|To Visit the Queen|
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
Patel went slowly up the gray concrete stairs to the elevated Docklands Light Railway station at Island Gardens; he took them one at a time, rather than two or three at once as he usually did. Nothing was wrong with him: it was morning, he felt energetic enougha good breakfast inside him, everything okay at home, the weather steady enough, cool and gray but not raining. However, the package he was carrying was heavy enough to pull a prizefighter's arms out of their sockets.
He had made the mistake of putting the book in a plastic shopping bag. Now the thing's sharp corners were punching through the bag, and the bag's handles, such as they were, were stretching thinner and thinner under the book's weight, cutting into his hands like cheesewire and leaving red marks. He had to stop and transfer the bag from right hand to left, left hand to right, as he went up the stairs, hauling himself along by the chipped blue-painted handrail. When he finally reached the platform, Patel set the bag down gratefully on the concrete, with a grunt, and rubbed his hands, looking up at the red LEDs of the train status sign to see when the next one would be along. 1, the sign read, bank, 2 minutes.
He leaned against the wall of the glass-sided station-platform shelter, out of reach of the light, chill east wind, and thought about the morning's class schedule. This was his second year of a putative three years at London Guildhall University, up in the City. He was well on his way toward a degree in mathematics with business applications, though what good that was really going to do him, at the end of the day, he wasn't certain. There would be time to start worrying about job hunting, though, next year. Right now Patel was doing well enough, his student grant was safe, and whatever attention he wasn't spending on his studies was mostly directed toward making sure he had enough money to get by. Though he didn't have to worry about rent as yet, courtesy of his folks, there were other serious matters at hand: clothes, textbooks, partying.
From down the track came a demure hum and a thrum of rails as the little three-car red-and-blue Docklands train slid toward the station. Patel picked up the book in his armshe had had enough of the bag's bloody handlessatisfied that at least this would be the last time he would have to carry the huge god-awful thing anywhere. One of the jewelry students, of all people, had seen the for-sale ad on Patel's Web page and had decided that the metallurgical information in the book would make it more than worth the twenty quid Patel was asking for it. For his own part, Patel was glad enough to let it go. He had bought the book originally for its mathematical and statistical content, and found to his annoyance within about a month of starting his second semester that it was more technical than he needed for the courses he was taking, which by and large did not involve metallurgy or engineering. He had put the book aside, and after that, most of the use it had seen involved Patel's mother using it to press flowers.
The train pulled up in front of him, stopped, and chimed: the doors opened, and people emptied out in a rush of briefcases and schoolbags going by, and here and there a few white uniforms showing from under jackets and coatspeople heading to the hospital in town. Patel got on the last car, which would be the first one out, and sat in what would have been the driver's seat, if there had been a driver; there was none. These trains were handled by a trio of straightforwardly programmed PCs based somewhere in the Canary Wharf complex. The innovation left the first seats in the front car open, and gave the lucky passenger a beautiful view of the ride in to town.
Patel, though, had seen it all a hundred times, and paid little attention until the train swung round the big curve near South Quay and headed across the water. Even though he knew a little about the place's history, Patel found it hard to imagine this landscape not full of construction gear and scaffolding, but jostling with the hulls of close-berthed ships, the air black with smoke from a thousand smokestacks, cranes loading and unloading goods: the shipping of an empire filling these man-made harbors and lagoons that had been dredged out of oxbows of the Thames. It had all vanished a long time ago, when Britain stopped being an empire and the mistress of the seas. This whole area had undergone a terrible decline after the war, during which it had been bombed nearly flat, and whatever was left had fallen into decrepitude or ruin. Now it was growing again, office space abruptly mushrooming on the waterside sites where the ships had docked to disgorge their cargoes. Only the street names, and the names of the Docklands stations, preserved the nautical memories. Some of the old loading cranes still stood, but the warehouses behind them had been converted to expensive loft apartments. Slim black cormorants fished off Heron Quays, though the quays themselves were gone, slowly being replaced by more apartments and office space, and shining hotels and still more office buildings looked down on waters that were no longer so polluted they would catch fire if you dropped a match in them.
Patel got out at Shadwell to change for the little spur line to Tower Gateway, and stood there waiting for a few minutes. All around were four- or five-story brick buildings, their brick all leached and streaked with many years' weather, tired looking. Scattered among them was much council housing, ten-story blocks of flats done in pebble-dash and painted concrete, looking just as weary. These were not slums anymore, not quite, though his father never tired of telling Patel and his mother how lucky they were to be able to afford someplace better. It was true enough, though it meant Patel had a three-quarter-hour commute to school every morning instead of a fifteen-minute walk.
No matter. Today he was grateful enough not to have to walk more than a few minutes carrying the Book from Hell. The train for Tower Gateway came rumbling along, stopped, and opened its doors. It was crowded, and Patel slipped in through the door and put the book down on the floor, bracing it between his shins lest it fall on someone's foot and get him involved in what would probably be a completely justified lawsuit for grievous bodily harm. The train swung south the few blocks to Tower Gateway. There Patel got out with his burden, walked along the platform, and took the escalator up through the tubelike corridor that led to the overpass that avoided the main-line BR tracks: then down the other side again, and out across the open concrete plaza from which jutted several large slabs of ancient wall, not much more than fieldstones mortared togethera remnant of the old days when the City of London was all the London there was and that tiny square mileage had a proper defensive wall of its own. Nothing to do, of course, with the other walled edifice just this side of the river . . .
As he went down the stairs to the underpass-tunnel that dove under the traffic stream of Minories Street, Patel glanced up and caught a glimpse of crenellated tower against the clouds: one of the metal windvane-banners mounted on a pinnacle of the Tower's outer wall stood frozen in midswing against the wind, then spun suddenly to point west in a gust off the Thames. Sky's getting nasty, Patel thought. Might rain. Hope it stops by the time I'm aboveground again.
He headed through the underpass, breathing a little harder now from the weight he was carryingAm I getting out of shape? I can't wait to get rid of this thingand up the stairs on the far side; past some more "islands" of old preserved City wall, and then down again into the Tower Hill Underground station.
He pushed his train ticket into the turnstile before him, waited for the machine to spit it out again. Here he would catch the last leg of his trip, the tube train to Monument, and meet Sasha at the coffee shop at Eastcheap and Gracechurch Street, and she would take this thing off his hands. And arms, and shoulders, but particularly the hands, Patel thought, and headed down the stairs, stepping a little to one side so as not to be trampled by the people behind him. A direction sign just ahead of him read platforms 2 and 3, district and circle lines, west.
He headed for the sign, changing the bag again from left hand to right hand with a slight grimace as he went, and turned the corner left toward the tube platform
Dark. Why was it dark all of a sudden? Power failure, Patel thought. Though where's the light behind me? He turned
The smell was what hit him first. My God, what is that? Did the sewer break through in here or something? But there was no way to tell. He couldn't see. Patel turned again, took a few hesitant steps forward. There was something wrong with the ground. It felt mushy
and then suddenly light broke through again, the watery gray light of the morning he had just left. A few spits and spatters of rain reached him even here in the tunnel, blown in on that chilly wind. Some part of Patel's mind had now begun to go around and around with thoughts like How the heck is there daylight down hereI must be fifty feet underground and The smell, what is that smell? but that part of him felt strangely far away, like a mind belonging to someone else, in the face of what he saw before him. A street, and the gray day above it, those made sense: buildings pressing close on either side, yes, and the enameled metal sign set high in the brick wall of the building opposite him, reading cooper's rowthat was fine too: the math/business building of the university was up past the end of the Row, in Jewry Street, and he would have been heading there after meeting Sasha. But there was no pavement to be seen. There was hardly any road visible either: It was covered ankle-deep in thick brown mud, the source of the god-awful smell. Must have been a sewer break, said some hopeful part of his mind, steadfastly ignoring the basic issue of how he was suddenly standing at ground level.
Patel walked forward slowly, trying not to sink into the mud, and failingit came up over the tops of his shoes. Boy, these trainers are going to be a loss after this, and they were only three weeks old. How am I going to explain this to Mum? Squelch, squelch, he walked forward, and came to the corner of Cooper's Row and Tower Hill, looked down to his right in the direction of the Monument tube station.
It was not there. The road was lined with old buildings, three-or four-story brick edifices all crowded together where multistory office buildings should have been. The traffic was gone too. Or rather, it was all replaced by carriages, carriages pulled by horses, their hooves making a strangled wet clopping noise as they pounded through the mud, up and down Byward Street and Tower Hill. Patel staggered, changed the bag mechanically from the right hand to the left, and took a few more steps forward, looking away from the trafficDon't want to see that; doesn't make senseand across to the Tower.
It, at least, was still there: The great square outer walls defining the contours of Tower Hill stood up unchanged, the lesser corner towers reached upward as always, the windvanes on them wheeling and whirling in the gusts of wind off the riverthe wind that bore the stink forcefully into Patel's nostrils and the rain, now falling a little harder, into his face, cold and insistent. That wind got into his hair and tried to find its way under his jacket collar; and around him, the few trees sprouting from the unseen pavement rocked in the wind, their bare branches rubbing and ratcheting together. Bare.
That was wrong. It was September. And other things were moving, rocking, tooMomentarily distracted by the motion, he looked past the Tower, down toward Lower Thames Street and the great bend of the river that began there. A forest, he thought at first, and then rejected the thought as idiotic. No trees would be so straight and bare, with no branches but one or two sets each, wide crosspieces set well up the trunk; nor would trees be crowded so close together, or rock together so unnervingly, practically from the root. The "trees" were mastsmasts of ships, fifty or seventy or a hundred of them all anchored there together, the wind and the water pushing at the ships from which the masts grew; and the bare shapes silhouetted against the morning gray were all rocking, rocking slightly out of phase, making faint, uneasy groaning noises that he could hear even at this distance, for they were perhaps a quarter of a mile down the river from where he stood. From that direction too came a mutter of human voices, people shouting, going about their business, the sound muted by the wind that rose around him and rocked the groaning masts together.
That groan got down inside Patel, went up in pitch and began to shake him until he rocked like the masts, staggering, failing, the world receding from him. The bag fell from Patel's hand, unnoticed.
A man came around the corner right in front of Patel and looked at him, then opened his mouth to say something.
Patel jumped, meaning to run away, but his raw nerves misfired and sent him blundering straight into the man. As Patel came at him, the strangely dressed man staggered hurriedly backward, panic-stricken, tripped, and fellthen scrambled himself up out of the mud with an unintelligible shout and ran crazily away. Patel, too, turned to flee, this time getting it right and going back the way he had come. He ran splashing through the stinking mud and, for all the screaming in his head, ran mute: ran pell-mell back toward sanity, toward the light, and (without knowing how he did it) finally out into the bare-bulb brilliance of the white-tiled Underground station, where he collapsed, still silent, but with the screaming ringing unending in his mind, insistently expressing what the shocked and gasping lungs could not.
Later those screams would burst out at odd times: in the middle of the night, or in the gray hour before dawn when dreams are true, startling his mother and father awake and leaving Patel sitting frozen, bolt upright in bed, sweating and shaking, mute again. After several years, some cursory psychotherapy, which did nothing to reveal the promptly and thoroughly buried memory causing the distress, and a course of a somewhat overprescribed mood elevator, the screaming stopped. But when he and his wife and new family moved up to the country, later in his life, Patel was never easy about being in any wooded place in the wintertime, at dusk. The naked limbs of the trees, all held out stiff against the falling night and moving, moving slightly, would speak to some buried memory that would leave him silent and shaking for hours. Nor was he ever able to explain, to Sasha, or to his parents, or anyone else, exactly what had happened to his copy of Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia. Mostly his family and friends thought he had been robbed and assaulted, perhaps indecently; they left the matter alone. They were right, though as regarded the nature of the indecency, they could not have been more wrong.
Patel fled too soon ever to see the men who came down along Cooper's Row after a little while, talking among themselves: men who paused curiously at the sight of the dropped book, then stooped to pick it up. One of them produced a kerchief and wiped the worst of the mud away from the strange material that covered the contents. Another reached out and slowly, carefully, peeled the slick, thin white stuff away, revealing the big heavy book. A third took the book from the second man and turned the pages, marveling at the paper, the quality of the printing, the embossing on the cover. They moved a little down the street to where it met Great Tower Street, where the light was better. As they paused there, a ray of sun suddenly pierced down through the bleak sky above them, that atypical winter's sky here at the thin end of summer. One of the men looked up at this in surprise, for sun had been a rare sight of late. In that brief light the other two men leaned over the pages, read the words there, and became increasingly excited.
Shortly the three of them hurried away with the book, unsure whether they held in their hands an elaborate fraud or some kind of miracle. Behind and above them, the clouds shut again, and a gloom like premature night once more fell over the Thames estuary, a darkness in which those who had ears to hear could detect, at the very fringes of comprehension, the sound of a slowly stirring laughter.
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