The Thatched Cottage

Careful readers of these letters will have noticed a gap from April 12, 1962, when Penny is preparing to visit me in England, to August 7, 1963 when she is trying to buy coffee from the Kenya Board of Trade. Clearly something is missing. I have no letters covering this period, but there is a chapter from my biography, “More than Enough,” which gives a clue as to why our plans for a European trip fell through.

A thatched cottage in Buckinghamshire like Phoebe Cottage in Wavendon. This one is Primrose Cottage in Hardwick, 18-miles away, pictured by Ron Adams

Try to imagine a traditional English cottage, hidden away in a remote village in Buckinghamshire. Try as you may, you will have trouble coming close to the vision that met my eyes when I first saw the one Dennis Brooks was living in as we turned into the yard in his enormous Armstrong Siddeley touring car.

Dennis was a fellow reporter on The Luton News, the main newspaper in Luton, Bedfordshire, 30-miles north of London. Luton was perhaps best known as the British home of General Motors because of its vast Vauxhall car plant. However, it had other charms, a small airport, a football club, a fine brewery, Flowers; and a stately home, Luton Hoo. If you were to compare Luton to a city in Canada, it would be Oshawa, Ontario, while GM was there.

Dennis, as I remember him, was a small boned, sharp chinned individual with a self-depreciating air and an amusing manner that made him the life of any party. He had some physical incapacity, I believe from a game leg, but he made up for it in his zest for life. He was in his early 30’s at the time, while I, the cub reporter from Canada, was only 21.

As a result, I quite looked up to Dennis as the experienced hand, both at covering the local Council or at nosing out the best pub for a pint of bitter while driving around the county on assignments. Driving with Dennis was quite an experience in its own right because of his unusual vehicle. Unlike most English cars of the era, his Armstrong Siddeley was huge, the size of a truck, with a long bonnet graced by a hood ornament in the shape of a Sphinx.

You can imagine then, how ready-to-be-impressed I was when Dennis took me to see his house.

This turned out to be a perfectly preserved, 350-year old thatched cottage, in a tiny hamlet in the next county. Everything about it was like a dream come to life, from the roses in front, to the stucco walls, the oaken beams and the walk-in brick fireplace which dominated the main room. Facing the fireplace was a large chesterfield, with comfortable chairs on both sides and an Indian rug before the hearth. This, in those pre-solid fuel days, was stoked with sea coal, the slow-burning soft coal that gave English streets in winter the sweet smell of prehistoric plant life.

Because he lived some miles out of town, and because he was so convivial, Dennis often had the other reporters and their girlfriends out to his cottage on a Saturday evening for a party. First, we would close out the local pub, and then we’d stagger back to the cottage, quart bottles of beer in hand, to continue. When these ran out, Dennis would pour whisky into our glasses and we would watch the flames from the coal flicker through the amber liquid in our hands.

Most of the gang would depart around 1:00 o’clock, but several of us stayed the night, bundled up on the sofa or dead to the world in the cool sheets of the small guest bedroom upstairs.

If you’re reading this story on a quiet evening, after the children have gone to bed, go to your liquor cabinet now and get out some Scotch. Pour yourself a couple of fingers and come back. There’s more to the story than I’ve told you so far and it reads better if there’s some fire in your throat.

I haven’t mentioned Dennis was married.

Dennis’ wife Shirley was every bit the English rose, younger than her husband, and beautiful in the luminous way only English girls seem to manage. I have no recollection of what she did; whether she had a job, or what her role was in the marriage.

All I can remember is that after these parties, after everyone else had gone to bed, there would usually be two of us left in the warmth in front of the fire, Dennis’ beautiful wife and me. I have no idea what we talked about. I just remember our positions. Me slumped back in the sofa and Shirley lying full length on the rug, the flickering light from the fire playing on the curves of her sweater.

In retrospect I have wondered if there was a plan or intention, wondered for example why I was left alone with this beauty so late and so often. At the time I wondered if it was a moral test. Was God or the Devil playing a game of intellect over instinct. There was no doubt in my mind what the question was; would my friendship for Dennis overcome my lust for his wife?

When we finally kissed our lips crushed so hard our teeth banged together like plates in a dish rack. Later, Shirley came to me in the guestroom and slipped into my bed. Her nude body pressed close to mine. I was nearly petrified with fear and excitement. Had I been struck by lightning at the moment of climax I would have felt it a fair sentence for the crime I was committing.

The next morning, Dennis left early, either on a job or on some pretext. Again, I was left alone with Shirley. I remember holding her in the lovely farm style kitchen, the birds singing in the garden, the sun dappling the countertop, holding her and knowing this love we had had to end. I was awash in desire and guilt. We cried, both of us, like babies.

I walked away from the thatched cottage, misty now in the haze of tears, and caught her arm waving at the window.

As I waited for the Green Line bus, I knew my choice was simple. If I stayed in England, I would do everything in my power to break up my friend’s marriage and run off with his wife. That was intolerable. The only honourable alternative was to leave; leave Buckinghamshire, leave England, leave Europe for that matter. My destination, oddly enough, was Egypt, land of the Sphinx.

Did I do the right thing? And if I did, did I write Penny and tell her I was leaving England? I don’t know. What I do know, in my defence, is that I refused to break up my friend’s marriage when I had the chance. It makes a nice contrast with Hugh Lawson’s successful attempt to break my marriage to Penny when he had the chance.

That’s one of the differences between us; it wasn’t just money, it was morality, mine versus his. I can live with that.

NOTE: If you want to get a glimpse into the life of Shirley and Dennis, Penny and I invited them to our wedding. Shirley’s reply is dated January 25, 1965.