In Merrie Olde England (Pt. 4)

I decided to sleep in the next morning.  This wasn’t a conscious thought, but more like one made when one opens one eye and catches the spidery trails of rain down the window.  Just what I needed; more rain.  I had several places I wanted to go today, but most of them were outdoors.

My dad had long gone to the conference so I took almost an hour to just drowse and then popped in for a nice cold shower and got dressed.  When I phoned down to the desk about the water I was informed that the boiler had “packed it in” and was currently being repaired.  Oddly enough, the water coming out of the cold tap was warmer than the water coming out of the hot tap.  Go figure.

When I finally got to the dining room I found that I was caught between breakfast and lunch servings.  I went in search of something to read while waiting and found a discarded Times newspaper.  I’d always heard that the crossword puzzle in this paper was one of the hardest ones in all newspaperdom.  When I turned to it, I could see why.  It was enormous and whoever had fiddled with it only filled in a few spots.  After messing with it for ten minutes I could see why.  It was a hugely confusing mess of clues that didn’t even make sense in some cases.  I gave up also.

Lunch was a very nice chicken dish server over rice.  Luncheon (as it was called) was served from the buffets lining the side of the room.  Pretty much all you could eat.  I had two helpings.  I already knew that the coffee was dreadful so I kept to tea; which was just passable.  I’d never get used to straining the leaves out with my teeth.

After lunch I wandered around the hotel public areas and found a nice box of toffee for my brother and a silk hankie for my sister.  My brother, for some reason, liked toffee.  I’m not sure why though because I thought that’s what they melted to make the coffee.

It remained dismal and grey outside with occasional bursts of rain.  I went back to the room and grabbed my umbrella and headed out the main door.  I was determined to find something that interested me.

There weren’t a lot of shops in this district so I took a look at my tube map and the name Elephant and Castle jumped right out at me.  I had no idea what that meant, but I was intrigued by the name.  What could those two unlikely names have in common?  It proved the be a bit difficult to get to also.  It was on the south side of the Thames and reachable on the Bakerloo line.  Several wrong turns ensued as I tried to orient myself enough to catch the right train.  When I finally emerged from the train, I was confronted by a huge sign with arrows pointing all over the place.  I must have really looked like a tourist standing if front of it because a very nice guy stopped and asked where I was going.  I told him I had heard of a shopping area, but didn’t know which way to go.  He indicated one arrow and told me to follow the orange lines up but don’t go all the way out; just take the lower entrance to the shopping area.

I did as instructed and found that he was right on the money.  I entered a huge hall that was lined with shops of all types.  A lot of them were devoted to clothing and that didn’t interest me.  I walked up one side and down the other until I came across a model shop.  British and German trains were running in the front window and that grabbed my attention.  I went in.

It wasn’t a large shop, but I spent almost an hour messing about, looking at all the stock they had.  I’d started an HO model railroad at home and knew of several great model shops down in Stadt, but this one definitely had more stock.  Unfortunately, it was fairly high priced for some reason.  I finally decided that I could get most of their stock back home cheaper than buying it here and left.

On one of the corners a vendor was selling huge pretzels.  The smell got to me and my stomach rumbled.  The guy loaded it up with a really pungent mustard and sprinkled huge grains of salt on it.  I had to sit down on a bench to eat it.  Now, I normally welcome hot mustard (or anything else) but this was simply too hot for me.  I had to scrape some of it off before my mouth exploded.

Another hour passed as I wandered up one side of the short road and back down the other.  At each end, like some huge concrete dumbbell, were two multi-ring traffic circles.  It apparently was a game where drivers on the edges tried to get through each inner lane, traverse the length of the “rod” and then whip through oncoming traffic at the other end to go on their way.  All done in a clockwise whirl.

There were a couple of pedestrian crosswalks but I noticed that very few natives were prepared to risk them.  Almost unnoticed were the small little buildings that looked like kiosks; they held stairs that went down under the circles and came up on the other side.  That seemed much saner to me.

I ended up right back at the original tube entrance I had started on and went back down to catch a train for the hotel.  Without actually checking I jumped aboard an arriving train.  When I took off I noticed that it was flying through quite a few stations without stopping.  I had boarded an express and it was headed the wrong direction.  I had no idea what the next stop was.

I watched some of the stations fly past:  Stockwell, Clapham Common, Clapham South, Tooting Broadway (really!), Morden Road, and, finally, Morden.  Apparently, this was the end of the line because the doors opened and didn’t close.  I got out and navigated back to the northbound side of the tracks to wait for a train.

By the time I got back to Stockwell station it was late, and changing to the Victoria line was a huge hassle due to the crush of people.  I recognized Oxford Circus and leapt off the train just as the doors closed.  Now I knew just where I was.  I practically ran over to the Central line and went west two exits to my stop.  I was worn out by the time the doorman opened the doors to the hotel.  Tom greeted me and asked if I’d had a good time.

“Yeah, but I’m really beat from all the train rides.  I got stuck on an express and ended up down in Morden and had to find my way back up.”

“Morden!?  That’s a long way from here, Mate.”

“Do tell.  You on duty now?”

“Aye.  I won’t get off until around midnight today.  I take a break in half an hour though.  Want to grab a bite in the kitchen?”

“Sure.  Sounds good to me.  Give me a ring when you’re ready.”

“Right-o”, he said, and off he went.

I went upstairs to the room, grabbed a quick shower (hot water this time) and changed clothes.  The phone started ringing just as I stepped out of the bathroom.  It was Tom.  On my way out of the room I scribbled a note for my dad that I was having dinner with Tom.  I went back downstairs and met him at the rear of the reception area.  He pushed a door open and motioned for me to lead on.

I passed a couple of locker rooms, a very smoky meeting room, a couple of flapping doors that led into the kitchen and, finally, into a narrow room that had tables lined down one side.  This, Tom proclaimed, is where the help ate their meals.  He told me that they only got what the kitchen fixed for the staff and he’d just get two of them.

When he got back, he was holding a huge tray loaded down with quite an array of food on at least five plates.  I could identify the roast beef slices, carrots, and ham, but a greenish mass eluded me.  Tom told me it was steamed Brussels sprouts.  Suppressing my gag reflex, I felt I had to tell him that those little green things and my throat just didn’t get along.  He scooped all of them onto his plate and dug in.  I couldn’t watch.

The beef was wonderful and came with boiled potatoes and a rich gravy.  Steamed carrots on the side finished the meal.  It was better than any meal I’d had here in London so far.  Afterward, Tom said he had to go and showed me the way out.  I went back up to the room and found my dad on the telephone.

When he hung up he told me that we’d managed to catch one of the early flights back home.  Now, early to him meant around six but early to me meant somewhere around eleven or so.  We were going by his clock so he set the alarm for five.  Yikes!

We went down into the pub and sipped a couple of beers.  He had a very dark brew and I favored something a little lighter.  After two each, we saw it was getting late so we just went back up to the room and hit the sack.  Five AM.  Yuk!

Anyone who can bang out of bed even before the alarm goes off ought to be staked out on an anthill and covered with honey.  I drowsed in and out of consciousness as he hit the bathroom and, once he was done, I struggled out of bed and did my morning routine.  After packing the last items in our suitcases, we dragged them over to the door and went out to the lift (I’d learned that from Tom, but he had no answer as to why it hadn’t been named a ‘drop’ instead.  I mean, it went both ways didn’t it?)

Under grey, lead colored skies, we traveled the reverse route back to the aerodrome where we had originally landed.  Helpful people with umbrellas at the ready held them over us as we emerged from the taxi and went into the operations building.  Several of the travelers we came over with were sitting around waiting to be called to the desk to give out survivor information to the clerk in charge of all that.  Our turn came, we informed, and sat back down on the long benches to wait.

Our flight was called and we lined up according to our travel priorities.  We were somewhere in the middle.  We boarded what looked like the same C-47 we arrived on and sat in almost the same seats.  One engine started, which blew acrid smoke into the open door with its prop wash.  Still, we waited on the tarmac.  Finally, some sort of bigwig came aboard, crammed himself into the very front seat and the crew chief slammed the door and locked it.  The remaining engine started and we waddled out to the runway.

The flight home was pretty much the same as the one coming over, but this time we were bumped around leaving and, until we peeked out of the clouds just over the Channel, we couldn’t see a thing out the window.  Once over water, the clouds cleared, the ride smoothed down, and everyone let go of the armrests.

We flew along in silence.  By that, I mean we didn’t talk among ourselves, not that the engines had stopped or anything like that.  We made a brief stop in Paris to let the bigwig off and continued into Germany.  Since Stadt was the closest to Paris we were next to leave the plane.  All in all, it had been a pretty nice flight.  Much better than the carnival ride on the way over.

Tired, but happy that our trip was over, we met my mom at base operations and headed home.  I thought of Gin several times in the ensuing weeks.  I wondered just how she felt about marrying someone she hadn’t even met yet.  The whole idea, to me, was strange indeed.  But, as Tom had said, ‘its part of their culture, Mate’.

We had Brussels sprouts the very first evening meal after our return.  Will no one rid me of this foul vegetable?

T.O.M.

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