That’s a problem with London suburbs: there’s so much of them that no matter how well you think you know your way around, it only takes one wrong turn and you stumble into one of the gaps in your knowledge.
Jim stared around him, looking for something familiar and wondering how he got here. He backtracked, hoping it would take him back to the familiar street he’d been on a few minutes ago.
Five minutes later, he was still lost. He must have turned right when he thought he’d turned left. Or left when he thought he’d turned right.
It had to happen on the day he’d forgotten to charge his phone, and when he’d finally persuaded Millie from the office to meet him for a drink. He quelled a vision of her sitting in the pub they’d agreed, checking her watch every half minute until she left in disgust.
He walked straight ahead. If he kept going in a straight line, he’d come to something he recognised soon enough.
At least it wasn’t raining.
He regretted the thought immediately, because it started to rain. He quickened his pace as the first drops darkened his jacket. Millie wouldn’t be impressed if he turned up looking half-drowned as well as late.
The first drops turned into a deluge, closing his view of the street ahead to the next couple of hundred metres. He pulled his jacket up around his head and ran, splashing through puddles forming beneath his feet. Rain ran into his eyes, blurring the view of even the small bubble of London the rain allowed him to see.
A red circle with a blue bar swam into view in front of him.
An Undergound station.
There were three tube stations within a couple of minutes’ walk from where Millie would be waiting, and all he needed to get there was a wave of his oyster card. Better than a magic carpet.
The ticket hall was deserted. The tiles gleamed as if no one had walked on them since their last polish. The wet footprints he left on them made him feel he was trespassing, but the gates swung open readily enough.
The escalators shone like the tiles and they weren’t moving, so he walked down. He stepped off into a corridor that branched right and left to the platforms. It was the same layout he’d seen in more stations than he could count, but there had always been a schematic on the wall he was now facing, which would tell him which line he was on and where the trains went from either side. Instead, he faced pristine cream tiles with no sign of having had a hole drilled into them to support the sign.
Perhaps he’d blundered into a brand new station that wasn’t yet in use.
Before the thought took hold, a rumble of sliding doors made him look to his right. A train stood at the platform, which was strange as he hadn’t heard it come in while he’d been descending to the platform level.
Without knowing which line he was on, a train was better than an empty platform. If it was going the wrong way, he could change at the next station.
He boarded a carriage in which someone was sitting in every seat but no one was standing between them. He looked around to see that all the men were wearing dinner jackets and all the women were wearing ballgowns. He must have jumped into the middle of an outing to the opera or a wedding party. Or something.
Every head turned toward him.
He was suddenly very aware of the rain dripping from his jacket and the mud splashed up his trousers.
Every mouth split into a grin.
Jim tried to smile back. If they were going to laugh at him, he could be a sport about it.
As one, every passenger leapt to their feet.
Jim was looking in the opposite direction to the first handclap so he didn’t know who started it, but then every passenger was beating their hands together, filling the carriage with a thunder of applause so loud it almost drowned the sound of the rumble of sliding doors behind him.
He whirled around and dashed for them, but they closed before he could leave.
He wondered if Millie would still be waiting for him, but she’d probably given up and gone home already.