March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event
a short story
"One Day in London"
By John DuffyIf you are interested in participating in ISSM3, contact me.
The first time I read a story by John Duffy it was during my read through of Abandoned Darlings, a collection of writings by the 2011 and 2012 MA in Creative Writing classes at the National University of Ireland at Galway. His story was about a very dangerous bus trip through the Andes in Bolivia. You can read by post on the story here. These words sum up how I felt about Duffy's really well done story.
You might have seen a National Geographic Channel program about the terribly dangerous road through the Andes in Bolivia that the narrator in this story crosses in a bus ride sure to scare anyone out of their wits who is not from there. The first person speaker in this storu is an Irishman out for an adventure in the wilds of South America and he happens to hook up with a beautiful and delightful sounding "French girl of Lebanese extraction". Some cynics say the reason the English conquered India was because they could do things and have adventures there that they could never do at home. I think that is part of the deeper theme of this very interesting marvelously cinematic story.
John Duffy grew up in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland. He graduated from the National University of Ireland Galway in 2011 with a Bachelor's degree. His writing career has included poems, short fiction and travel writing. He draws his inspiration from the landscape and people of West Ireland. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.
"One Day In London"
by John Duffy
London was always spoken about fondly in our house when we were growing up. My grandfather Tom and his wife Mary lived there for most of their lives. Papa worked as an engineer for the Greater London Council on the construction of roads, bridges and Tube tunnels. He was an industrious and articulate worker and held numerous positions of responsibility with the Council. In 1984, when my grandparents reached retirement age, they left London and moved back to Ireland to settle in our home town on the West coast. A long, articulated truck containing their furniture and belongings arrived outside our house. I was eight-years-old at the time. I was instructed by my mother to go with the truck driver and his assistant and direct them to Granny and Papa’s new house in Ardnaree. I sat in the cab in between the two men. The driver and his assistant were amused by my enthusiasm for the job and when we reached the address on the other side of town the driver said,
“The young fellow is good for directions.”
His assistant nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, he’s on the ball alright.”
“Did I do OK?” I asked.
“You did brilliant young fellow, brilliant altogether.”
I was very pleased with the compliments and helped them unload the truck.
Papa had an exceptional memory. His recollections of minute details made his stories memorable and colourful. He saw his retirement as an opportunity to recount every thing he had seen or done, and so my brothers and I spent much of our childhoods listening and nodding, cross-legged on the floor in front of him. Papa once told me about a night during the Blitz of London by the Nazis. He was working to clear rubble off the streets. There was a building on fire near where he worked. In the upstairs windows orange flames licked the glass, and the roar of fire eating through beams and floorboards could be heard from outside. At the street level a high-end clothes shop had been damaged from falling mortar. The windows of the shop were broken, and glass lay scattered about the street. Inside the shop, an opportunist was trying on a new suit. He looked at his reflection in a mirror and brushed himself down. He popped his cuffs and then examined the pleats of his trousers. Finally he adjusted the trilby on his head so it was cocked just so. Only then did he turn to step through the smashed façade, and walk away from the inferno, which had all but engulfed the shop.
During the latter years of World War II Papa worked at a factory in London on the construction of landing craft which would later carry Allied soldiers across the English Channel to Normandy on D-Day. One of his jobs involved mounting guns on the turrets of the craft. In early June 1944 senior management informed the workers they were not permitted to leave the plant for three days and three nights. It later emerged their stay was required to maintain top secrecy about the impending invasion. One morning Winston Churchill arrived at the plant to encourage the war effort. When Churchill offered his ‘V for victory’ salute to the workers, Papa responded with his own style of two fingered salute. After the war, Papa went on to work on different jobs across the city including a contract at Kensington Palace and a foreman contract on the construction of the Victoria Tube line. He met his beloved Mary in London and they were married there in 1948.
My mother Kathleen grew up in Tottenham with her twin brothers John and Michael. She trained as a nurse and worked in the city. During her twenties she travelled to Ireland on holidays to visit relations. On one such excursion she met a handsome Irish man and thankfully for me, she fell in love with him. They were married in London within a year. Some of my earliest memories involve me bouncing on my mother’s knee with her singing softly,
“Up, up a horsy,
Up, up again,
How many miles to London?
Three score and ten,
Will we be there by candlelight?
Yes and back again.”
I was twenty-seven-years old when I retraced my grandfather’s footsteps and took the boat across the Irish Sea. By the summer of 2005 I was living at Prince’s Drive in Harrow with my brother Pat. He was working at Wembley Stadium on the major revamp it was undergoing at the time. The job suited Pat perfectly. He was always an excellent soccer player and a keen Tottenham Hotspur supporter. If anyone could be counted on to do their best at Wembley and advance the game of soccer for players and supporters alike, it was Pat.
I was working on a reconstruction project at the old Ministry of Defence building just off Trafalgar Square. The interior had been largely gutted and my job was to install temporary lighting throughout the rooms and corridors. One morning I got up for work – the weather was dry and pleasant and the morning held all the promise of summer. I took an express train from Harrow and Wealdstone station into the city centre. At Euston station I bought a ticket for the Underground and went down the escalators to the Tube. I took my normal route on the Northern Line and got off at Charing Cross station. From there I walked the short distance to my workplace.
I had started terminating a temporary service panel the previous day. I set up my tools and materials around the panel and continued where I left off. After about an hour, Andy, a company employee approached. He was one of the biggest Pink Floyd fans I had ever met and we spoke about music whenever we had spare time.
“Hey John, I reckon I know you well enough now to share something with you,” he said.
“Fair enough,” I replied. “What’s going on?”
He scrolled through some images on his mobile phone and stopped at a picture of a topless woman with large breasts.
“What do you think of those?” he asked, handing me the phone. “That’s my wife,” he added.
What could I say? There was no point telling him I preferred the smaller, curvy type. A phrase I’d heard once or twice around London came to mind: Beautiful are the breasts that protrude just a little, governor. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, especially after he thought enough of me to share such a picture.
I said, “Nice. It must be ace to go home to them every night.”
He nodded and smiled at the picture, very happy with himself.
I continued wiring the panel but the picture of Andy’s wife kept popping into my mind and I found it hard to concentrate. I left down my tools and went for a walk around the job to clear my head. Inside the conference rooms the old coving around the ceilings and the wood panelled walls brought to mind the past. I imagined what it must have been like when the department was fully operational. A place heaving with cops, soldiers, and policy makers. I was thinking, there must have been many a late night spent here trying to solve Northern Ireland’s problems and the threat of the IRA during the height of The Troubles.
As I walked along the main corridor I heard sirens from the street outside. An ambulance drove past at speed and it was followed shortly after by a police car with sirens wailing. I went outside to see what was happening. Another police car sped down Whitehall. A group of construction workers had gathered on the corner, and across the street a line of people waited to use the telephone box. A well-heeled businessman walked toward me, speaking on his mobile phone. He seemed in a fluster and looked over his shoulder as he walked. When he finished his call I spoke with him.
“Excuse me. Do you know what just happened?”
“Some bombs went off on the Tube,” he replied and continued walking.
I walked up Whitehall toward Trafalgar square. Along the way I passed pedestrians standing on the footpath. Everyone seemed to be using their mobile phones. I took mine out of my pocket and called Pat. A recorded message said,
“Sorry, our lines are busy. Please try again later.”
I went back to the job site. At the front entrance a group of workers had gathered in a circle and were speaking about the bombs that had exploded and the likelihood of more. Our foreman Niall suggested we clean up and go for a drink. Nobody argued with him. We packed up our tools and tidied the work place. When we had finished a group of seven of us walked to The Lord Moon of the Mall.
The bar was busy with a lunchtime crowd of business people in suits. My work colleagues spoke amongst themselves about the transport situation. On the television screen above the bar a woman who looked like Margaret Thatcher spoke on the news.
“We have beaten terrorists like these before and we will beat them again,” she said.
I listened to the conversations floating around the bar, but I didn’t feel well placed to join the discussion. Who was I, an Irish man, to voice my revulsion at terrorist attacks in London?
The television images switched to Tavistock Square where a red double-decker bus stood parked on a street, its roof blown off. I opened my wallet and looked at the Underground ticket I bought just a few hours earlier. It was clocked through Euston at 6.49 AM. I stood by the bar and pondered various alternatives. What if I had slept in and was forced to take a later train? What if I had packed in my job and hopped on that bus at Tavistock Square?
I ordered a double Bombay Sapphire off the girl behind the bar and went through the back. I phoned Pat again and this time I got through. We talked for a while and arranged to meet at home later in the evening. Back inside the bar I rejoined our group. Niall informed us the entire Underground had been shut down and there were no buses running either. The next most pressing question became, how do we get home?
I left the bar and joined the mass movement of people on foot. The police had sealed off certain streets and Tube stations. Along the way, normal business streets were pedestrianized by the sheer volume of people walking. I looked around at those I shared the street with. The scene seemed somehow familiar, and brought to mind images from zombie flicks and disaster blockbusters. A man walked beside me carrying a suit jacket and a briefcase. His neck tie was pulled open and sweat covered his forehead. I passed a woman with a blue blanket wrapped around her. She had black soot on her face and was being assisted by medics.
I was struck by the composure of people and the courtesy they showed to one another. Normally the city centre was competitive with hustle, bustle and a mean edge. Now the system as people knew it had been derailed. There seemed a unified purpose and camaraderie, a continuous, uniform beat of humanity. I walked for miles and miles along streets I had never seen before. I walked along Oxford Street, and up the Edgeware road where people sat at tables outside restaurants and cafés. Along the way, stewards in orange vests gave directions and transport updates. At one particular corner shop a table had been set up and a man and two girls handed bottles of water to people. I eventually reached West Hampstead station where a National Rail train took me to Harrow.
Pat gave me a rare hug when I came in.
“You were lucky,” he said. “Dad was awful worried about you.”
The BBC news reported thirty seven people died in the attacks. Three bombs exploded on the Tube network and one on a bus at Tavistock Square.
Pat had bought a six pack of Stella Artois on account of his nerves. We opened two cans and went through to the back garden for a kick around. We had counted twelve headers over and back, when I heard a familiar voice from the laneway on the other side of the fence.
“Well, bury me deep,” he said. “I’ve seen it all.”
Our cousin James had arrived to see if we were still alive.
We sat around a table in the back garden and played a game of cards. We shared tales from the West of Ireland and some from London; the bonds of family and place that continued to keep us together. James and I recalled the day I first came to London. The coach arrived at Victoria station on a Friday evening and I needed to find accommodation. I phoned James. He was socialising at The Viaduct Tavern on Newgate Street after finishing work. We had a couple of drinks at the bar and he offered me a room in his house. He also introduced me to some of his work colleagues and before we left the bar that evening I secured a job with an electrical company.
As darkness fell over Harrow I thought about thirty seven bodies lying in morgues and hospitals around the city. Who were they? What had they done wrong? They had set off this morning like I had; just trying to get from A to B. My thoughts wandered to the whys of terrorism and the brazen attempts by some people to instil fear in the general public. James had brought a copy of the Evening Standard. The headline stated,
“Terror bombs explode across London.”
The attacks were the biggest on the city since a V2 rocket attack during World War II. I thought about Papa. Behind the back garden the local train to Watford Junction rumbled past. The sound of it was comforting in a way and represented for me a continuity of movement, travel and life. I thought about Andy. I imagined him coming in the door after his long walk home, his wife running down the hall to meet him. And then in bed, his head turned to one side, resting on her chest. The low rise and fall of her breath, comforting him, the protected feeling of home.
This story is protected under international copyright law and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.
I give my great thanks to John Duffy for allowing me to share this story with my readers and I hope he will soon be doing a Q and A Session for ISSM3.