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The International Writers Magazine: Travel UK

Traveling with Mom (I should've known better)
Rick Steigelman

I might’ve guessed what I was getting myself into. The offer of a major expenses paid trip to London, England had, after all, come courtesy of a woman whose unrelenting protest had once transformed a three-week family camping trip out west into a three-week roadside motel trip out west. The trailer that we lugged behind us went largely for show, its main function quickly relegated to blowing the cap off the car’s radiator every now and then.

Nor had I forgotten my mother’s crowning moment of that vacation, when, in Arizona, she passed on the chance to join us for a hike down into the Grand Canyon, in order to stay behind and get her hair done (her hair looked great, by the way).

It’s just that ‘free’ was an awfully powerful lure, especially to one harboring a fascination with Europe, but without the means of exploring it on his own dime. I viewed this as, perhaps, my only opportunity to ever set foot on that continent.
Thus, as I crumbled before the temptation, I found myself clinging with desperate hope to the old adage from all those financial prospectuses—the bit about past results being no guarantor of future performance. Well, those folks had never traveled with Mom. And though we never did see the inside of a London beauty parlor, Mom, for the most part, was Mom. But, what the hell, free was free. And God bless Mom for that.

Ah, London, England. The land of Dickens, Shakespeare and more dead kings and queens (headless and otherwise) than you can shake a burning effigy of Guy Fawkes at.

I can hardly sleep on the nighttime flight over. Anticipation clearly plays a role in this. So, too, does the chucklehead across the way, who, for the entire run of in-flight movies, finds each line of dialogue wittier than the last. That’s a lot of good writing.

Though I do not often fall in behind my mother’s lead - come morning, I find myself wishing that I had emulated her headlong plunge into the wine bottle the evening before. She has slept soundly. My overnight hours, on the other hand, have been spent contemplating the murder of a light-hearted stranger with a smile on his face.

The reason that I had chosen to refrain from alcohol (and free alcohol, at that) is that I thought it smarter to be well-rested and clear-headed upon our morning arrival in London, rather than tottering off the plane drunk with a full day before me.
In the end, a little less wisdom probably would’ve gone a long way towards much better sleep. As a result, coffee and adrenaline shall have to suffice.

My standing as a novice traveler on the international stage is soon revealed on land, as well. I cannot say how or why, but, somehow or other, I permit both my passport and subway ticket to come into my mother’s possession. This does not become an issue until she abandons me at the airport.

The separation comes about innocently enough. One of the conditions that I have accepted for this essentially free trip to London is that I shall serve in the role of Baggage Boy. It is a fair trade, I think. Or thought.

To make this task a little easier on myself, I take advantage of one of the carts provided at Heathrow Airport, and I wheel our luggage out to where we’ll catch the subway, or tube, that will take us into town.

Having unloaded our bags onto the platform, and leaving Mom to watch over them, I push the cart back to its corral.
When I return to the platform, our luggage is still there. But Mom is not. I notice, however, that she has not gone far. In fact, she’s right there, motioning to me through the glass window of the subway car that she had instinctively boarded when it arrived during my brief absence.

I would’ve joined her directly, but for the fact that the train was just now beginning to roll away from the station. The astonishment on her expression cannot possibly match the horrification on mine.

Relief comes when I discover that I do not need my subway ticket to board the next train. I figure that I’ll simply meet up with Mom at the Leicester Square Station, which is where we transfer to the Northern Line. But she is not there. I suspect that I’ll finally catch up with her at our destination station, Tottingham Court Road. Again, though, she is not there. Quite obviously, she plans on waiting for me at the hotel.

It is at the Tottingham Court Station that I learn the importance of holding onto ones own subway ticket. I cannot leave the Underground without it. The system calls for the passenger to insert his or her ticket into the slot alongside the turnstile, which, then, prompts the arm to pop open and allow one passage to the world above.
There is no popping open without your ticket.

My ticket is in my mother’s purse. She would’ve been able to pop the arm open twice, or two arms once each, if she’d wished. But, for me, there would be no popping. It was suddenly beginning to look as though I’d be spending my entire week-long vacation in London beneath Tottingham Court Road, where it meets Oxford Street. The guidebook gives little direction as to ‘What to See and Do’ for this location. My dining options, too, seem limited. I shall have to ration judiciously the bag of airline peanuts that I have stashed in my pocket.

When my panic finally subsides, it occurs to me that there must be a human employee of the system somewhere, to whom I can explain my embarrassing predicament, along with the unfortunate circumstances surrounding my immediate ancestry, and from whom, at the very least, I should be able to purchase my freedom.

The closest thing to a human employee that I am able to find, however, is the damn turnstile, and it’s not laughing at my mom story. My panic returns. Am I really stuck down here, with one of the world’s more fascinating cities rumbling just overhead? This, I cannot accept. It is therefore time to employ some good old Yankee ingenuity. Which means, of course, imposing ones will by use of force.

I take up my position near the turnstile. I do not have to wait long before my unsuspecting prey falls upon my radar. Probably some local on his way to work. I hitch the overnight bags up over each shoulder and the suitcases I allow to slide into the crook at either elbow. The instant this poor fellow feeds his ticket into the turnstile, I swoop in so close behind him that he probably cannot help but question my sexual disposition, as well as my lack of etiquette in not at least buying him a drink beforehand.

It is not a smooth exit. I apologize.

Coupled now with my anger at Mom is the intense humiliation that I feel over giving this gentleman the impression that my interest in him is more profound than it actually is. I cannot flee the Underground fast enough. Bolting up the stairs to the street, I fall smack dab into a hornet’s nest of hawkers pushing courses on how to speak English.
Evidently, the string of profanities I am using to drag my mother’s name through the mud does not give them to understand that I already have a working grasp of the language.

Welcome to London. Now, get the hell out of my way.

Needing to conserve some of my more colorful vocabulary for when Mother and I should meet up again, I collect myself long enough to politely inquire of a sales clerk as to where the hell I might find the St. Giles Hotel, which I’ve been led to believe is around here somewhere.
She hasn’t heard of it.

Well, great. There can’t be that many streets in London. I should stumble upon it eventually. And I do. Furthermore, upon closer review of the angle, I find it to be within sight of the shop in which I’d stopped to seek direction. Perhaps the store clerk needs to lift her nose from her crossword puzzle a little more often.

Having become determined, by this point, to drag Mom from the hotel and see her drawn and quartered, if that option still stands on the books, I discover that she is not here, either. Mom, evidently, is nowhere.

It is precisely at this moment that I grimly recall Mom’s navigational prowess. In particular, the trip from Ann Arbor back to Muskegon after a football game, during which she guided her car one full hour past the appropriate highway interchange before picking up on her mistake. Those of us fortunate enough to have been in Car A of our two-vehicle caravan slept that night in our own beds. Those in Car B, meanwhile, settled for buttressing an innkeeper’s bottom line many miles from home. All thanks to the person now in possession of my passport.

Well, to Mom’s credit—and my relief, she doesn’t end up north of Flint this time. To her credit, also, she did think to wait for me at the Leicester Square Station. Where her logic took flight was in her conclusion that the surest way of intercepting me would be to sit as far out of the way as possible, on the very last bench along the platform, in the direction opposite our connecting train.

I did not see this bench, even after many turns along the platform. And from it, through the crowd, Mom did not see me.
After watching a half-dozen trains come and go, she joins me at the St. Giles. I now have my passport back, and shall not be letting go of it again.

© Richard Steigelman
martinvanb at> 9 October 2008

Richard was born and raised in Muskegon, Michigan, USA. He moved to Ann Arbor to attend The University of Michigan, and, like so many others, stuck around afterwards to help staff the local restaurant scene. He has published one novel, THE HOPE OF TIMOTHY BEAN (Briarwood Publications, 2002).

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