Today’s post is a short fiction, due to my being out of the country for a couple of weeks. I hope it breaches the hiatus…
A Day to Remember
It was rare for Shirley and Brian to visit London these days, but it was a special birthday for Shirley, who’d expressed a desire to see ‘Phantom’ and managed to drag Brian along this time; Brian, who was not fond of shows and would have preferred to have visited the museums or Kew Gardens.
Deciding to make the most of their day, the couple bought a newspaper for him and a magazine for her before settling themselves into a seat with a table on the train, where on glancing at the headline on the front of his paper, Brian read, ‘World Summit to be Hit by Protest’. He frowned.
“Looks like we’ve chosen a bad day to visit. There’s to be some sort of demonstration. Let’s hope the transport system isn’t affected.”
Shirley looked up from the article she was reading about William and Kate’s likely choice of baby names.
“Well I don’t suppose they’ll be going where we’re going, will they? They’ll all go to Trafalgar Square, or wherever it is they gather up for these protests, not Oxford Street shops and the theatres.”
While they had coffee, Brian studied his map of the London Underground. As he was so much more adept at finding his way around than she, Shirley left all the navigating to her husband, who prided himself on his ability to understand maps and directions. He’d been persuaded to further indulge his wife by accompanying her to various department stores, despite his innate aversion to such establishments, although he harboured a secret hope that she would not want to linger too long in Selfridges, John Lewis and Debenhams.
“What exactly is it you want to buy?” he’d asked her, prior to setting off, but her motives had been as unfocused as usual.
“Oh nothing special,” she’d told him. “I just want to look.”
He’d kept his exasperation in check, owing to the celebratory nature of the occasion, but nevertheless the next couple of hours until lunch stretched ahead like a wide yawn; a boredom endurance test when he’d be trailing around after her while she flitted from one display to another in a kind of random exploration of merchandise.
A successful negotiation of the tube saw them surface at Oxford Circus, where throngs of purposeful pedestrians surrounded them, buffeting them as they stood to get their bearings. Shirley’s face bore a momentary, wide-eyed look of panic.
“Brian, we must have got mixed up in the Summit protest!”
“No love. It’s just busy. It’s always like this. You haven’t been up here for a few years.”
He took her arm and propelled her in the direction of John Lewis, holding tight to her elbow while they tackled the barrage of oncoming pedestrian traffic that surged towards them like a tidal wave. Having gained the sanctuary of the store, Shirley appeared to rally and Brian was obliged to follow in her wake as she floor-hopped her way from bedding to kitchenware, from toys to lingerie.
At one thirty, by which time Brian’s stomach was growling starvation warnings, they decided to look for a lunch venue, choosing to walk up Regent Street towards Piccadilly Circus on the grounds that it was quieter and easier to travel along, besides which there would be a more salubrious selection of restaurants and cafes around Wardour Street and Leicester Square, where the theatre crowds were catered for.
There was a slight altercation at Piccadilly Circus. Brian favoured a pie and a pint in the dark, gloomy and comfortable, olde worlde interior of The Captain’s Cabin, whereas Shirley hankered after the more opulent and upmarket decor of The Criterion. It was while they stood on the steps under the statue of Eros in a dither of procrastination that the young man approached them, gesturing towards the London Underground map that Brian clutched in his hand.
“Excuse me, but could I borrow your map a moment?” he said.
Shirley looked him up and down in a rapid appraisal, taking in his dark eyes, his neat, dark hair, his pale grey tee shirt with a surfing logo and the dark blue rucksack slung over one shoulder. He must be a student, she decided, perhaps he was doing some travelling before taking up a college place. She smiled encouragement, thinking of their own son, James, who’d taken a gap year to Australia a few years ago. Beside her she could see Brian’s shoulders straightening in preparation for the directions he was about to give the young man.
“Where are you trying to get to?” he asked him
“I’m heading for Trafalgar Square.”
The student’s face was inscrutable, like the Mona Lisa in that painting. Shirley and Brian had been to Paris last spring and visited The Louvre.
“Was it the National Gallery you wanted? It might not be the best day, you know. There’s a big demonstration going on there today; huge crowds. Tomorrow could be better!”
A small, tolerant smile tweaked the corner of his lips.
“Please,” he said, holding out his hand for the map. Brian kept hold of it, leaning towards the young man and pointing.
“We are here, Piccadilly Circus. You go down and take the Bakerloo Line to Charing Cross. That’ll be your nearest to Trafalgar Square. OK?”
He turned and they watched as he crossed the road and disappeared down into the subway.
Forty minutes later the pair was seated at a table in The Captain’s Cabin when they heard the sound, and followed others out on to the pavement to look for a cause. After a few moments it was followed by the disquieting shriek of sirens as the emergency vehicles forged their way through the streets. A stricken look passed between the two.
Next morning they switched on the television news to see an image they recognised. It was the unmistakeable face of the lovely young man. Hussein Omar, he was called; the suicide bomber of Trafalgar Square.
Next week-Eastern travel tales…