Excerpt: High Street

Occasionally, I’ll be sharing excerpts from my award-winning book DUE NORTH which is a collection of travel observations, reflections, and snapshots spanning two decades across colors, cultures, and continents. 

At 7am, the brass double doors open. First my black wheeled bag spills onto the wet pavement of London and then I follow. The doorman — gleaming in his freshly pressed scarlet uniform with gold trim — gives me a quick courteous nod and pulls the doors shut. The late February air is pungent with freshly fallen rain. This morning is darker than normal. Across the two-lane street — next to the large, sparse park — a heavyset woman with a thick dark-colored scarf waves frantically. As she tries to flag down a black cab, her face seems troubled.

Two fat pigeons startle me as they flap into my path, blocking me. “Who goes there?” they seem to ask, necks jerking left and right. They crane up to look at me, their rotund bodies remaining stationary. I detour around them, dragging my black bag. They remain unfazed and bend low to sip from the many puddles etched into the concrete pavement. I walk on. Opposite me, a two-storey red bus pulls up to a stop. Its light and warmth contrast sharply with the winter gloom. It appears very cozy with a handful of people heading to work that early Sunday morning. I long to be on that warm bus, but it speeds off the second it spits out a passenger to join me on my dreary walk.

I press on, past headless mannequins sporting spring collections in shop windows. I pause to study them.
Draped around otherworldly proportioned bodies are silk dresses, soft cashmere sweaters, and tailored suits of expensive linen. The finest pearls loop around long lean necks. A jogger with a similarly otherworldly build whizzes by just as I turn to continue my walk. The only souls on foot are ours. Everyone else zips by in black cabs and the occasional lipstick-red double-decker bus.

Or so I thought as I startle two more souls tucked within an indentation bordered by three grey walls. They blow smoke lethargically, trying to warm up, despite sitting on wet concrete. The men say nothing to each other. I make eye contact with one, who stares back languidly. Not maliciously. But his resignation telegraphs: “I would normally say hello, but please forgive me, madam, I need a break.”

I move on, the wheels of my bag splashing in puddles like a little kid. A bus pulls up not ten feet (3m) from me and my heart beats faster in anticipation of more kindred spirits joining me on this wet morning walk. A drenched woman steps out, swaddled in a thick brown coat over ethnic wear. The same look of resignation I’d seen on the cigarette-dragging men is plastered across her face. She glides off as quickly as the warm glowing bus.

Two blocks later, I reach my transition point. I steer left into the Underground station. I cruise past more
headless mannequins. No sweet scents waft from cafes and bakeries for rushing people today. In fact, no people are rushing at all. Only two voices chat loudly at the end of the hall. Once I reach them, the more boisterous speaker helps me with my luggage as I struggle to get past the turnstile. “There you go,” he beams. I thank him and make my way downstairs to the platform. I find two Japanese girls standing, not saying a word, waiting for the same train to Paddington.

Except it’s never going to come. Not this Sunday morning anyway. A lanky guy in a navy-blue conductor’s uniform gives us the bad news. Train service isn’t running from here to the station just three stops away.
I turn back and lug my bag up the stairs. I pass the jolly gentleman who had helped me earlier, wondering if he’d already known about our plight. “Oh well,” he replies genially and continues on with his banter.

I spill out onto the wet street once more, scanning for a warm black cab or a glowing red bus. Within seconds, a taxi travelling the opposite direction makes a sharp U-turn and waits for me. I hadn’t even waved him down. I hurtle towards him, relieved.

“Paddington?” I ask.

“Yes, of course,” he replies.

I hop into the toasty cab gracelessly, pushing my bag with the wheels in first and diving in after it. We sit in silence as he meanders along wet roads, heading towards more light, more life. There’s nothing to talk
about here.

London, it seems, is somewhere else.