‘Sirens’ Song’

Even with all the thoughts of yesteryear and the concluding days ahead, the buzz of a few days in the metropolis still alights him. From terminal one Luke walks sprightly to Heathrow’s tube station towards the city centre. Tuesday afternoon, and a sense of happenings seems to bound through all those around him on the train. It always seems to be almost Friday. Young men in grey suits toy with their phones or glance at London’s paper. Others also indulge in their technologies, while a woman whose head is scarved holds her quiet children’s hands. A woman in her early twenties joins Luke in staring benignly at the diligent mother.

He remembers the first time he took this Piccadilly line to the heart of London, then the multitudinous entrances of Elephant and Castle, where he was to meet Ciarán. His best friend had moved there to do a masters. There was a college party at a nearby Cuban bar the night he arrived. With bags in hand he went. It was there he saw Jen, dancing with friends. She moved easily, the dark, warm eyes never wavering from the dance floor. Ciarán introduced them at the bar.

At Earl’s Court he disembarks. On the wall of the building opposite the track a fragile flower stands in a crevice of sooty London brick. He should buy her flowers, he reflects, a farewell gesture. It might make it easier. A young man, perhaps from Pakistan, sells him hyacinths at the shop by his station of arrival, Edgware Road.

There was no other tube ride that night he met Jen. They all stayed late at the bar, drinking, talking, dancing to the live trumpets, tubas and saxophones. They got a bus back to Ciarán’s flat in Camberwell, Jen living in the same halls building, all of them nearly waltzing off the bus when they reached their stop.

He turns left off Edgware Road now and up the familiar street to her apartment block, then gently tip-toes up the flat at the top floor.

‘Hello!’ she hums as she approaches. The opening door reveals the same beauty he always finds, almost jumping to embrace him. The flowers shock her, widen the smile. ‘I missed you Whisper,’ she says and squeezes him.

Ciarán emerges from the kitchen. Hands are clasped, banter flows and the English girl looks on. An old joke about the flat not having enough ketchup is volleyed between friends and they all laugh uproariously. ‘Time for a beer I think,’ his friend declares and the routine of the first night is set in train.

As they walk to the pub they spot a vagrant pissing into a bin. ‘Sure I do that all the time,’ says Luke’s sandy-haired friend as they observe. Again, Luke notes Jen’s loud laugh at her housemate’s almost predictable retorts.

The air seems dustier, staler than the fresh summer air Luke felt seeping through Ciarán’s apartment window that first night in Camberwell. He talked to Jen most of that night. She laughed a lot. Eventually their lips locked. Towards dawn she rose for her own room. As he reassured her he would be in London all weekend, she left with a steady smile.

Next morning the group of college friends and Luke sat out on the nearby park with take-away coffees and the Saturday paper. Sounds of the city’s main streets’ promise drifted over their way. ‘A lot of Carribbeans around here,’ Ciarán pointed out later on as he showed Luke the area, with all its mud brown buildings and shops selling nails, cakes and fast food. ‘Barbers and chicken shops everywhere!’ An old, tall, black man wearing a felt cap walking slowly with a stick passed them by as he said it. When they realised he’d heard Ciarán they burst out laughing.

That evening they all went to a late bar in Soho where they sat on couches and drank mojitos. The doors at either end stayed open, people seemed to be constantly coming and going. Luke talked to Jen all evening. She told him of Chester and life before London. Soon their interest in each other outshone anything the bar had to offer. They escaped early.

When Luke told Ciarán a few weeks later that he would be flying over again, they both knew why he was visiting.

The pretty French barmaid serves them. She’s the regular lounge girl, always wearing blue jeans and a tight shirt, the hair tied up, a winning smile. Her recognising glance reassures Luke. So many more out there to discover, he reflects. They all order burgers and drinks.

‘Had my first work review today,’ his friend reveals, rubbing his hands. ‘Went straight in and told the boss how worthwhile I am to the company and how I wanted a significant increase.’

‘Coz you’re worth it!’ Luke retorts and laughter abounds once more. ‘The cheek of ya, and you’re not even there a wet week!’

‘Maybe. Successfully cheeky though. He made a marginally lower counter-offer. I notched it up and he agreed. The guy was nearly in a sweat after it!’ Ciarán sits back after talking, exhales deeply and smiles and when the barmaid brings the meals he orders shots for them all. Power radiates from his face as he toasts life.

Luke feels the weight of the drinks as the evening lengthens, his friend’s generosity knowing no bounds. The gentle burble of talk diminishes and the barmen start to look to each other, then over towards the table. It doesn’t feel late to Luke, yet thought of what awaits him revives his pulse.

Ciarán offers them a drink when they return to the flat but the lovers move subtly but quickly towards the bedroom. Once inside the kissing and kneading starts, the unravelling of clothes slow then quick. This too is part of the first day’s ritual. They kiss by the foot of the bed before sprawling out. Though the movements are predictable he loves how she lifts her neck as he kisses the pristine flesh. He unravels her underwear then gazes at her body gleefully as he enters, bangs and soars.

Afterwards, in the darkened room, it seems unnaturally bright as their eyes meet. She smiles. Now is not the time to complicate things. Laughter precedes sleep.

Jen always rises easily, no matter what the consequences of the night before. While Luke groans and strains to accompany her, she showers, dresses and perfects herself in front of the mirror.

‘You don’t have to get up,’ she smiles, almost laughing.

‘No, no, it’s grand,’ he replies and they both almost laugh at his slow movements, from bent double to rising. Over a cup of tea he feels the effects of Ciarán’s generosity last night ever more.

Life has regained its bustle on Edgware Road as they walk to the tube station, men and women, scarved and cloaked, gracing the halal shops and discount stores along the wide, long and overcast street. At every outlet, groups stand or sit and talk, absorbed in a world of merchandise and trade. Men lift carpets in and out of a shop as another man sucks on a cigarette. The early morning rush to the tube has begun, people jostling in all directions as Luke and Jen head towards the green and cream tiled walls of the station.

‘See you later then, yeah?’ she smiles as they part at the barrier. ‘Five outside Embankment?’

‘Okay.’ Within seconds she has disappeared among the crowd.

The day is wide open to Luke, stretching out with endless opportunities despite his lack of money, chances almost waiting to be ruined by touching them. He considers breakfast on a café on the main street but a bus bound for Piccadilly Circus coaxes him aboard. A traditional English café eventually presents itself, the smell of bacon, coffee and intermingling foods lures him in.

A large, loud Mediterranean-looking woman takes his order, mumbles something to one of the three young men standing behind the counter and then takes a seat near Luke’s table. The men continue their dutiful tasks, a studious looking man among them, his eyes focused on the tubs of food. He’s tall with thick eyebrows, spectacled. A baseball cap conceals his tanned expressions. Not once does he look up when customers approach.

‘I would like to change the mobile number for my account information,’ the large woman – the manageress, Luke deduces – says on her mobile phone. ‘No, my mobile phone number… my mobile number,’ she booms.

Even when three builders walk in for breakfast the studious-looking man behind the counter fails to look up. Who is this man with a purple t-shirt and baseball cap? What are his dreams, Luke wonders. How long has he been here? Is it to pay bills for a journey towards greatness? Does he pine for a faraway place he still thinks of as home?

Luke is stirred from his daydreams by the bang of a plate on his table. He wolfs down the eggs with large dollops of brown sauce and toast, a white teacup with spoon inside it by his side. On his way out, the manageress persisting on the phone, Luke tries to engineer interaction with the mysterious man, hoping something might provide answers. Yet the man doesn’t stir. Not even the laughter of the three builders trading stories over their tabloids deters him from cutting lettuce.

The sun has climbed high into the London sky when he emerges, refreshed. He walks without purpose, happy to mull over where it all stands. There’s relief that they didn’t talk last night, but tonight’s busyness may give him no chance either.

It was the last time he was over that she first confronted him, though it shouldn’t have surprised him. As soon as she’d qualified as a teacher he’d seen her confidence grow.

‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ she asked as they walked home one night, the question sounding like a follow-up. They had just been talking about her challenges in teaching seven year olds.

‘I don’t even know where I’ll be in five days’ time!’ Luke had laughed.

The last time she visited Ireland she tested again. She’d fallen silent after quick, unceremonious pleasure. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.

‘Do you ever think about the future?’ she asked, no smile, her arm crossing her breast.

‘Not really, I don’t think. Why?’

‘Do you see one of us making the big sacrifice and moving?’

It horrified him. Here she lay, so beautiful, fresh in the night light, making new demands. They were only twenty-three.

He walks by Threadneedle Street and nearby sweeping lanes with buildings of different shapes and sizes. A small, narrow church tucked in among corporate giants arrests him and he wonders how it’s survived this era set on progress. Steps lead to a side entrance and curiosity leads him in.

On the left-hand side, couches lie beside a table with thermal containers of tea and coffee and a plate of wrapped cookies. ‘Take time out with some of our fair trade tea or coffee and biscuits,’ states a notice with recommended donations for each item. He is all alone. Only the names of the war dead seem present, looking down on the empty pews.

As he walks again amid the city noise, his phone vibrates. ‘Good night last night. We’ll have to get you a bit more competent with the old shots though for when you move to London! I got free membership of a gym in the city thru work by the way and can bring a friend along. Wanna go bout 6.30 when I’m finished work?’

The reference to London throws him. Has Jen been spreading notions? Is she boxing him into it from afar? Ciarán would be here if he moved, he reflects, they would have that dose of home from each other. He winces at his thoughts, checks himself.

A police car darts up King Street, the blue light whirling, the siren whining. Where is it going, he wonders. ‘Sometimes they just do that to remind people that they can,’ a friend, the son of a cop, once told him. Minutes later, he thinks he still hears the siren’s echoes.

Luke spends the afternoon in the British museum. On the first floor, among a crowd of swirling school children on tour, he loses himself in a clocks exhibition. The darkened room displays clocks and watches from earlier times to the present. Older, wooden clocks, many with round faces, stare back at him like the dead facing the living. Metal and gold-framed clocks, more durable perhaps, become more common as the exhibition progresses, some highly ornate with symbols, the modern ones more functional and digital. All are stopped, the pendulums halted, and for a moment Luke thinks of that moment when all clocks cease and a person’s journey ends. When his pensive stare at the last clock ends, he notices all the children are gone.

‘The gym? Who’s the stud now?’ he texts Ciarán back as he begins to wander towards Embankment. ‘Can’t tonight, going out with Jen’s friends L How bout tomorrow morning before you go to work?’

‘Sounds good. Meet ya in the kitchen @ 7.30. Good luck tonight!! You’ll need it!’

He wonders if his friend will head out tonight, what booze-fuelled fun awaits him, what his colleagues who join him for such sessions are like, if he has options to take any home and screw.

Walking along the river’s bank he looks towards St Katharine’s Dock and the sandstone buildings made out of old warehouses of a bygone, maritime world. The elevated shore where the river doesn’t climb at low tides had fascinated him. ‘Can we go over there?’ he’d asked Jen last December.

‘Sure,’ she smiled, obliging as always. They walked around its hidden turns, the riverine front and the cobbled streets between the beige buildings. They had a hot port in a cosy pub and sat drowsily watching the pre-Christmas revellers, listening to their cheer.

They’ve decided to meet in a pub tucked under Blackfriars Bridge this evening, chosen to accommodate her friends. They kiss, and savour the few minutes they have alone before the others come. Her eyes ask him what he thinks about the future again, about when he’ll give voice to that conversation.

Enter Emma, her best friend. A warm, girlish embrace between them, then a polite one for Luke.

‘How are you?’ he asks, trying.

‘Very well thank you. And you?’ and she stands back as though anticipating a stream of unwanted questions. She parries those that follow.

Jane arrives, more pleasantries exchanged.

‘How are things Jane?’ he asks the petite, strawberry blonde haired girl.

‘Looking forward to end of term. It’s been a busy few months!’ she says, her slightly quivering voice rising slightly. Joe and Kate, the other couple among this circle of friends, approach and Luke’s hands stretch in relaxation. The boys shake hands.

‘Alright mate. You okay for a pint?’ Joe, slightly older than them, asks.

‘You’re grand thanks,’ he replies. The girls giggle at the adjective.

Luke gazes at the sparkling river outside as he looks at Jen, absorbed in quiet conversation. Low sounds reverberate throughout the pub, no clamours of laughter or jest like such places back home.

Joe returns. ‘So how have you been?’ he asks Jane.

‘Fine thanks, looking forward to the end of term though. It’s been a busy few weeks.’

All three take long gulps of their drinks.

‘What about you Joe? What’s new?’ Luke asks impulsively, a smell of sizzling beef drifting through the air.

‘Oh, you know, long hours, busy days. Clients driving me mad. It’s pretty relentless mate.’ The smaller of the two men, wearing a blue, striped shirt, tells them about corporate life in Canary Wharf. Luke picks up some of it. Something about salary is mentioned. ‘But at least there’s Friday afternoon meetings with clients eh?’ Joe chirps.

‘Highlight of the week, is it?’

‘Absolutely, those 2pm meetings for a business pint… that never quite finish until 5pm,’ he laughs at himself, then grins. Luke smiles, sees Jane’s stone look, then laughs himself.

Before long he escapes to the toilet, stands at the urinal longer than he needs to before bracing himself to return.

During the long evening he notices Jen take a brief phone call and a few minutes later the arrival of a slim, smiling Asian girl. She taps Jen on the arm, a beaming smile but a pensiveness seems tucked under its surface. Jen takes something from her bag and gives it to her. Same age, Luke surmises, and notices her perky breasts. And to think I’d have closed off my options forever, he reflects.

‘Who was that?’ he asks later in the evening while he’s buying drinks.

‘That was San, from the school. I had to give her something for her class’ play.’

‘Where’s she from?’

‘From the north, Leeds.’

‘Doesn’t look like Leeds!’ he scratches his nose.

‘Don’t always choose the stereotype, okay?’ she pleads.

‘Alright, alright.’

Luke feels relief as they enter the night air, say their goodbyes and walk across Blackfriars’ Bridge. Big Ben, the yellow clock like a second moon, stands tall by the river, the London Eye now motionless. All along the South Bank people are still flowing in both directions, drifting amidst the warm summer air. He’s almost sorry to be preparing for the last rites.

‘That was a bit subdued, wasn’t it?’ he asks, trying to sound chirpy despite the statement.

‘What?’ surprise in her voice.

‘Just a bit subdued or something.’

‘How so?’

‘I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t, it’s nothing,’ and he remembers the craic of the night before.

‘Do you not like them? Are they not good enough for you?’ she turns to him with a probing look, as though asking it at last.

‘No, they are, of course. It was just a bit tame, that’s all.’

He quickly feels her linked arm loosen, the pace quicken and a new quietness. All along the tube ride, she says nothing. Her answers are short as they undress for bed.

‘Is everything okay?’ he asks, stroking her shoulder as they lie in bed, the light off.

‘Yeah, it’s fine,’ she replies and he sees a faint smile, one that helps him drift asleep.

After the alarm goes early – London; she has work, he reminds himself – she laughs at him struggling again with the early hour.

‘Well holla my sexy kitten,’ he grins when he senses her cheer.

They kiss, they cuddle, he fingers her until she gasps and shudders. Discord. Time. Renewal. Over breakfast he makes her laugh before they rise.

‘I’ll let you work on your pecks,’ she says.

‘No, no, my guns. I’ll be working on my guns!’ They kiss.

Ciarán lies motionless in his bed when Luke knocks and enters. ‘Come on! This is the biggest event of your life! It’s gym time!’

‘I can’t, I’m fucked, way too much last night.’

‘What are you talking about? We’ve been talking about this day for years!’

‘I can’t pal. I’m in ribbons, I’ll need at least a week to get going again. Take my pass, it’ll be grand.’

‘I will actually,’ he states, intent on making a point.

‘Do. The fob will say my name but they won’t check. Just say you thought I was able to allow friends use it if you’re snared.’

‘He’s in bits,’ Luke reveals to Jen. ‘You’d think he’d keep his fukken promise. I’m going to go anyway. I’ll walk you to the tube though. You’re cutting it tight with time babe.’

‘No, go ahead. I just want to finish off this art work for the class; it’s easier if I get it done here. I’ll see you later.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ she smiles and presses against him as they kiss. ‘I love you.’

‘Yeah right!’ and pushes her away gently. ‘You’re mad.’

It’s slightly quieter than usual along the streets around Edgware Road, many colours and garbs moving amidst the daily grind. Two men kiss each other’s cheeks as they meet under the awning of a café. A bus to Liverpool Street presents itself to Luke and he hops on.

He swipes the fob key quickly and no problem arises as he passes the gym’s turnstiles, two attendants talking to a vociferous customer. Walking by, Luke examines the female attendant: under twenty, platinum blonde hair, large breasts beneath the black t-shirt with matching tracksuit bottoms. He turns back on himself towards the weights by the entrance to check her well-toned body.

On the rowing machine he begins a steady, metronomic movement, pulling considerable weight. His arms bulge, the sweat pours from his face and neck, dripping down his sides, and with each demanding stretch he gains in focus. His iPod pipes racy dance music into his sweaty ears. He thinks he hears a sharp noise erupt in the distance, but it doesn’t deter him, as focused now as if rowing back in college.

From the rowing machines he walks to the exercise bikes, chooses a steep incline and pedals for fifteen minutes, iPod still motivating. Then the weights. The blonde is still there, now in a circle talking energetically with others. Luke wonders who among the staff she might please when the working day is over. Ten excruciating minutes on the weights, all his muscles seeming to creak, then his body says enough.

As he stretches down he notices scenes of emergency on all the television screens in front of treadmills. Everyone else is transfixed. ‘Police: “Major incident” on London Underground,’ the caption states. The news shows footage of people emerging from tube stations, ambulances and police cars streaming through the city. Among the tubes mentioned, as though the headline reel seems to slow down, is a Bakerloo line train from Edgware Road towards Paddington. A bus from Marble Arch to Tavistock Square was also targeted. The trains were bombed at about 8.40. He casts his iPod off.

Two young men are standing in the doorway, talking, when Luke gets down hurriedly to the changing room. ‘Come on, didn’t you hear the news?’ he asks. ‘I need to get through.’ He grabs his phone from his locker and tries ringing Jen but no coverage is available. ‘Christ!’ he runs outside and tries again, but there is nothing.

‘Have you got signal?’ he asks strangers and they shake their heads.

He dresses and walks in panic towards Paddington Station. Ambulances and police cars stream by in every direction, sirens competing for prominence. Some people seem to move in panic, others in slow motion. Time is immaterial and unquantifiable as he walks speedily across the city, intermittently running and trying to ring Jen. A woman peering over a railing is hysterical, her tearful jerks like wrenching, but he has no time to stop. Paddington is cordoned off when he gets there.

‘I’m sorry. I need to get through,’ he tells a peering policeman. ‘My girlfriend might have been on the tube that got hit.’

‘Nobody’s allowed through, young man.’

‘But I need to check,’ he raises his voice above the din of people talking by the yellow tape.

‘This is a prohibited area,’ the tall, slender man wearing a helmet declares, spreading his hand. ‘If you’re worried about somebody, you’ll have to call down to a station to make inquiries.’

‘Can’t you check for me?’ he demands.

‘I don’t appreciate your tone, young man. Check with a police station,’ he insists and rubs the shoulder of his jacket.

‘Please, please,’ Luke exclaims. ‘Please do this. I think my girlfriend might have been on that tube to Aldgate. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I need you to check.’

The policeman looks down, then turns and looks towards his vigilant colleagues, speaks into his walkie-talkie. Another officer approaches and takes Luke aside.

‘What’s the name of your girlfriend?’

‘Jennifer Halliday.’

At a slight distance the policeman makes a call, listens, says a few silent words then listens at great length before turning back. His face looks like that of one about to break bad news, and Luke stands motionless. ‘There’s been no news of anyone by that name,’ he says, looking steadily at him all the time, ‘but that’s not certainty that she wasn’t affected. We haven’t identified everyone yet.’

He walks, intermittently running, to Wembley but when he gets to her school he only finds a caretaker and a couple of women standing by the school wall talking. ‘Did you see Jen? Has anybody seen Jen?’ he asks but they shrug their shoulders.

‘They’ve all gone for the day,’ declares the janitor and the matter suddenly seems closed.

‘Gone?’ he says confusedly, but the watch of one of the women reveals it is far later than he imagined.

‘A girl in her early twenties, auburn hair and brown eyes,’ he tries to explain, but the caretaker looks at him dismissively.

He is bereft of ideas, then turns to leave, half-believing he might see her emerge from one of the city’s pockets but all he sees are the normal but slightly slower motions of a July day. Where to, he asks himself, almost dizzy. He imagines her in one of the hospitals, battling in bruises and blood, or perhaps on a slab, stone cold.

Back at the flat there is no one, no trace of life or movement in many hours. Only the church he peered into yesterday comes to mind now. Without thinking of distance and despite the tiredness in his legs he begins the walk across suburbs and the city’s heart towards the refuge. No buses are to be seen across the city but helicopters hover overhead, sirens still streaming from all directions. Some sirens compete from hidden spots, a swirling scream alternating with a harsher, alarming cacophony. All are laden with danger, inescapable, each with rhythms, like clocks ticking the final tocks before a person dies. TV screens at electronic goods shops’ windows show scenes of carnage, the monitors like mirrors of his fear.

The afternoon feels like it’s lengthening now, and a higher number than usual of London dwellers are congregating outside pubs sipping pints. ‘I never even got into the office till noon,’ he overhears one, ‘and there was barely anyone in. We were told to go home,’ the young man adds, cheer in his voice. Where are you, Luke asks the girl he’s searching for. Where can I find you? All that he had, half brushed away in fear of missing out on what he’d never tasted, bears down on him now as all that he has lost. How foolish he had been, how exposed to his own immaturity.

All the city’s noises are swiftly shut away when he closes the church door behind him. A woman sits at a pew towards the front. Luke remains at the back, closes his eyes. From the silence, he hears a sniffle and looks up. The frail, grey-haired lady leans over bent-double, and the trembling head confirms the sobs. Has she lost a son or a husband? Could she have ever imagined her life would be gripped by such terror?

‘I’m sorry to bother you, but are you okay?’ he approaches the old woman.

She turns and smiles, a single tear rolling from her eye.

‘I’m fine, young man, thank you. It’s just my dear husband.’ There’s a smile despite her watery, tired eyes.

‘Was he on one of the tubes?’

‘The tubes? What happened the tubes?’ her ignorance of events as clear as her words.

‘What happened your husband?’

‘He’s no longer with me in this world. He’s gone a year today,’ and the brief composure recedes. She turns her head away.

‘Were you married long?’

‘Over fifty years,’ she replies. ‘We were in love as much the day he died as the day we met.’

‘That’s marvellous,’ and Luke wells up, this new sensation tugging at him amidst all his heightened anxiety.

‘We were devoted to each other. His interest in everything about me never waned. He wanted to know about everything.’ The composure and smile return.

Luke offers his sympathies, places a gentle hand on hers, then says goodbye. The sirens still scream and compete in the world into which he emerges. As he walks along the streets near St Paul’s, policemen stand in groups, observing, some stock-still, others talking to each other and into contraptions. He asks another to check for news of Jen, but there is no joy.

‘When will the mobile coverage be back?’ he pleads, his heart experiencing sharp nicks again, but the policeman offers no solace. ‘The only thing we’re sure of is that the buses are back up and running.’

Evening’s calm has fallen on Edgware Road when he steps off the bus. He spots Ciarán outside the pub by the tube station with a small group he doesn’t recognise. An unusually large number of patrons are gathered for a weeknight, calmly sipping their drinks.

‘Ciarán! Have you heard from Jen?’ he approaches.

‘No. Are you alright?’ his friend counters, loudly.

‘I can’t find her. She might have been on the tube that was bombed between here and Paddington. She was late leaving the house.’

‘I’ve no signal,’ he takes a swig of his pint. ‘I haven’t been able to get through to anyone all day.’

‘What are you doing down here?’ Luke asks sharply, clenching his fist.

‘God, I was in bits this morning. I slept on. Just as well. And when I woke and heard the news I knew work wasn’t going to be on the agenda so I came down here for a hair of the dog. There’s been a good crew for most of the day.’

‘Jen is missing. I went into the city on my own because of you and have been looking for her all day and all you could do was go on the piss? Nothing else crossed your mind, no?’

‘There was nothing I could have done,’ he defends, the pint placed on a ledge. Those he’s drinking with look over at the heightened talk.

‘Anything else would have been more appropriate,’ he counters. ‘Anything. I’ll talk to you later.’

He enters the park adjoining the church off the main road, memories of that Saturday in Camberwell returning. The shades are lengthening behind the gravestones lying against the low, grey walls. On a seat he sits, hands clasped, feeling as vigilant as the old lady in the church, looking around at the majestic, leaf-clad trees then down at the swathes of grass.

From the corner of his eye, he sees a figure enter the park. He immediately recognises the pace. Their eyes meet and they run towards each other.

‘Oh my god! Where were you? I thought you were dead! I looked all over the city, everywhere! Your tube was at the same time as…’

They embrace, kiss, cling. She tugs at his arms as she gazes at his face.

‘I was that close,’ she says, measuring a tiny gap between two fingers. ‘I’m so glad to see you. You have no idea how much I love you.’

‘Where did you go? I tried the school, the whole city!’

‘That girl who came into the pub last night? She’s Muslim. She became really quiet once she heard the news this morning. I knew there was something up. When we left school I talked to her and went back to her flat. She’s worried her brother might have been involved. You have to keep this to yourself, okay? He moved out of home, up north, about three months ago and hasn’t been in touch with the family really since then. She’s not sure though. I can’t go into it all. She tried ringing her parents but couldn’t get through.’

‘How sure is she?’

‘She just has a horrible feeling. She doesn’t think her parents know what he might have been doing.’

‘God, he nearly killed you and you’re consoling his sister.’

She kisses him once more.

‘It’s amazing what’s going on out there in a city, beyond our own little world,’ he reflects. ‘We always assume we’re safe.’

‘I know,’ and she shakes her head quietly, clinging to him, the sound of people chatting over pints in the distance.

They turn towards home, hands held, birdsong among the sounds. All the dangers race through Luke’s mind: the tube stations like sitting ducks; the places of worship quietly tucked in beneath the bigger buildings, also possible targets, inspiring and inciting men’s minds, for better or worse.

‘I’ll keep you safe,’ he pledges, sensing the fear in his own words as he says it.

© Stephen Dineen, 2014

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