It is light when he leaves the hotel. Light. Primordial sunlight disclosing empty streets, disclosing form with shadow, the stucco facades. And silence. Here in the middle of London, silence. Not quite silence, of course. Never true silence here. The sublimated rumble of a plane. The burble of pigeons courting on a cornice. A taxi’s busy rattle along Sussex Gardens, past the terraced hotel fronts, from one of which he now emerges.
He feels that he is leaving London unseen, slipping out while everyone else is still asleep, as he walks, with his single small holdall, to the square where he left the car. The square is hotel-fringed, shabby. A few benches and plants in the middle. Sticky pavements. The car is still there, surrounded by empty parking spaces. It is not his. He is simply delivering it. Slinging his holdall onto the passenger seat, he takes his place at the wheel, on the plump leather.
He sits there, enjoying the feeling of inviolable solitude. Solitude, freedom. They seem like nearly the same thing as he sits there.
Then he starts the engine, which sounds loud in the silence of the square.
He is aware now that he does not know exactly which way to go. He looked yesterday and it all seemed simple enough, the way out of London, south-east, towards Dover. Now even finding his way to the river seems problematic. He tries to picture it, the streets he will need to take. When he has formed some sort of mental picture of where he is going, and only then, he pulls out.
He waits at a light on Park Lane, some posh hotel on one side, the park on the other, staring sleepily straight ahead.
When he gets to the river there might be a problem. He hopes there will be signs for Dover. The possibility of getting lost makes him mildly nervous, even though he would not be in any serious danger of missing the ferry. He has plenty of time. It is his habit, when travelling, always to allow more time than he needs.
He went to sleep very early last night. The previous night, Friday, he had been out late, with Macintyre, the Germanic philology specialist at UCL. And then he had had to get up early on Saturday to take the train to Nottingham and pick up the car from its previous ‘keeper’, a Pakistani doctor. (Dr N. Khan was the name on the documents.) He had done the whole thing on a hangover, which had made the day pass over him like a dream – made it seem even now like something he had dreamed, the time he spent in Dr Khan’s front room, looking through the service history, while the doctor’s cat watched him.
He swings around Hyde Park Corner, the sun pouring down Piccadilly like something out of Turner, the palaces opposite the park half dissolving in a flood of light.
He squints, tries to push it away with his hand.
Macintyre had not been very helpful. He was supposed to have looked at the manuscript, the section on Dutch and German analogues in particular. They had talked about it for a while, in The Lowlander. Macintyre, with a suggestion of subtle mockery that was entirely typical of him, always insisted on meeting there. The early modern shifts in German pronunciation, for instance. The way some dialects . . .
He has to focus, as he flows through them, on the layout of the streets around Victoria Station.
The way some dialects were still impervious to those shifts, after more than five hundred years.
The traffic system pulls him one way, then another, past empty office towers. He looks for the lane that will throw him left eventually, onto Vauxhall Bridge Road.