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Lost in the City by David Smith

Lost in the City by David Smith

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Published by Avril Smith
Short story
Short story

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Published by: Avril Smith on Nov 08, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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06/14/2009

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He took the usual route, down Chamberlain Street, past the lights and just kept going.After about 15 minutes he realised he was in a part of the city he did notrecognize. No matter, one could always get home; there were always signs pointing to the different areas of London, and if he followed these he wouldcome to an area he would recognize. But first he needed a break; he had beenon the road since around 6 that morning. He scanned down the road for somewhere where he could get a bite to eat and a cup of tea. The shops wereof the usual mix: a grocers and convenience stores, a recruitment agency,launderette, some sort of depot with half a dozen white vans in the parking bay. Then he saw what he was looking for. Ann’s Café - a drab brown signabove the large window and slightly steamed up glass. He parked the car andopened the door to the premises. A few worn looking tables and chairs spreadneatly, well used but clean and tidy. An older man with his coat still on sat atone of them, looking vacantly out of the window, newspaper well-read rolledup on the table. There was no one behind the counter and the other manshowed no flicker of response to the new patron.He walked up to the counter looked at the menu board, beginning to salivate at the prospect of some greasy fried food and a hot mug of tea. A minute or twowent by, but still no one came. A few cars swished up and down the streetoutside – the man continued to look out of the window, his mug now empty.“What can I get you?” – a woman’s voice at last. He turned to see a youngwomen in her mid twenties, who was looking, it seemed, some way into thedistance, as though he was not really there. “Two sausages, egg, chips and beans, please” as he reached for his wallet. She turned without a word, or even taking a note of his order, leaving him alone again, apart from the other man, still staring out of the window.He took a seat, supposing his order was in hand despite the rather strange reception.The café was very quiet, the street sounds outside seemed very distant andmuffled. In fact there was no sound at all within, not that you would expectmuch with only two people present, but the room seemed to somehow suck out even the slightest decibel: no paper rustling, no foot scraping, no throatclearing or coughing – nothing. Just the sound of his heart, quietly thumpingin his chest, perhaps now increasing in rate slightly, a sliver of panic or alarmirrationally flitted across his mind. For a second all of life seemed to come toa standstill, no movement, no traffic or pedestrians or any sound, without, or within. The other man was now a statue, unmoving, fixed and frozen in time.He felt himself glazing over, petrifying into stone, and with a conscious effortturned his head back to break the spell, to reach for normality.It seemed to work. As he turned his head, she emerged from the back, almost asthough this was her cue, a tray held in front of her, walking to his table. Thefood was all there as ordered, steam rising reassuringly from the beans. Shetransferred the plate and the tea onto the table in front of him, looked into hiseyes for a second, a hint of a smile, then retreated to where she had comefrom.He ate hungrily, looking up and out of the window onto the street between mouthfuls.The late autumn sun streamed into the café, illuminating the room andaccentuating its yellowed hues. He began to think of home in the southernsuburb of Streatham. He was still a bachelor and lived alone, so there would be no one to greet him, but it was home, familiar and welcoming. He wouldunwind, slump on the couch and watch the box. Perhaps put a meal in the
 
microwave or order a takeaway, or even go out. No, stay in, it was feeling likea long day already and besides, he was out dining now, such as it was.As he finished his last mouthful and placed the implements on the plate, she appeared,on cue again, silently arriving with his change, which he scooped off the tray.“Thank you” he said glancing up at her.“Thank you” she echoed – there was a note of mimic in her voice he thought,and a glint in her eye, not hostile, but rather confident, as of a job well done.Then she was gone. The other diner was also gone, though he did not see or hear him move. He must have made his exit whilst his mind was on his meal,and other things. But it was still surprising that he had slipped awayunnoticed, in fact, a little odd he thought. The café was all his now. As he put the change in his pocket he glanced at the coins to check if it was correct.It seemed to be: £3.50 for the food, £1.50 change, which she had given in 350p coins. The familiar queen’s head looked back at him from two of thecoins, and an unfamiliar star on the third. He picked it up and read theinscription around the edge ‘Republic of Englandia’ – must be a novelty coin.Elizabeth’s profile was safely stamped on the reverse side. It was probably notvalid currency, and he would have mentioned it to the proprietor on his wayout, but she was nowhere to be seen.He stepped out into the mid afternoon, the sun low in the sky but pleasantly warm.The engine fired up and he switched the radio on, already tuned to a countrymusic station. Not everyone’s cup of tea and a little incongruous in downtownLondon. But the sounds of Memphis Tennessee soon washed over him,soothing and familiar. Country music was a pleasant mix; it was exotic, pretentious, soulful and mournful at times, magnifying the minutiae of lifewith operatic drama, twanging guitars and lively fiddles in place of theorchestra. Some saw it as the music of rednecks and country hicks, but he feltthey were missing out on a valid and insightful commentary on a wide rangeof subjects, mostly relational but tractors and prisons and alien invasions gottheir fair share of coverage, and after all it did not take itself too seriously.These musings left his motoring mind on auto pilot. He was comfortable behind thewheel spending many hours each day driving in and around London as a repfor his company, his car was a home from home. Knowing he had finishedfor the day and could head for home lightened his mood and distracted himfrom his purpose for some minutes. He had driven two or three blocks whenhe refocused and as he did so looked around and realised he was in a part of the city he had never seen. He began to look for directional signs to head him back to the south. He had an A to Z in the back, and had not yet acquiredGPS, he felt it was cheating and would usurp all that knowledge he had builtup over the years - the GPS would be like the smart new kid who made himfeel past it, obsolete. There was more honour and pride in navigating bysense, experience and instinct, he reasoned.Signs - where were they? Should he turn around, or take the next left, or next right?The sun was lower in the sky, to the west of course, he could use that to findsouth and just head in that direction. Not a sensible option, it may take him tosome dead end, or onto a dual carriageway, carrying him as a river in floodmiles from his route. The roads of London are not orderly, but have grown likea bramble of confusion over the centuries. He may start heading south butcould as well be heading north in a matter of minutes. Just as he wasconsidering slowing to look at the map book, he saw the sign ahead.
 
‘Blackwall Tunnel Northbound’, in one direction ‘Bermondsey and Elephantand Castle’ in the other. ‘Verdant Hills’ was a third option. Verdant Hills? Never heard of that, sounds like a country park, or a funeral parlour. Hethought he knew London pretty well, so was puzzled by this. Could it be anew housing estate, or Business Park? The sign looked fairly weathered sowhatever, or wherever it was, it could not be that new. Anyway, he wasn’tgoing there, Bermondsey and the Elephant were the directions he knew. Heturned the car towards familiar territory.The rush hour traffic was building now, red single and double-decker and the newlong ‘bendy’ buses clogged the bus lanes. Diesel and petrol fumes belchedout of hundreds of exhausts, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ filled the car. JohnnyCash, what a great performer, you could feel his heart bleed in his voice. Hegot even better in his last years he reflected; he will be greatly missed. Thetraffic lurched along and he looked out for more signs to lead him home.There was one ahead, not quite legible in the deepening gloom of evening. Ashe got nearer he made out a sign to ‘Elephant or Castle’. He looked again – that should be ‘and Castle’ not ‘or’. He had seen in developing countries mis-spellings of signs in awkward English, which could be quite amusing andquaintly appealing, but in the great metropolis of London this should nothappen. How could such a glaring error remain displayed for all to see,surely the civic minded folk of the borough would have reported it in their hundreds, and the sign replaced post haste. Or how could the workmen haveerected it in the first place without noticing?‘Elephant and’ or ‘Elephant or’ was not important, so long as it showed the way. Heturned in the direction of the sign and should by now have been in veryfamiliar territory. But he did not recognize the road, or the shops, or the people. Of course the pedestrians of London were always anonymous, butthey were real people, with homes and families and complaints and shoppingand designer clothes….. But he could not quite focus on the people on the pavements, they were real enough, but their faces seemed indistinct, a little blurred, rather like characters in a video game. A shudder ran involuntarilythrough his chest, he felt as he had in Anne’s Café for those moments when theworld seemed to stop. It must just be his imagination, it had been along day,he must be over tired, and it was getting darker. Elephant and Castle here Icome.The road led into a large roundabout, as he expected. Now he knew where he was and just needed to select the right exit. He thought of home, he pictured himself leaving the car, briefcase in hand as he locked the car door and looked towardshis flat door. He entered the roundabout and was about to take the next exitout but a large van appeared on his left, blocking the way. He was sweptaround by the traffic. A little annoyed he manoeuvred to the outside lane toensure exiting the next time around. He completed a full circuit, but did notsee the exit, there were 3 or 4 roads off the roundabout, but none now seemedfamiliar. Round and around again, and again. What am I doing? What ishappening? he asked himself. Was this really the Elephant and Castleroundabout? He began to feel foolish and sensed that onlookers werelaughing at this obviously lost motorist. He then took the next available exit, planning to stop as soon as he could and get his bearings, maybe even look atthe A to Z, ridiculous, pathetic and defeatist as it seemed to the veteran

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