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Robert Gass



    I walk the lovely streets of Canterbury, in the southeast of England, scouting locations for the film, David Copperfield, which will begin shooting within a year. Charming, old-world picturesque, but peopled by tourists in shorts and t-shirts. Individuals, in mostly colonial costume, conduct tours and sell souvenirs from shops. Thus, difficult to picture the Canterbury of 1850, when Master David attended Dr. Strong’s school here.
   I sally forth before dawn, half-asleep, to better envision. When the grey morning outlines the shops of empty Butchery Lane and the tower of Canterbury Cathedral looms in the mist I visualize David, called Trotwood by his aunt in Dover, walking to school. I snap dozens of pictures. Possibilities. When the sky turns blue and bright, before the streets fill with tourists, I photograph Westgate Prison and Canterbury Castle and the Crooked House and other landmarks.
   Every evening I email pictures to the director, Ralph Fleming, in Los Angeles, receive his discouraging opinions. He worries sets will need be built, not on the actual locations, spoiling the vision he has long entertained, the most authentic film of a Dickens’ novel ever.
   I’m a twenty-four-year-old Omaha girl, a UCLA film school graduate. Raised on the novels of Dickens and Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, an Anglophile since middle school, I’ve been given a big opportunity to make a mark in the movie business. Determined to locate spot-on locations, I return to London, and depart for Greater Yarmouth on the North Sea.
   London has old-world charm, but the narrow lanes, the moors, the little villages dotting the English countryside, viewed from the window of the bus speeding along the A47 Motorway, show me the United Kingdom I always imagined. Nearing the end of the four-hour journey we behold the North Sea, grey and gloomy. No shorts and t-shirts here.
   After passing through Lowestoft we drive along the coast, beaches and bogs and vast tidal flats. Greater Yarmouth is a tourist town, amusement parks, nightclubs, neon lights, a Ferris Wheel, but along this stretch of coast, south of Yarmouth, I see the world of Dickens and du Maurier. A great mudflat, the tide out, stretches to the grey waters of the sea, and in the foreground, quaint B and B inns squat along the road.
   In Yarmouth, after checking into the marvelous old Imperial Hotel, I take a shower preparatory to dining and sampling the nightlife. While my hair dries, I upload photos to my laptop. Staring at those taken of the tidal flats along the coast an hour before, I see an image I don’t remember, an old wooden boat sunk a bit into the sand far out on the beach, with crisscrossing duckboard walkways.
   Immediately brings to mind Mr. Peggotty’s boathouse from David Copperfield. My favorite setting in the novel and there it lurks, pure, unspoiled. How had I missed it? I hurry out onto the brightly lit Marine Parade, and instead of sitting down to a fine meal (planned) I order a paper of fish and chips and walk south, eating as I go.
   Night has fallen and I soon pass beyond the last lights. Traffic has diminished. Should have waited till morning, I know, to find what I look for, especially now that a chilly fog rolls in from the sea, but it’s as though Dickens himself summons me. I zip up my jacket with greasy fingers. I begin feeling peculiar, out of bounds. A vast beach stretches along my left, shaggy hills rise sullenly on the right. The pavement ends and I follow a rutted dirt road, though certain the whole road was smoothly paved on the bus ride into Yarmouth. A half-moon peeks obligingly through the fog.
   There. A dark mound appears, a hundred yards out, and I discover a wooden walkway through a bog. Deserted. The hulk slowly takes shape, a boat, but a boat inverted, the keel the roof ridge, a door cut into the side. A pat of buttery light oozes from a tiny four-pane window. A dog barks somewhere and another responds with a gloomy howl. The fog thickens, the only light from the little window.
   Thirty minutes after leaving my hotel I stand before a dark plank boat house with sloping sides, catching my breath. I hear voices inside, laughter. A thrill of anticipation and foreboding addles my brain as I knock lightly on the heavy wooden door. Abrupt silence within. The door creaks open, a brawny man with wild curly hair fills the entrance, and says, “What the devil do ye seek ‘ere?”
   A strong smell of dead fish hits me. The coarse man blurs dizzily, and I drop. I hear the man’s words, as from a distance, call to those within, “’Tis a queer lass without, swooned dead away. Em’ly! Come!”
   I awake, don’t know how much later, my head resting on the thigh of a police woman sitting on the duckboards. Flashlight beams flicker about. After a fuzzy moment I remember, and look at the old spectral house, shadows, and abandon. Collapsed, broken timbers, not the house I visited, the door I knocked upon. There is no door. 
   “She’s come round,” the officer announces. “Are you all right, ma’am,” she asks me.
   “I don’t know. Think so. Guess I fainted?”
   Straying teens found me, and not being criminal sorts, telephoned the police. They stick around, and I thank them, and the police, after being helped up. I still feel one foot to be in another world, but I tell no one.
   Back in my room later, I sip a gin and tonic and muse. The wonder of it. Email Ralph a pic of the magical location. An instant before drifting into a dream-filled sleep I feel myself lying again on the damp duckboards, hear footsteps clumping past, and Mr. Peggotty speaking to someone, “Master Davy’s off for fetchin’ the doctor.”

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