Lambdeth Central was quite simply the largest railway station I had ever seen. Several times larger than any in the Suburbs. Indeed, it was like a complete town: consisting of a network of pubs, cafés, shops and amusement arcades. Quite clearly it was designed to divert those expecting to wait several hours for their next train. I wasn't at all sure whether this reflected on the frequency of the services or the likelihood of there being delays. Amongst all this provision and behind the electronic indicator boards, were the numbered platforms where trains of all kinds were waiting on distinctly different railway gauges, some purring menacingly with the apparent ability to exceed the speed of sound while remaining terrestrially bound, whilst others puffed cheerful clouds of smoke from coal-filled furnaces.
The station was not crowded, although it was in the midst of the evening commuter rush, and many of the waiting passengers seemed to have only a passing interest in the trains. There were oxen sitting on specially designed seats; a couple of serpentine centipedes reading newspapers; a dire wolf selling magazines in a stall to a boa constrictor who rather ingeniously managed to both pay for a magazine and then hold it open to read; a dimetrodon hastened by with his umbrella in his mouth; and a hippogriff was engaged in selling lottery tickets behind a large model of a blobby pink figure with yellow spots.
There was quite enough to see at the railway station, without venturing through the main entrance past the squawking sparrows and pigeons into the university city itself. I could see the tall stone buildings, the clocks ticking with civic pride on ornate towers and a flurry of black gowns and mortar boards on bicycles. For the moment, however, I was more interested in finding something to eat, or at least a coffee to drink.
I wandered along the station grounds, peering at the signs to find a place that sold food and drink rather than compact discs, lawn mowers, magazines and fluffy toys with I © Baldam written on them. I carefully trod over the length of an anaconda lying rather untidily outside a Ye Olde Croissants shop, and when I looked up after this difficult manoeuvre I saw a familiar figure waving at me and running in my direction.
It was Anna, whose hair was now very short, with massive hooped earrings dangling from her ears, light-weight floral cotton shorts and a very loose white tee-shirt barely long enough to cover her midriff. "Flipping heck! We keep meeting!" she exclaimed. "One moment in Endon and the next in Lambdeth Central. So, are you still with that oversized grasshopper?"
"No. I last saw him at a party a long way from here."
"Well!" Anna exclaimed again. She looked at me and around her, apparently not quite sure what to do. "Where are you going now?"
"I'm looking for somewhere to eat. I feel quite hungry."
"That's a super idea! Let's go to one of the cafés here ... Let's see..." She stood on her sandaled toes and scanned the station. "Let's go to an Uncle Joe's. They do pretty good kirsch and I wouldn't mind sharing a samovar with you." She pointed to a café promoted by a very avuncular character with a thick moustache and a collarless jacket, just between a Big Frank's Frankfurters and a Chinese take-away. We strolled towards it across the plastic carton littered expanse and were welcomed in by a small bull with a ring through his nose and a plastic hat on his head. He escorted us to a table by a window that looked out past the cardboard figure of a cheerful Uncle Joe to a waiting steam train.
I was somewhat undecided as to which of the rather unfamiliarly entitled items on the menu to order. There was never so much variety or choice in the Suburbs. Anna, however, was considerably more knowledgeable than me and with her assistance I selected something that approximated to a steak and chips, while Anna ordered a samovar for us to drink from. I was glad that she was knowledgeable of the ceremonies and procedures associated with such a strange kind of teapot.
"You've changed your hairstyle," I commented while Anna poured out the first cup of tea. "It's much shorter."
"Well, that's fashion for you, dear! I'm only away from here for such a jolly short time and it's all change! A girl can't stand still for an instant in the modern world! You leave it for a little while and when you get back you have to be jolly quick to avoid looking like yesterday's news!"
"Where have you been visiting?" I asked as Anna put down the samovar and I picked up my blisteringly hot cup. My lips were scorched by the liquid, so I left it to cool for a few moments.
"Oh! Here and there! Well, you know where I've been! I've been to the Suburbs amongst other places: and a more blinking tedious place you couldn't imagine! Yes, I know you come from there - you poor thing - but a girl's got to have an opinion! I had ever so much difficulty finding somewhere to stay there. You just wouldn't believe the number of bed and breakfast hotels which were full, despite having Vacancies signs outside! I don't think I'll be going back to the Suburbs in a hurry! Meeting you there was almost the highlight of my visit. Having seen other places, do you think you'll be hurrying back to live in the Suburbs again?"
"I'm not sure," I admitted. "The Suburbs is where I come from and where my home is."
"I suppose that's true. But it's not for me, I'm afraid. I much prefer it here. Or in the City which is where I'd been visiting before the Suburbs. And in comparison to the City, the Suburbs are bound to be blinking dull! Now, there's a place to go! If it wasn't so flipping expensive that's where I'd live. It's about twice as expensive as here. Six guineas ten shillings for a cup of tea for instance! There's just so much to do there, but I was feeling jolly poor after a few days, I can tell you. In comparison to the City, Lambdeth is almost as dull as the Suburbs. Well! That's exaggerating! But you know what I mean. And as well as the City I've been to the Country, and what could be more of a contrast. All that oxygen! It really makes you feel like a new person. All those fields, forests, lakes and things. If I didn't like city life so much, I'd live there! What do you think?"
"I'm sure it would be very nice," I said.
"And cheap as well! I felt like a blooming millionaire. I could pick up a bit of cash here or in the City, working as a waitress or something, and afford to spend most of the year in a little cottage by a lake or in the mountains or by the sea. On the other hand, there's so little to do. The Suburbs may be dull, but so too is the Country! Some parts of the Country haven't experienced civilised life at all. Heaven only knows which century they belong to. Still in the eleventh century. But if there's anywhere I'd never live, however much you paid me, and that's that horrible borough of Divinity. Wasn't it dreadful?"
"It wasn't very friendly," I admitted, remembering the unwelcoming way Anna had been treated.
She smiled sadly, picked up a cup in her hands and raised it to her lips as the single golden bangle slipped down her bare black wrist.
"That's putting it jolly mildly. It was the most unfriendly place I've ever visited! I've still got that pamphlet they threw at me. Friends of mine in Baldam just can't believe there are people like that. It's only a couple of days since I was there, and I'm still jolly relieved I got out. Those humourless religious fanatics. They must lead the most dreadful lives! If they didn't like me for being a black woman, the dickens only knows what they'd think of the waiter there," she indicated the bull who was idly standing at the bar with a cigarette in his mouth, "and as for those snakes at the table over there! Well! I've heard about the snake in the Garden of Eden. They'd probably just skin them alive if they ever saw them, don't you think?"
"You may be right," I admitted. "They had a very low opinion of animals."
"And some lower than others, I bet!" Anna shook her head and sipped thoughtfully from her cup. An earring rang hollowly against the cup as she leaned forward. "Well, now we're in Lambdeth. My home town! What do you think of it?"
"I've only just arrived. I've only seen the railway station."
"Pretty impressive, isn't it! Almost as good as the ones in the City. There are a few cinemas and even a night club on the premises. Baldam's a really impressive borough. There's not just the university. The borough spreads for miles. Much of it is suburban like where you come from, but not nearly so deadly dull. There is a much wider range of species for a start. And although some people commute every day to the City, as they do from the Suburbs, most work in Lambdeth, which is quite a big city itself. Compared with the City, it's jolly tiny; but there's enough of it to keep me jolly content."
"Does its prosperity just come from the university?"
"I'm sure it jolly well helps. But it's not just the university. There are plenty of businesses based here. And then there's the cathedral. Quite an important religious centre, apparently."
"What's that like?"
"It's absolutely flipping monstrous. Not as big as the cathedrals in the City of course, but apparently more important. Pilgrims come from all over. I gather there's a lot of dispute between all the different religious groups as to which one has priority, but you expect it from that lot! They often have fights about who should worship when. Some of them jolly violent! People have been killed, I gather. But most of the time, the cathedral's a jolly serene place. I'm not religious, but I like going there. I feel so tiny and insignificant under its enormous dome. And although the organ music's a bit slow, it's flipping loud! I just love the statues and stained glass windows, although there are always religious fanatics that try to destroy them."
"Why do they do that?"
Anna shook her head. "Don't ask me! I'll never be able to understand these people. Some religious people, however, go dool alley over the icons and things. They light candles, bash their foreheads and go into raptures. Others think it's all idolatry and blasphemy. What can you say about such people?"
At that moment, the waiter returned to our table carrying our orders on a cleverly designed tray. The food was piping hot. Anna and I took our plates off the tray with the gloves provided and placed them on the table mats in front of us. I looked at my serving uncertainly, but Anna had no reservation about attacking hers.
"It's lovely!" she exclaimed, her face distorted by a bulge of food in her cheek. "You'll love it!"
I tucked in hesitantly, and found it very tasty if a little rich. However, after so many exotic meals recently it wasn't long until I was eating with the same relish as Anna. A bottle of red house wine was also added to the bill, after Anna had attracted the waiter's attention. She poured me a glass and raising hers she prompted me with a "Cheers!"
I picked up my glass and sipped it, while Anna gazed at me. "You don't seem to me a person who's left the Suburbs much at all in your life. What are you doing here in Lambdeth?"
Lubricated by the wine and food, my tongue prattled on about my search for the Truth and the different advice I'd had: from the very hostile to the relatively enthusiastic. I confessed that it was only a small minority who'd extended any encouragement.
"I'm afraid I'm not one of those. It seems a jolly silly idea to me. I just can't see any blinking point to it. After all, is the Truth going to feed anyone?" She raised another forkful of unidentifiable mush to her mouth, and chewing it continued to speak: "There's so much famine and starvation in this world. Millions who haven't got enough to eat. I know! I've seen it on telly. All those swollen tummies and sunken cheeks." She put her forefinger and thumb into her mouth to remove a very stringy strand of something from between her teeth. "And if you can't eat it, what are you going to do with it? Put it in a museum and look at it, maybe? That won't make anyone any happier."
"Those who are searching for the Truth will be happier when it's found."
"Don't be so sure! Most people will be jolly disappointed when they find the Truth is nothing like what they thought it was. Well, it's got to be! There are so many different ideas of what the Truth is! And personally I think the Truth's going to upset plenty of people who've never ever considered looking for it. It's only my opinion mind, but the Truth is going to make everyone feel rather desolate. I think the universe will just seem a jolly sight more unfriendly and purposeless than it does now. Every new thing they find out about does make it seem a lot more discomfiting, don't you think? Black holes. Polydimensional superstrings. Curved time. Uncertainty principles. Doesn't it just make you shiver?"
"Surely knowing that for sure will affect how people behave?"
"I don't flipping believe it! Too many people like to think whatever they like whatever you say to them. Tell them it's day and they'll say it's night. Tell them that one and one make two, and they'll insist it makes three. The Truth might be there - undeniable and incontrovertible - but there'll still be people who'll say the world is flat, that the moon is made of green cheese and that pigs can fly. I know! I know! There are pigs that can fly, but only the ones with wings. And they're not proper pigs anyway!"
Anna chewed thoughtfully on another forkful of food, and washed it down with a sip of wine. She smiled at me. "Come! Don't look so downcast!" she remarked patting the back of my hand. "You do what you like. Don't be put off by me! If I were you, and I were searching for it, I'd take my trusty sword and vorpal blade and head off to the City. If there's anywhere you'd find anything, it'd be there, rather than in a much smaller place like this!"
"Do you think so?"
"Oh! I'm certain! Pay your fare at that kiosk there and get a one-way ticket to the City. It'll be expensive mind you: and that's just the cost of getting there. But you've got to visit the City once in your life! And your jolly little quest seems the ideal excuse."
"What's the City like?"
"Didn't we chat about the City in the Suburbs? But there the City seemed such a distant and unreal place. Even here, it seems pretty much unbelievable! It's quite simply the most jolly exciting place there could possibly be! Ooh!" She splayed her hand dramatically to emphasise her wonderment. "It's everything you could possibly want! Everything! They have these weekly listings magazines saying what's going on: the cinemas, theatres, night clubs, opera houses, art galleries, museums! Everything! You couldn't see and do everything you wanted in a whole lifetime in the City. Doesn't it sound jolly exciting?"
"It does indeed," I admitted.
Perhaps Anna was right. Perhaps a place with so much happening was exactly where I should be heading.
"I get such a flipping buzz from the City!" Anna enthused, mounting the last shreds of food onto her fork and pushing it into her mouth. She looked sadly at her now bare plate, holding her glass in one hand and a napkin in the other. She glanced around the café, at the snakes still chatting on one table and the waiter who leaned rather heavily against the till which was attended by a petite Australopithecus wearing heavy make-up over her face. "Some of the people here: I'm sure they're from the City. But usually you just can't tell. There's just everyone in the City! All sorts. Prostitutes. Gangsters. Millionaires. Royalty. Her Maphrodite as well, of course. The seat of government, commerce, culture, depravity, vice, virtue and literature. You name it. It's there! And so many people! So many millions and millions of people! Running backwards and forwards. To and fro. Hither and thither. Everywhere. If you think there's action here in Lambdeth (and after the Suburbs I'm flipping sure you do!) in the City you'll think this place is just dead."
I was still rather impressed by the grandeur and scale of Lambdeth Central. It was difficult to believe that there were really buildings which could truly dwarf this place.
"And after the Suburbs! My dear! So dull! The City is probably just the excitement you need in your life. It's all the excitement you'll ever need! I'm not saying the streets are paved with gold. Well, not all the streets, anyway. But there's money to be got. Things to do. Things to see. Okay! It's flipping expensive. The tiniest, dingiest little bedsit will cost you an absolute fortune. It's a Lambdeth salary to get a seat in the Opera Houses. Some restaurants will charge you more for the grubbiest, meanest piece of celery than Uncle Joe's will charge us for an entire meal. But if you're earning in the City, then, believe me, there's money to be made. And real money. Millions and millions of guineas! So, if I were you, I'd head straight off now. Don't bother with tiny little university city Lambdeth. Go where the real life is! Head to the City! Make a fortune! See and do everything you ever wanted."
"You make it sound very impressive!" I remarked, finally finishing my meal.
Anna picked up her glass and gazed through the café window at the hustle and bustle outside in the station. Even though the rush hour had finished there was enough activity to persuade the shops to stay open into the evening. There were some bullocks in university gowns running by. A chameleon was shifting to match the kaleidoscope of colour given off by the lights of a gramophone record store.
Then I saw a more familiar figure stroll by, looking through the shop windows with an expression of intense curiosity. It was the still naked figure of Beta with her long hair trailing behind her and the soles of her feet conspicuously blackened by the station floor dirt. She frowned while looking through the window of Big Frank's Frankfurters, paused briefly and then stared directly at me through the window of Uncle Joe's. It was evident that she recognised me, but was somewhat hesitant that I recognised her. I smiled at her. She beamed back.
"You see someone you know?" wondered Anna turning her head round. "Oh! What a sweet girl! She must be from the Country dressed like that. Her hair! So unfashionable! Invite her in!"
Before I had a chance to do anything myself, she beckoned Beta to enter the café. She pushed open the glass door and strode in.
"I didn't know you were going to Lambdeth," she declared as she sat next to me. "I thought it was just Gotesdene you were going to. And who's your friend?"
I introduced the two women to each other, and explained how I had met Anna in many different places.
"It's very odd," I remarked.
"Oh, I don't know! I'm always meeting the same people all over the blinking place!" Anna remarked. "You do when you travel. But tell me, Beta, what's brought you so far from the Country? It is the Country you come from, isn't it?"
"Well, yes. Everyone seems to guess that here," Beta laughed. "It's my brother Bacon. He's enrolled at a college here. He thinks it's better to be a student in Lambdeth than stay in the Village."
"I don't imagine you have many colleges where you come from."
"There are a few but they're all such a long way from home. But this is even further. Much further. It's so busy here! And so many people! You could spend all day walking up and down the main roads and not meet anyone you know!"
"If you think this is busy, Beta, you should visit the City. I've just been telling your friend here how jolly super the place is. It's to Lambdeth what Lambdeth is to the Village!"
Beta smiled sceptically. "I can't believe the City is much bigger or more crowded than this. How can it be?"
"It can. And if you don't believe me you ought to go there and find out for yourself. In fact, I've just been trying to persuade this young man here to go there on his search for the Truth."
"Is that so?" marvelled Beta with a warm friendly smile. "That sounds a wonderful thing to do! Do you think you'll find it there?"
"I don't know," I confessed. "Anna says if it's anywhere, it'll be there."
"Of course, it is. No doubt about it! But, Beta, what have you been doing in Lambdeth? Have you been here long?"
"Only a couple of days. Just long enough to see that Bacon, my brother, was happy in his digs and that he could find his way about. I've met some of the other students on his course, visited the cathedral, looked at the university, and just got to know the city."
"So what do you think of my home town?"
"I like it," Beta enthused thoughtfully. "I don't know that I'd want to live here permanently, mind, but it's what Bacon wants and I'd love to visit him here again. Even if he is argumentative!" She smiled to remind me of his conversation on the train to Gotesdene.
"Argumentative?" wondered Anna, leaning forward.
"Oh, he just thinks everything modern is good and everything traditional is bad. That's why he's come here. To get away from a traditional way of life."
"Tradition! You can't get away from it here any more than you can in the Country. Or for that matter in the City. It's everywhere. The cathedral's tradition. The university's tradition. I imagine what your brother wants is a place where there's a modern world as well as the traditional, but even the modern world has a history. It didn't spring from thin air, you know!"
"I'm not sure I'm that keen on the modern world, really. It's very exciting, though. I like all the shops and the enormous concrete and steel buildings. But the roads are terribly congested and the air's so filthy. I just long for fresh air on my skin again."
"Where are you going now?" I asked.
"I was thinking of going home. That's why I'm at the station. But I'm not really in such a big hurry to return to the Village. Being so far away is such a treat. I'd love to see more of the world."
"Go to the City then. See what the real modern world is like."
"I'd like to, Anna, but I'm frightened of going by myself. I'm sure people will take advantage of the fact that I'm a Country girl. Even here I feel really out of place. People ogle me and treat me as if I were stupid. It must be worse in the City."
"Oh! There's flipping everyone in the City! No one would look at you twice, not with the range of species, nationalities and cultures crammed into the place. I'd give it a try if I were you."
Beta stared at the waiting trains. "It is very tempting! I just don't know, though."
"Well, don't take too long to make your mind up. Look! I'll settle the bill and be off now. I'm meeting some friends of mine. I don't know what we'll do, but I'm sure it'll be fun."
"Surely I should pay," I protested.