When I was eighteen years old, a ripe young thing, I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in the English-Speaking Union Secondary School Exchange. I left the beautiful confines of the Christian community at the The Stony Brook School (my home as a fac brat) and boarded the British Airlines flight from JFK to London's Heathrow Airport. Now, a little bit of background information for you...
The Stony Brook School, my high school and my home, is conveniently located directly across the street from the train station in Stony Brook, NY. Chapman Parkway, above, is literally directly across 25A from the Stony Brook train station. So, in my youth, if you wanted to go into the the City (as we locals called it and it is THE City such that no other city can ever compare), you hopped on the Long Island Railroad listened to the conductor shout out the stops until you might change trains in Huntington or Oyster Bay or Jamaica, and then bam, you are in a tunnel and heading towards Penn Station. It was rather convenient.
So, when assigned to the quaint Benenden School in Benenden Kent, it never occurred to my sheltered 18 year old mind, how would I get from the train station to the school. It would be, of course, directly across the street.... or not.
The English-Speaking Union gave us orientation. They put us on the plane. They welcomed us in their London headquarters, and then, they shuffled us off to our respective train stations in London. I was sent to Charing Cross. I said goodbye to the other students who were on different trains. From there, I was left with my 3 large Eddie Bauer duffle bags and told to disembark the Southeastern train at Staplehurst, Kent.
My memory is vague. I know I was tired. I was anxious. I was afraid of missing the station. I was afraid of missing a train change. I told the conductor where I was trying to get to - and he shuffled me off the train at one point and helped me on another. My train car was emptying. With each stop more passengers disembarked. I could hardly read the signs on the stations as we flew threw them, in many the train did not stop. It was raining. I learned later, for England, it was raining hard. It was past dinner time. The sun was down. It was dark. I did not know where I was headed.
It felt like a long time later but finally the conductor came to me and said: "Staplehurst next". He motioned that he would assist me getting my bags off the train. I stood up. Fatigued from the flight, the train and the nerves, I noticed not one soul left on the train. The train lurched to a stop. My bags and I were dropped at Staplehurst Station. A couple others got off the train and quickly headed up the stairs and out of sight.
I dragged my stuff into the rain shelter. I looked American. I mean, really American. Blonde hair, blue-eyed, baseball cap wearing American.
A voice: "Miss? Do you need help?"
There stood a nicely dressed gentleman. A man in a suit. A man with a Barbour jacket on. A man who knew I didn't belong here. I man that could have very easily taken advantage of me. I needed this man's help.
I told him I was going to Benenden School. That I was an exchange student. He told me to stay where I was and he would get the bell hop to assist getting my bags over the foot bridge (see photo of bridge to cross - imagine.... rain, dark and a years worth of 18 year old girl luggage!).
I waited. I had no option but to trust this man. I was from New York. I knew not to trust strangers. But I had no options. I was completely at this man's mercy. I said a little prayer - God help me - and he was back.
"The station is closed. Is someone picking you up? How are you getting to Benenden? Well, with this rain, your ride might be waiting in the car."
Yes! That's it. He or She is in the car.
"Lets get your bags over there." And there he went, grabbing my two large duffles and dragging them, step by step up the stairs and we scurried across the bridge.
There was no one in a car. There was no one at the station. There wasn't even a light on.
"Do you have a phone card? Do you have someone you can call?"
Surely I could call a taxi. I had some money. But I had no phone card, and if you are in England you know that pay phones operate on phone cards. I was stuck. The true reality of the situation had not occurred to me. Later I learned that Staplehurst is a 7.2 mile drive thru the rolling country roads of Kent to Benenden.
I shook my head. I had no one. I had not a single person I could call. I couldn't even call if I wanted to. I didn't have a name or a number. In my mind, I was going to hop off the train and scuttle across the street to my new school. I never imagined this. I could call my parents and cry, but that wouldn't help.
This man.. in his suit and his English manners... he looked at me, and he said: "Term started last week. You are late. I have to go by Benenden Village on my way home. I am a father of one, and I'm on my way home from a business meeting in London. Let me get my car, I will drop you."
I don't remember saying yes. I just knew I had no choice.
I let this man load my life into the "boot" of his Audi and got myself into what should have been the drivers seat. I was so overwhelmed I couldn't even process what was happening.
Off we sped thru narrow sunken lanes. Hedges on both sides. Rain pounding on the windshield. He spoke of his family. He asked about my exchange program. How did I get choosen? What organization? I remember talking but more than anything I remember feeling completely at this man's mercy.
We arrived into Benenden School. We drove around the dorms and pulled behind my assigned House. Out came my House Mistress who scolded me about not showing up on the train I was supposed to be on! And who was this man? Why didn't I call?
This man... he handed me his business card. He said that I should call him if I ever needed anything. Come over for dinner. Meet his family. I put the card in my pocket
Girls watched thru the kitchen windows as the House Mistresses grabbed my things dismissed my ride and got me out of the rain. I was making a scene and got a reputation. I was quickly ensconced into what would become my life for the next year. Uniform and all.
I wrote Graham Tardiff. I wrote a Thank You card. The card was "returned to sender".
I called Graham Tardiff. The phone number was "disconnected".
I still have Graham Tardiff's card. I would post a picture but out of respect for Graham Tardiff's privacy, I won't...
If you need Graham Tardiff, all you have to do is pray.