Refill your tea cup and come experience Dunster’s world. You can also read an excerpt from the book. What do you mean, you don’t have time? I bet if I bring out the scones and biscuits, you’ll make time. I thought so …
When you’d grown up on Exmoor, it was hard to accept second best. That tiny corner of England was a combination of scenic glory, equestrian excellence, and clotted cream nirvana, making the rest of the world pale in Samantha’s eyes. So how had she been matrimonially swept away to Blizzard Country, USA? How had she become an empty nester four thousand miles and two decades away from her childhood grand schemes? And away from Dunster, her handsome and loyal, though ever hungry, Exmoor pony?
She had once felt accustomed to her foreign life, but Sam’s comfort in her Lawful Permanent Resident status disintegrates when her politically ambitious husband asks her to get US citizenship. The request catapults Sam through time and space, landing her in national identity-crisis territory. With the clock ticking, she must determine where home really lies.
The quest takes her from disastrous gymkhanas to ancient castles, French demon goats to intuitive dogs, and from thatched-cottage villages to a New York cruise that ferries her away from her stable-with-attached-cream-tea-shop destiny. She discovers that, contrary to popular belief, not everyone is trying to get into America. Some may be trying to get out.
But must she choose between her homeland and her husband?
The Place: Dunster’s Calling is set on Exmoor, a national park on the Southwest coast of England. With its ancient villages, stunning natural beauty, and Exmoor ponies, our heroine, Samantha, finds herself called back to the place where she “sleeps the best and breathes the deepest.” Take a tour and you’ll understand why.
The Pony: Dunster’s character is an Exmoor pony, Britain’s oldest native breed. Hardy, strong and beautiful, free-living herds roam the moors; but they also make excellent riding ponies. Dunster is the most excellent of the excellent. Did I mention he’s also forever hungry and cheeky? If I didn’t, you’ll soon find out …
The Cream Tea: Sam can’t imagine life without cream teas. The Southwestern counties of England are well known for them: scones served with clotted cream and jam. Clotted cream is a delicious, silky concoction served in great dollops under or over the jam, depending on which county you are in at the time. Don’t get the order wrong or you’ll upset the locals! It’s all washed down by a good cuppa tea. And probably cake. Yes, definitely cake.
Excerpt from Dunster’s Calling:
Exmoor, England. 1960
The mare’s nostrils flared with each rapid breath as she lay, fore and hind legs stretched out straight and rocking back and forth in time with her contractions. The light frost was slowly being vanquished by lemony rays as they stole into the valley below the farm. But the early spring dawn went unnoticed in the paddock except for the glint reflecting in the sweat coating the Exmoor pony’s neck and flanks. The single observer noted the calmness of her demeanour. He remembered childbirth looking and sounding different during the birth of his own children.
She’ll kill me, he thought.
“Merv! Wha’ ’av you done?” He could already hear her voice as she interrogated him later, hands on hips, head on one side. But how was he supposed to know the foal would come early? No time to get the mare in the barn. No time to fetch his wife back to the farm. And besides, he didn’t think she’d approve of being disturbed at her father’s sickbed.
Should I call the vet? Merv knew what to do with sheep, but this was different. Each birth of an Exmoor pony was a triumph after the herds had been decimated during World War II. His wife had anticipated this foal with as much excitement as the birth of her own daughters. Deep down he knew the mare could do this without a barn or his help. She was of Exmoor: strong, hardy, from ancient stock that had survived great adversity. Like himself, really. But surviving marriage was on his mind right now.
The mare grunted, tried to sit up, then rolled flat on her side again. One rock of the legs … two rocks … three. A white bubble appeared first, then a nose, head, and neck, quickly followed by tiny shrouded hooves. The soon-to-be mother rested briefly, then finished her job, sliding her newborn onto the grass. The farmer approached, reassuring and praising the mare. At least he could tell his wife he’d done that much. He grasped the white sack that gave the foal a ghostly silhouette in the dawn light. Tearing the membrane to free the head and body, he cleared the foal’s nostrils and glanced back to check the gender.
Good. He hadn’t wanted to shout his mother-in-law’s name across a field. The mare nickered softly, then more urgently, as she scrambled up and spun around to meet her baby boy. She licked his nose and eyes, nudged his neck and belly, breathing in the scent of her descendant, the newborn doing the same of his ancestor.
Dunster had arrived.
Wisconsin, USA. 2016
“Oh, and you need to get US citizenship.” A patriotic challenge, wrapped around a xenophobic hand grenade, pin pulled … five … four …
That first shot arced across the dining room table, rattling the Wedgwood tea set and sending the dogs scurrying for their beds in the kitchen. With horror, Samantha McClintock watched the fires of global domination flicker in her husband’s eyes.
“Did you hear me, Sam? The committee felt it was in the best interests of the campaign.” Brody stopped eating to look at his wife. Three … two … one …
Campaign? Campaign! Sam heard the words ricochet off the inside of her skull, refusing to quietly absorb themselves into a brain that, until now, had been fully capable of comprehending most of her husband’s utterances. The campaign was supposed to involve her husband knocking on about three hundred doors. He’d be clutching a flyer sporting every icon from the free clipart program even remotely related to elections, or America. She’d assumed, with some fear, gastronomically challenged as she was, she would have to bake a few cookies. She’d been told there would be a couple of appearances at the local beer festivals and a doughnut-heavy meet and greet. Knowing Brody’s proclivity for healthy eating, Sam was amazed he’d even agreed to have doughnuts on the agenda, though it should have been her first clue that political ambition trumped prior values. “There’ll be no polling over how your dresses are playing with the voters, no deleting questionable e-mails, and no paying for the silence of long-lost college roommates,” Brody had jokingly said. But nowhere in the discussion had there ever been mention of a change in citizenship status.
“You haven’t said anything. Citizenship?” Brody stared into Sam’s face like he’d never seen her before. Sam came to her senses and realised this conversation was really happening.
“Umm … what’s to say?” she responded, trying to keep the incredulousness out of her voice. “We talk about me getting citizenship about once a decade. I say no, and we move on with our lives. You know my reasons. You always said it was up to me. I don’t see what’s changed.”
“Everything’s changed!” Brody’s organic noodles infused with low-sodium soy sauce clung to ashen chunks of tofu. They fell from his chopsticks with a splat as he waved his arm to encompass the entire known universe. “I have a chance to influence the direction of our town! To introduce new concepts and present myself in a much bigger arena than the local banking world. This could lead from town to county to state politics!”
As if in response to this grandiose speech, a cheer broke out from the den. Some baseball game. Sam heard the crack of a willow cricket bat knocking a ball for six. Where’d that come from?
“Tell you what then,” Sam said, still trying to shake the sounds of cricket from her head. “I’ll wait to get citizenship until you run for president.”
“They’ll say you only did it to get to the White House.”
“I was joking!” Sam spluttered, adding as the horrifying prospect sunk in, “Are you seriously thinking about the presidency?” How could I have missed this one?
“Well, no, but hypothetically … anyway, the point is, the exploratory committee felt that you being a British citizen could lead to uncomfortable questions about why America still isn’t good enough for you.”
“What? Who said anything about America not being good enough?” Sam started to hear that screech in her voice that made her turn off any talk show with multiple female hosts. “Would I have married an American, spent twenty-six years here, raised my children here, and tolerated the accent and appalling grammar—well, strike that last one because I don’t tolerate it—if America wasn’t good enough? This has nothing to do with good enough and everything to do with me just wanting to remain British. Not a ‘dual’ anything. Just British. If your committee doesn’t understand patriotism, loyalty, and acceptance, you might be on the wrong committee.” Sam folded her arms and waited for another rousing cheer from the den. Nothing. Just a Jeep commercial.
“But, honey,” Brody pleaded, “it’s such a small thing. Just fill in a few forms, hold up your right hand, say a few words—you can even cross your fingers behind you back, if you like—and you’re done. You’ll feel no different, and nothing will change the big picture for you. But you not being a citizen may change my big picture. I want to be a greater part of things. Can you help me? Please?”
Sam chose to ignore the comment about crossing her fingers during a solemn oath, though if she’d been looking for a representative of her values, Brody at that moment wouldn’t have fit the bill. And she knew that statement didn’t fit Brody’s ex-military moral code either. Well, usually. Second time her newly minted politician husband had compromised his values. I hadn’t realised all this compromising started so early in the process.
“So tell me,” Sam asked. “How does ‘The Committee’ feel about your name, Mr. I’m-So-Proud-of-My-Scottish-Heritage McClintock? Should I be calling you Buck or Buddy or John Wayne from now on?”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Brody said as he pushed his unfinished plate away and threw his napkin on the table. “Everyone has a surname from Europe around here.”
“Soooo, a European name is okay but an actual European wife is not? I’m confused.” Sam felt at this point the battle was won. Apparently not.
“Look,” Brody countered. “It’s a small town, and I’m already an outsider. We’ve only been here ten years, and my competition, whoever that is, will have been here for at least three generations. The committee felt I was enough of a new concept. A non-citizen wife may be the tipping point.” Brody pouted like a toddler at enforced naptime.
“Well, speaking of new concepts, why don’t we start with differences and tolerance?” Sam shot back. “Not that this town needs introducing to them, or so I thought until a few seconds ago, because I’ve never been anything but graciously welcomed here.” Sam’s raised eyebrows dared Brody to disagree.
“Of course you’re welcome here,” Brody placated, carefully replacing his water glass on the table. “No one is suggesting you aren’t welcome. The committee just wanted to ensure that there were no obstacles in the way. You know, for the voters.”
“Oh, the voters.” Sam leaned back, folded her arms, and nodded her head slowly. “You mean, my best friend Gail? Macy at the grocery store? Anne and John at the coffee shop? People we’ve known for the decade we’ve lived here who couldn’t care less whether or not I have citizenship? Do you really think Dennis at the gas station is going to make a fuss about my heritage? This is all stupid.” Sam tried to imagine Dennis, who doubled as the town’s snowplough driver, starting an anti-British smear campaign. The man was the biggest Manchester United fan ever born the US side of the pond.
“Maybe they do care,” Brody said softly. “More than one person on the committee brought it up.
Sam started, her jaw dropping open. She unfolded her arms and slumped in her chair.
“People have said as much?” Et tu, Macy? “People doubt my engagement in this community because I’m British? Wish I’d known that before I spent all those years with the PTO, volunteered at every fundraiser, and cleaned miles of American trash off the side of the town roads. Because chances are slim it’s the Brits dumping garbage out of their car windows on the way to Heathrow—via Wisconsin!” Sam paused to draw breath before delivering her pièce de résistance. “Call me barmy, but a non-meat, non-dairy leader in the middle of Dairyland, USA, gives much bigger cause for suspicion than I do!” Brody’s decision to lower his cholesterol a couple of years ago had rendered most of Sam’s meat and two veg meal plans obsolete.
“There’s no need to take names and cry traitor. This is standard practice in politics: try to head off any unpleasantness before the opposition can sink their teeth into any skele—” The panic on Brody’s face was almost comical as he grasped the enormity of his error.
“So now I’m foreign, unpleasant, and a skeleton in your political closet?! What the hell, Brody!” Sam tried to bring her voice down an octave. She stared at the floor for a moment, allowing Brody to stammer a retraction. Ignoring his back-pedalling, Sam lifted her eyes to meet her husband’s, then rose slowly to her feet, displaying what Brody had learned to call her “Dam Busters” look.
“You always loved the fact I was from somewhere else,” she began slowly and deliberately. “Remember you only spoke to me on the ferry in New York Harbor because you heard my accent. You used to say in the old days—like yesterday—that my British accent actually opened doors for you, an icebreaker at banking conventions. You loved telling your friends about English beer and castles and tweed jackets. And, with the exception of that one party where you told the joke about the British Isles being a slow-moving US aircraft carrier, you fit right in in England. And you made me believe I fit right in here. But now, overnight, you’re saying my heritage is a liability for you? That it’s okay for me to sound British but not to be British? That you get to stand out only if I agree to blend in? Well, concept this, Buck!”
The gesture that followed wouldn’t have looked good at any election rally.
The night had started on the couch, despite entreaties to “Please explain why such a simple task is so hard” and Brody’s final plea: “At least think about it.”
“It’s like we’ve never met!” Sam had fired back after spitting toothpaste into the sink with the velocity of bullets. “Like you’ve forgotten you agreed to work towards getting a job in England. Like you had no idea I’d never wanted US citizenship!” The old Brody had understood. Old Brody had promised to take her home.
The couch wasn’t a new sleeping arrangement for Sam. Many a night of fantasizing about murdering with a pickaxe Mr. Snoring-Hard-Enough-to-Cause-Vibrating-Ripples-in-His-Bedside-Water ended with Sam choosing the couch over life without parole. But most days she didn’t contemplate killing him. Brody was typically the most sensitive of men: kind, grateful, and caring. This current hiccup demonstrated a one-sidedness Sam wouldn’t have believed possible in her husband of twenty-six years. But he had touched a nerve or, based on her current sleeping arrangement, hacked right through one.
“What kind of self-respecting international crisis happens over a takeout dinner on a Thursday night? Seriously?” Sam spat at the ceiling. She lay on the lumpy cushions, trying to wrap her head around Dictator Brody’s statement about it being a simple task to switch citizenship. “Let’s see you switch from supporting the San Francisco 49ers to the Green Bay Packers just because I want to run the PTO,” she muttered.
Tossing and turning on that midwestern sofa, miles and decades and memories from home, it took until 1:00 a.m. for Sam to remember that there were not one but two empty bedrooms upstairs that she could have used. And that was when the tears fell.
“We regret to inform you, Sam McClintock, you are no longer who you thought you were. Not a mother in the day-to-day sense. And not an accepted member of the community. Anymore.”
“So this is a midlife crisis,” Sam muttered hours later, still awake. “Nah, can’t be. That’s ten years from now.”
She’d always thought a midlife crisis would be more exciting somehow—all personal stylist consultations, start-up gelato businesses, wide-brimmed hats on exotic beaches. And who wasn’t in crisis? Everyone Sam knew had woken up at the age of forty or fifty (or thirty-five in the case of one particularly irritating, overachieving co-worker) and asked that reflection in the mirror, “Who the heck is that?” Not for nothing was it the clichéd opening of every baby-boomer film.
Could first town administrator be Brody’s equivalent to gelato and hair dye? Sam pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders and pondered. Possibly, she had to admit. But from the day they’d meet all those years ago, if you put the word first in front of anything, Brody wanted it. So it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise to Sam that when an exploratory committee asked Brody if he’d be interested in the first town administrator position, the bull just had to charge the red flag. The minor local position suddenly took on the importance of an ambassadorship to the United Nations.
Sam turned over, curling into a foetal position to protect her feet from the chilly air. Her last conscious thought was that if Brody had been offered the chance of a run at second town administrator, there would have been no crisis tonight. She’d have continued repainting the picket fence every year until she reached midlife, ten years from now, the seeds of discontent slumbering on, waiting for a less embarrassingly mundane reason to sprout.
After a terse breakfast and even terser peck on the cheek from her work-bound husband, Sam sat at the kitchen counter trying to focus on the crossword puzzle. Her first patient of the day had cancelled so she was free to dawdle a bit. She’d scanned the front page; another immigration headline. The crossword puzzle seemed less threatening.
Three down: Cornish word for homesickness with a sense of loss.
Usually, for Sam, the word Cornish evoked pleasant thoughts of ice cream and clotted cream, preferably one on top of the other. But today, the word dredged up more, a dawning sense that something was askew. Sam googled “homesickness with a sense of loss.” The search resulted in forays into websites for college counselling related to homesickness, which led to remedies, which led to families, which led to a brief encounter with an old Jerry Springer website (blimey!), then onto ancestors, which led to archaeology, which led to Druids, which led to the Cornish word hireth, with the Welsh version, hiraeth. Sam gazed, stunned at the meaning: homesickness for a home you cannot go back to, maybe a home that never was. She shivered. A six-letter word on top of a fight with her husband induced a sense that her expat existence was in jeopardy. Walls she didn’t even remember erecting began to tumble. Scars across her heart tore open. Breathing hard, she found herself doing what she often did for comfort. She composed a letter in her head:
I need your help …
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