A modern Dickens writes about returning to the land . . .. . . of her great-grandfather

IN 1951, my great adventure was to sail from England on the SS Mauretania and be married the day after I landed in New York. Last November when I went back to live in England again, I wanted to start this new adventure in the same way. No trailing through the limitless jet-lag purgatory of Immigration and Baggage at Heath-row. I left the way I came: by sea, on the QE 2. When I boarded the Mauretania at Southampton, friends and family had crowded into my cabin with flowers and love and tears. I sat at the Captain's table and was ``the bride.'' There was bingo, and dancing when the three band members weren't seasick or it wasn't rough enough to slide the needle off the record.

How the movies have enhanced our dreams! The New York skyline, 42nd Street, and the Gold Digger films had been part of my fantasy life, and now here it all was, and there was Roy, standing alone on the end of the Cunard pier. Two of the stewardesses hung over the rail with me.

We lived in Washington, D.C., in a tiny slice of a house in Georgetown, whose charm I took for granted -- ``a bit like Chelsea'' -- not realizing the anxious finagling needed to get a rental there. I took for granted too, in my dumb, insular way, that how the British said and did things was right, and it took me much too long to admit that there was no right or wrong, only different. I had no job, no money from England, and no knack for the rigorous formalities of Navy social life. I had written nine successful books, but nobody knew me.

Submerged, I wrote a book about an Englishwoman who marries an American naval officer, and that saved me. Work was the link between the old life and the new. I was still myself.

The Navy wives hated the book, but Roy retired early and we went to live for 32 years with our daughters in an un-spoiled village on Cape Cod. I became a US citizen, happily involved and at home. I would live and die on this narrow sandy land of long, long summers, but when Roy died last winter, it suddenly didn't feel like home. I didn't know what to do, how to be, who to be -- a devastating symptom of loss -- but I had two books to finish, and work saved me again.

Soon I knew that I must sell the big house in the village that developers had spoiled and start a new life. Where?

``I've found your house.'' Someone called from England. ``Other people want it, so come tomorrow.''

It is called Lavender Cottage, Pudding Lane, Brightwalton, in the Vale of the White Horse. It's 400 years old, with a thatched roof and a breathless view of downland hills and green and brown and yellow fields that fold over each other into the misted distance.

Empty and clean, the Cape Cod house made it easier for me to leave by gradually withdrawing, waiting to see what would happen now. In New York, family and friends of half a lifetime couldn't come on board because of security. Love and tears, but no streamers thrown. As the tugs nudged us out into the Hudson, we passed the end of the pier where Roy had stood. Well, that was that.

Life goes in chapters, I repeat brave-ly, and I must start a new one or be lost.

Twenty times around the deck made a mile on the Mauretania. Five on the enormous QE 2. The old ``Morry'' had been transportation. This is entertainment, with something going on all the time: movies, lectures, games, street of shops, casino, health spa, bands, disco, showgirls, comics, nonstop dancing for the 40 ``Merry Widows'' from North Carolina, light of foot and tubby of body, who bring four deadpan young dance instructors to squire them.

I cruised about alone, being enigmatic, or pushily picked up new friends and met old ones who'd been on the Mor-ry's crew in the '50s. My cabin steward had been a lad on the ``chain gang'' among the dirty plates and silver, and both he and Arnold in the dining room sorrowed over modern passengers who don't complain until they leave the ship, then write terrible letters to Head Office.

The British are the worst. ``Different class of people traveling.'' Arnold shook his grizzled head over the polished cruets. ``In the old days, you'd get the cream of society. Lords, dukes, Sir Laurence Olivier, Edward Prince of Wales -- I've had 'em all. Now they fly in Concorde.''

My five days were a limbo transition between the old life and the new. I had planned to use the time to prepare my thoughts and feelings, but I didn't think much. I just existed, like most of the other passengers, to keep up with the relentless timetable of events and meals. If one could simply go back and forth across the Atlantic on the QE 2, one would never need to think at all.

But I was roused by the full moon over the western cliffs of the Isle of Wight, family freezing on Southampton docks, and the immediate need to grapple with plumbers, carpenters, car salesmen, and the local planning committee. And there was Lavender Cottage, facing the soft, rain-swept view, clean, empty, and cold, as I had left the Cape Cod house, and waiting, as I am, to see what will happen now. Monica Dicken's great-grandfather, Charles Dickens, appeared in ``The loose-leaf library'' Oct 4, 1983.

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