The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.
He had begun the evening by enjoying himself: he had enjoyed reading the good-bye cards, and receiving the hugs from several not entirely unattractive young ladies of his acquaintance; he had enjoyed the warnings about the evils and dangers of London, and the gift of the white umbrella with the map of the London Underground on it that his friends had chipped in money to buy; he had enjoyed the first few pints of ale; but then, with each successive pint he found that he was enjoying himself significantly less; until now he was sitting and shivering on the sidewalk outside the pub in a small Scottish town, weighing the relative merits of being sick and not being sick, and not enjoying himself at all.
Inside the pub, Richard’s friends continued to celebrate his forthcoming departure with an enthusiasm that, to Richard, was beginning to border on the sinister. He sat on the sidewalk and held on tightly to the rolled-up umbrella, and wondered whether going south to London was really a good idea.
“You want to keep a eye out,” said a cracked old voice. “They’ll be moving you on before you can say Jack Robinson. Or taking you in, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Two sharp eyes stared out from a beaky, grimy face. “You all right?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Richard. He was a fresh-faced, boyish young man, with dark, slightly curly hair and large hazel eyes; he had a rumpled, just-woken-up look to him, which made him more attractive to the opposite sex than he would ever understand or believe.
The grimy face softened. “Here, poor thing,” she said, and pushed a fifty-pence piece into Richard’s hand. ” ‘Ow long you been on the streets, then?”
“I’m not homeless,” explained Richard, embarrassed, attempting to give the old woman her coin back. “Please—take your money. I’m fine. I just came out here to get some air. I go to London tomorrow,” he added.
She peered down at him suspiciously, then took back her fifty pence and made it vanish beneath the layers of coats and shawls in which she was enveloped. “I’ve been to London,” she confided. “I was married in London. But he was a bad lot. Me mam told me not to go marrying outside, but I was young and beautiful, although you’d never credit it today, and I followed my heart.”
“I’m sure you did,” said Richard. The conviction that he was about to be sick was starting, slowly, to fade.
“Fat lot of good it done me. I been homeless, so I know what it’s like,” said the old woman. “That’s why I thought you was. What you going to London for?”
“I’ve got a job,” he told her proudly.
“Doing what?” she asked.
“Um, Securities,” said Richard.
“I was a dancer,” said the old woman, and she tottered awkwardly around the sidewalk, humming tunelessly to herself. Then she teetered from side to side like a spinning top coming to rest, and finally she stopped, facing Richard. “Hold out your hand,” she told him, “and I’ll tell yer fortune.” He did as he was told. She put her old hand into his, and held it tightly, and then she blinked a few times, like an owl who had swallowed a mouse that was beginning to disagree with it. “You got a long way to go . . . ” she said, puzzled.
“London,” Richard told her.
“Not just London . . . ” The old woman paused. “Not any London I know.” It started to rain then, softly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It starts with doors.”
She nodded. The rain fell harder, pattering on the roofs and on the asphalt of the road. “I’d watch out for doors if I were you.”
Richard stood up, a little unsteadily. “All right,” he said, a little unsure of how he ought to treat information of this nature. “I will. Thanks.”
The pub door was opened, and light and noise spilled out into the street. “Richard? You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’ll be back in a second.” The old lady was already wobbling down the street, into the pelting rain, getting wet. Richard felt he had to do something for her: he couldn’t give her money, though. He hurried after her, down the narrow street, the cold rain drenching his face and hair. “Here,” said Richard. He fumbled with the handle of the umbrella, trying to find the button that opened it. Then a click, and it blossomed into a huge white map of the London Underground network, each line drawn in a different color, every station marked and named.
The old woman took the umbrella, gratefully, and smiled her thanks. “You’ve a good heart,” she told him. “Sometimes that’s enough to see. you safe wherever you go.” Then she shook her head. “But mostly, it’s not.” She clutched the umbrella tightly as a gust of wind threatened to tug it away from her or pull it inside out. She wrapped her arms around it and bent almost double against the rain and the wind. Then she walked away into the rain and the night, a round white shape covered with the names of London Tube stations—Earl’s Court, Marble Arch, Blackfriars, White City, Victoria, Angel, Oxford Circus . . .
Richard found himself pondering, drunkenly, whether there really was a circus at Oxford Circus: a real circus with clowns, beautiful women, and dangerous beasts. The pub door opened once more: a blast of sound, as if the pub’s volume control had just been turned up high. “Richard, you idiot, it’s your bloody party, and you’re missing all the fun.” He walked back in the pub, the urge to be sick lost in all the oddness.
“You look like a drowned rat,” said someone.
“You’ve never seen a drowned rat,” said Richard.
Someone else handed him a large whisky. “Here, get that down you. That’ll warm you up. You know, you won’t be able to get real Scotch in London.”
“I’m sure I will,” sighed Richard. Water was dripping from his hair into his drink. “They have everything in London.” And he downed the Scotch, and after that someone bought him another, and then the evening blurred and broke up into fragments: afterward he remembered only the feeling that he was about to leave somewhere small and rational—a place that made sense—for somewhere huge and old that didn’t; and vomiting interminably into a gutter flowing with rainwater, somewhere in the small hours of the morning; and a white shape marked with strange-colored symbols, like a little round beetle, walking away from him in the rain.