It was my first time in London. Despite what I read in history books over the years, and had seen on the screens of popular cinema, I wanted to see the fabled city on my own terms. It was getting to be late afternoon on my second day in town. I had visited Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, and had my fill of lukewarm pints and meat-pies. I was ready to delve out of the thin veneer of tourists attractions, and get more into the “local” experience. I wanted to get my mind off of the banalities of work, too. My friend “Ozzy” had invited me to the North side of town for a night out with his boys. If I was lucky, perhaps I cold sample more than just the local cuisine. Rumor had it that the fine lasses of Enfield couldn’t resist a rugged American accent.
It was too late to catch a train, at least for an unseasoned newbie of The Tube, like myself. That’s when the shiny gloss black of an FX4 London taxi first caught my attention. Of course! This would be the ticket. I knew they were purportedly expensive, probably more so for the bumbling tourists, but I didn’t care. The charm of riding in one of the boxy, low-lying cabs was part of the London experience, and one I had always wanted to mark off the bucket-list. The old fashioned elegance of the car’s roof, along with the circular headlights, and sweeping front grill appealed to the car buff inside me. The “look” gave me an instant feeling of old-school nostalgia. It was like James Bond, Harry Potter and Charles Dickens all wrapped in one, and was utterly irresistible.
I signaled the hackney carriage over and a young gentleman, impeccably dressed, got out to open the door for me. His toothpaste-commercial-grade smile, perfectly quaffed hair, and shined patent leather shoes, were a far cry from the rough-mouthed and abrasive cab drivers of New York City that I was used to. His accent melted me on the spot, and I knew immediately this would be a ride that was unforgettable.
“Where to my friend?”, enquired the driver with boyish charm.
“Enfield, eventually.”, I retorted as I boarded the cab. “But I’m in no hurry, really. As long as I get there by supper time. I really would just rather see some stuff off the beaten path.”
The driver turned his head back, and gave me a deliciously devilish smile, before he leaned in and turned off the meter.
“American in search of a good time, I see. In that case, this one’s on the house.”
To say I was flabbergasted by this act of benevolence would be quite the understatement, but it paled into comparison with the wave of shock that literally occurred next. Through the large square window in front of the cab I could see what appeared to be a building-sized storm cloud hovering, intimidatingly, right over the street in front of us. Rain began slow, at first, but soon built to a downfall of torrential proportions.
“You might want to buckle up.”, was all the Cabbie said, before he turned the black bullet on a dime, in a space so tight, I felt that I couldn’t have maneuvered a golf cart through it. I looked backward through the slanted back window behind me, as the rain cloud appeared to crest into a virtual tsunami and began it chasing us down the confined street.
Suddenly I felt the car rock back and forth, and I knew instantly it had become borne up, as if afloat on a giant wave. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. My first trip to London and I would die in a flood of Biblical proportions, not ever seen along the Thames in recorded history. My mind briefly wandered to what I knew of the SS Richard Montgomery off the coast of Sheerness, which if detonated, would most likely submerge the entire City. Could it be this was really happening now after three-quarter of a century? I closed my eyes and began to cry. My fear of claustrophobia, and the deep sea, began to claw at my insides, as I could feel myself began to hyperventilate while my chest tightened.
The driver still had that insidious grin across his face, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. What I had once seen as a welcoming gesture, to a perhaps naive tourist, I now saw as blatant taunting, from a demonic apparition. As he turned around, his cheerful eyes met mine, and I felt a peace come over me at once. I knew not whether it was the look of reassurance he gave off, that pierced my soul, or me finally accepting my untimely fate.
“The windows…”, was all he said, as he pointed a lanky finger out the front of the taxi. It was reminiscent of all I had read about the “Ghost of Christmas Future” in every Dicken’s story I ever saw produced. How appropriate, I thought. Soon, however, my mind snapped back into reality, as I could literally see bubbles riding up the window’s glass. It became clear that the vehicle had become fully submerged in the murky water. I could barely stand to look as the car sunk deeper and deeper, along with the pit of my stomach, into the bowels of the brackish water.
“The windows!”, repeated the driver, this time with more urgency. I slowly unscrewed my eyelids, as the brown of the water slowly subsided into a blueish-green. I saw something floating far below as objects slowly came into focus. I could not help but wonder how deep this water had gotten, nor how large that this flood had been. It seemed illogical, but none of that mattered now. Surely the cab would soon implode under the sheer weight of the water, and buckle like a discarded biscuit tin. I could not come to grips with the fact that I soon would be dead. Then I saw it.
Like miniatures on a movie set, all of London floated, far below us. It was as if we were on approach to Heathrow, but instead if the chilly autumnal air, it was water between us and the cityscape. The City below seemed oddly in place. The Tower Bridge, Big Ben, The Gherkin and The London Eye were easy landmarks to pick out amongst the multitude of other buildings, which all seemed to have survived the onslaught. But how? Plus if I was any judge of height, by my many business trips in airplanes, it would be physically impossible. A wave of this height would mean that the entire globe was flooded, and the end of the species as we know it. Yet there it was, a submerged city, complete with twinkling lights and a fully functioning power-grid.
Whatever reality this was I needed to accept it, and fast. I was still alive, and that was all that currently mattered. Again panic started to creep in, and lock up my thoughts. I saw my fingers start to feel the rubber sealing along the old cabs window frame, although I couldn’t recall instructing them to do so. I was wondering how long they would hold up before the entire interior would be filled with water. I remember reading that drowning was one of the most painful deaths imaginable. I opened my mouth to exclaim my concerns —not that they would have made a bit of difference— but before they came out something large and black rubbed against the car, enveloping it within its imposing shadow.
“Fins!”, yelled the driver, but it was a declaration more akin to a kid in a candy store, than the one of utter horror that I was experiencing. The car began to roll to its side, as I used the full length of my arms to pin myself in the tiny cubicle of automotive legacy. Indeed, he had been right, although I didn’t know what they were at the time, three extremely large fin whales were tossing us about like kids at a soccer —sorry, football— camp. But something in the whale’s eyes gleamed with assurance. It was hard to explain, but I could immediately tell that there was no sense of malice in these gentle giants’ intentions.
The cabbie struggled with the tiny wheel, as the whales gave us a few more spins. London, far below than above, alternated as we spun in a perfectly concentric motion. At one point he took his hands freely off the wheel, and threw them up in raptured entertainment, as one might do while cresting the highest initial hill of a daunting roller coaster. It was at that point that I accepted that if I were going to die, I might as well enjoy it. I knew in my brief encounters with Buddhism that they believed the state of mind in which you perished, carried over into your suffering, or lack thereof, into the next life. Suddenly, I too, began to laugh, but not out of fear, but rather pure enjoyment. I didn’t care if I was losing it; This was actually fun.
“Wait, there’s one more thing I want to show you.”, said the driver; which gave me the first clue that he had been in on this the entire time. He jerked the wheel suddenly to the right and the car began a steep corkscrew nosedive, out to sea. The fear once again began to settle in, as my earth-bound senses once again surfaced. I pressed my sweaty palms against the window as I watched the twinkling lights of tiny London, disappear into the dark and deep fathoms of the murky waters.
Like a two-person mini submarine lost in the Mariana Trench, the dim lights of the antique cab barely lit a few meters in front of us. Dark silhouettes of unseen creatures of Lovecraftian proportions drifted along just on the peripheral of the car’s view. Then, up ahead, I could see a dim bank of lights getting increasingly closer.
We were on top of it in no time. It is best described as what I would picture Atlantis, filled with phosphorescent lights and oddly shaped aquatic creatures. It’s edifices were oddly alien-fashioned like fresh obsidian rock from the mouth of a volcano, and tall bulbous spheres dotted the bright incandescent landscape. Everything was covered with a shiny, naturally-occurring, turquoise mother-of-pearl varnish. I knew then, that this trip had been planned all along. Minutes seemed like hours, as the driver allowed me to soak it all in, truly a treat to the mind and soul. A glowing humanoid figure drifted by my window, and although it spoke ne’er a word to me, I understood its welcoming intentions. I had truly forgotten about all my worldly cares at that point, as I continued to be enraptured by the singular, one-of-a-kind experience.
“Seen enough?”, he questioned. I just nodded my head in utter admiration. “O.k., Close you eyes, please”, he said. As I did, I could feel the FX4 once again riding the torrent of an unseen underwater jet stream. It dashed about in directions that I’m not entirely sure were even of this dimension, before suddenly everything stopped. I felt, at once, a bump, that slightly jarred the car. I knew at once if was the sensation of the smooth rubber tires, once again hitting the high concrete curbs of the earthly plane.
“Enfield.”, croaked the driver with a smile. The implication of his smirk, when coupled with the glint in his eyes, told me all I needed to know. I had been taken on a rite of passage, seen by few, believed by none. With that look, I was sworn to secrecy, and welcomed into a Secret Society like none other ever known.
But doubt once again interceded my mind. Had I simply fallen asleep on the ride over and imagined it all? Had someone drugged my grog, or was this a severe case of jet lag? As if to answer my very apprehensions, the driver again refused my offering of even a pence for his troubles, and instead walked around to the bonnet of the shiny black vehicle of magic. As he undid the latch, a reverse sucking sound gave way, to what sounded to be an airtight seal. A large puddle of water torrented down in rivulets, as the rest of it evaporated in steam off the still-hot engine block. A single cod flopped about on top of the Hackney’s air filter, as if served up on a piping hot plate.
“Fish & Chips?”, he said with a wink and a smile. I must have turned every shade of pale, as my hand instinctively went to my mouth. I slowly backed away, as a tremendous feeling of blissfulness came over me. I laughed all the way to my rendezvous with Ozzy, until I cried. That night he said I looked happier than I ever had, in my entire life.
I was no longer interested in beer, or food, or even women, for that matter. From that day forward, I simply lived knowing there were amazing things in existence, far beyond my wildest imagination. And just knowing they’re out there, was enough to keep a permanent smile on my face, and unabated joy deep within my heart.
Also, from that day forward, I drove myself wherever I needed to go.