Her first visit to London was a surprise, even to Maria herself.
She had felt restless, wanting more from life than the small village and the nearby market town - all she really knew of the wider world. And so, on impulse, she had caught the Tuesday bus, then – and this was really daring for a stay-at-home like Maria – took a taxi to the main-line station which was more than ten miles away.
The Asian taxi-driver was friendly and asked her whether she was going to London. ‘Yes,’ she said, to her own considerable astonishment, and once at the station, she walked straight to the booking office, bought a return ticket and quickly boarded a train.
It was strange that, though she had never been on a train, she felt quite comfortable, finding a seat and then going to the refreshment car for a cup of tea. Somehow, it was as though it had happened before.
‘Memory is so strange,’ she thought. ‘You never know whether you are remembering your own life or someone else’s.’ ‘Whatever,’ she said, ‘I have my magic card so I am going to relax and enjoy it.’
London, however, was different. So many people at the station, so much noise, so many taxis and buses, she just did not know what to do or where to go. But most people seemed to be streaming towards a sign marked, ‘Underground’ and so she followed them, somehow stepping onto the elevator, an accomplishment of which she felt very proud.
It was late morning and there were plenty of seats, interesting-looking people around, maps to look at – she liked it all, the movement, the pulling-in and out of stations, the changing passengers, it reminded her of something.
But there was nothing to worry about, she had her card and she could always find a shop and, as she had watched other people do, ask for cash-back. The card was new, she was independent now, they had taught her how to use it and warned her not to spend more than she was allowed. It was rather wonderful, you just popped your card in and as long as you did not forget your number, the money came out – just like magic.
But, for now, Maria was quite content just to ride, it was like being on a merry-go-round. She closed her eyes and suddenly recalled memories of lights, and music, and a little blue train, and there were horses, and cars all following the same circular route and people were waving and then ......Why did she suddenly feel so afraid, so lonely?
Maria looked about her for reassurance, for a familiar face, but she was surrounded by strangers and began to panic. Her neighbours no longer looked interesting, there was something alien about them. She had an overwhelming sense of fear, an anticipation of loss and, when they came to a station, she followed other passengers off the train, while, at the same time, searching for a face she had once known.
Outside, in the street, she found a little cafe and bought herself a cup of tea. Her unease grew. ‘Who am I?’ she asked herself as she felt for her hole-in-the-wall card. Her name was on it, Maria Brown - that was right, wasn’t it? And yet, all the time, in her mind, she could hear music and see pretty little fairy lights and feel the sensation of being on a little train that went round and round and round.
It was ridiculous. She would go back to the underground and find the main line station and go home and everything would be all right.
And so it was, though there was no-one waiting at the other end, but then she did not expect it. She was alone now in the little house she had shared with her father and mother and, since they died, everything was arranged for her. She had a small income and her magic card, there was nothing to worry about, the trip to London had turned her head, stirring her imagination. ‘I won’t do that again,’ she decided.
But in bed that night she had a dream. Once more she was going round and round on a little train, at a fairground.
Other children sat in little cars, or rode horses, and they all waved as they went on and on, round and round. But when the music stopped, the other children were all carried off and nobody noticed that Maria was still riding on the train, waving to someone who was no longer there. Then the fairground man came, and soon there was a policeman, and then she was in a car and, later on, in a building where there were other children and, for a while, she was crying for someone who did not come.
‘Oh well,’ she said to herself next morning as she ate her Cornflakes. ‘It was just a dream, after all.’
But she continued to feel uneasy - sometimes even her own name, Maria Brown, seemed strange and she felt so sad that she decided the best thing to do was to try to forget all about London, and undergrounds, and merry-go-rounds, and especially the familiar face that appeared and disappeared, and then just did not come back.
But later, in the quiet of the night, the music and lights and all the colour and excitement of the fair, with the little cars and trains and the painted galloping horses, returned to haunt her.
And so, once more, she took out her card and went to London to ride on an underground train, to go on and on, and round and round, hoping to revive old memories and once more to experience all the fun of the fair, to smile and wave until, at last, a long-lost someone returned to take her home.