Read the Prologue first.
A huge fan of British period films and American Public Television serials, I had always wanted to live in a British manor house on a massive country estate of bucolic pastures, ancient woodlands, and serene gardens. I imagined myself surrounded by antique furniture, dining in elegance on fine china laid out on crisp linen tablecloths. I would take daily restorative walks through field and forest, followed by afternoon tea on the front lawn. At Braemar, that fantasy became my reality, except the Jane Austen setting seemed populated with Star Trek characters. At least, that was my first impression.
In late August, I left Montana for England to spend a month with friends in Kent before heading to Scotland for what I guessed would be six months or so. Before moving to Braemar, I made a weekend visit there to meet William. He would be returning home to Australia before my planned move-in date, and I wanted to discuss the tree planting project before he left. I rented a car for the six-hour journey, bringing with me two steamer-trunk-sized bags stuffed with winter clothing. That way I wouldn’t have to schlep them on the train the following week, my official Braemar arrival.
Trembling with nerves from the harrowing drive on the wrong side of the road, I parked behind Braemar’s gray, pebble-dashed manor house. It wasn’t near as grand as those in BBC dramas, smaller—and a little shabbier—but still impressive. Despite the half-dozen parked cars, not a soul was in sight. I stared at four doors, wondering which one to enter. I picked one, and inside was a red-painted concrete staircase with a dumbwaiter shaft next to it. The servants’ entrance. How fitting for someone from plebian upbringing, I thought, as I headed upstairs. I called out “Hello?” but no one answered. On the next level I poked my head into a large kitchen just off the stairwell. No one. The next two flights were carpeted in a threadbare maroon twill. At the top floor, I peeked into a couple of lived-in-looking sitting rooms before finding an office. Here, a petite, fiftyish woman sat at a desk. Her blond hair was cropped short, and her glasses rimmed her small facial features. I introduced myself. She stood and approached me.
“I’m Joanna,” she said in a friendly English accent. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“I’m relieved to hear that.”
I hesitated, confused. “Pardon?”
“Many of us go by two names. I’m also called Jelila. Would you like some refreshment? Tea is just being served.”
She led me down the much grander front stairs to the dining room, a bright airy space with butter yellow walls and double-hung picture windows facing an enormous, croquet-perfect front lawn. A fireplace and mantle dominated one wall. An oval table filled most of the room; I counted twenty-two chairs. An assortment of seven men and women in a range of ages sat at the table silently sipping from delicate china cups painted in tiny purple flowers. Little cakes and cookies were arranged on matching plates. A couple of people looked up as we entered; others stared into space. Joanna-Jelila pulled out a chair for me, and another woman poured me a cup of tea. Joanna-Jelila quietly told me that I’d be staying on the top floor in the Victorian wing.
“When you arrive for good, Latif will assign you another room,” she said.
“Arrive for good” had an eerie finality to it. Latif, I learned, was the principal of Braemar and currently out of town.
“You should visit the monument before anything else,” Joanna-Jelila continued. “Iskandar is buried there. He’s our founder. It’s customary for new arrivals to pay their respects.”
Up until that moment I had banished the notion that Braemar might be a little too out there for me. Some of my family had been mildly concerned. The word “cult” was never uttered, but it had been implied—and it rankled me. Did my family think I was that gullible? I didn’t admit to having similar concerns and was confident I could resist any attempts at potential brainwashing. Still, Joanna-Jelila’s comment about paying respects to this Iskandar chap made my neck hairs stand on end.
Out of politeness I agreed to pay homage at the grave of a man I didn’t know, founder of an obscure religious group I knew nothing about. Never mind that. I had come to plant trees, not drink the Kool-Aid. So after tea, I hiked up the hill that rose at the far end of the front lawn. A flock of fat sheep parted before me like synchronized swimmers. At the top of the hill, the circular monument of poured concrete glowed white in the late afternoon sun. Three shallow steps wrapped around the base ring, with a grassy spot in the center. Four columns rose from its base to support another ring, about ten feet high and open to the sky. The monument was about twenty feet in diameter, and the top step was engraved:
They are from Him and to Him they return.
I took off my baseball cap—I wasn’t a complete heathen—and stared at the words in agreement. So far so good. “Him” I took to mean “God.” Feeling a presence behind me, I turned to see a woman standing several feet away and looking straight through me. She was dressed in colorful pantaloons and a white tunic. An elongated purple crystal hung from her neck. I introduced myself.
“I’m called Jelila,” she responded, emotionless.
Another one? This Jelila reminded me of a Borg, the half-human, half-machine beings controlled from a central computer and bereft of individual thought. Great! My family was right! Soon I would start calling myself Jelila after drinking drugged tea. Jelila #2 obviously hadn’t climbed the hill to chat. She was still staring through me. Over her shoulder I spied a garden at the bottom of the hill not far from the big house. Departing with a smile and a nod, I hurried toward it.
The Victorian garden was about a half-acre square and obviously had, at one time, been surrounded by a stone wall. Only one side of the wall was fully intact, about ten feet high, with a stone gazebo protruding from it. The other three sides had crumbled by varying degrees. One side was delineated by a fence, stone shed, and a long, stone lean-to. A small greenhouse had been built into the opposite end of the garden. An enormous groomed beech hedge divided the garden into halves, with an archway in the middle for passage between the two garden sides.
There were eight square planting beds, each about fifty feet by thirty feet, which were overgrown in a tangle of orange and yellow nasturtiums and pastel cornflowers. Beyond the garden wall, ducks and geese paddled on the weed-choked surface of a tiny lake. I passed through an iron gate and stood near the water’s edge to watch them. Several minutes later, I was headed back toward the big house when a voice called out from behind me.
“You must be Sarah.” A tall, somewhat well-fed man with short black hair and a boyish face approached. “Exploring the place, eh?”
William! We chatted briefly, and I was relieved that he seemed normal; that is, he didn’t mention a Borg name. I was eager to talk about my Braemar role, but he wasn’t.
“I won’t be at supper tonight. Have loads to do before shipping out.”
“Okay, but when can we talk about—”
“Gotta dash. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He hurried off, his swinging arms carrying him swiftly away toward another grouping of buildings near the big house. I stood there with six hens, who clucked and scratched in the overgrown boxwood hedge nearby.
Supper that night was elegant, just as in my fantasy. Willow pattern dishes on white linen tablecloths softly glowed beneath silver branching candelabras. Vegetables with rice and noodles steamed in mounds on scalloped-edge china platters. Fresh salad greens complemented baskets of homemade bread, onto which we spread exquisite yellow curls of real butter, not margarine. A bubbling, gooey chocolate pudding capped the meal. Tea and coffee followed. Even if they had plans to brainwash me, at least I wouldn’t starve.
About a dozen people showed up for the feast, including a few new faces since teatime. I sat between Joanna-Jelila and her husband, Simon, whose Borg name was Rahman. He was Braemar’s second-in-command, jovial and welcoming. A thick mustache danced on his lip when he talked.
“What does everyone do here?” I whispered, concerned about breaking the prevailing silence yet desperate to know more.
Rahman chuckled. “Whatever needs doing. Most of the people here now are just finishing a short course, which ends tomorrow morning. When you come back next week, you’ll meet a whole new group.”
“Meet” seemed a funny word, considering so far most people hadn’t said a word to me, or anyone else.
After supper Rahman gave me a tour of the house. From the grand foyer we spiraled up the front staircase. I grasped the cherry wood handhold of the iron-spindled balustrade and imagined myself in a flowing gown, retiring to my suite after the gala ball. I promptly stumbled on the shallow steps, a reminder of my rather more humble place in society. Throughout the twenty-two-room house the floorboards beneath worn carpeting creaked and sagged noticeably with each step. Interestingly, on one wall in every room hung a framed Arabic calligraphy. The meditation room, on the ground floor, displayed the Qur’an in micro print so that the whole text could be read with a magnifying glass. Though beautifully accentuated with swirling lines and shapely flourishes, the Islamic accents seemed strangely out of place. I recalled the Qur’anic verses on their website. Were Braemarites Muslim converts? I didn’t ask Rahman, feeling that it might seem disrespectful. Also, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it if the answer was yes.
After a hot bath, I settled into my room. Three twin beds, each covered in matching pink quilts over down comforters, were carefully arranged to maximize space and privacy. On the nightstand my hosts had left a small plate with an apple and a pear, as well as a carafe of water and a little vase of cornflowers and fragrant sweet peas. Someone else was sharing the room, but I hadn’t met her yet, and it was already after ten. I crawled into bed and began writing in my journal. Five minutes later, the bedroom door slowly opened and in stepped Jelila #2! Quietly, she prepared for bed.
“I’ll try not to wake you in the morning,” she said, gently pulling back her bed covers.
“Don’t worry, I’m an early riser.”
“Then you might like to know that group meditation is at seven. Full ablution.”
An invitation or a command? Did full ablution mean everyone took showers together? I laid awake for a while even more concerned.
In my limited experience of spiritual retreats, as well as some solo hostel trips, I had never felt so out of place and alone as I did at Braemar that first day. How strictly religious were these people? Why did hardly anyone talk? Did they expect me to accept their beliefs—whatever they were? Would I have to change my name and worship the guy buried under the monument?
In the morning, I joined a handful of people in the dining room for breakfast: a spread of cereal, fruit, porridge, yogurt, and toast. I sat next to William, hoping to glean as much as possible about the tree planting. Despite my having a forestry degree, I didn’t feel confident taking over from him. My forestry knowledge was of the dry American West, not the damp European Atlantic.
“So what exactly will I be doing?”
“Baking bread, cleaning toilets, could you please pass me the toast?” William said.
Bread and toilets? Bait and switch? Was I about to be taken advantage of? I had agreed to come plant trees, not be a scullery maid.
I handed him the bread basket and asked specifically about the trees.
“I want to learn as much as possible before you leave.”
“No worries,” William said.
“Actually, I have a lot of worries.”
He stopped slathering marmalade on his toast. A glob of it plopped onto the tablecloth.
“Like what exactly my role here is.”
“The new estate manager can show you. You might meet him this afternoon.”
“And he knows I’m here to plant trees?”
“Actually, there’s not much tree biz at the mo. Plenty of other jobs, though.”
He took a final bite of his toast, then rose from the table.
“Meet me at eleven behind the big house. I’ll show you around the estate,” William said, and hurried out of the room.
Several minutes before eleven, I showed up behind the house. Another man was there, sitting in a resin lawn chair, its front legs suspended precariously off the ground as he leaned against the house. The man, who looked about my age, was dressed in grubby jeans and a T-shirt, with a flour-dusted apron extending to his knees. He puffed on a hand-rolled cigarette, and when he saw me, a big smile split his face, revealing crooked yellow teeth.
“Oh, hiya! You must be the one from Montana,” he said. He shifted forward, and the front chair legs hit the ground. He leaped up and thrust a hand toward me.
“Nice to meet you, Shane.”
I shook his hand, appreciating his warm welcome.
“But you can call me Wakil.”
“Okay.” Another Borg name!
“Nah, go on, call me Shane.”
“Shane is easier to remember,” I said.
“Well, maybe you better call me Wakil ’cause that’s what everyone else calls me. It might get confusin’.”
“Wakil it is,” I said, laughing.
“But I do like the way you say ‘Shane.’ Oh, never mind, call me what you like.”
Then Shane-Wakil plunked a kiss on my cheek.
“Aw, you’re sweet, I can tell. Glad you’re here. Have to get back to me bread now.”
He hurried into the house.
“I see you’ve met our resident hanger-on,” William said, approaching. “Just tell him to bugger off if he gets bothersome.”
Actually, I didn’t mind Wakil’s friendly welcome.
William and I walked up the long, gravel drive toward Braemar’s entrance. Near a white stucco cottage, the Gate Lodge, we turned south onto a single-lane dirt track and climbed a low rise. For an hour or so we trekked through muddy spruce plantations, crossed hillsides and pastures, and sank into the spongy forest floor. I became disoriented by the rolling landscape along the network of trails and vehicle tracks that circled the estate. My short legs tried to match William’s pace while he offered a condensed explanation of the tree-planting project.
The Millennium Forest for Scotland project was a nationwide plan to revitalize the country’s native woodlands. Centuries ago, Britons had hacked down their forests to build fortresses to protect themselves from neighboring brutes. These brutes also hacked down the forests to build forts to protect themselves from avenging brutes. Royalty and gentry needed wood for castle and manor home interiors and furniture. And everyone needed wood for heating and cooking. When Britain began building ships to conquer the world, the remaining forests hadn’t stood a chance. During the twentieth century, the Forestry Commission planted vast tracts of Sitka spruce, a fast-growing North American species that provided lucrative earnings in pulp. Unfortunately, the non-native spruce sucked the life out of the soil and turned once bountiful wildlife habitat into virtual deserts. Conservationists began pushing the government to replant native hardwoods such as ash, oak, hazel, cherry, beech, and pine.
Some parts of the Braemar estate had been logged in the 1980s, turning these areas into giant swathes of sucking mud and invading rushes. Other parts of the estate had been replanted a decade before my arrival. But without adequate protection for the new seedlings, the deer and rabbits had munched their way through any would-be forest. The newly minted Millennium Forest Trust had given Braemar a grant to replant certain tracts of land on the estate, and five months earlier, William had organized a hundred volunteers to plant eleven thousand native tree species on ten acres. They planted it all it in just two weeks.
“You should have seen the sleet on the first day of planting. Bloody buckets of it, but that didn’t stop us.” William said.
He pointed toward the hillside of new seedlings. The ground fell steeply away to the sinuous Stanwick River below. In front of us, the forest of green plastic tree tubes stood about two and a half feet high. Each tube protected a leafy seedling from hungry deer and rabbits. Young trees had another enemy: grass, which grew thick inside the protective tubes and could choke out the little seedlings.
“For the second phase of the project, you’ll only have to plant six thousand trees,” William said.
“What a relief,” I said.
“Quite. It should be a piece of piss,” he replied, ignoring my sarcasm.
Apparently, none of it would happen until the following spring. This explained his comment at breakfast about there not being much “tree biz” at the moment—in favor of baking bread and cleaning toilets!
We continued along the track, while William described the other projects they had completed. They had created a network of walking trails that circled the estate through the new plantings, dug drainage ditches in the boggy places, and built small bridges and boardwalks.
“Most of the work’s been done, so you’ll just be bunging in a few more trees. Oh, plus weeding everything we’ve already planted.”
By that he meant removing each tree tube, pulling out the grass, and putting the tubes back on. All eleven thousand. By hand!
“And the grant people want a written management plan as well, but I shouldn’t worry about that,” William continued.
Although he made it sound suspiciously simple—I knew it wouldn’t be—learning more eased my mind. There actually were trees to plant, even if it had to wait six months.
Also easing my somewhat dubious first impressions of Braemar was the departure of the somber group I had first encountered and the arrival of a dozen or so chatty new people who came for Sunday lunch that afternoon. Some of this mix of British, Europeans, Americans, and Australians lived in the area. Some would assume Braemar staff positions, while others were former staff: cooks, housekeepers, office help, and estate workers.
“You’ll all be living, eating, and working together,” one man told me. “We’re one big family.
An American, he introduced himself with his Borg name, which I struggled to repeat.
“Just call me Frank,” he said.
A Texan, Frank’s face was creased with hard living. His gravelly voice was obviously compliments of the hand-rolled cigarette—and the many before it—that teetered on his lower lip. He looked out of place in his cowboy boots and pearl-snap shirt, but to my Montana eyes, he was just normal. Frank lived in the village with his Braemar girlfriend and occasionally did odd jobs around the place. I told him I had come to plant trees. He suggested I take what was called the Six Month Course instead, which started October first every year. This longer course Frank talked about seemed to involve adopting a new name and, given what I had seen already, possibly converting to Islam. The way Frank promoted it as a “life-altering experience not to be missed” made me even more skeptical. I declined, saying I preferred to work instead.
“You’ll want to take it eventually, though,” he insisted.
His presumptuousness immediately turned me off the whole idea.
Whether Braemar could offer me spiritual nourishment, it sure could deliver on the bodily kind. Sunday lunch was a gourmet spread of leg of lamb, roasted vegetables, broccoli-cheese casserole, Wakil’s fresh bread, and salad. Wakil sat next to me and not too discreetly explained the relationship dynamics in the room.
“Our lamb’s from the farm down the hill that belongs to that man. That’s his girlfriend sitting next to him. Her mum manages Braemar’s finances. The lady in purple was married to the school principal, and those two teenagers are theirs. The one next to her was our cook before that bloke with the mustache took over. His sister was the girlfriend of that guy, but then she married Aziz instead. He lives in London, but you’ll meet him eventually. That lady was married to the man sitting two down from her, but they broke up, and now he’s with the lady on the left, but he’s still like a father to her son, the one that’s sitting at the end.”
And around the table he went with the brain-boggling overview of the Braemar family tree. Afterward, I took advantage of the sunny afternoon to hike up the pasture in front of the house. Beyond Iskandar’s monument, the fern-flecked moors extended to the horizon. In the near distance rose a rounded high spot called Armstrong Hill, the highest point around at just over a thousand feet. From the top, I studied the 360-degree view of undulating landscape in more shades of green than imaginable, from the black green of the scattered spruce stands to the vibrant green pastures peppered with farmsteads and stout sheep.
The grassy hilltop was the perfect place for lying on one’s back, staring at the sky, and pondering one’s situation. For months I had been begging God for direction, throwing Scotland out there as a potential place to start. God had delivered the backdrop, but the Islamic theme . . .?
“Okay, now what do I do?” I said aloud to the sky.
Promptly, four blotchy gray cows ambled over and stared down at me. By all historical accounts, God used signs for doing business. Were the bovines harbingers of following the herd? Maybe Joanna-Jelila could help soothe my apprehension. I headed back down the hill to the big house, hoping to find her in the office. She wasn’t there, but I did meet someone else.
“He’s a genius with a chainsaw,” William said, introducing me to his successor.
The new estate manager had been sitting with his stockinged feet propped on the desk, thumbing through the phone book. He stood slowly and approached me, his lanky, muscular frame towering above me at around six feet tall. His eyes quickly scanned me from foot to hat-messed hair. He was wearing a checked cotton shirt, and his beige jeans looked like they could have used a wash—as did his holey socks. He had brown-reddish hair that was beginning to bald on top, yet—I later learned—he was around my age. Not bad looking, either. He tipped his head, offered a faint smile, and shook my hand. It seemed like his loose grip was more a sign of disinterest than skepticism toward me.
“He’ll be your boss,” William said.
They both laughed.
“Oh, so we’ll be working together?” I asked.
“You’ll be the assistant estate manager,” William answered.
This was news!
“What does that entail?” I asked.
Estate Manager mumbled something I didn’t catch, and they both laughed again. I just pretended that I had heard his comment and smiled. EM sat back down at the desk.
“Do you know any good places to eat in Edinburgh?” EM asked William in a soft English accent, effectively dismissing me.
The two of them hunkered over the Yellow Pages while I slipped out the door unnoticed.
That evening, about twenty staff and area Braemarites had a going-away party for William and his partner, Susan. We gathered in the Mead Hall, a handsome sitting room in the big house just off the grand foyer. I was not a big drinker, but what a relief it was to see alcohol! At least Braemar wasn’t a dry religious retreat. In fact, it was more like “ye olde pub” the way everyone was slamming them down. More than a dozen empty wine and whisky bottles littered the sideboard by evening’s end.
William officially christened the new estate manager and introduced me as the estate manager’s assistant. Neither EM nor I had prepared an acceptance speech, nor had EM many words of advice for me. I told him that, despite my size, I was a strong, hard worker.
He shrugged. “Do whatever you’re able to. There’s no sort of . . . pressure.”
Part of me felt relieved that I wasn’t expected to bust a gut. Another part of me worried that EM was less than thrilled about having me on board. Or maybe he truly didn’t care either way.
That night I had the bedroom to myself; Jelila #2 had left. Before slipping under the covers, I stared at the bizarre Arabic script above my bed.
“I’m sorry, God. I don’t know what it means, so don’t blame me if you don’t approve.”
The next day, I set out early to return to Kent. The morning darkness was shrouded by a thick fog that had settled in the valley during the night. Six hours later, tears blurred my vision when I saw the rising hills of Kent’s South Downs ahead—I was so relieved to be in familiar territory again. I had one week to enjoy freedom with my friends, Ruth and John. I told them about my weekend, downplaying my anxiety in case they talked me out of going back. I half wanted them to. If the Braemarites did turn out to be a bunch of comet-chasing Kool-Aid drinkers, I would be on the first asteroid back to Montana, writing off the experience as another failed quest. Yet failure to commit to anything could doom me to an ever-shrinking field of opportunities.
I had to go back to Braemar.