Thursday, November 18, 2010

“What do you mean she came out of nowhere?”

“That’s what the driver said. He said his horses suddenly bolted and then he saw her. If it wasn’t for the young man, she would have been killed.”

“That’s extraordinary. And the young man?”

Yes, the young man, who was he, I thought. I could see him holding my hand. He had brown hair and brown eyes and his coat was brown and his skin was brown, not like mine, but the brown of a working man.

The second voice, an older woman’s voice, said, “A farmer. That’s all I know. He brought her here, carried her the whole way. Mrs. Goddard will know his name.”

“I repeat, it’s extraordinary,” said the first voice, that of a younger woman. She laughed. “We don’t get that much excitement in Highbury. But her clothes, what do you make of that.”

“Oh, as to that, I have a theory, Miss Woodhouse. Yes, a definite theory that I think you will find explains all.”

“Please tell, Miss Bates,” the younger woman commanded.

“She is an Indian princess. And she has been kidnapped.”

Hearing this, I laughed, or maybe I coughed or gurgled. Anyway, I made some kind of sound.

“She is awake!” the older voice cried.

I could hear the two women come nearer and then I felt a cool hand on my forehead. I was in a bed, and I could feel the weight of a body pressing on the mattress. I opened my eyes and saw a young woman looking down at me. She was very pretty and blonde, with intricate curls framing her face. She seemed to be wearing an old-fashioned nightgown.

“You are, you’re awake,” the younger woman said. “Please, tell us your name.”

“I’m Harry,” I said, although when I said it, I felt a stab of pain in my jaw, and my words came out slurred.

“M’hari, see, that is an Indian name,” the older woman said.

The younger woman’s forehead wrinkled, and she said, “No, Miss Bates, I think she said, ‘I’m Harry.’”

“Harry? The poor child has struck her head.”

“Harriet,” I said, to solve the confusion. I reached up to touch my jaw, but the young woman pulled my hand away.

“You have a nasty bruise there. Perhaps it’s best not to talk right now … Harriet? Maybe just nod your head?”

I nodded my head slightly.

“Harriet. Yes, a good English name, Miss Bates.” I turned my head to look at the other woman. She looked like she was in her forties and wore glasses. She had brown hair and a sort of mousey look. She was also dressed in a nightgown.

“Now, I am Miss Woodhouse. And this is Miss Bates. We can learn your last name later.”

“Smith,” I said, but I winced with the pain and I felt my face flush again.

“Smith,” Miss Woodhouse repeated, and laughed. “Well, this is certainly one of the most memorable introductions I can remember. Oh, but you are flushed. Miss Bates, if you would be so kind as to hand me that cloth.”

I closed my eyes again and heard the sound of a wet rag being squeezed and then I felt cold on my forehead.

“We’ve overtaxed, the poor thing,” Miss Bates said.

“I think you’re correct. Would you like to sleep, Miss Smith?”

I nodded.

“Very well, we’ll let you gather your strength. But someone will be nearby if you need anything.”

I heard the two women leave the room and then the sound of a door being closed. But I could still hear their voices.

“It’s seems unlikely an Indian princess would be named Harriet Smith.”

“Perhaps she’s traveling incognito. And what about her clothes? And her dusky complexion?”

“She is dark complected. But why do you think she’s a princess?”

“The jewelry she’s wearing. That bracelet is gold. And her earrings, diamonds I’m sure.” Miss Bates lowered her voice. “And pierced ears, very Oriental, like her clothes. I’m sure they are pyjamas.”

I listened to Miss Bates spin her theories and at the time they all made perfect sense and they lulled me to sleep.

I woke again to strong sunlight hitting my face and bird song filling my ears. Looking out through the open windows, I saw green leaves.

“I’ve slept through winter,” I said, feeling pain in my jaw again, but not as intense as before. I got up in bed and pushed aside the heavy coverings. My body ached but I felt clear headed, even though I was clearly out of my mind.

“Hello, is anybody there?” I called out. I heard footsteps and the door opened. A woman I didn’t recognized looked in.

“Awake at last, Miss Smith?” asked a large woman with white hair, who like everyone else in my hallucinations was wearing a nightgown.

“Yes, I’m sorry, who are you?” I decided I should get out of bed and slowly swung my feet to the side.

“I’m Mrs. Goddard,” the woman said, as she rushed in to help me.

“Thank you. Could you tell me where the bathroom is?”

“What dear, you want to take a bath? Now?”

“No, the toilet.”

“Of course. Hold my arm — steady now — and I’ll take you to it.”

Well that was positively medieval, I thought to myself after using the toilet. I must be somewhere in the country. Or the third world.

“Excuse me, but where am I. I’m not still in London.”

“No, you’re in Highbury. Here, sit down.” We were in the kitchen, or what would be the kitchen of a living history museum.

“And where is Highbury?”

“In Surrey,” she answered.

“And how did I get here?”

“We don’t know. We were hoping you could tell us.” A small boy dressed like David Copperfield entered the kitchen. “Jem,” she said, “run to Miss Bates’ house and tell her Miss Smith is up.”

The boy turned sharply toward the door. “And then run to Hartfield and leave word for Miss Woodhouse that Miss Smith is up.”

Surrey, I thought to myself, that’s practically London. Take the M4 to the M25 or the train in 30 minutes.

Mrs. Goddard turned back to me. “Now, you’ve been sleeping for two days, Miss Smith. What would you say to a nice bowl of gruel?”

Yes, definitely England, I thought.

“You’ll want something to give you strength. Everyone will want to talk to you. You’re the most interesting thing to happen in Highbury,” Mrs. Goddard said. Then she walked out of the room and called out, “Martha!”

She reentered and a few seconds later a young girl, also wearing a nightgown, also entered.

“Martha, would you make a nice gruel for our guest?”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

“Your name’s not really Harry, is it, because I’ve known a few Harrys and they don’t look like you.”

“It’s Harriet, but I don’t like it.”

“No, no, I get it. American, eh? That accent. Love it. I really love all things American. Rap, television, they invented the internet, didn’t they. Brilliant. Yeah. So what’re doing here? No, don’t tell me. School, am I right? That’s still something we know how to do, here. Rhodes scholar or something aren’t you, am I right?”

“LSE,” I said.

“Oh, well you’re going to be making piles of money, eh, am I right? Piles. But you’re not all American are you? There’s something of the empire about you. Oh, I love Indian food. Indian, am I right? Not Pakistani. Not that I don’t like Pakistani food, but I don’t know when it’s Pakistani and when it’s Indian. I mean it’s all spicy and you get poppadoms and naan. But vindaloo, that’s my favorite. I go into a restaurant and say, ‘Give me the hottest you got.’”

I listened to him yammer on about Indian lager and how he thinks American football is brilliant even though he’s never been to a game and American baseball is brilliant but it’s different from cricket, isn’t it, although he’s never been to a cricket game in his life. And I waited and waited for the bell to tell me that his five minutes were up.


“Oh, look at me, talking and talking. You’re so easy to talk to. I hope you’ll remember number 13, that’s your lucky number.”

But it was not to be his lucky number.

“How’d it go, Harry? Anyone tickle your … fancy?” As usual, Debs was full of giggles and was clearly drunk. Her blonde hair was bouncing off her shoulders in that shower of curls that I hated and coveted.

“No Debs. Not even Basil Brush.”

“Basil Brush, how do you know about Basil Brush? You amaze me, you really do.”

“And what about you?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“Oh, one or two. I’m sorry. I’ll have to collect my winnings. I’ll see you back at the flat … or maybe, I won’t.” She swung her bag onto her shoulder and the weight made her wobble and then she unsteadily made her way to the reception desk.

God, the British make lousy drunks, I thought to myself, immediately feeling awful because Debs really was a great flatmate and a good friend. If only she didn’t have that hair.

I made my way out of the pub, careful to avoid Number 13 who was flashing his speed-dating badge to every woman who was walking to the reception desk. “Boom, boom!”

The winter air hit me hard, and even though I’d only had a pint, I could feel the flush on my face. But it felt good to get outside the stuffy pub and walk the streets of the greatest city in the world. Maybe the sun does now set on the empire, but Number 13 had a point. There’s no greater place to learn how Britain created the world we live in. Being an adopted Indian orphan, raised in Omaha and now studying at the London School of Economics, how could I ignore that?

Which reminded me that I had a paper to write. Which made me think that’s why I didn’t meet anyone I like, because I had work to do. It’s not because I’m incapable of finding anyone. It’s not because my standards are too high. And why shouldn’t they be? Don’t I deserve someone who understands why I work as hard as I do? Which one of those guys thought about anything other than sex and football and hanging out with mates and sex?

Wow, one beer and I get all whiny. Suddenly I realized I was outside the flat and I was feeling very hot, almost like a summer day, and the streetlight was almost as blinding as the sun shining through summer leaves. I staggered slightly. Just one beer, right?

I made it up to the flat and even though I had a pounding headache, I knew my paper about the East India Company wasn’t going to write itself.

The next morning was awful. My 5:30 alarm sounded harsh and cruel and I wanted to roll back in bed. I went into the kitchen and realized I hadn’t set the coffee pot the night before so no coffee before my run. I got dressed and left, but not before peeking into Deb’s empty room.

I quickly made my way to the towpath. I liked running along the canal, so unlike anything I knew in Omaha. There was a thin glaze of ice on the water and my breath was billowing and even this early a few narrowboats were cutting the ice with a delicate crackling sound.

I mixed easily with the other morning joggers and cyclists and even though I still had a headache from the night before, I could feel my muscles relaxing and my feet falling into the rhythms of the music on my iPod. I was feeling hotter than the weather should have allowed and worried I was coming down with something.

Looking ahead, I could see some confusion on the towpath; it was one of the inevitable cyclist/jogger/narrowboater collisions, so I decided to jog along the street and bypass the towpath.

I made it to the interesection and joined the queue waiting for the light to change. I checked my pulse and saw it was pretty high and then the light changed and I stepped out into the street. Someone yelled: “Watch out, miss!” And I knew I had done the stupid thing of looking left, not right. And then I heard the horn and turned toward the sound and saw the number 10 bus. Either I froze or time did. I could see the driver’s horrified face and the coffee from the cup in his hand hitting the windshield in slow motion.

Then I felt the impact, but it came from the side, not the front. And the light became blinding and I felt hotter and hotter. My body was burning from the light, and as it faded, I realized it wasn’t a bus but horses coming at me. And the driver was just as horrified but he held reins in his hands, not a coffee cup.

Time sped up and so did my body. My head jerked to the right while my body flew to the left. I could feel arms around my waist and I realized someone was saving me, but our combined weight hit the ground and now my head jerked to the left and hit the ground. But it wasn’t the hard surface of the street but dirt.

For an instant, everything became dark and then my vision returned and I saw faces staring down at me, the faces of the other people waiting at that Camden Town intersection, but other faces too: men wearing tophats and women wearing bonnets. But closest to me, I saw a man’s face looking at me with great concern. He wore a wide-brimmed hat and had a scarf about his neck.

“Miss, are you all right?” He held my hand and patted it and I thought it the most ineffectual and endearing thing I had ever seen a man do.

“Can you stand?” he asked. I nodded and he helped me to my feet, but as soon as I was upright …