London, what happened? Where is everyone?
I arrived in London on Wednesday. As I left King’s Cross Station, London looked just the same as always—gray skies, icy rain, bright lights. But…where were all the people?
At the Underground at Piccadilly Circus, only a few people waited on the platform. The Royal Academy, when I called in to see the Jean-Etienne Liotard exhibition, was virtually deserted, the gift shop empty. Outside, only a few people walked down the avenue. Had there been a plague? Terrorist threat? Zombie apocalypse?
Now, I might not have lived in the UK for that long, but I have learned a few things. And at the top of that list? When the going gets tough, the tough go for tea. I went across the street to Fortnum & Mason. Although giant signs covering every window proclaimed “Final Reductions”, the stairway behind the model Tea Mahal was empty. Nobody lingered over the sale tables, despite their discrete tags promising reduced prices, enticing discriminating buyers with offers of silver cigar clippers, Christmas Strawberry-Stardust Preserves, or a silver individual monogrammed teapot (a bargain should your initials happen to be DMJ). And for the man who exchanged every Christmas present he got because he “doesn’t need anything”? You could have picked him up an eShave Travel Badger Brush for next Christmas. When he opens it, you’ll be able to assure him that not only is it made of pure badger hair to exfoliate, lather, and soften his beard, but it is the must-have shaving accessory for any gentleman. He need never know that your bargain was marked down from £90 to only £22.50. (Maybe he needs two?)
But the eShave sat forlorn as I went up to the lady guarding the hushed Parlour restaurant. “Are you open?” I whispered.
“Yes.” Her reply was soft as she tiptoed past empty tables to seat me in solitary splendor before a window. Outside the rain still poured down, and I could see the (very occasional) soggy pedestrian. I ordered a slice of cake, and with great daring, actually asked for coffee instead of tea. She smiled, and a few minutes later I was looking at a scary-big slice of cake and the teeniest, most adorable little ice cream cone I’d ever seen, held bravely in place with a little clip-on holder fastened to the saucer. It seemed like a shame to eat it, but ice cream cones are not destined for posterity. Two small bites—salt caramel, yum!—and one more bite for the miniature waffle-cone, and it was gone. The waitress looked disappointed when I declined her offer to send me home with the other half of my cake slice that I simply couldn’t finish. But I had an agenda and I couldn’t be late.
On the way to Notting Hill, I asked the cab driver what had become of all the people who usually crowd the streets, fill the Underground, and make it into line ahead of me at shops and restaurants.
“Might be that Americans don’t come here in January. But…” He looked at me in the rear mirror. “Would you be an American?” At my nod, he considered the matter. “Must all be in Tenerife then.”
“Tenerife? Is that a new restaurant over by the river? You don’t mean all of London goes to the Canary Islands in January, right?”
He shrugged. “Well, I’m there on holiday next week. My wife and two boys and me—£2028 for everything. All-inclusive it’s called. Even for special activities for the boys. The sun shines every day.”
As he let me off outside Daunt Books, I asked him to say hello to the rest of London for me if he ran into them in the Islands. Across the street, through the drizzle, I could see a glow in one of the bookstore’s large windows. The books shone against the night like jewels.
I pushed open the door, and there was the rest of London. The bookstore was packed, people shouting to be heard above the noise, and drinking wine, and laughing. Almost everyone had a bright red new copy of Blood and Roses in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.
Author Catherine Hokin was happily signing copies of her new book. London (the bit who didn’t go to Tenerife) was happily waiting for signed copies, clapping and cheering when Catherine took breaks to read from her book, and getting refills on their wine. The bookstore staff were happily ringing up sales on book copies.
And I was happy for two reasons. First, I’d found out where London was hanging out on Wednesday. And second, I’ve read Blood and Roses. I know the BIG secret twist—it’s a really good one—and I’m just dying to have someone else to talk to about it. When I wrote a review of Blood and Roses (here), I had to be so careful not to spill the secret. The really, really good secret that explains everything else. And once London finishes reading all those copies of Blood and Roses, I’ll have people I can talk to about it.
NOTE: Now available in Kindle and print formats. Please get your own copy and then we can talk about the BIG secret. Just let me know.
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Epilogue: The next day when I got back to King’s Cross Station, it was still pretty empty. I watched a man singing a Beatles song next to the music sculpture, and thought that Harry Potter wouldn’t have recognized the place. But when I headed back to the train platforms, I saw a small group of people putting flowers and signs next to the designated Platform 9 3/4. Harry was sad to say goodbye to Snape, and London was saying goodbye to one of their own. Rest in peace, Alan Rickman.