London was exactly as Lainey Spencer had always imagined it: classical architecture, rich history, museums on practically every corner, the smell of damp stone buildings and musty rain mixed with car exhaust, people scurrying to and fro, but always orderly and efficient.
The Underground was clean, well lit and without graffiti, a refreshing change from the subways in New York City and DC. The trains in England were small and cute, the colorful stations unique and full of character. Harried commuters grew visibly impatient when Lainey held them up fumbling with foreign money and tickets, but a helpful train attendant magically appeared and soon set her on her way.
From her seat in a tidy carriage she watched a group of schoolboys board the train, thinking how cute they looked in their uniforms, until they began ruthlessly teasing the girls in front of them, pulling their hair and generally being obnoxious. She settled back in her seat and puzzled over the posted map of colored lines, hoping she had counted the zones correctly and had enough tube passes to get to her destination and back.
Lainey was on a quest. The grandfather she’d never known had been born in England, and had lived and worked in London for a time. Lainey had known nothing about him until she came home from school one day to find her grandmother in tears. That night, Lainey’s mother had pulled her onto her lap and whispered a tale of young love and heartbreak.
Grandma Marie was only 16 years old and living in the north of England when she met a dark-haired, dark-eyed, lanky teen with a huge talent and a head full of dreams. She’d fallen head over heels in love, and her heart had been broken when her military father had moved the family back to the United States while the boy was in Germany with his band. Grandma Marie had been back in Virginia for only two weeks when she discovered she was pregnant. She never spoke to the dark-eyed handsome boy again, but she remembered him every time she looked at the face of her daughter.
The teenage English boy proved impossible to forget, as he soon became one of the most famous faces in the world. And that day in 2001, shortly before Lainey got home from school, Grandma Marie had learned the first and only boy she ever loved had died of cancer at only 58 years of age.
Now eleven years later, Lainey was in England for the first time. Her brother Matt had been accepted into a graduate program at Oxford. Lainey had saved every penny from her part time job in her father's record store and barely managed to afford a round trip ticket to London with her mother to help get Matt settled at school. It was their trip of a lifetime, and she wanted to cram as much sightseeing as possible into the next ten days.
That was how she ended up on the train to London, alone, while her mother and Matt slept off their jet lag. Lainey exited the St. John’s Woods tube station and checked her phone for directions. It was only a short walk now to the famed Abbey Road Studios, where her grandfather had spent years creating music that was still loved by people all over the world. Ever since she’d discovered she was related to him, she had longed to see the studio for herself.
Moments later Lainey joined the dozen or so people beside the gate, many of them writing messages on the wall outside the studio. She ran her hand along the wall, touching the words as she read. So much love directed towards these four lads from Liverpool.
“Need a pen?” An American girl offered her a Sharpie and Lainey smiled and took it, contemplating for a moment what to write.
“George Harrison, you live forever in my heart”
She drew a heart around the words and handed the Sharpie back to the girl.
“Aww,” the girl said. “I’m a George girl too.”
“Mmm. But Paul though…” Lainey smiled at the girl. While watching hundreds of YouTube videos of her grandfather, Lainey’s eyes often drifted to another dark-haired, brown eyed boy with an angelic face and honeyed voice. She’d never met anyone in her life who affected her the way that boy did—her grandfather’s childhood friend from fifty years ago. A man now old enough to be her grandfather.
The girl nodded. “Right? I love Paul too. I love them all. What a freaking great band. Don’t you wish you could go back to the '60s and see them walk down those steps?”
Lainey looked around at the never ending line of people waiting to pay homage to the band by getting photographed crossing Abbey Road, then writing on the wall outside the studio. “You and me and everyone else.”
She pulled out her phone and snapped a few pictures of a group of tourists walking in the zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover, more than forty years ago. After checking her texts, she returned her phone to her handbag as another red double-decker bus zoomed by, barely missing a pedestrian. She wondered if the surviving Beatles, Paul and Ringo, ever got stuck in traffic here and regretted the havoc they had wrought upon this stately neighborhood simply by posing for an album cover.
“Lainey! Lainey! Young lady!”
Lainey’s ears perked up and a flicker of apprehension coursed through her. It was the strangest thing, but it almost sounded as if someone was calling her name, in an Eastern European accent, until she realized the woman must have been saying “Lady.”
She turned to see an old woman with striking black eyes set in a lined face. The woman was dressed in a colorful gypsy skirt with a red flowered scarf over her hair, sitting with her back against the brick wall. An assortment of jewelry was arranged on a pashmina shawl on the ground beside her.
“You have been looking long time for me, no?”
Lainey smiled. “I don’t think so, but your jewelry is lovely.”
“Come close, dear.”
Lainey squatted down in front of the old woman, wishing she’d noticed her earlier and snapped an inconspicuous photo. Part of the wonder of London was the variety of cultures in this diverse city. It felt so European and magical, so different from her little hometown in Virginia.
The old woman reached for her hand, flipped it over and examined Lainey’s palm. “The one you love is closer than you think. Only little step away.”
Lainey steeled herself for the sales pitch. She imagined it would go something like, “If you want to know how to find him, slap a twenty pound note in my other hand.”
Before she could thank her and move away, the woman reached into a pocket of her skirt and dropped a heavy gold ring into Lainey’s palm. “This is what you seek.”
“Oh…wow…this is…” Lainey studied the ring in her hand. The top was shaped like a scarab, and it swiveled to reveal a gothic letter S engraved on the back. S for Spencer. She drew in a breath. It was obviously antique and valuable, and far more than she could afford.
She held it out to the woman. “It’s lovely, but I can’t afford this.”
The woman shook her head, smiling. “Is yours.” She began rolling the rest of her jewelry in the shawl. She tied it into a bundle and struggled to stand.
Lainey automatically reached out a hand to help. When the woman got to her feet, she looked up at Lainey with a mysterious smile and said, “Until we meet again,” before ambling down the sidewalk.
“Wait! The ring!”
The woman seemed not to hear.
Lainey caught up with her. “I can’t keep this!”
“You have been seeking for long time. I only give what is yours.”
“Here, let me pay you something.”
Paul McCartney’s clear, sweet voice suddenly sounded from inside Lainey’s shoulder bag. “You say goodbye, and I say hello…hello…hello…I don’t know why you say goodbye I say hello…”
Lainey dug out her iPhone and glanced at the screen. It was her mother, checking to see that she’d made it safely to London. Lainey silenced the phone. She’d return the call as soon as she paid for the ring.
She shifted through the contents of her wallet. Her driver’s license, her bank card, a meager stack of pound notes and a handful of foreign coins. The ring was worth far more, but the woman probably didn’t have a credit card machine in the pockets of that voluminous skirt. And Lainey couldn’t afford to pay what it was worth anyway. She should give the ring back.
She counted out twelve pounds. “I’m sorry, this is all I have with me. I know it’s not enough. Do you have a shop?” When she looked up from her wallet, the tiny old woman was gone.
Lainey did a 360 degree turn on the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding a flow of pedestrians. Nothing but businessmen and tourists and long lines of traffic in both directions. It was as if the little old gypsy woman had disappeared into thin air.
A cloud drifted across the late afternoon sun and Lainey felt an eerie, clammy feeling on the back of her neck. She examined the ring in her hand more closely and realized the scarab top opened like a locket. With a thumbnail she pried it open, and her heart stuttered. Inside the antique locket was a tiny black and white photo of a very young George Harrison.
She snapped the ring closed and her hand went to her mouth. What on earth was going on? The only plausible explanation she could come up with was that the woman had looked at the photo inside the locket and thought Lainey, with her own dark brown wavy hair and brown eyes, somehow resembled George? She spun the top of the ring over to the gothic letter S and back to the scarab. Then she slid it on the ring finger of her right hand, surprised to find that it fit perfectly.
All thoughts of an afternoon of sightseeing in London vanished. All Lainey could think about was getting on the next train to Oxford to show her family the ring and the photo inside. She curled her fingers around the ring and started in the direction of the tube station.
As soon as she stepped off the curb she realized she’d made a typical tourist mistake of looking in the wrong direction for approaching traffic. Someone shouted and a horn blared, much too close. She whirled around to see a black sedan bearing down on her. She threw herself backwards, stumbled over the curb and fell, the back of her head banging hard against a lamppost.
The car whizzed by, the horn still blaring, and the world turned black.
Lainey opened her eyes to a world filled with blinding pain and sun that was far too bright for London. She squeezed her eyes closed. Voices filtered into her brain, and it seemed as if the voices were talking about her. She forced herself to concentrate, to stay conscious. She could end up in a London hospital and nobody would know who she was.
“Elaine Spencer,” she whispered. “I’m American. My mom is…”
“She’s coming to, lads. Give ‘er some room.”
She opened her eyes again, squinting against the glare, and knew immediately that her head injury was far worse than she’d thought. She was hallucinating. Or in the afterlife. She let out a groan. If this was heaven, why was there so much pain? But if it was hell, what was HE doing here? Kneeling on the ground beside her? She covered her face with a trembling hand.
“You’re all right, lass, help is on the way. What’s your name, love?”
That accent. She knew that voice like she knew her own. Impossible.
She spread her fingers open and peered into the concerned face of an impossibly young and striking Paul McCartney, just before the world went black again.