Sometimes Biz Archer and her best pal, Ashley Quillman, performed an added service for the vacationing public. They warned against actually paying to see the Dickens House.
"A rip-off, is what I hear," Ashley would inform the crestfallen folks in their rain slickers and baseball caps. Biz and Ashley had never been inside themselves, but they had heard bad reports from some whose photos they'd snapped after the tour.
After much nodding, smiling and bowing, Biz took the shot of the couple from Osaka, who could not be deterred from seeing the sacred precinct where the great novelist had spent perhaps eight minutes of his life.
Their photographic duty done, Biz and Ashley set off for Russell Square station, for the short hop on "the tube" to Leicester Square. The Picadilly train was clogged with holiday shoppers clutching packages. Biz squeezed into a bit of airspace by the doors. She could feel the garlicky breath of the bloke behind; in a moment, she felt something even more unwelcome. Yet another Underground grope was in progress.
Abby Archer had not raised her daughter to submit meekly to creeps. Biz had been almost looking forward to the next assault, eager to try a reprisal she'd read about on a blog for riders of "the tube.".
Turning, she grabbed the red-haired clod's wrist and yanked it up to her eye level. Putting on her best London accent, she said loudly, "I say, has anyone lost this hand? It seems to have become attached to my bottom!" Heads snapped, titters rippled through the car. The miscreant, eyes darting, turned crimson.
"Sonia," the elegant, disembodied voice of the London Underground, intoned: "Holborn station, connections to the Central Line." The grabby jerk bolted out the opening doors. Those nearest to Biz gave her a round of applause. Ashley, eyes wide, whispered, "Have you gone bonkers, Biz? That guy could have hurt you."
"Not with you here to save me, Ash. Besides, his breath was too bad to let it go."
Leicester Square throbbed with the high spirits of young people with a few quid in their pockets and a Yuletide evening spreading out before them. Clive was standing by the half-price tickets kiosk. He pecked Ashley on the cheek; his lips lingered on Biz's.
"Success," he said, waving the tickets he'd just bought - four for Jerry Springer - The Opera at the Cambridge.
Clive was 28, a solicitor in The City. He'd chatted up Biz and her flatmates after they'd wandered, stunned and jet-lagged, into the Slug and Lettuce pub on their first night in Notting Hill. He'd soon appointed himself their guide to the mysteries of London; he'd shepherded the cohort of grateful Yank students around the metropolis in his Vauxhall, showing them the sights and, most of all, the best pubs. He was clever and handsome, in a floppy-haired, Hugh Grant sort of way.
By the second fortnight, it was clear to all, except perhaps the two of them, that Biz and Clive were becoming an item.
By now, they definitely were at item, in the carefree, undefined way that had always suited Biz just fine with boys back home, but gnawed at her, to her surprise, when it came to Clive.
They strolled through Covent Garden Market, past a huge, hollow cone of evergreen boughs. Inside it, Father Christmas dandled little children on his knee as photographers snapped and parents grinned.
They marched past the glistening glass vault of the opera house, heading for a favorite spot, Lowlander Pub. In this temple to Belgian beer, the leather-bound bible of available lagers, ales and bitters was four times as long as the food menu.
The Lowlander was in full Friday roar; they joined friends at a table beneath some holiday garlands. Her first Hoegaarden in hand, Biz looked sideways at Clive. Beneath his unruly black hair, his smooth face creased in a grin as his friend Will delivered an anecdote from work. Her heart shimmered.
Now or never, Elizabeth, Biz told herself.
"Hey," she said nudging his elbow. He turned to her.
"What would you say if I told you I'd canceled my Christmas flight home, that I needed a place to stay over the holidays?"
His brow furrowed: "I'd say you've set yourself up for a bloody row with the parents, haven't you, luv?"
Not exactly the response she'd been hoping for.
Tomorrow: Episode 4: Swipe here.
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