The raven bothered me. Walking through Highgate Cemetery in the late afternoon with a small group of students looking for the graves of one of my favorite authors (Douglas Adams), and some guy named Marx (not Groucho, the serious one who was more worried about the fate of the proletariat than he was of proper beard maintenance), a raven’s caw split the stillness of this 174-year-old, vine-covered final resting place of roughly 170,000 people.
I froze and looked around. Nothing.
As loud as its caw, I simply couldn’t see the bird. The raven, an intelligent, three-pound creature marked by legend to signal the end of the British Empire if the flock left the Tower of London (only about six are left there), was really, really close. But, scanning the heavy deciduous canopy that loomed over about 53,000 gravestones, this black bird, as big as a small dog, was invisible. This was the only time the harbinger of death cawed during my trip to the cemetery and I got more nervous with each step.
Then my chewing gum got all crunchy. “Ouch,” I said, spitting gum into my hand.
“What’s the matter?” Olivia asked.
I pulled back my fingers to find a squishy green blob dotted with bits of silver. Are you kidding me? I stuck my tongue into the hole in my tooth just to be sure. “I lost a filling,” I said.
A vital piece of oral hardware just popped from its twenty-year home, opening my jawline to infection and, what was worse, giving me an extreme sensitivity to all the beer I planned to drink while in England. Oh, yeah, and I was 4,290.5 miles away from my dentist. Problems with teeth, much like problems with your private parts, aren’t things people worry about when they’re away from home. Travelers are more concerned about being robbed, and having to talk to French people.
The raven’s caw warned me something bad would happen. I hoped that was just about the filling. I wasn’t ready to find a dentist in London; I’ve heard all about British teeth. Would a dentist here make my smile look like the terror grin of Prince Charles? A shiver ran through me.
So I did what any British person would do to mull over the situation; I went to the pub.
The cemetery sits atop a steep hill in the Highgate area of London as most things there do. Of course, some things also sit at the bottom of a steep hill. The pub we found was somewhere in the middle. Set back from the street, the Whittington Stone looked a bit more modern on the outside than most pubs I’ve been to, although that might mean it’s just less than 500 years old. Inside it captured the dark wood, and friendly “welcome and get politely drunk” atmosphere British pubs are known for.
The Wittington Stone pub is named after Richard Whittington (1354–1423), a merchant, four-time Lord Mayor of London, and epic champion of the lower class who founded a hospital for unwed mothers (it’s unknown if he helped them get their start), funded drainage systems for the poorer sections of London, and founded a charity that still exists. The “stone” on this hill is where he sat and heard ringing from Bow Bells Church six miles away; apparently 400 years before the Internet that was a pretty big deal for poor people in East London. A weatherworn statue of Wittington’s cat, a legendary mouser, sits just up the street from the pub.
Getting the hang of all this pub business (this was only a couple days into our journey), my students and I found a table, wood with a brass number at the end, and grabbed a menu. One of the many great things about pubs is what they do with their menus. Most pubs post menus outside so you don’t have to go in to realize you’ve made mistake and need to be somewhere else. A chalkboard marquee set up out front took the posted menu’s place, offering shepherds pie for £5.99, a pretty cheap price for dinner in London. Considering I’ve spent a pound more for just a hamburger (albeit a proper hamburger), £5.99 was right in my price range. The menu inside one-upped the marquee. It boasted a two-for-£7 deal my students took full advantage of.
“What are you getting?” Paul asked.
“I’m getting the barbecue chicken,” Alex said, in full America mode.
“I’m getting the fish,” Olivia said. “And a beer.”
That a girl.
“The chicken looks good,” Paul said, looking toward the deeply polished bar. He turned back toward us, grinning. “That barmaid’s cute.”
Dark, shoulder-length hair, brown eyes, and various other bits in nice proportions in the appropriate places. Yes, she was.
“Go talk to her,” I said, even though I knew he had to if he wanted food.
“What are you going to have, Offutt?” Olivia asked.
Me? With fish and chips, a beef sandwich, and the chalkboard shepherds pie all looking delicious, I played with my tooth hole. “Beer,” I said. “I’m just going to have beer.”
And I did. Fortunately, my tooth hole wasn’t sensitive to cold.
Running into a quasi-medical problem so far away from home in 2013 isn’t like it was in 1847, or even 1987. I took advantage of the six-hour time difference and cell phone technology and simply called my dentist. “There’s a product called Dentemp,” he said. “It’s a temporary filling. Get that and I’ll see you when you get home.”
In 1847, a traveler with a tooth problem may have died an agonizing, oozy death. Today I just went to the chemist (pharmacy) and got the British equivalent to Dentemp, Toofypegs (a name I assume people at an ad agency came up with while high on nitrous oxide). I was going to be fine. As for the rest of that day …
SPOILER ALERT: Alex’s barbecue chicken was less than satisfactory, Olivia’s beer (the Italian lager Peroni Nastro Azzurro) was delicious; I had one, too, Paul completely failed to impress the pretty barmaid, who may have liked his accent and invited him back to her place if he’d just smiled and said anything other than “I’d like the barbecue chicken and a Coke,” and I survived my trip to England without an oral infection. Screw you, raven.