There’d been greyer, winter days in London but not in my experience. The clouds crowding the morning sky were like a bundle of overstuffed pillows, ready to burst. I smelled snow. The air was crisp; the daylight, brittle. My breath puffed like cotton candy in my face as I stepped from the taxi on Euston Road.
The old Victorian station brought back memories of student days and freezing, drunken sea crossings on the B&I from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead; the dozy train ride to London. Camden never changes, I thought; the people might but never the place. Whole generations of Irish people trudged through this place on the emigrants’ trail.
I used to imagine the ghosts of Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens and all the characters who filled their worlds, walking these streets. My father used to read me Dickens’ stories. There was always a character seeking his true nature, a fish out of water.
I checked the big digital clock, 8.05am, I was early. The Holyhead train would arrive at 8.33, or thereabouts. It was British Rail. He hates flying. He only flew once before. 1968 it was, to do a training course in London. He never talked about it much apart from those half joking references to all the black people he saw. ‘Jaysus, they’d ate you,’ he used to say. I knew he was joking; I wanted him to be joking. I didn’t meet my first black person in the flesh until I was 13 and he was the only one in a school of more than 900 students.
I checked the clock again. Time for a coffee and maybe a muffin, buy a newspaper.
Euston was in full early morning rush hour mode; crackling, incomprehensible tannoy announcements, incoming commuters avoiding eye contact, striding purposefully; bewildered tourists dragging luggage, squinting at noticeboards, maps and timetables; station porters, some of them dreadlocked, others turbanned, moving at the pace they’d maintain for their day as though the frenetic pace of those around them was happening in another dimension.
I ordered a coffee from a stand up stall on the sidelines. The young, lip and eye pierced ‘barista’ looked confused.
‘Just a black coffee, please, regular milk on the side, thank you.’ Again with the blank look.
‘An Americano, then.’ At last, a light, there is someone home.
‘I’ll have one of those blueberry muffins too, please?’
Studs ignored me as she went about clattering coffee dregs from the chrome plated Gaggia before refilling it for my order, twisting the handle into place and pressing the steam release. The big machine chugged and hissed and then began to trickle coffee. She plonked a plate in front of me with a plastic spoon in cellophane before opening another glass case to lift the preferred blueberry muffin with her plastic thong. ‘£4.50,’ she said as she reached for the mug of steaming coffee with her free hand.
‘Milk?,’ I asked, handing over a fiver. She gestured with her chin and a sneer to a point beyond my left shoulder. I looked around and found a half opened cardboard box of u.h.t. Milk portions.
S.O.P., I thought, standard operating procedure. Like the station porters, her day has just begun. She’ll move at her own pace. At least the hot coffee was good, strong and aromatic in contrast to the muffin which tasted like a soggy paper napkin. I sipped from the steaming hot mug as I gripped it with two hands to warm my fingers. I checked the clock again, ten minutes.
‘Why could he not have flown over?’ I thought. Rhetorically, because I knew the answer. Boats and trains he knew and understood. Timetables were like a playful mathematical puzzle for him; itineraries, another campaign strategy. He’d have it all written down like a blueprint for the inner workings of a precision Swiss timepiece. I’ll bet he’s been standing in the gangway at the train’s exit door since it hit London’s outer suburbs.
I did my own research while I waited. I walked over to the nearest available ticket window and asked the sullen clerk how I’d get to New Malden. I knew it was in Surrey, south of the Thames and in the outer eastern suburbs of the city. Once he knew I hadn’t a complaint and wasn’t looking for a refund, my sullen friend went into friendly overdrive.
‘Take Victoria line to Vauxhall, mon, then change to the south west train line to Shepperton. That should get you there.’
‘Oh, thank you.’
My experience of London travel told me when there’s one way, there’s at least another.
’Suppose I took the Northern, south to Waterloo?’
‘You say ‘ sweet potato’ ,mon, I say ‘yam’,’
We both laughed and I bought the tickets he recommended.
I checked the time again and noted the train had arrived and was disembarking. I dropped the remains of the soiled napkin muffin in the nearest bin and made my way to the platform gate for the Holyhead train. As I guessed, he was out of the traps, ahead of the pack and already proferring his ticket to the disinterested ticket inspector at the gate .
‘Dad,’ I said, to catch his attention, ‘Dad.’ It worked. He stopped looking at the disinterested rail man in his dowdy black uniform and turned his attention in my direction. I could see him think and focus, then his eyes widened and he smiled, put his ticket back in his wallet, picked up his bag and shuffled towards me, oblivious to the growing glut of passengers in his wake.
He looked pale and drawn; shrunken, even. ‘How was your trip?’ I asked.
‘Too long,’ he said.
‘Did you get any sleep?’
‘Not a bit.’
He was already studying a notebook he produced from the pocket of his overcoat. I knew it was his itinerary. He checked his watch and then looked around for the station clock.
‘Have you eaten? There’s a nice little place across the road…’
‘Where do we get the underground? Is it in this station?’
‘There’s plenty of time. We can get some breakfast first…’
‘Your mother packed some sandwiches for me. I got a cup of tea on the train. The removal’s at 11. We’ll have to go now.’
‘I just thought…’
‘I want to get going.’ And with that he picked up his bag and walked away.
Our ‘discussion’ was at an end. I followed him, a 30 year old man feeling 13. We were here to bury his sister, my aunt. He hadn’t seen her in 40 years. I never met her. She and his other sister left Ireland to seek work in post war London. Just get through the fucking day.
‘I’m going to phone Uncle Sean to let him know we’ll be there soon.’ He said nothing but just stood and waited.
Outside, the blizzard had already begun, snow blanketed the streets. Ahead of me, my father put on his little black beret and buttoned his overcoat to the neck. He turned and looked at me. I pointed ahead to the entrance to Euston Underground and led him gently by the elbow, both of us crouched and squinting through the white curtain blowing in our face. We’ll get the Victoria line to Waterloo and change there for the Shepperton train to New Malden. I have the tickets already. As we went through the tube station entrance I thought I saw him smile.
‘I booked you a room in the same hotel as me, tonight,’ I told him when we settled into a seat on the Tube.
‘There’s no need. I’m going home tonight.’
‘You’re joking. Look at the weather. The boat won’t sail.’
‘Oh it will, as far as I know. It was like this all the way over on the boat, snowing, but they told me the boat would sail tonight.’
‘But you must be exhausted. You didn’t sleep last night,’ I argued but I knew it was useless. His mind was made up, his plan was made. He stared out the window into the void of an underground tunnel.
‘I saw a fox standing alone in a field on the train journey down. I noticed there was a copse of woods in many of the fields.’
Vauxhall approached. I gathered his bag and hung the strap from my arm. It was very light.
‘You didn’t bring much,’ I said.
‘No,’ he agreed. There wasn’t much else to say. We disembarked and walked to the overground train station on the other side of a wide street junction outside. The snow still fell but it had abated. Traffic and pedestrians turned it to mucky sludge, underfoot. We barely spoke on the short train journey to New Malden.
Two people, my late aunt’s husband and widower and his daughter, my cousin, met us at the station. Uncle Sean was a small man with big hands, gnarled and calloused with labour and arthritis, I thought. Hatless, his hair was white and thin on his head. His lined face carried a life of experience and hardship but the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes and the upturned wrinkles on the corners of his mouth hinted at good humour and laughter. His eyes were as green as the sea in Galway bay but without the light that reflected off it in the moonlight.
His daughter, my cousin Aine, was an entirely different kettle of fish. Big bosomed and rosy cheeked, her smile glowed in this snow blown morning on a train platform in east London. ‘Greetings,’ she said, ‘ye must be frozen in this weather. I’m Aine, Sean’s daughter.’
Then she enveloped my father in her billowing, dark blue overcoat and the cushions of her mighty bosom, kissing him behind his right ear. When she released him he appeared to reel back on his heels, his eyes opened and shut and opened again. He put out his hand to my uncle Sean, grasping his and whispering, ‘Sean, I’m sorry for your loss.’ Uncle Sean looked at him but his gaze was focussed about two feet beyond him. Then Aine turned to me and I drew my breath, involuntarily, as I felt myself being pulled into the same welcoming vortex. ‘Cousin Martin, this is a sad time to meet for the first time.’
Without further ado she grasped her father’s arm, turning him around and walked away from the station, our signal to follow her.
Aine led her father tenderly across the snow covered expanse of the station’s car park to a bottle green Volvo Estate. A man jumped out of the driver’s seat as we approached. He wore polished black leather shoes and a dark suit under a tailored, double breasted Camel Crombie coat. He had receding dark hair, shiny with gel and combed back close to his skull. His eyes were smiling and a light, almost translucent, blue. His skin was the sallow colour of someone who enjoyed sunshine.
‘’Ello, Trevor’s my name, Aine’s ‘usband. You’re very welcome,’ he said, extending his right hand to shake while his other hand opened the rear door of the car. I noticed he wore a gold sovereign ring on the little finger of his right hand. We all piled into the car and set off. Trevor drove.
‘I’m sorry this is all a bit rushed,’ Aine explained, ‘there won’t be any funeral service, just the burial and we’re going straight to the cemetery. No-one wants to be standing around too long in this weather.’
‘So you came over this morning on the nanny and Wayne, Brendan, you must be cream crackered?’, Trevor asked my father who looked at him, nonplussed. He looked at me. ‘He asked if you came over this morning on the boat and train, are you very tired?’ I translated. He looked even more confused. ‘Nanny’ or ‘nanny goat’, the boat; ‘Wayne’ or ‘John Wayne’, the train and ‘Cream Crackered’, ‘knackered’ or tired,’ I translated.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. Cor, where’s my manners? I use the ‘slang to wind up Sean and his mates. ‘Ow’d you get ‘ere, Martin?’ Trevor asked me.
‘I flew over yesterday morning. I had some business. I met Dad off the train at Euston.’
‘Right, well, we ‘ad the service last night and the burial is booked for 10.30 so we’re going straight there.’
The snowfall had worked itself up to a blizzard again as we pulled into the car park of the Kingston cemetery. The snow swirled in blinding gusts. A group of people, huddled together in the freezing wind, opened as we approached. Most of them were men of my uncle’s age. They were all dressed in dark overcoats, some of them wore hats. There were a few young women too of Aine’s age and no doubt, close friends and perhaps, daughters of the other men. There was a buzz of introductions led by Aine and Trevor. All of them greeted Trevor warmly. I heard some murmurs of ‘Dia dhuit’ and ‘Dia’s Muire dhuit’, Gaelic greetings of ‘God be with you’ and ‘ May God and Mary be with you.’ A few of the men, gripping uncle Sean by his wrist and elbow, whispered ‘Is trua liom do bhris’ or ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Their accents reminded me of an Atlantic breeze in Clifden, Connemara.
A taxi approached. In the white blur of the cascading snow, a woman emerged backwards from the rear of the car. She wore a brown, knee length, fur coat and full length, black leather boots. When she straightened up, we could see she wore a matching fur hat. ‘It’s Auntie Bridie,’ Aine announced, surging past us, her arms outstretched in greeting. The figure in the fur raised her head to view the oncoming welcome while holding her hat with one hand and the front of her coat, with the other. She wore skin tight, brown leather gloves. She appeared to ignore Aine’s embrace by turning sideways and presenting her cheek to her niece. Aine engulfed her with her arms, apparently unaware or ignoring the slight. She planted a kiss on her aunt’s proferred cheek and taking her elbow, steered her to our huddled group. My father stepped forward, taking her gloved hand and pulled her close to kiss her other cheek. ‘Hello, Bridie,’ he said. ‘Brendan,’ she replied. She turned her attention to me. ‘Who’s this?’ she asked no-one in particular, ‘not Martin? My God, I wouldn’t know you, you’ve grown so much.’ I was 10 when I saw her last. Finally, she offered a gloved hand to Sean, the widower, muttering, offhand, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Sean shook her hand but her presence hardly registered with him. The taxi driver pulled his car into a spot beside Trevor’s in the car park.
Sean’s friends gathered the coffin from the back of the hearse. The priest, his white cassock covered in an overcoat, his head covered by a dark, cloth cap, trudged off in the snow, leading the men who held the coffin aloft on their shoulders. Sean and the attentive Aine, followed. Trevor lingered behind to walk with us. Aunt Bridie didn’t acknowledge his existence. We walked, silent, heads down and concentrated on our steps in the driving snow, whipping into our faces at an impossible angle.
The service was short as our small party gathered around the open pit and the coffin was lowered down. We all murmured a response to the priest’s prayer even though only parts of it could be heard in the wind that battered and blew among the headstones.
The party made its way back to the car park. Trevor and Aine invited everyone to follow their car back to their house where food and refreshments would be served. Aunt Bridie, who hadn’t spoken to anyone throughout the brief service apart from the few words exchanged on her arrival, now demurred. She looked as though there was a stone in her shoe and wore an expression my mother used to describe grumpy people, ’she’s a face on her like a fir hatchet,’ meaning it looked sharp and mean.
Trevor and Aine wanted Dad and I to travel in their car. Bridie wanted us to travel in her waiting taxi. My father whispered something to Aine and then motioned me towards the taxi. There was a strained silence in the car as we wound our way through the streets of Kingston. It was broken by Bridie, ‘why was there no church service? Had she no friends besides his cronies? You’d think they’d’ve organized a reception in the local hotel.’
‘Will you shut up, Bridie,’ my father exploded. She was speechless, her jaw hung open as though she’d lost her next sentence. I was surprised by my father’s outburst. ‘Have some respect,’ he finished. Bridie looked like she’d been slapped.
We were the last to arrive at the house, a small, neat semi-detached house with a short driveway in a narrow street. Aine stood at the door to greet our arrival, a warm, inviting beam in her face. ‘C’mon in out of the cold. Give us your coats, go into the lounge. Trevor’ll get you a drink.’
Dad walked in ahead of myself and Bridie. She pulled my arm as we crossed the threshold. ‘I didn’t want to come here,’ she said, looking around her as though she’d entered the chamber of horrors in Madame Tussaud’s. She made no effort to take off her fur coat or hat and stood apart in the doorway of the tiny lounge. All of Seamus’s friends and, I assumed, members of their families as well as friends of Trevor and Aine, were packed inside, nursing tumblers of whiskey and cups of tea. A few held glasses of stout.
The lounge recessed, through an alcove, to the house’s parlour and beyond that, to a conservatory spread out into a small back garden. Trevor tended bar behind a small, white, leatherette lounge bar affair in the corner, complete with optics of whiskey and gin, an array of glasses and a small fridge. Sean stood in the corner, to the left of the bar, nursing a tumbler of whiskey with that same faraway look he had at the graveside. He was surrounded by his friends who filled the silence.
‘Aon sceal a’at?’, one of them asked another.
‘Deabhail sceal,’ another answered, ‘mura bhfuil sceal a’at fein?’
My own Gaelic was rusty but I was aware Seamus and all his friends hailed from the same small village in west Connemara and had taken the boat to England together. One had asked , ‘what’s the story?’, I guessed, to which the other replied, ‘divil a bit, have you no story, yourself?’
I needn’t have worried about my father. Nursing a whiskey, I heard him ask Seamus, ‘Ni fhacas Peadair, ’n’fheadair a bhfuil se lasmuigh?’ He mentioned Peter, Sean’s son and Aine’s brother, and enquired about his whereabouts.
Sean looked at him as though he was only noticing him for the first time.
‘’Peadair?,’ he said, ‘an creatur bocht. Ni raibh se in ann teacht abhaile.’
(Peter? The poor creature, he wasn’t able to come home).
‘Ca bhfuil se?’ my father asked.
‘San Astrail,’ Sean replied, the faraway look, creeping back, ‘le fada an la anois.’
(‘In Australia, this long time’).
Aine and the other ladies busied themselves in the kitchen. Bridie had opened her coat but had yet to discard it. ‘You’ll roast in that, Bridie, take it off and ‘ave a drink,’ Trevor offered. Bridie visibly recoiled. Trevor looked amused. Sean’s friends exchanged questioning looks. One of them said, ‘Bean lach is ea I, ‘bhfuil fhios a’at, ach ta nimh inti.’ (She’s a fine woman but there’s poison in her.)’
The flow of drink woke the gathering and thawed them from the cold of the cemetery. Bridie provided some diversion and amusement and the assembly of souls with a common home and language, warmed them all. They were getting hungry too.
Almost on cue, the partition doors to the kitchen were flung open by Aine and one of her helpers to reveal a long table laden with sausage rolls, spicy chicken wings, pork pies, sandwiches of a hundred fillings from ham and cheese to poached salmon and mayonnaise, egg and onion and chicken and stuffing. The men burst in to spontaneous applause and one let loose a whoop of celebration. They crowded round the table while Aine and the ladies filled their plates.
Bridie caught my arm as I made my own way to the table. ‘Don’t touch that food, Martin, that’s awful stuff,’ she said.
‘BRIDIE,’ my father said, so loudly, he stilled the room, as he walked into the hallway without looking at her. She followed him. Everyone tried not to listen to what was spoken behind the half closed door. Trevor nudged me. ’They’re a rum lot,’ he said, nodding fondly at his father in law’s friends. ‘You get on well with them,’ I said. ‘I love ‘em. We never stop ribbing each other. These guys might live in London but their hearts are in the west of Ireland sometime in the ’50s, I fink.’ At least they have a home, I thought, wondering about poor Aunt Bridie. She was clearly uncomfortable but she’s lost her sister, too. ‘What do you do, Martin?’ Trevor asked. ‘I’m in public relations,’ I said and then, aware of the irony of my own situation, we both laughed.
The hall door opened and my father returned with Bridie, without her coat and hat. Trevor handed her a glass with a smile, ‘have some Calvin Klein,’ he said and filled her glass with wine. One of Sean’s friends produced a button concertina and played a tune. Another called, ‘Michael, cas amhran.’ (Michael, sing a song). ‘Nil me in ann, cas tu fhein ceann.’ (I can’t, sing one yourself) and without further ado, the singing started. There were sad songs, dancing songs and funny songs. My father recited a poem, an epic tale of Robert Service set in the vast snowlands of the Canadian tundra. Even Bridie, her inhibitions lost, sang ‘If I were a blackbird’ and everyone cheered her effort.
At six o’clock, my father turned to me and said, ‘it’s time I was leaving.’ We gathered our coats and said our goodbyes. A taxi collected us at the door and brought us to the station. We made it to Euston station with only minutes to spare. My father said he’d see me in Dublin. I handed him a bag of sandwiches and chicken legs wrapped in tin foil Aine had slipped me as we left. His parting words to me were ‘never forget your home’, then he turned and walked down the platform and onto the train.