At the Palace of Westminster Big Ben struck eleven, with the usual agonising pause between the chimes and the tolling of the hour. Could that possibly have been deliberate? A ritardando, fully intended by the engineers who built the clock? The delay certainly had a way of grabbing the attention. All central London staggered in that slice of a second. Pedestrians hesitated on the kerb, throbbing taxis and buses faltered at junctions, gaunt cyclists stood on their pedals in the act of swerving off into the traffic. Then the first stroke, and they all jerked back into motion. She remembered a radio programme from her childhood. How did it end? Move on…? No… Carry on London… Was that it?
But it was an accident, most likely. Serendipity. Judith walked on, fists buried in the pockets of her coat. The paths were dark with the morning’s rain and the grass smelled of an early cutting. She wondered whether to call in at the London Library, but decided not. Another visit. This was what she needed now, the rhythm of one foot in front of the other, heel on paving just so, click. Don’t step on the crack or the bears will eat you. Traffic noise. Sandwich bars almost ready for the lunchtime rush, men in shirtsleeves putting out tables, their voices echoing up between shop windows and offices.
Serendipity, she thought. Some slight irregularity in cog and ratchet. Odd how such small things… So many lives would have been infinitesimally different if a Victorian craftsman had given the work one more stroke of the rasp. That was how life went. You made plans but in the end it was chance… A moment’s distraction. The foreman makes a joke; an apprentice picks up the wrong tool; a horse falls in the street outside the yard. One laughs, the crowd gathers to look. Way leads on to way indeed. Carry on London! Yes, that was it.
Passing Hatchard’s, she stopped to examine the window. There was a display of celebrity biographies. A couple of the authors were veteran actors who certainly had a story or two to tell – though possibly not in these warm, witty memoirs. But others seemed so young. What could they have to write about? Chapter One: I am Born, followed by two hundred blank pages.
I am born. She continued along Piccadilly. I am born, then two hundred pages of chance meetings, opportunities taken or missed, corners turned or not. I forgot to wind my watch that morning, and leaving the reading room late I missed my bus. And the bus itself, for once running on time through an implausible succession of green lights, the driver thinking of his supper. And so, and so, and so. Fifty years later in a flurry of metaphors I can look back on a carpet of events, warp and weft. Coincidences, a few decisions. So few decisions.
This was too difficult for Leicester Square. Judith smiled at the Chaplin statue and paused outside one of the cinemas to watch workmen taking up red matting from an event the previous evening. Thoroughly spoiled by the rain, the administrator in her thought. A write off.
I missed my bus. Missed it and lingered for a moment by the stop, peering down towards Southampton Row. No taxis in sight – not that I could afford a taxi then in any case. A damp winter evening. I remember the streetlights on the wet roadway. Then I took shelter in a stationer’s doorway.
Did they really change anything, she wondered, the chimes? So familiar from the six o’clock news, an institution, such a part of the routine that when they failed that in itself became news. Millions of people heard them, it must make a difference. One felt it intuitively. The weight of numbers, lives converging, must wear a groove, like feet on a stone stairway. Listening one felt, somewhere deep beneath all the stuff of day to day business, a sense of community, even – unfashionable now of course, but real for all that – even pride.
She walked on, not stopping for Blackwells or Foyles, up Charing Cross Road then east towards the Museum. And suddenly there it was. The sun broke through the clouds and in the bright, shifting light of a May morning, on the other side of the road, revealed and obscured by traffic and pedestrians, there was the doorway. It belonged to a travel agent now, but the same doorway. She had missed the bus and taken shelter from a gust of drizzle in a stationer’s doorway. And a few minutes later Emil had joined her.
Judith stopped and stood like a piece of driftwood caught against a rock. The stream of the London pavement broke around her, parted and flowed on. Men with briefcases, women pushing buggies; an office junior balancing a pyramid of takeaway coffee in a cardboard box lid. Three girls giggling arm in arm divided and re-formed. Realising that the eddies she was causing reached now almost to the corner of the block, Judith backed away from the road to stand against the window of Pret a Manger.
So thin he had been the first time she saw him, coat collar turned up and grey knitted scarf wound round his neck. Twenty years after the war and ten since the troops marched into Budapest, his nose was still long and hollow-edged like a blade, with little red pinch-marks where his reading glasses rested.
They had waited in silence for several minutes. There was no traffic, but the rackety murmur of London circled and settled around them like a flurry of snow on a winter afternoon, flakes grey against the sky. Lorries bound for Covent Garden idled in Mile End; at Euston rolling stock ground steel on steel; through Nine Elms and Battersea barges thrashed their way upriver. And between and round it all, like blood humming in her ears, shouts and whispers and laughter, words of joy and remorse, the to and fro of conversation. Talk and talk and talk.
Then, yes, the bells. Big Ben stammering out its message. Between the chimes and the hour he nodded towards the sheaf of books in her arms.
“Chomsky. So they’re teaching you Chomsky nowadays?”
“No.” Judith grinned at him. “Actually, I’m doing the teaching.”
Carry on London! Yes.