top of page

A Young American in Cambridge

The conference had been drab. No, that was incorrect, Sam told himself. The weather had been drab in Cambridge, especially compared to his usual San Diego sunshine. And the days were so short, it literally started getting dark at 4PM. Sam knew the talks had been uninteresting – his included. Yes, a mediocre conference at Homerton College. He had one afternoon left, and the Master’s wife had been emphatic. “You must go to Kettle’s Yard, straight to the house.” 

     He had not followed her advice. He’d dallied through King’s College first. One of the guides at the Chapel had wanted to know a lot about him.

     “Where are you from then?”  

     “Oh, America.”


     “San Diego.”

     “That’s California ainnit?”

     He had at last extricated himself from that inane conversation and headed back out into the Cambridge afternoon, winding down the old medieval streets. He was struck by the young people. Sam was just shy of 35 himself, but he felt much older than this group of youngsters talking in their myriad of languages, riding on the cycles, laughing or looking intent. He was puzzled by the ice cream cones so many of them seemed to be enjoying. Maybe it was a rebellion against the drafty damp gray weather? He had no clue.

     Past the annoying sellers of punting rides, he pushed onto the other side of the quaint Cam River. He  almost cracked a smile. It was a bucolic scene. A weeping willow bent over the river. People on the punts, laughter rising. So much green. Then, just before a full smiled could catch him out, he found himself across the bridge and back onto terra firma as it were. Boring window displays of lesser shops. His bad mood descended back on him.

     Ah, there it was. The Kettle Yard sign. He stepped up his pace and ducked towards the signage. As instructed, he asked the greeter how to get to the house.

     “Straight to the visitor desk, timed tickets only you know.” The man had looked at his watch and then at Sam. 

     Undue pressure started to build. Had he missed it? No, it was still 3PM. He had two hours. And with some luck, he’d be done early and be able to enjoy a slice of cake. Those were very appealing indeed from what he could make out of the other patrons’ plates. The British do love to scatter outdoor tables and chairs wherever they can. Sam thought it somewhat over-optimistic given how much it rained, but then again, the day had become sunny so maybe they were on to something.

     He was indeed able to secure his ticket from the young woman with a nose ring. She had been surprisingly pleasant and polite. No words beyond what was strictly necessary to their exchange. As a scholar of digital archiving, he appreciated direct arcs of information – no extraneous words or information need be codified. 

     Sam glanced at his watch, a gift from Sarah. He had five minutes to kill. Cakes then. He went into the café and was at once taken with the selection. He usually gravitated to all things chocolate, another residual from his time with Sarah. This time though, the carrot cake called him. Tall and proud, with lovely fluffy icing. Yes, that would be it upon his visit. He had better make it back quickly, not many pieces left. All this counting and planning was a by-product of his chosen field of study.  

     Back into the sunshine, he wound up at the door to the house. The sign indicated he should ring. The others behind him, a family from China or Japan, he could never tell, were crowding right behind him.  The children were unusually interested he thought. Why else would they be breathing right into his space, the hairs on his legs tickling from their proximity? He should have worn his long trousers he thought for the twelfth time today. Much less exposure.  

     An older woman opened the door. Her dress was well cut, but classic. The orange color was a bit brash for a woman her age, she looked to be 60 or so. Sam thought she held her own with it, in fact he was rather impressed anyone could try this sort of color given the grayness of the environs.

     “Welcome to the House.  Please come in all of you.” She ushered them all in with a smart nod of the head.

     Sam slipped into the small space and was at once assailed by the sense of dust and mustiness. He was tempted to hightail it back to the carrot cake. The woman had closed the door, he was committed. 

     The guide started her explanation. She would speak for a few minutes, and then they were to move on so the next group could be ushered in. Very structured, it was the UK after all. She’d been at it for a while, telling them about the owners’ life and how this had all come about. Sam listened out of one ear, so missed most of it. He was too busy taking in the cramped surroundings, low ceiling, and limited light from the small windows. He could see how carefully orchestrated the position of each item was. There were small, delightful objects, sculptures and vases strewn in every corner. It had the look of a scholarly AND artful home.  He liked that right away.

     “Now please sit in every chair in the house and do report back to me which one is the most comfortable.”  

     What now? Sam thought this was most unusual. Being a tall man, he did not imagine any of the smaller chairs would be of the right size for him. The brits were a quirky lot.

     He determined it would be best if the family went on ahead so he could linger and have some time with the artifacts. The glass pieces especially drew his eye. This was an oddity for him as he was not taken with objects, that had been Sarah’s domain. But the glass balls were very attractive. Spherical – redundant to say. But somehow that was the balance of it all, the rightness of the whole that was most impressive. He could tell someone had considered every aspect of the rooms and that was something he could appreciate. The small bedroom at the back was curious. He asked about it.

     “Jim slept here. His wife, Helen, she had a bedroom upstairs. We don’t know why exactly – but when you go up, ask to see the secret intercom. Helen enjoyed entertaining and piano, so we suspect she may have wanted to be on that floor more than he did. He always wanted to be one to open the door. Very curious I know, we get that question a lot.” 

     The woman tut-tutted to herself. She mumbled under her breath, “might be more happy marriages if husbands slept by themselves. That snoring…”  

     From her expression, Sam couldn’t tell if she was teasing him, or was speaking to an unseen husband.  Time to make a getaway!

     Sam opted to thank her for her most helpful insights – a trick he used often in his academic exchanges when he thought little of the comments made. In truth, he wanted to escape and was intent on heading out of the house as soon as possible. He took the spiral stairs two at a time – his one act of recklessness for the day. 

     And then he stopped cold.  

     He had arrived at a wonderful white open space. He stood up to his full height and looked in both directions. 

     The top floor had much more interest. The rhythm unfolded before he had even been aware of it. More space, more light.  The placement of the paintings, objects and chairs echoed the downstairs, but the scale was completely unexpected.  

     So, this is what it meant to live with art. Sarah had tried so often to explain. Gosh, he should have listened. He should have tried. He was kicking himself again for his failed relationship. As often happened in moments like these, he was having difficulty breathing, his heart quite literally hurt. 

     He walked to the next room. He stood quietly to one side, taking in every detail. He was delighted by what he saw. No more mustiness, no more cramping, just undeniable character and…what was it? Life force? Sam wasn’t sure. He didn’t usually think about feelings. Maybe that was why it all appealed to him, the home had both thought AND feeling. Ah ha, he was onto something!      

     Sam was enjoying himself tremendously as he moved from room to room now. Totally immersed in the experience. He was at peace, his mind fully engaged with his surroundings. He was smiling. Goodness, was this something like joy?  

     He wished he could say thank you to the man who had conceived of all this. And then all the people who worked to make it happen. And of course, the Master’s wife who he had almost dismissed as an old biddy. Yes, he owed them all.  

     He was just taking in a painting when he realized the older woman from downstairs was there again. Coming right up to him. This could be awkward he thought, especially if she had picked up on his silly condescension from earlier. 

     “So young man, what do you think?” She asked.

     “Spectacular!” He couldn’t hold back his enthusiasm.

     “I had a feeling about you.” A finger wagged at him. “You usually don’t do the museums, do you? Well, this one is special.”

     “Well, my girlfriend used to drag me.” Sam admitted. He looked into the older woman’s alert blue eyes. He noticed a bit of her eyeshadow had streaked to her cheekbone.  

     “Used to you say?”

     “I was a bit lost in my work…she decided she wanted more.” Sam guessed this was enough of a reader’s digest version of the truth.

     “Ah.” The guide rested one elbow into the crook of the other arm and her hand came to rest just under her chin. A bit like a therapist’s pose. Sam worried he was about to get some unwanted wisdom from this strange color-clad lady. She had her eyes closed for a long time. He wondered if he could just leave her there.

     But all at once she was in motion. 

     “You know what is really fantastic in this room? Come, let me show you.” And just like that, the intimacy was severed, they were back to guide and visitor. He readily followed her, relieved they had skirted becoming overly familiar.  

     She stopped in front of a rather large painting with a young man, depicted as very sure of himself, holding a paint palette. No doubt a self-portrait. Sam wasn’t sure he liked he arrogance he was picking up from the picture, but he remembered that young men are often all puffed up with bravado just to survive. 

     “Now here we have Christopher Wood. This one is a self-portrait at 20. He’s made himself important…you know, as young men often do.” 

     The old woman was reading his mind!

     “But really, you can just see how he’s just at the start.” 

     “I do, he’s maybe going to get somewhere, but even he isn’t sure.” Sam put out a hypothesis.

     “I guess we never do when we’re young.” She closed her eyes.  

     Sam was again concerned she might go into the sticky personal territory. But she surprised him again. 

     “Well, this young fellow died before he became much of anything.” She said before she added more softly, “Suicide, though it was hushed up.”

     Sam had not expected that. “How old?” He asked. 

     “Tragic. He died young, just before 30.” She did look stricken, but just for a moment. As she had a few times already, she flipped a switch.

     “Oh dear, look at the time. I must dash to the café before they close. Oh, I do love the carrot cake here.  Have it once a week. I am sure you can tell.” She winked at Sam. 

     He ended up walking with her.  

     There was one piece of carrot cake left. With a courtesy he did not know he had, he chose the chocolate.

     “Oh, no dear, if you’ll have me a few more minutes, let’s share.” She said patting his arm.  

     Sam cleared his throat, he was touched by the use of the word ‘dear’.  “Of course, I’d be delighted,” surprisingly himself with the genuineness of his statement. 

     “Let’s do that.” 

     A smile, a small incline of the head, “I’m Sam by the way.”

     “And I am Sarah.”

My husband Ed and I lived in Cambridge UK for two years as part of my work. We enjoyed it tremendously, such a vibrant young and diverse population and so much history. One of my UK-based colleagues kept reminding us to visit Kettle’s yard. We finally got there in our very last days, it’s a fantastic place. A real testament to what a single-minded vision can achieve.

Story 2.jpg
bottom of page