pleasantly surprised when we were led to a room on the top floor. Her parents had put a new, queen sized bed in it and her mother had new, white bed linen on it, trimmed in lace. It almost looked like a bridal suite. These people seemed to have very liberal attitudes. Michelle's father took me out for a drink at the local pub. I noticed he introduced me as Michelle's fiancee. Hmmmm...that was news to me. I guessed it was just a face saving measure, on his part.
Most of the residents of Llandovery seemed short. As I am just over six feet and Michelle, at five feet ten inches, always went out in three inch heels, we seemed like the tallest people around. Whether it was this, or something else, I noticed that people in the village kept starring at us, when we walked around. There were loads of farmers in the surrounding area and I saw more sheep during my stay there, than I had ever seen in my life. Almost all the buildings were old and the architecture of the village reminded me of an old country town from a Dracula movie. I imagined that, any minute, the villagers were going to drive us out of town with pitch forks, mistaking us for vampires or something.
The Welsh flag bears the image of a red dragon, which is a symbol of Wales. The red dragon also reminds me of Michelle, because she had a fiery personality. She could get quite jealous and was quick to lose her temper. She once got jealous over Jessica Rabbit, from the film, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," despite the fact that Jessica was only an animated drawing. The area around Llandovery seemed so alien to what I was used to, growing up in the suburbs of New York City. With ancient castles, old buildings, and legends of Merlin the magician and dragons having lived in the area, it was easy to get caught up in an almost storybook-like atmosphere. In a strange counterpoint to this, modern RAF Tornados used to fly low, over the village, on training missions. At the sound of jet engines, I would look up to see these aircraft screaming along, just over the rooftops. One day, Michelle's father was going to Pontypridd for the day, to check on his shop, there. Michelle and I went along. From Ponty, we took the bus to Cardiff and spent the afternoon in the Welsh capital. We visited Cardiff Castle, which is built on the ruins of a roman fort. There are places inside where you can see and touch the original roman walls.
After a three week stay, I had started to have my fill of the small country town. Michelle and I made plans to return to New York. The night before we were to leave, Michelle and I went out to dinner with her mother and father, at a fancy restaurant between Llandovery and a nearby town. Michelle wore a navy blue, minidress and off white, lace topped stockings. Navy blue is my favorite color and she looked as lovely as ever. When I had been going out with Kelley Bohland, in the early 80s, I made up a term, "princess class," to describe women of a quality that I would consider marrying. By this time, I was deeply in love with Michelle and despite the fact that her father introducing me as her fiancee had been a convenient lie to save face, the idea of marrying this fantastic girl was a seed that was growing in my mind. She was solidly in the princess class; a fiery, red dragon princess.


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