By WENDY HODGE
1985 was a good year. Nintendo released its home entertainment system; we all were singing along with Phil Collins because he was beyond “rad”; and velour tracksuits and big hair were the coolest things in fashion. Don’t ask me why. That was also the year I graduated from Opelika High School, and I got the best graduation gift ever. My sister and her husband surprised me with an airline ticket — I would be joining them on their trip to London. Have you ever seen an Alabama girl getting the news she’s going to Europe? It’s a sight to behold, I’ll tell you. There was much hugging and crying, followed by even more packing and planning. That floral tapestry suitcase of mine was packed and re-packed so many times it was practically threadbare before we ever hit Atlanta. I was so prepared for my British experience … or so I thought. Here’s something you should know — the English have very distinctive terms and phrases that don’t make much sense to our American ears. The bathroom is the “loo.” If someone is “chuffed,” they’re happy. “Dodgy” means sketchy or iffy. A “kerfuffle” is a fight. Men and women are “blokes” and “birds.” Lukewarm is “tepid.” And if something is a real mess, it’s a “dog’s dinner.”
Unfortunately, the first part of our trip was just that – a “dog’s dinner.” Our airline tickets weren’t booked correctly, so I ended up alone … in first class. The “taxi” that picked us up at the airport wasn’t a taxi at all (I tried to explain to my brother-in-law that taxis in London are not red.). That mistake cost a small fortune. And, most time consuming of all, the hotel mixed up our reservation, so I ended up in a separate room … on the top floor, with a view of Tower Bridge and the River Thames.
The hotel concierge, Phillipe, was there to smooth things over and set things straight. In his three-piece suit and his perfect smile, he made dinner reservations for us and gave us maps of the city; he knew what shops to try and what restaurants to avoid. And he always looked polished and perfect.
We filled the days with the British Museum, the Tower of London, Big Ben, Covent Garden, picnics in St. James Park, Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard, Westminster Abbey, The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Theatre, and day trips to Dover and Canterbury.
We even had a magical afternoon to ourselves, my sister and I. We shopped (She bought me an Angora sweater.), and we ate at a “dodgy” little café (The burger may not have been beef.), and we posed with a royal guard outside the palace who never cracked a smile (Even when I whispered in his ear.).
There was also an elegant dinner in a “posh” restaurant. We made reservations weeks ahead and packed our nicest clothes for the occasion. Here’s something you should know — restaurants in London (and most European cities) serve their beverages without ice. So when I asked for ice water, the waiter looked at me as if I had spat on his shoes.
“You want what, miss?”
“I want ice water.”
“You mean cold water?”
“Yes, water with ice in it.”
“I’ll have to enquire with the kitchen staff, miss.”
One manager, a chef and a translator managed to obtain a glass of water with ice. ONE ice cube. “We serve our water tepid, miss.” Those Londoners take “tepid” very seriously.
The constant background noise of those days and nights was the chatter and slang that is so very British, like a symphony of notes I’d never heard before and couldn’t get enough of. Many times a day, at every subway stop, as we waited to board, the overhead speaker announced in a melodic tone, “Mind the gap,” which meant to watch your step, be mindful of the space between platform and train. It became so familiar to me that I began to hear it in my head, like a song you can’t shake. Mind the gap.
Toward the end of our trip, my sister and her husband decided to call it a day right after dinner. I, myelf, was wide awake. The sun had barely set! After flipping through all three BBC channels and struggling to keep up with ‘Gorky Park’ — the Spanish version of an American movie set in Russia — I had a brilliant idea. I would explore the London nightlife on my own. After all, I was a high school graduate. What could go wrong?
Making sure that my hair was as big and stiffly hair-sprayed as possible, I went downstairs and asked the concierge for directions to a local pub. I wasn’t going to drink … I wanted to hear the live music. Honest.
Phillipe was at his post, looking even more handsome by evening light than at noon (Did the man ever go home?). When I asked for his opinion on where to visit on my adventure, he directed me to The Man with Three Hands, a pub a few blocks away.
Here’s something you should know — The British love to name their pubs with the most awkward titles. Don’t ask me why.
Here’s something else you should know — I am an utter moron when it comes to geographical directions. My ears hear “south” and “miles,” and my brain hears white noise like in the olden days when TV channels went off the air at midnight and “snow” covered the screen. Directions just do not compute. It’s genetic. My dad once got lost in a hotel room… true story.
So there I was, humming “In the Air Tonight” (my favorite Phil Collins tune) and leaving a scent of AquaNet behind me as I walked in what was most likely the opposite direction of The Man with Three Hands. A few minutes later, I found myself outside The Kings Arms. Close enough, right? It was all I’d hoped it would be — live music, teenage guys who were “chuffed” just to hear my American accent, lots of “blokes” and “birds” being charmingly themselves. I sat back and just soaked it all in.
At about midnight, just as I was returning from the “loo,” it was as if an alarm had sounded that Americans were not able to hear. Everyone filed out. In a hurry. In fact, by the time I got my purse and made my way out the door, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
The streets were dark, except for the moon and a couple of dim street lights. And it was foggy. Jack the Ripper foggy. “I am going to die. On a street in London,” I thought. “Before I even get to wear that angora sweater.”
“I’ll just start walking. I can find my way back to the hotel,” I told myself. My inner voice answered itself, “Ha! As if!” I might as well have been standing on the moon that was staring down at me – I would never find the hotel on my own.
Just as I took a step off the curb, a car pulled up at the end of the alley, and the back door opened. It was a taxi – a REAL one. A man leaned out and said, “Let us give you a lift.”
Now I may have been a small-town girl, but I knew all about “stranger danger.” I instinctively stepped back. The taxi door opened further, and light fell across the passenger’s face, and I gasped. Literally gasped. It was … brace yourself … Phil Collins. THE Phil Collins.
I decided to play it cool. “You’re Phil Collins!” I said. Yeah, I was so cool.
Mr. Collins said, very kindly, “Yes. I’m Phil. You really shouldn’t be out here at this hour. You can share the taxi ride with me.”
Continuing to be cool, I practically jumped into the taxi. “Thank you, Phil Collins,” I gushed.
“Uh … you can call me Phil.”
“Wow! Thanks, Phil Collins.”
“Where are you staying?”
“The Tower Thistle — you know, the hotel with the dolphins out front, right by the Tower Bridge?”
“Yes, I’m familiar. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Alabama.”
That seemed to clear things up for him a bit.
“Ah. The south,” he said with a smile.
Throughout the conversation, I was acutely aware that I was sitting just a few inches away from Phil Collins, music legend. I silently prayed for an hour-long trip.
Exactly a minute and a half later, the taxi driver said, “Here we are, miss.” I’d been three blocks away the entire time!
The taxi driver got out and opened my door. “Thank you, Phil Collins,” I said.
“You’re welcome. And be careful out there, Alabama,” he answered.
And just like that he was gone.
Remember this was long before cell phones and the internet. No Facebook or selfies. There was no way to let my friends know I’d just spent two whole minutes in the presence of a music icon. And I couldn’t tell my sister — I’d snuck out alone at night. My little adventure would surely lead to a great “kerfuffle.”
So I kept that memory to myself for a very long time.
Many days have passed, years’ and years’ worth, and I’ve been to lots of cities since then. My passport has been stamped over and over. When I close my eyes and think of that trip in the summer of ’85, it’s the small things I remember best … the strawberries and cream that were brought to my room every morning, the way Phillipe’s cufflinks glowed in the lamplight behind his desk, the laughter when my brother-in-law asked if there’d be fireworks for the Fourth of July (“We don’t celebrate our defeat by you Yanks, sir!”), the sight of Phil Collins’s hands resting on his knees and how very ordinary they looked, the way the arms of my seat in the balcony of The Royal Theater vibrated when the Phantom sang “Music of the Night,” the lovely shade of blue angora my sweater was made of, and the way my sister looked so alive in every photograph I took.
“In The Air Tonight” plays on the oldies station now. My angora sweater is a folded memory stored away in my cedar chest. The tickets stubs and theater playbills are glued into a scrapbook. And those photos are the only way I can see my sister’s smile.
Mind the gap. Pay attention to the space between platform and train, between here and there, today and tomorrow. Those are the moments where memories are made. Those are the sights and sounds your heart will latch on to. Mind the gap, for the gap is your life.
This column first appeared in the Observer in December 2017.