Fiction, short story

Love between the lanes

How long does it take to know someone? Is it weeks? Months? Years? Or could it just be minutes or a flash of a glimpse, and you feel you’ve known them all your life? On the other hand, you may spend all your life with somebody and still realise that there are many things that you don’t know. But how much can you know about someone on a drive on M6 from Birmingham to Manchester? When you know nothing about her? And when you haven’t spoken a word? When she wasn’t even in your car? It ought to be nothing, right? But why do I feel like I have found my doppelgänger?

Anna re-read the paragraph written on her blog. This must be the fourth time she read it, and she still feels restless today. It’s somewhat unusual for her; she doesn’t struggle with her emotions anymore like she used to do. But what happened today prompted Anna to do something about it, although she doesn’t know what to do. That’s why she opened her blog that she stopped writing when Alice was born seven years ago. She looked at the time again. It’s only 9:30 pm. But she only managed to write those few lines since 7, and couldn’t think what else to write. She just re-ran this morning’s events in her mind for the 50th time. They are still vivid in her memory…

It started yesterday when her friend Paul, the only big client Anna has got left, called for a meeting in Manchester. Before, she would have taken the train, or send one of the employees. Now there’s only three of them left to finish all the orders, and she had no choice but to drive. Anna likes going for long drives, but with three failed MOTs and no money to replace the car that clocked 380,000 miles, she can’t afford to put much strain on the car. But that’s not all the reasons to she was wary about driving to Manchester.

Her friends say she drives like a man. It wasn’t meant like a compliment; she drives like a dick. Whether it is bumping the car over speed breakers, waving in and out between lanes on busy motorways, leaving the car smelling like a kennel, speeding, tailgating, road rage — Anna does it all. It’s been a long time since her friends stopped coming in her car, and her family followed suit. Anna personally doesn’t like the comparison to men, she thinks it’s female drivers who actually cause problems. But she likes driving her old motor — what she calls her car — and in her mind, she knows what she’s doing and it’s safe. It’s just she knows that if her car stops working, the business will be pretty much finished as well, and she is very protective about the car. So, when she was called to the meeting in Manchester, she wasn’t overjoyed. But Anna has fond memories of Manchester when she was at the university, and later when she started her business — all big orders were from Manchester through her previous contacts. The friend, who she’s meeting with is also from the uni, and he helped her set the business up nine years ago. So, she thought it would be nice to go back there after nearly a year.

Anna left a bit later than she expected this morning because the childminder was caught up in traffic. Then she realised she hasn’t got enough petrol in the car to go to Manchester and back. Her local garage has the cheapest fuel in Birmingham, so it’s a no-brainer paying 10p more per litre on the services. She bought enough to last the journey and finally set off. She ran through the route in her mind, and couldn’t believe her eyes that she’d make it in 90 minutes. The satnav must be wrong, with all the roadworks going on! She thought she must speed up in the 70mph sections on M6.

Just after M6 merged with the M6 toll, Anna moved to the fourth lane to go past the annoying middle lane hoggers. But just as she pulled out on the fast lane, she noticed that another car just pulled out behind her. And it was closing in behind her car.

“Must be another arsehole tailgater”! Anna thought.

Then she looked at the car and the driver through her rearview mirror. It was a woman, much to her surprise. And a blonde one! Anna thought it must be one of the bullish drivers, who just tailgates to push cars out of their way. She sped up to go past the cars she was overtaking and moved into the third lane, and the car sped past her. And it then moved on to the third lane in front of her. Anna thought the driver must have got some motorway driving etiquette after all, that most people lack. She noticed that the blue Vauxhall in front of her is also a 2004 registration, just like Anna’s. She thought it was a strange coincidence but didn’t pay any more attention. She saw a large gap in the inside lane and swerved onto that lane. She must make use of any small gains she can make to get to the destination quicker.

It was one of Anna’s rules. She followed them strictly while driving. Any gap she saw, she moved in there, no matter which lane it was in. After all, if slower cars stayed in inside lanes, there wouldn’t be any gaps. She also limits the speed to 73mph, apart from short bursts of acceleration when she needs to go past somebody. She always signals, checks her mirrors, lets faster cars pass by. That’s why she can’t agree with her friends that she’s a reckless driver. Anna thinks that’s just good and sensible driving, to get from point a to point b in the least time. She was proud of her rules and hardly deviated from them.

As she was going past junction 12 at Cannock in the first lane, cutting under a long array of lorries and cars, she was quite pleased that her manoeuvre had worked. Sometimes she’d go past a lot of cars but then sit behind a slow one on the first lane while the slower cars on the outside lane would gradually go past her. It paid off this time, and Anna was right. After she went past the long line of trucks, she was suddenly looking at unobstructed four lanes ahead and stayed on the first lane keeping at 73mph. But just as she was going past the slip road that merges with the motorway, she noticed the blue car again; it came behind her, went past her using the second lane, and pulled in front of her on the first lane as it gradually sped off.

This time Anna was impressed. She generally comes across two types of motorists. One, who drives at 65mph in the second lane even on an empty motorway, or two, the types who stay on the outer lane, and at times go past other cars using the inside lanes or tailgating them. And there is a third type, middle-aged women in 4x4s, but they mostly stay out of motorways. She rarely saw drivers who were comfortable manoeuvring the car in all lanes and maintain the speed. Anna thought she was special, and now she just witnessed someone else doing that.

“Looks like she’s using my rules, this is mental”! She thought.

Given her prejudice against female drivers in general, she was even more pleased to see someone who drove just like her. When she first noticed the blue car behind her, she knew straight away who it was, and as the car went past her, she tried to get a closer look at the driver. She couldn’t notice much, other than she was wearing a black and white striped top and trousers. While the car was speeding away, she thought it must be driving at 75-76mph. Then the car went out of Anna’s sight into the maze of cars ahead of her. She thought that the other driver was impressive, but the speed the other car was going at, she wouldn’t see it again.

But then she saw the roadworks ahead sign, and the 50mph speed limit zone started. Anna moved out into the outside lane to drive at 58mph, another of her rules to drive within legal limits without risking getting flashed. She couldn’t see what lay ahead of her because of a large X6 in front of her, but she slightly pulled out towards the crash barrier to have a look and saw the Corsa about 5-6 cars ahead. Anna suddenly felt a sense of rivalry.

“Let’s see how she drives in roadworks, can she drive like me here?” Anna wondered.

She generally goes past most of the cars ahead on roadworks. Anna knew from experience that people leave gaps ahead of them and she can use those gaps to maintain her speed by moving between lanes when needed. After going past a few cars and trucks, Anna was in the third lane, and she went past two large cars and moved back to the outside lane. The blue car was only three cars ahead of Anna. Just as she was planning her next move, the blue car spotted a long gap in the first lane and quickly gone there from the outside lane. Where Anna was, she couldn’t do the same, but she suddenly thought that the driver drives just like her, except a bit faster on empty lanes. Anna got her share of luck and found that a car was doing 50mph, and there was a large gap ahead. As she pulled out in the fourth lane, she pressed the pedal to 58mph and looked out for the Corsa. It was still ahead of her, changing between first and second lanes. And then, suddenly the speed limit was finished. Anna sped up to 73mph but soon found that the blue car moved lanes as well and was just in front of her. She read the number plate and read it over and over in her mind. The car now was in the second lane as all the lanes had empty spaces ahead, and as it was going past a lorry, Anna thought she knew what the driver would do next.

“She’s going to the first lane now. I can bet on it!”.

And Anna was right. The car did move to the left lane, sped off in the gap ahead up to a truck, then moved to the second lane again. Because Anna was going at a slightly slower speed, it wasn’t possible for her to do the same thing, and she stayed on the third lane, maintaining her speed. She saw the blue Corsa was in the outside lane again, ahead of quite a few cars. She felt a bit frustrated that she couldn’t catch up with the car as she planned. But there was another length of roadworks ahead, and it was Anna’s turn that time.

As she kept the speed to 58mph, all cars ahead of her in the fourth lane moved about the same pace, and after a while, Anna noticed that she was going past the blue car on the third lane, unable to change lanes. She looked at the driver again. She noticed she wore glasses. She wasn’t sure she remembered what the woman looked like, nor she knew why she wanted to know anyway. She thought she wanted to see the woman who drives so much like her that she could almost read her mind. Anna must put a face to the person, more than just the glasses and striped top. She continued to drive slightly ahead of the blue car, not letting it move in the next lane but making a plan to get the car behind her. She kept the same speed until there was a big gap ahead, and then accelerated, leaving room for the blue car to move in. It worked! Anna was thinking what if the car behind her sped as well, but she was pleased to see that the blue car was behind her. Anna slowed down again and looked in the rearview mirror. The mysterious driver looked in the early forties. Anna wasn’t sure if she liked how she looked. She couldn’t see very well because it was overcast, despite the good weather forecast this week in May. As Anna kept looking in the mirror, she didn’t realise the 50mph limit had finished, and there was a gap in the third lane until the blue car went in that lane and sped past Anna, and back on the outside lane. Anna pushed the pedal, but the blue car was away again.

“I can’t let her get away again!”, Anna thought.

She thought that when someone is playing exactly by her rules and is still ahead of her, she must change her rules as well. The only factor that separates them was their speed, and Anna put some more gas on. She was about a 100 metres behind the blue car and the gap wasn’t increasing; the speedometer read 77mph. She could now guess what the blue car would do next, and it followed exactly the same pattern as she predicted. On the inside lane when nothing was ahead, then to the second, then wherever the next gap was. The blue car didn’t drop speed, nor did Anna this time. They were almost driving in sync. She did wonder if the woman realised that Anna was following her.

“What if I did!” She thought, “it’s a free country”.

They went into another short span of roadworks near Stoke. Anna was confident that no matter what happened, they won’t be far off as both of them drove faster than 50mph, and moved between lanes. The blue car went out of Anna’s sight, but this time, she wasn’t bothered. She focussed on the other things on the day ahead. About her meeting. Wondering whether she’d get the order to supply her lingeries to the boutique shop at Intu Trafford Center. That would bring some cash in the business she’s desperate for. She might call back one of the part-timers she had to lay off a few months back. And she realised that she’s hungry. She didn’t have breakfast in a rush, but if the satnav is right, she should have some time to eat something. Eating nice food is a luxury these days, but she’d feel guilty about Alice and perhaps will pack half of it home.

While Anna had these random thoughts, she went past the limited speed zone and looked for the Corsa. She couldn’t see it ahead of her, so she moved to the empty inside lane, waiting for it to appear. She looked more at her mirror than the road ahead. Then, she saw the car emerge between two trucks behind her, and it sped past her again. The car went so fast that Anna didn’t even get a chance to look at the driver again. Anna was getting restless by then, but she didn’t know why. Fair enough, she found someone who drives like her, and she can prompt every move that woman will make and Anna was right every time. But that’s not enough reason to feel so desperate to look at her.

She pressed the pedal down back to 77mph and stayed right behind the blue car. She could see that the driver looked at her a couple of times through her rearview mirror, but Anna wasn’t worried about that. She tried to look at the driver through the mirror but it wasn’t good enough. Besides, the weather was still overcast and it was hard to see through the glass. Anna thought she must be in front of the car if she wants to look at the driver. She stayed on the fourth lane while the blue Corsa moved to the third lane. They were approaching a long stretch of roadworks. Anna went past the car and without thinking, she just stared through her side window while overtaking the other car very slowly. She thought again the woman was in her early forties, she must be quite tall because her elbows seemed under the window level and she was sitting quite farther back from the steering wheel. She wasn’t wearing any makeup and Anna could see the acne on her right cheek. The glasses were of metallic frame, and Anna thought it suited her thin, long face. She didn’t have any jewellery on other than a thin golden chain. Her clothes didn’t look expensive, but why else would she drive a 04 plate car in 2018! The woman looked at Anna staring at her and looked quite bewildered.

“Perhaps she thinks I’m egging her on for a race”. Anna thought. But the woman looked uninterested.

As Anna went completely past the blue Corsa, she had an urge to keep driving next to the car and look at the mystery woman again. They were already in the roadworks zone, and Anna saw the blue car inching past her in the inside lane again. Anna stared at her shamelessly. This time the woman looked at her, and her gaze stayed on Anna more than a second. It felt as if she was trying to figure out why Anna was ogling her. She pulled out a wry smile on her face and a small nod to the woman in the blue Corsa. The woman didn’t know how to react and turned her head and drove on.

Anna could have moved behind her but she wanted to be in front of the blue car. So, she accelerated to tailgate the car in front instead. She usually doesn’t tailgate anymore these days, but she was getting desperate not knowing which junction the other woman was getting off. It paid off for Anna by pressing the car in front. The car pulled in front of the blue car and Anna went past the two and moved into the third lane. She sped forward a bit, leaving a gap behind her and the car she overtook. That was her bait ready, and she was waiting for the Corsa to fall into Anna’s cunning trap. She knew it would. Anna would have done the same. And so she did, the driver of the Corsa. She went past the car in front of her taking the outside lane, and moved into the third lane, right behind Anna.

Anna let her foot off the gas slightly, so she was still doing above the speed limit, but slow enough for the blue car to stay in the lane. Anna was helped by some faster-moving cars in the fourth lane. So her driving-alter-ego had nowhere to go but stay behind Anna. Anna was pleased to see her little plan work. It was time to have a look at the driver again. It was not as close as it would have been if they drove side by side, but that would look weird.

Just as Anna looked in her rearview mirror, the cloud cover just disappeared and a beaming summer sunlight shone on them. If felt as if a spotlight was set on the car behind for Anna. A long time ago when she was at the uni, Anna read a book that said something like if you really want someone, the whole universe conspires for your dreams to fulfil. Anna couldn’t help but remember the line, that everything she wanted was turning in her favour after a long wait. Anna looked on, and the blonde hair that looked quite drab before was shining, in fact glowing, in the sun. The woman raised her right hand to run through her hair. Her hair looked slightly frizzy or it might be a mild curl. Now that the sun is out, Anna could see her face and she suddenly thought despite her ordinary outlook, the woman was pretty attractive. On the same breath, without even realising it, Anna thought it’s been nearly six months she had sex.

She felt a bit embarrassed thinking about sex while she was looking at a stranger, but she didn’t know why. All her past sexual encounters in last five years were with strangers on occasional nights out. After separating with Alice’s dad, she thought she had been messed up enough by men and decided to raise Alice on her own. She just needed men from time to time, but hardly any went past a one night stand. As Alice got older, Anna had less time to go out with her mates, and she didn’t believe in online dating and chatting. She was more interested in diversifying her lingerie business then, although that was just a disaster, leaving Anna to shrink her original business to survive. She had to sell her house in Solihull and move to a flat in Nechells to pay off the loans. And her cars. Like in a sinking ship, Anna threw all her energy, money and time to salvage the business. No wonder she didn’t have much human interaction, especially with men, as she had grown a natural distrust for them.

Brushing aside her thoughts about sex, Anna looked at the driver again, through Anna’s mirror. But she knew that once a thought struck her mind, that’s going to bug her the whole day. She saw the woman in the blue car has a habit of running her hand through her hair often. Anna thought the woman looked at her as well, straight into Anna’s mirror.

“Shit, has she guessed anything?”She wondered.

But she was more interested in looking at the woman through her mirror. It was like a guilty pleasure. Thanks to the bright sunshine, Anna can see most features of the face, but she thought it wasn’t as good as looking at someone right in front of her. She could notice that the woman had thin lips. As a natural reflex, Anna pulled out her sunshade makeup mirror and looked at herself. She was dressed to impress, and tried to get herself ready this morning as much as she could. She almost started to scrutinise how she saw herself. Her dark red lip colour covering the bite marks and cracks, dark circles neatly masked by layers of foundation, the grey eyebrows neatly plucked away. Despite all that effort, she couldn’t hide away the wrinkles appearing on the sides of her eyes, and on her forehead. She looked in the mirror again, and looked aside to the rearview mirror to see the driver in blue Corsa and thought that despite nearly ten years between them, they have many similar features.

“Gosh, how I’m gonna look like when I’m her age”!

The outside lane was full of faster moving cars, and reckless white vans. That ensured that the blue car can’t go anywhere. Anna started to wonder what was next. What if the woman is going to exit M6 before she did? What if Anna has to leave first? The woman messed with her hair again. Looking at her doing that, Anna suddenly had a vision of the woman posing with her back towards Anna, with nothing on but a pair of light grey thongs Anna designed for the meeting. The room had Venetian windows and thin strips of sunlight filtered through on to her back. The woman’s back was covered in black and red spots, skin tags and had a slightly darker tone than her face. Anna tried to shake the picture out of her mind. She looked at the makeup mirror again but couldn’t look into her own eyes. She snapped the mirror shut and pushed the sunshade up.

The roadworks section seemed to be endless and it felt as if it was their destiny to stay one behind another for eternity. Anna was slightly annoyed at herself for not focusing on the meeting and her business, for which she sacrificed last nine years. She chose what she wanted the most in her life, and partners didn’t have a place in that vision. And now she was letting herself fancy a random middle-aged woman whom she knew nothing about. She wanted to move to another lane so she didn’t have to look at her. She moved behind a truck on the second lane and then to the first. It was a slightly dangerous manoeuvre because she just pulled in from of another truck and got flashed and beeped at. She didn’t care. After a minute of driving on, Anna thought it was really foolish of her. After all, that little fling wouldn’t have gone anywhere, it’d end when one of them goes off the M6. But there was no going back because she was stuck to 48mph and the cars were moving faster on the next lane. Anna felt the urge to be back on the lane she were, or drive next to the woman. But to her surprise, the blue car emerged behind her. Anna was confused but pleased to see it again. But she couldn’t fathom out the reason why that car would move to a slow moving lane without a purpose. She thought it’s either because the other woman now wanted to stalk her, or because she’s getting off the next exit.

“As much as I wanted the first to be true, it ain’t that”

Anna deduced the reason in her mind. And that suddenly filled her with a bit of anxiety and sadness. What would she do? Would she come off the junction as well? She knew nothing about Knutsford. What if she gets held up in traffic? She couldn’t afford to miss the meeting. But she felt that she was almost ready to get off the motorway as well. The blue car started indicating as Anna went past the 300 yard marker for the exit. In her mind Anna knew that she was going to Manchester, but as if she was waiting for her hands to defy that chain of command and indicate exit. She slowed further down for the coming 200 yards just so that she could see the woman one last time before the blue car reached the exit and sped off the exit. By the time they were parallel again, the blue car was on exit slip road and quite high up. Anna looked at the driver window and saw that the woman was looking back as well.

Then they went out of each other’s sight. At first, Anna felt nothing. She looked at the time and found that she was doing okay to get there by 9:30. As she was going past the entry slip road, she looked on her left, almost expecting the blue car to have played a prank of going off and joining back on. There were no cars coming on to M6. Anna suddenly felt a feeling of loss, almost like a lost opportunity. It’s true that the other woman and Anna are complete strangers, and they may have nothing in common between them except the way they drove. But then, Anna thought, that the way one drives, shows their outlook towards life. How predictable the other driver was, there could have been more similarities between them. It could have been a fresh start of her love life. Then she thought, all these thoughts are coming from her infatuation and lack of sex. She must go out on the coming weekend. And the scene with the woman in Anna’s lingerie flashed in her mind again.

For the rest of the route, Anna spent in a trance. She couldn’t decide whether she was really interested in that woman or it was just a fancy. Then she was engrossed in finding out what was going on the route as she was driving on agricultural land according to the satnav but she was actually on a newly built dual carriageway. She relived her memories of the past of driving to Manchester from Solihull on Mondays. But the woman with strips of sunlight on her bare back kept messing up with her mind.

After reaching Manchester, Anna nearly forgot about the morning. She couldn’t believe how the place has changed. She had a flashback of her old self when she was at the uni — big dreams, pubs every evening, bistros by the canal, theatres, gigs. Life has changed beyond belief in last ten years. She wondered if she’d have that vibrant life back, but this time with Alice in it. She knew the answer already and that brought her back to present. She went into the meeting slightly distracted. It’s a small business, but she started it from scratch and knows everything she can offer, prices that she can accept, delivery times she can commit to. She always had all details and didn’t have to go back to do the numbers. The meeting brought some fresh breath of air in her life. The client liked the designs and decided to add them to their product line for the shop in Trafford Centre. It’ll be a trial for three months and based on numbers, but even three months would be nice and after setting all the money aside, she might book a holiday with Alice. During all these thoughts, however, Anna kept seeing the woman in the blue Corsa, messing with her hair, or looking at Anna curiously. And after the negotiations, when her client had to go away and discuss the prices, Anna dozed off for a moment, and is that split second, she saw the woman in a black fishnet leotard. She woke up with a start, and couldn’t remember for a minute where she was.

After the meeting, she went for a drink with Paul. Normally she stays for a few drinks but she was in a hurry. She headed back home at 4 pm.

“What if the woman returns by M6 today?”, that was the only question circling inside Anna’s mind.

She was full of hope again. She didn’t know what she’d do if she saw the woman again. Perhaps nothing, but just drive parallel or in front of each other. Does she even live in Birmingham? What if she was returning to Knutsford rather than driving there? Anna felt slightly guilty that she’s not thinking about her business when she just doubled her present order volume. She was thinking about the stranger, and she didn’t know the nature of her feelings. Is it love, or just friendship? Or is it an obsession? Is it her love for her own self and the feelings Anna is having is because she seemed so familiar? What if they met again, in a situation where they can talk, what would Anna say to her?

She reached Knutsford around 5 pm. Unlike the murky morning, the afternoon was sunny and warm, enough to make one sleepy. As Anna was approaching the exit slip road, she had another vision of the woman wearing the grey lingerie Anna presented during her meeting. But that time, she was sitting slightly turned towards Anna and Anna could see the outline of her left breast, small and sagged, with strips of sunlight on it and all across her back. Anna felt quite turned on, but she didn’t know whether it was due to her attraction towards the woman or just her craving for sex. She looked on the entry slip road, and couldn’t see any sign of the blue Corsa. She felt disappointed but decided to drive faster for the rest of the route, in case the woman was indeed returning and Anna can catch up with her.

She drove like she used to drive a few years earlier. She was reckless, moving in and out of lanes but dangerously, and she sped beyond the speeds she knew wouldn’t get her a ticket. Anna tried not to think much about the woman from the morning, but she felt that her anxiety is getting worse again. She felt almost breathless, waiting for a sign of the car to appear somewhere on the horizon. Closer she went to Birmingham, she felt more and more desperate, not being able to decide whether to speed up or slow down. By the time she reached spaghetti junction, it was 6 pm. Anna felt gutted but the good news about the business stopped her hitting the rock bottom. She was back in her street in Nechells in five minutes. The trip to Manchester was over, although Anna wasn’t overjoyed.

When the childminder Jane saw her at the front door, she looked horrified looking at Anna.

“Oh dear, Anna, you’re bleeding again!”
“OH Fuck!… Is it bad?”
“All over your clothes, bab.”

Anna touched her nose and saw her fingers are covered in blood. She copes with her anxiety well, but at times when it gets out of hand, she gets the nosebleed. Anna is used to it, her GP said it’s not unusual. It was a lot worse when she was splitting up with Alice’s dad five years back. She looked down and her clothes were stained with blood. She was embarrassed at herself and angry as well, knowing what caused it. Jane let Anna use her toilet to get cleaned, and gave her pads of cotton to stop the bleeding. Alice understands now that Anna gets the nosebleed at times, so she didn’t need to explain or calm her down.

Alice was tired and she went to bed at 7pm as usual. Anna had a chat with her before she went to her room about the day, and told about hers. She didn’t mention anything about the car. Since then, Anna just sat in front of her computer. She managed to write just one paragraph, and the more she tried to rein her thoughts, the wilder they became. She decided to take a break and get her clothes cleaned. She was annoyed about the bleed. Not only did she fail to realise it was happening, she will now have to make sure that she removed the stains. She hasn’t got many businesswear left, the rest are all larger sizes. Anna’s friends are jealous about her size but she knows that she felt better before, and she didn’t really want to lose all the weight. She took her clothes off and applied some stain remover on them. She looked herself in the mirror. It felt as if she was looking at the other woman in the car. As she took her makeup off, she thought she looked older than she is. She made promises to herself that she’d take more care of herself but after a few weeks, it was back to square one. She did wonder why younger mums at Alice’s school don’t speak to her. A few years later perhaps even Alice wouldn’t let Anna drop her to school.

As she stood there in front of the mirror, naked, she suddenly thought if that woman was just an imagination, she was actually looking at herself a few years ahead. Well, the hair was different but she can colour her ginger hair to blonde and let it grow longer. It seemed that they were about the same height. She turned to her side and remembered the vision she had on the way back to the woman. Anna’s breasts look the same size as the other woman. She looked at herself again in the mirror. Is she attractive? Can she still pull? She didn’t have any problem last time; it’s just the last time was a long time ago. Has she got a few more lines on her face? Does she look frail now? She could see her rib cage, which isn’t a good sign. She could never see her rib cage before. And her hip bones. Anna wondered if she kept changing so rapidly, in a few years’ time, will she still find people on nights out? Or should she hurry up?

Anna made her mind up. She had a quick shower. It made her feel refreshed again, and Anna felt she doesn’t feel so agitated now. Draped in towel, she sat down with her laptop. She must start acting on her plan. The outcome of what she’s planning is uncertain but she never worried about uncertainty. If she could handle it in her business, so can she in her life. Anna saved her blog for another day and opened a search page. She typed the registration number of the car. KC04 AKE. The spinning wheel of death is taking a long time to load the page. She needs to find out if she can get any more detail on the Corsa. The results are finally loaded. Anna clicked on one of the links from DVLA and it opened. The car is indeed a blue petrol Corsa. She was relieved that she wasn’t imagining about this morning. The woman was real. Probably Anna’s dreams will be as well. One day she’ll meet her alter-ego face to face, not through car windows. She looked at the other links. One of them must have details of the owner. If search results don’t reveal anything, there is photo search, forums to ask in, report DVLA about an accident. There will be ways. It can take as long as it takes. Anna can wait a few years, at least. She will just have to be patient and wait for the universe to conspire to bring them together. The future isn’t looking so bleak after all.


London, as seen by a quasi-Londoner outsider

London, Paris, New York, Mumbai, Beijing, Tokyo, Rio — the biggest cities in this world: not only are these cities the economic powerhouses of the world, but they also represent a rich cultural heritage, a diverse demographic, a confluence of humanity from all corners of this earth. Above all, these cities have a character — a strong demonstration of resilience to forge ahead in times of despair and never giving up. Having lived most of my life in Calcutta, I was tempted to put Calcutta on this list as well but then refrained from it, avoiding a faux-pas. Despite being a big city with a rich cultural legacy, it would not be just to assume Calcutta belonged to the same echelon with the rest for two vital reasons. It does not have the same effect on the world economy and hence the demographic, although diverse, is not by any means comparable to the other cities. Secondly, it has never been challenged to test its steadfastness and even with the lack of it, the city is in the way of fading into dilapidation and decadent oblivion. This test of character marks the biggest anomaly why Calcutta cannot be put within the same bracket with the other big cities. These musings are not either on the city of my dreams, the cultural capital of the world — Paris, as I have never experienced Paris, and going by Le gens non-Parisiens, Paris isn’t that spectacular! Rather, this is a collection of thoughts on the city, which has toppled Paris in recent years as the cultural capital of the world, London.

Before arriving in the UK, London, like any other big city, was a collage of landmarks and famous people, more than anything else. My uncle, who was a sailor, used to tell tales of London, especially the rain. In my mind’s eye, I had a picture of London, covered with a dusky blanket of smog and drizzling rain, the faint light from the gas lamps shining on the wet cobbled streets. Perhaps this was imagery created from Sherlock Holmes books more than anything else. With time, more images were added to that vision, especially the landmarks I became accustomed to — Tower Bridge to Buckingham Palace to Big Ben, and of course Lord’s cricket ground. And holding all these pieces together like a thread was the Thames, running from west to east supplying lifeblood to the city. Another image permeates to the mind, of a dark river swarming with merchant ships importing and exporting merchandise from all corners of the world, a very busy docklands strewn with some sacks here, leaking barrels there and an overall sense of urgency all round.

As the adage goes “putting a face to the name”, I had all these visions in my mind but they were distant dreams, of seeing London with my own eyes, which possibly never meant to be materialised. The opportunity came when in 2007, I got the score I expected in GMAT and knew everything else going as per plan, I’ll be either in the UK or “the other side of the pond” studying. I was due a holiday after all the hard work and decided to visit the UK for a week in December. Although I have not seen much of London and mostly stayed in Oxford, London was en route between Heathrow and Oxford and back, as I went to central London on arrival to see a friend who’d accompany me to the coach station afterwards.

On that very first encounter, I felt London was enormous and congested, yet full of life and urgency all around me — people running past in the escalators, bikes whizzing past the crowded streets, people reading books or newspapers in the packed tube where they could barely stand. The vastness was apparent when I realised it took much longer than anticipated to arrive at Central London. As the slow Piccadilly Line tube trundled through the suburbs, I was in a way disheartened to see stumpy little houses all the way, not the skyscrapers I thought would block my view. Little did I know then that on that aspect, Europe is so different compared to the rest of the world, where the burgeoning population has already driven people to expand upwards. In a way, I felt reassured as the train approached the inner part of the city and few tall buildings with bright coloured panels would catch the view, that we are getting closer to the main city. The images have completely transformed, when I arrived at Holborn, the heart of central London, with the number of people almost overwhelming. Despite Calcutta with about 15 million people was much denser than London, the streets there are never so crowded, yet function without any chaotic disorder — a regular sight in Calcutta. A sense of order was immediately visible, whether it’s commuters standing on the right-hand side of the escalator to let the ones through on the left side, pedestrians stopping the moment the signal turned red or queuing up keeping a decorum, it seemed to be working like a clockwork. A plethora of memories will stay etched in my mind — visiting LSE, London’s answer to Oxbridge, a vague recollection of going to Elephant and Castle, spicy chicken wings from a local shop, an eerie walk to Victoria bus terminal…But if there is one that highlighted my first glimpse of London, it will be the escalator out of Holborn tube station, the nigh vertical ascent with a sea of people around, the daylight filtering through at the end of the escalator which seemed far away, and there was I, waiting for the ascent to the end and witness the city I have been longing to see for two weeks! That ride up was surreal and every time I went up that escalator since then, I always remembered that very first moment I was there.

I was back there in less than a year, heading to a new destination, Cranfield. Getting my room keys I headed off to London the same night to meet a friend, with a plan to do all necessary shopping the day after. I went to the Southeast London, and that was the beginning of an acquaintance, seeing London from various shades of light. That part of the city in the southeast was not the most desirable of the places, and there was news of knife crimes, murders, burglary; in the vicinity of the tower bridge road area. Every time I went to that area, I was always alert, anxious of something to happen, but nothing ever did. During the year I was in Cranfield, I came to London many times for many different reasons, be it spending new year break with friends from Calcutta, attending MBA job fairs, job interviews, Crystal Palace to watch Usain Bolt in British Athletics Meet, many landmarks with day trips arranged from Cranfield. The more I visited London, more I discovered and each visit painted a different picture and London to me was an endless process of superimposing these pictures one by one to be able to fathom the true character of the city.

A new chapter started in 2010 when I started the new job that took me to all corners of London, and it was amazing to discover how old infrastructures are fitted with cutting edge technology to keep abreast of the 21st century. This is the true beauty of London, it keeps evolving, as if in a constant flux or plasma. More places were added to the areas I frequented, with work or after work hours on the way back, in search of comic book shops. Places on both banks of Thames around Houses of Parliament, china town, Shaftesbury avenue or Holborn — the map of inner circle of London was becoming quite clear, just like after long hours of toil, a jigsaw finally starts to show signs of the pattern one looks for, the picture one is trying to find. There were little discoveries made along the way, like the comic book shops on the great Russell street opposite British museum, an exquisite Indian restaurant in Shaftesbury avenue named Malabar, sudden realisation of a concert by my favourite Spanish group Amaral at a Scala theatre near St. Pancras, a Bengali bookshop near the BT Tower. All these findings marked experiencing something personal, that I discovered in the process of knowing the city.

However, it took a lot longer to have an appreciation of the size of London, the suburbs and their location in respect to the centre of the city, apart from the extremities of the south-east where I lived. The size of London, in a way, can be easily defined by the M25 motorway. Even if I’ve driven all around it on an endless number of occasions, it’s the radial roads that joined M25 at various junctions that held the key to knowing all precincts. It’s only later, when my confidence in driving in a busy city like London overcame the worries, that I started going to places using the car rather than take the same train to London bridge. It’s during those precise moments, around the end of last year, when a collage of pictures, structures, sounds and faces started to come all together to a complete landscape of London. Through my projects, I have a better appreciation than ever, of the geography of the city and the localities.

I often had a feeling about Calcutta that the city had many layers, with a degree of separation in between, just like particles inside an atom — each with its path but hardly any are changing their orbit. In one layer you have celebrities, politicians, business leaders, people who are face and ambassadors for the city and are often in the news. Then there are millionaires who we hardly know but can still marvel at their houses and posh cars. There are academicians and artisans, in their smaller spheres of specialisations. Then there are common people — ranging from high earner executives and directors to penniless beggars — with a plethora of strata in between. The curious fact is, to some extent we all come across these people every day, either directly or via media, but we have no appreciation of what the life is like for the people in the other strata, we can’t even imagine. The metaphor of an atom seems quite apt, with proton and neutrons forming the nucleus whilst the electrons keep running in their orbits completely unaware of the other orbits. After coming to London, that feeling was much bolstered. It’s a city where we can’t even think of identifying the number of layers — commuters from suburbia in their mundane attires day after day, construction workers from Eastern Bloc countries, Tamil eatery owner in Newham — these are all unique and one’s daily routine is diametrically opposite to the other’s, but the great city of London is the only commonality amongst all these strata.

So what makes London a great city? Will it be the marvels of British engineering that built all infrastructure that is essential even now for daily life? Or would that be the large conglomerates in modern-day London, especially at the plush reincarnated docklands at Canary Wharf, that made the city the financial capital of the world — the financial empire that was built with the wealth amassed from its dark colonial past? What about the numerous picturesque landmarks, a hallmark of fine Victorian architecture strewn across the city, which makes London one of the biggest city destinations for tourists all around the world? Undeniably all these are contributing factors that made this city evolve over decades and centuries to become one of the biggest metropolises in the world. However, above all, what I started this writing with, it’s the character that defines the city and what else can best depict the character of the city than its people themselves? From plagues in the Middle Ages to the terrorist attacks of 2005, the city rose to threats posed on its existence, regrouped and reinforced and mutated even stronger, like a Phoenix rising from the pyres. I did not witness or read a lot on any of the events I mentioned, but I was there during the riots of 2011, the Olympics in 2012, the student protests of 2009 and occupy movement in 2011 — and in all these occasions, London has risen to the challenge and shown its mettle, the strength of character, and its people, irrespective of their background, nationality, colour or religion were at the forefront at this.

London is multicultural, it is a confluence of perhaps the most number of cultures across the world into a harmonious coexistence. Starting from restaurants serving all possible cuisines across the globe, to a feeling of arcane at the public places with a mix of languages — recognisable and unknown — strikes the eardrums even without trying to listen — the symbiosis of altitude of cultures, languages, custom, attires is easily palpable. From the carnivals like Holi, Chinese New Year and Notting Hill to an artist playing along flutes and selling Bolivian folk tunes to a man walking in Haringey with an antelope horn — the contrast of sights and sounds only reinforces the fact that this city has welcomed all communities of the world with open arms, as it understood the value of widening its horizon, learning and flourishing from different cultures and communities — much to the dismay of the ‘Little Englanders’, who wants their little kingdom nation back, where the sun never set (it still doesn’t, worth checking an interesting article in XKCD). Irrespective of whether people came to work, study, travel, party, make a future or seeking asylum after all the roads to live in the country are ceased — London has something to offer to all, shelter, career, education, entertainment. All these cultures, ethos, values all add to the complex identity that defines today’s London where it’s not only a window to the UK but also a harmonious world of tomorrow. With exceptions that all cities have, London is a shining beacon of individual excellence and humanity.

I also wonder at the awe-inspiring speed the city is evolving. London is a vibrant city, with a multitude of activities happening every hour that reshape and reform the city beyond recognition, be it new skyscrapers or new look buses and trains, to new ways of commuting in bike highways and skyline or a new art form. All these changes, however insignificant, paves the future of the city of tomorrow, where it can offer something to the whole gamut of people who visit, work or live in the city. The changing face of London is also uplifting the areas or suburbs that it conveniently ignored or even exploited before. This brings in the question of the leadership. The man at the helm of spearheading the success of London is its charismatic mayor Boris Johnson. I do not support his political allegiance, but no better person could have led London in the twenty-first century. He is flippant, and at some point obnoxious because of his insensitivity, but he is avant-garde, a maverick who runs his show what London needed, away from a quintessential politician, it needed a crossover between a heretic and a businessman, and Boris wears both these hats with equal aplomb.

Despite all positive energy that London exudes, it has never ceased to be criticised, mainly by the rest of the people of the UK rather than people from other countries living in London. Rest of the UK feels the image of the UK is too London-centric and all the infrastructure investments are around London whereas other places would need more funding. And then there are NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who would rather cherish all benefits of all such changes but is extremely reluctant to assist authorities in getting the change implemented. Then some moaners would pick fault without any reason, be it immigration, too many people, increasing crimes, too little personal interaction. Usually, none of them are any valid reasons — the benefits of multiculturalism have truly been reflected as the youth have more understanding and mental agility than anywhere in the country. The crime rate is high but that is unavoidable in any major city, for London, the figures were going down, promising a better future. London is a thriving, burgeoning city and it can’t be devoid of any problems, it’s just the question of how they deal with it, which reflects the strength of fibres of its character. Also, being constantly under focus blow minor things out of proportion that go unnoticed elsewhere in the country. In fact, during my early years in the UK, I disliked coming to work near London, I wasn’t very keen on going to central London at peak times. However, after a few years of living away from London and then going back there quite often made me in a way miss the hustle and bustle of a big city, see so many people at the same time, have a sense of haste and feel a part of this juggernaut that’s hurtling itself to the future with an amazing élan.

To summarise, London is not just its parks and Victorian architecture, nor is it the multi-million-pound houses at Mayfair/ Regent’s Park or the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, nor either the stark contrast of central London in the outskirts Acton, Haringey, Tottenham. It’s like a kid’s fantasy out of sweet shops, a pick and mix of the widest variety of sweets, but most likely to have at least one of each type. However, with all its grandeur London is still just another city, what makes it unique is its people — the visible and invisible ones, who make the city lovable, lovable and above all, add the personal touch to the feeling of people who are coming in London, making a fond place in their memories. London, to me, will remain as the sterling example of a place championing the differences in humanity and thriving from it, which, sans its exploitative capitalist background, will be a perfect unified world of tomorrow…