The sign above the door swayed lightly in the breeze, creaking a little. I’m sure it made that slight yet ominous squeaking sound you hear in movies, but we couldn’t hear it, of course, on account of the 235 bus trundling by on Oxford Street just behind us. It would have fit the scene, for sure — if you could forget about the man in a suit who looked irritated and the family in visors who were blocking his way to take pictures.
If I just close my eyes and imagine hard enough, I thought, this could totally be Diagon Alley. We were on St. Christopher’s Place, a little alleyway wedged between Marble Arch and Bond Street (on the Central line, that’s the train we take to get into the city), just short of Selfridges but not quite at Primark. It’s one of my favorite streets in London. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s where J. K. Rowling got the idea for Diagon Alley. She must have. I mean, there are lots of little alleyways tucked into side streets in London, but most of them are piled with rubbish, and usually, what looks like somebody’s dubious vomit from the night before. And there’s also usually a mean looking guy smoking a cigarette out the back door of the restaurant he works in. To be fair, he probably looks mean because of the smell. I would too, if I had to needle out a smoke break between a pile of rubbish and a pile of vomit and a pile of dishes.
But St. Christopher’s Place — it’s different. You could walk up and down Oxford Street every day of your life and you would never notice it. But once you did, it would be impossible to forget. It winds round the back of Selfridges, and has these wrought iron arches that line its narrow breadth, hung with decorations like lanterns, or stars. Nowhere else looks like that in real life (except for squats and stuff that have been decorated for parties). And it’s dotted with these tiny shops with cool things like swinging signs that I’m definitely — on reflection — sure make those ominous squeaking sounds if you could hear them. The sign didn’t even have a name on it. Just an unassuming picture of a little white rock dotted with black specks.
“That’s a Dalmatian Jasper,” said Matt, with a twinkle in his eye. He’s recently gotten into rock tumbling on account of getting two rock tumblers from two different people on Christmas day and I mean, what are the odds of that? You’d kind of have to start rock tumbling if that happened to you. Else you’d be worried that fate would punish you and you’d somehow wind up on the wrong timeline and end up destitute, or in prison or something, all because you didn’t tumble some rocks. He likes to see the magic in places too, tucked away in little corners of real life, waiting to be noticed. My friend Li noticed us both staring up at the sign and looked annoyed. “Come on” she said, in the flat but firm tone she reserves only for her child, her husband, and me. “We’re late for our reservation” she offered up apologetically, catching her tone.
If it was anybody else I would have scoffed, and retorted that nobody makes reservations for dinner at 6:30, especially when it’s just the three of you and you don’t have any particular plans anyway. But those things matter to Li. I suppose they give her a sort of feeling of meaning in the way ambiguous creaking signs in back alleyways that wind around Selfridges do for me — and for Matt too, I suppose.
I didn’t want to move, though. I felt I’d caught on to the wisp of a breeze that cast the little alleyway in a different light. And if I averted my gaze for a just a second I’d break the spell and sink back into the blank surface veneer of the street, with its tourists in visors and number 235 buses, and irritated business people trying to push past slow couples with shopping bags, all trying to get into Bond Street tube station before rush hour.
“If you must know” said Li, sort of patiently and impatiently at the same time “It’s one of those dumb hipster places that sells vitamins in glass vials and green juice in Chanel bottles so they can charge five times as much.” I nodded, still looking at the sign, as Matt chuckled. “Okay” I said, reluctantly dragging my eyes away, and letting the softly creaking sign dissipate into the clamor of the bustling city. “Let’s go.”
I dawdled slowly behind Li, who was rushing ahead and looking at her watch, and Matt, who was walking in a sort of unperturbed way with his hands in his pockets. Just as we were about to turn off St. Christopher’s Place, he turned and flipped me something from his pocket. I missed it, of course, because I have no depth perception, but I picked it up swiftly off the street.
Peering at the little rock in my palm, I couldn’t help but chuckle. It was a Dalmatian Jasper. I grinned at Matt, as the corners of his mouth twitched ever so slightly upward.