“Now listen to me.”
And listen we did. Mom rarely used such a stern tone, and the fierce expression that had suddenly replaced her normally placid demeanor left no question in my thirteen-year-old mind that we were about to be told something of the utmost importance.
“Your father has been awake for thirty-six hours. He has to navigate unfamiliar streets. And he will be driving on the wrong side of the road. It is absolutely imperative that you not distract him. ” She thrust a box of animal crackers into my hand. “Share those with your sister. And remember, not a peep out of either one of you.”
I scurried into the back seat of the rental car next to my nine-year old sister, making sure to establish a respectable argument-preventing distance between us. Silently, I offered her an animal cracker. Silently, she helped herself to a handful.
Up front, my father was combatting sleep deprivation with a cigarette and meticulously unfolding the road map that would guide our journey away from Heathrow Airport and south to our destination in Dorset.
We set out, my sister and I each with our noses pressed to our respective windows, drinking in the sights of our first overseas adventure and fascinated by the backwards traffic and the unfamiliar roundabouts.
My mother, apparently confident that she had successfully threatened us into being seen-but-not-heard, visibly relaxed. As the only one of our party of four who had set foot on British soil previously, she quickly settled into Tour Guide mode when she spotted the first official Point of Interest.
“Look girls! Out that side. That’s that back gate to Hampton Court!” Since she was apparently exempt from her own Thou-Shalt-Not-Speak edict, she proceeded to regale us with a condensed history of Hampton Court and its significance in the history of British royalty.
The history lesson was interrupted briefly for a second Point of Interest—“Oh look, there’s the front gate of Hampton Court!”—and on she chattered.
Clearly we were making good progress towards our destination. At least it seemed so until, a little less cheerily, Mom ventured the observation, “Oh look, I think that’s the back gate of Hampton Court again.”
It was all I could do to suppress a giggle. I glanced over at my sister who looked similarly afflicted. Hastily I doled out more animal crackers in self defense.
Dad drove on for another ten or fifteen minutes, now without the backdrop of Mom’s historical commentary. Finally my mom broke the silence, with a catch in her voice that sounded suspiciously like suppressed laughter. “And…there’s the front gate of Hampton Court…again.”
In the back seat I came perilously close to choking to death on a mouthful of animal crackers. My sister wasn’t faring much better, and Mom managed to compose herself enough to glance back and shoot us a warning with her eyes.
I knew if I made eye contact with my sister we would both be doomed, so I firmly looked out the window and thrust the cracker box blindly in her direction.
Dad was not finding the situation quite so amusing, but he did acquiesce to Mom’s gentle suggestion that it might be time to ask for directions. He pulled into a service station, hauled out the map, and asked the young man working the pumps for assistance.
The young man working the pumps enthusiastically advised my father to go “straight down that road”—a directive that was repeated loudly multiple times, accompanied by great showers of spittle and wild hand gestures. There was, to our prairie-trained eyes, nothing “straight” about said road. Truthfully there is nothing “straight” about any road that wends its way about the British countryside. Nevertheless, after determining with some confidence which road our rescuer was indicating, Dad proceeded down it, as straight as the road would allow, only to discover that all we would find “straight down that road” was the local police station where, it was presumed, we would be able to get some real directions.
With the aid of the local constabulary we were finally able to get our journey properly under way. That was a relief to the occupants of the back-seat. We were running way too low on animal crackers to make it through another wrong turn.