By Boze Harrington
One of Ray Bradbury’s better stories involves a little boy who lives in a mansion on the hills. The only two people he’s ever seen are his mother and a teacher who has the odd habit of hiding her face within a cowl. Both mother and teacher have warned him never to transgress the boundaries of the estate and journey beyond the sun-stained hills, for if he ever attempted to do so he would surely die.
Then one day he comes to class and finds his teacher gone. Not knowing where she is, and very scared, he runs home to his mother. She’s lying motionless upon the floor. For hours he waits, but she neither stirs nor awakens. Finally, as the day goes down in the west, he slips beyond the trees and out into the world.
In the last scene of the story, two police officers are talking. One of them says to the other, “Kids do such silly things. A little boy ran by, not two minutes ago. And his eyes were wide, and he was touching everything he saw – the men, the women, the dogs, the lampposts, the fire hydrants. And he was screaming, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!’” He shrugs. “One of them kid games, I guess.”
I first read this story in the weeks just before I went to London with the study abroad program in the fall of 2006. For two or three months I had been haunted by a terrible fear that events would intervene to keep me in Texas, and that I would be doomed to live in a trailer in Alvin all my life.
On the twenty-fourth day of August, after a night of dreadful and tormenting dreams, I found a ride to Houston. All was going well until I reached the check-in line.
“Alright,” said the woman at the counter. “Now I just need to see your passport.”
Proudly, I pulled out my student ID card and flashed it before her. “This is my passport,” I said.
“That’s not your passport,” she pointed out. “I need to see your passport.”
“This is my passport,” I replied, in the same tone as before.
“If you don’t have a passport, you can’t get on the plane,” she informed me, in a tone all the more devastating because it was so matter-of-fact. She motioned for the next person in line.
“But this is my passport!” I explained. We went on like this for about ten minutes. I tore open my suitcase in the middle of the floor and, while a team of plainclothes officers circled round me, made a most valiant effort not to break down in sobs.
It took another seven days, three hundred extra dollars, and a bureaucratic miracle before I arrived in the U. K. at last. In England it was late summer: the weather was sultry and sticky and we were sweaty on the subways in the silent afternoons.
In spite of all the difficulties involved with adjusting to life in another country, it was an exhilarating hundred days. We traveled to Stonehenge, Bath, Canterbury, Durham, and York, and spent the most excellent four days in Edinburgh.
I took a trip of my own to Cornwall, on the easternmost coast of the U. K., with two girls I had just met, and we found ourselves (through an unusual series of circumstances) out in the middle of a heather-strewn moor by the sea, ten miles away from the nearest city, during the worst hailstorm to strike the region in the last ten years. We had to smush together in a narrow crevice till the rain of stones was past.
According to Bill Bryson, there are about 48,000 different streets in London. Peter Ackroyd, in his magnificent biography of the grand old city, tells us that as it expanded in the early part of the nineteenth century, an idea developed in the minds of the writers and poets that it was infinite – “shoreless, indefinite as God.”
Numerous Romantics had the unfortunate experience of having a friend disappear in the crowd one day and never seeing them again. (And as I didn’t have a phone, I only narrowly avoided this by memorizing all the routes along the Underground.)
“Up to this time,” wrote Henry James in 1869, “I have been crushed under a sense of the mere magnitude of London – its inconceivable immensity – in such a way as to paralyze my mind for any appreciation of details.” Towards the end of my stay, in late November and early December, as the lamps burned low in the dusk and the lights of the City shone like stars upon the waters of the Thames, I spent the majority of my waking hours in the streets. Bereft of friends, occasionally forgetful of my meals, and usually lost, I walked along bridges and the backs of railway stations, past hospices and hostels gleaming in the wintry evenings like the Palace Beautiful, through parks and pubs and down deserted alleys till I made my way bck home.
And then, at the end of it all, I found that I was just as ignorant as I had been when I arrived.
It was the third week of November. My friend Kristen and I had been walking for about half an hour along the Embankment at twilight. I had been silent through the better part of it because the enchantment of the river and the sunset and the trees was more than I could ever hope to narrate except in sighs, though when I mentioned the matter to Kristen she noted that it was very smoggy, and, what was more (she waved her hand and a highway appeared where none had been a moment earlier), the road was lined from end to end with nasty, smelly cars.
A fairly large Gothic building rose up to our right. The vaults were immense, and as I didn’t see any chance of our agreeing on the beauty of the outside world, I thought I would draw her attention to this.
“Hey Kristen,” I asked her, “what’s the name of that building?”
“That’s Parliament, Boze,” she replied.
I gave a long, low whistle and nodded approvingly. “You know,” I said, “this is actually really cool. This is the only place in the world where you can point at a building and say, ‘Hey, what’s the name of that building?’ and have someone say, ‘That’s Parliament, Boze.’”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “But you’re the only person who would ask the question. So we’re in a pretty unique circumstance.”
An old medieval song goes, “London is a fine town, a very famous city, where all the streets are paved with gold and all the girls are pretty.” I’m not particular about the girls, but it is a fine town, lads – a very fine town. If you’ve never been out of America, I recommend you go. There are times when it’s good to be dead.