The story behind ‘The Americans’

‘The Americans’ – the fourth story in Broken Rules and Other Stories – is an homage to the annual summer holidays I used to take with my parents when I was growing up. We would spend two weeks every year in a seaside location, usually in the UK. For many years Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, was our destination, though we also visited the Channel Islands, Woolacombe, Torquay, and the Isle of Wight. These getaways were magical. This was a world of guesthouses, B&Bs, half-board accommodation, mystery coach-tours, cricket on the beach, and sandwiches and fresh-cream meringues with a flask of tea in our rented beach-hut. A few times we stayed in a guesthouse in Sandown on the Isle of Wight, and it’s this guesthouse that I used for ‘The Americans’, though I changed its location to Bournemouth.

I adored both the routines and the possibilities within our holidays. You never knew who you might meet or what might happen. Smells played a large part, even well before the holidays had started, with the scent of the brochures that my parents brought back from the travel agents at the start of the year. On holiday, the aroma of frying bacon and eggs wafting up the stairs meant another exciting day was beginning. The smell of suntan lotion (not sunscreen), too: I’d start the fortnight using a fairly high SPF – though not so high as to impede the tanning process – then I’d drop to a lower number when my tan had progressed; the tanned skin provided, I believed, an element of natural protection. It was all about the tan rather than protection from the sun. Back at the guesthouse, the smell of soup signalled the start of the dinner service. Descending to the dining room, there’d be a tantalising melange of adult colognes and perfumes and hair lacquer. And then, after dark, a soothing perfumed aftersun lotion was applied to hot and peeling skin at bedtime.

One evening during one of our fortnights on the Isle of Wight, I’d gone upstairs towards my room, and one of two brothers staying with their parents came out of their room and took a pee on the landing, right in front of me and right into the middle of the carpet. I think the boy must have been sleepwalking, because he didn’t register my presence at all. I might as well have been one of the shadows on the landing. I wasn’t sure what to do: I didn’t want to mention the incident to anyone, because I didn’t want to get the boy into trouble. I hurried to my own room, as if by leaving the scene I might erase my presence, or my witness. The next day the landing was as if nothing had happened. The carpet appeared to have been forensically cleaned up, and the only scents were of laundered linen and guest soaps. I revisited this episode for a scene near the end of the story, but with different actors, and entirely different circumstances.

The first-person narrator in ‘The Americans’ may or may not be similar to me. It’s not for me to say. I think elements of the narrator’s character are similar to mine. I can certainly relate to many of the experiences he describes. Like him, I was an adventurer on childhood holidays, relishing opportunities to encounter the wider world, to interact with difference, and to learn and grow from this. And maybe I’m also as likely to find some commonality with the narrator’s father, or with his mother.

I looked up the Sandown guesthouse online recently, and was sad to see that it’s closed down now. On the street view of the maps app, the building, though smaller than I recall, is comfortingly familiar and rich with memories. I can easily lose myself in the nostalgia. Rabbit-holes are everywhere these days.

Right at the last minute, before signing off on the final version of Broken Rules and Other Stories, I decided to fictionalise the name of the guesthouse in ‘The Americans’, and it became the Avenham (after a park in Preston, Lancashire). I kept the real names of the proprietors, though. I wonder what Dave and Rose are doing now.

11 thoughts on “The story behind ‘The Americans’

      1. Thanks for reading it, Jenny. I really enjoyed writing this post, once I knew which way to approach it. Smells are powerful, aren’t they – and sometimes the things they evoke are elusive, and stay beyond our grasp no matter how hard we try to reach them.


    1. I love exploring this kind of stuff, Margaret. It took me a while to finish this post because I was finding it hard to pin down the main spark for the story. Was it the seaside holidays, or the fascination with America via the popular culture of the 70s and 80s? It was both to some extent, though that was becoming unwieldy. Once I realised the holidays were the main thing, I had a focus and was off and running.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. We went to Woolacombe on holiday too Barry – and the Isle of Wight – when I was a child. Staying in a guesthouse or hotel made a huge impression on me. All those people from different parts of the country, it all seemed so exotic at the time. Childhood memories can be mined for all kinds of writing. Fascinating stuff!

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    1. Those summer holidays were such an exciting time, weren’t they. I used to look forward to them all year. Remember how you had to put your holiday snaps into the chemist or send them off for developing? Getting them back and looking at the pics you took was such a thrill. You never knew what to expect. Digital photos don’t fill me with the same excitement. Gosh, this is starting to sound like a ramble along Memory Lane! Thanks for reading the post, Helen.


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