As Lake Productions prepare for their run of Jimmy Murphy’s play, The King’s of the Kilburn High Rd, Kilkenny man Pat Griffin kindly agreed to pen a short story to highlight the plight of the Irish emigrant.
He bought his ticket and walked to the platform at Paddington Station. There was still some time. He sat on a seat near the newspaper kiosk. From here he would see the train when it approached. Just now he watched the seething mass of humanity which rushed hither and thither. At this hour of the evening that was to be expected. The working day had ended for most people.
Passing him by, he saw the highly polished shoes worn by those who sported sharply creased suits. Soft skinned hands with perfectly groomed fingernails picked up the latest copies of the Financial Times from the stand at the newspaper kiosk, while other hands held briefcases of expensive leather. He recognised those he referred to as that office type, all with soft jobs. What would they know about hard work, he wondered.
He stared at his hands, chafed and calloused, skin torn and fingernails chipped and broken, purple bruised from fresh encounters with cement blocks and rough sawn planks of wood.
There’s lots of stories in those hands, he thought, as he tucked them into the pockets of his overcoat to protect them from the biting wind which whistled and whined along the railway tracks, whipping up the pages of the newspapers in the kiosk beside him, tossing empty discarded coffee cartons and sandwich wrappers along the ground, keeping pace with the scurry of countless feet which tramped, plodded, hurried and scurried to another night in their lives. He sat there on the bench alone. I never knew I could feel so alone in a city of this size, he thought He looked at the large overhead clock. It ticked away the minutes and displayed the expected arrival time of the next train which would bring him on a journey through countless miles until finally he would arrive home. Paddington, Swansea, Carmarthen, Fishguard, Rosslare. Like a mantra, the names of all the stops along the way ran through his head. Paddington, Swansea, Carmarthen, Fishguard, Rosslare.
His hands, still sheltering in his overcoat pockets, were warm now. In one pocket he fingered his train ticket. I’d better not lose it, he thought, it cost me enough. He considered the money he had brought with him. It had been hard enough to get the few pounds together at such short notice; even harder to get some clothes which would make him seem reasonably respectable. He was lucky he had a few friends who had helped him out. At least I’ll look decent when I arrive home, he thought.
Home. What a strange word. He looked at the crowds on the platform still rushing left to right. They all have homes to go to, he thought. Then he remembered the reason he was here. In his other pocket his hand grasped a letter. He did not need to read it again. He knew its contents by heart.
Dad is fading fast. A few more days at the most. Get home quickly.
* He heard the train approaching. He picked up his rucksack and moved with the rest of the crowd to the carriages. Within seconds most of the seats were full. Farther down the length of the train he noticed that there was one empty carriage. The prospect of having to fill in the hours chatting to strangers until he finally stopped at Fishguard, filled him with a dread that knotted his stomach. He entered the carriage and stuffed his rucksack under the seat. He was glad that he was travelling by night. It would be easier to merge into the shadows.
Through the window he saw that the platform was now almost empty as the train slowly started its journey into the night. The outside darkness was punctuated by the lights in the windows of houses which flanked the railway line.
I look like death warmed up, he thought, as he saw his reflection in the window.
For the next few hours he could rest and again the names of the stations and stops through which he’d have to pass ran through his head like the verse of an old nursery rhyme.
Paddington, Swansea, Carmarthen, Fishguard, Rosslare.
* He remembered the last time he had taken this journey. Was it three or four years ago? He tried to work it out by recalling the jobs he had worked on since then. He remembered the countless foundations he had helped to lay, the tons of cement blocks he had handed to bricklayers, the rubble he had cleared, the walls he had painted and the houses he had helped to finish, the sort of houses he knew he never could afford.
On that last visit home the crossing from Fishguard had been rough. He was sick the whole way until he docked. Not the sort of sickness that he had all too often these days. That’s my own fault, he thought. Too many late nights drinking. That was the mind-numbing, stomach-churning sickness that kept him out of work for too many days. He had already had his warnings. “There’s plenty more who could fill your spot in the morning. Plenty more. Another sick day off this job and you’re gone, mate.”
He had to be careful. It would be easy to lose a job, lose his small income and lose his flat. Even with its ever present smell of bleach to hide the even more pungent smells of blocked drains and greasy meals which drifted upwards through every crevice and crack in the building, even with the mould which created a changing and growing pattern on his walls, he still couldn’t afford to lose it. And where would he be then? He had seen enough of his friends fall into that trap, hard times, shattered dreams, fading hope, ending up in shelters, sleeping rough. That wasn’t for him. It wasn’t too late. He could get his act together, make a fresh start.
Already he felt better when he considered how he looked. With the help of his friends he had managed to put together an assortment of clothes which almost matched. He would get by for this trip. He looked somewhat presentable, a bit haggard looking, but still presentable.
On his last visit home things had been different. Work was more plentiful; his wallet a little more full; his father’s stinging tongue sharper than ever.
“So, the big man has returned again, has he?” his father had said. “Not afraid to dirty your hands now, are you? Maybe you’re home to help build Ireland for us, now that you’ve learned how to do it across the water. Or would that be beneath you? Maybe you wouldn’t like anyone to see how you’ve turned out. My God, what a mess you’ve made of yourself. My son. What a failure. Big man indeed. Just look at yourself. Full of fancy notions.”
* The train was now arriving at Swansea.
“Change trains for Carmarthen”, the soulless voice announced over the loudspeaker system. He left the carriage and made his way towards the train on the other platform.
This time he was not so lucky. He could not find an empty carriage, but he tried to look invisible as he tucked himself into a carriage with only one other occupant. At least at this hour who wants to talk, he thought. He folded himself onto the seat and once more settled into a fitful sleep.
“Change trains for Fishguard. Connecting train due at 5.40 am” the voice boomed again. The station clock showed 1.40 am. Four bloody hours to wait, he thought.
The train emptied itself of most of its occupants who carried an assortment of suitcases, satchels and haversacks into the all-night cafe. He looked at the passengers who had travelled this distance with him, yet, he thought, they do not even know I exist.
Voices spoke excitedly of ‘going home for a few days’, ‘looking forward to seeing the family’. ‘Wait until you see Grandad’, one voice spoke to a child who was struggling to stay awake.
When the announcement came that the train for Fishguard was entering the station, the platform became alive again as the travellers gathered up their belongings and looked for the nearest carriage. He watched them, saw their excitement as they prepared themselves for the last leg of the train journey before they met the ferry. The carriages filled up quickly. He stood with his rucksack. He felt for the ticket in his pocket.
He thought of the trip back home.
Home. He thought of how he looked in the borrowed suit that didn’t quite fit; the shoes which were scuffed and scratched; the overcoat with the patched elbows and frayed cuffs. He considered how he would explain his life across the water. The lies he would have to tell. The same lies he told himself. That things were really not so bad. That life was improving. That tomorrow and tomorrow and all the following tomorrows would be better than today.
He stood on the platform and listened to the hydraulic hiss as the carriage doors folded to a close. He saw his reflection, like the flickering images in an old silent movie, flashing in the windows of the train as it quickly moved along the tracks until a few moments later it faded out of sight. He took the letter from his pocket, tore it into little pieces and, with the ticket, dropped them onto the tracks.
The Kings of The Kilburn High Road runs at Thomastown Community Centre from March 17. Booking on https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/kings-of-the-kilburn-high-road-tickets-260387926297