The District and Circle Lines don’t travel very far beneath the earth—maybe twenty feet below ground level. Construction of both occurred years after the rest of London’s Tube lines reached adolescence, and in some cases, old age. Consequently, a ride on the District or Circle lines reveals the structural integrity of several London basements.
Westminster Station’s train platform sits under a building on the corner of Bridge Street and Victoria Embankment. A drain pipe running down the aged brickwork spouts a torrent of water into a storm grate in the rail pit. The cool, moist air sends a chill down my back, so I zip up my jacket as I climb the stairs leading to the street level.
The ticket booth at the top of the stairs is empty. I look for a clerk, but the only people in sight are a group of punkers. The guy with the pink Mohawk looks more interested in the girl with a safety pin through her septum than in collecting my ticket. So I slip the ticket into my pocket. I’ll use it to get back to Russel Square.
The exit consists of a tunnel and a stairway. A sign above the stairs reads, “Great George Street,” and a sign above the tunnel says, “Parliament and Victoria Embankment.” I walk past the stairs and into the tunnel. After a few yards, the tunnel forks. A sign to Victoria Embankment points left, but I stay right. At the end of the tunnel, an iron fence guards a walkway beneath the gothic columns of Parliament. I pause when I reach the fence. A guard in a booth inside the fence sits huddled in a dark jacket, reading a paperback. The patina of moisture on the courtyard’s shrubbery and lawn sparkles in the artificial light, and the stairs on my right look slick. I climb the steps and emerge on the south side of Great George Street.
Big Ben strikes twice as I step onto the sidewalk. I look up. The great clock’s illuminated display reads 7:30. I figure Big Ben must be a reliable time source, so I set my watch to London time. The clouds behind Big Ben look dark and wet, but the rain has stopped, at least for the moment. I roll my jacket sleeve over my watch and walk toward Parliament Square.
Winston Churchill’s massive figure seems to look down at me from across the street. With its raincoat and walking stick, Churchill’s statue looks ideally outfitted for an evening stroll around Parliament Square before enjoying a snifter of brandy back at No. 10 Downing Street. I cross St. Margaret Street and approach Churchill’s statue. Someone once told me that Churchill didn’t want his statue erected in Parliament Square—something about an aversion to having his likeness serve as a repository for pigeon droppings. However, his statue looks clean, but then it ought to after a rain. Tonight, at least, the pigeons have left his statue for dry quarters.
I walk along the square a ways until I find a bench. A few quick swipes with the palm of my right hand removes the beads of water on the bench’s wooden slats. But, when I sit, my Levis still soak up moisture.
The wet sidewalks reflect the long dark image of Big Ben and the shimmering lights along the fence surrounding Parliament. Except for a lighted window in the House of Commons, Parliament’s gothic spires look somnolent under the dark sky. To the left of Big Ben, the flood-lit exterior of The County Hall shines in the distance.
I look to the southeast, across St. Margaret’s street. There before the oldest part of Parliament, the Abbey Edward the Confessor built stands a statue of Oliver Cromwell.
During Medieval times, before London was a major city, several religious groups set up communities on small islands along the Thames. When Edward the Confessor, known for his devout faith in God, came to this area, he was taken by a one group’s devotion to God and rewarded them by building a great Abbey—then the largest in the land. King Edward commissioned ship builders to construct the roof of the Abbey. Interestingly, the Abbey’s great wooden roof is the only portion of the original Parliament building to survive the great fire of 1666 and the bombs of World War II.
The bodies of great Englishmen, like Churchill and Chamberlain, have lain in state under beneath the old Abbey’s roof. I seem to remember from 8th grade history that Oliver Cromwell was beheaded. His funeral rites consisted of having his head nailed to the facade of a building, where the crows could pick it clean.
There’s an irony in the presence of Cromwell’s statue on Parliament’s grounds. Sure, with the help of a blind poet and a handful of undesirables, he ruffled a few feathers, albeit militantly. He was also the catalyst behind the present form of English government, which is probably why his statue graces Parliament grounds today. But I wonder when the statue was erected.
Across the square, on the other side of Guildhall, sits Westminster Abbey. Aside from its Christian fundamentals, religion in Britain is different from anything I’ve seen in America. On American Sunday mornings, people rub the sleep out of their eyes, put on suits and dresses, put the dog and cat out, and drive to church in the family car. In Britain, “church” seems to be something more. It’s a presence, an experience. Nearly everywhere you go in Britain, you find neighborhood churches older than the United States.
English Cathedrals have personages interred beneath their granite floors—the poets, statesmen, soldiers, and royalty who in some way contributed to the legacy of the English speaking peoples. English churches contain icons of every description, crypts of noblemen and an occasional king, and stained glass windows that breathe meaning into the word “magnificent.” In Britain, church is a vicarious sensation of religious devotion.
“A walk along the Promenade might be nice,” I think to myself, and without a second thought, I head for Westminster Bridge.
As I step off the curb to cross St. Margaret Street, a brown Rolls with a black vinyl top approaches from my right. I pause at curb side for the automobile to pass. It slows. The driver’s attention seems riveted to the street, but in the back seat, a young man and woman, probably in their twenties, examine me. The pair stare at me as though my fly were open—maybe I’m underdressed. As the Rolls turns east on Great George Street, the backs of their heads appear through the rear window and their intimate proximity to one another reminds me of driving down a western Colorado road behind a pickup truck.
I cross Bridge Street just beyond Big Ben. The scent of the salty Thames fills the air before I reach the bridge’s railing, and I can almost hear the bridge piers parting the water underneath the bridge. In the distance, two tour boats pass each other under Hungerford Bridge. I lean over the railing.
Three tour boats bob back and forth, fastened to Westminster Pier by loosely tied ropes. The bow of another boat appears beneath the bridge and slowly creeps downstream.
Suddenly, French horns and laughter and bright lights fill the air. Handel’s Water Music. How appropriate—royal barge music along King’s Reach. As the tour boat emerges from beneath the bridge, I notice a group of people standing on deck near the stern. One young man, dressed in a blazer, is holding a bottle above his head and seems to be initiating a toast. As he un-wraps the cork, he sees me on the bridge and points toward me. The others look up.
“Here, my good man,” he says, pointing the top of the bottle toward me, “catch.”
With that, he pops the cork. It flies on target, like a tiny white bead, but loses loft as it nears my grasp. I lean over the railing and concentrate—and then snatch it out of the air.
The boaters cheer and applaud. “Good show, old man.”
I wave while the boaters applaud. The young man in the navy blazer holds the bottle overhead again, perhaps as a symbolic offering. I slip the plastic cork into my pocket.
As the boat trails off into the darkness, I can’t help thinking that Andy Warhol once said everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes—or something like that.
I probably just used a few of mine.
I turn and walk east, toward The County Hall. It’s almost eight o’clock—late enough to go to bed without risking prolonged jet lag. But another hour won’t hurt. I stroll along the bridge, beneath the gas lamps, and think about the times Luke and I walked along the Promenade in 1982. That was a long time ago—or so it seems. Long enough that I can’t remember any particular night, only that we did, in fact, take this same walk two years ago.
I descend the stairs at the east end of the bridge. Flood lights illuminate The County Hall’s Georgian facade, casting unusual shadows on the walls above the Hall’s decorative statuettes. I follow the Promenade a few feet and stop beneath a lamp. Just ahead, I notice a break in the white stone embankment—a staircase leading to the Thames.
A feeling—a weak compulsion—draws me toward the staircase. Without judgment, I step onto the landing. The river slaps at the embankment below, but shadows make the water level almost invisible. Cool air invades my lungs, but despite the chill, I descend the stairs.
The staircase disappears beneath the waterline after about twelve steps. I sit down for a moment, while my eyes adjust to the darkness. The gas lamps along Westminster Bridge cast slivers of silver light on the Thames, and floodlights now illuminate the gothic facade of Parliament and Big Ben.
A police skiff sputters slowly along Westminster Pier, shining a search light on the water. I can’t imagine what they’re looking for in the water. I look down at the dark river. A log floats by, toward Hungerford Bridge—the tide must be going out. Then, a yellowish object bobs in the light of a gas lamp. It looks like a huge sucker floating belly-up on the surface of the Colorado River.
“Maybe it’s a barrel,” I think, tracking it as the current guides it toward the staircase. The object floats close enough that I notice a flap of soaked cloth dragging along behind it. Just as the current begins to carry it back out, I reach down, grab the trailing cloth, and pull. As the object begins to drag against the current, the soaked cloth starts jerking wildly. Then the object begins churning and splashing. I see what looks like an arm rise out of the water and grab at the cloth. I think, “let go,” but have no control over my grip. The object submerges, but I hold onto the cloth.
Seconds are like minutes. Water soaks through my jacket sleeve and Levis. As I look down at my shoes to assess further water damage, a hand grabs the step, inches from my right foot. The cloth falls limply from my hand and splats in a wet wad on a step.
The hand, which seems unusually white even in the darkness, gropes for a stronghold on the smooth concrete step. Then, just beyond the step, a coconut-shaped object rises slowly out of the water and twists laterally, launching water droplets in an arc. I detect facial features and begin wondering seriously about the source of the moisture in my Levis.
The floater wipes his eyes with his free hand. Then he squints, looking at me.