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Torfaen Tales

Didn't We Have A Lovely Time (The Day We Went to London)

It was a bit of a scramble but we eventually got to Newport Bus Station. My Gran, my Auntie Kate, my Mam and me fell out of the taxi and hurried up the steps onto the London coach. The driver was already revving his engine and making impatient hissing noises with the door release.

"Where's my handbag, Our Claire?" wailed my Gran.

I backtracked down the steps of the coach and headed for the taxi, then looked up at Gran as she stood on the steps.

"Gran, it's on your arm," I bellowed, gesturing wildly.

Eventually we took our seats and I let out a sigh of relief as the shops and houses of Newport slipped by.

We'd booked up to see a show in London, and to spend a night in a posh hotel. At least it had better be posh considering the amount of money it was costing us! And we'd have a bit of time in the afternoon and next morning to see the sights and do some shopping. I was looking forward to it as I hadn't been to London since I was about ten.

As soon as the driver had welcomed us aboard Auntie Kate commandeered the microphone.

"Hiya everyone, my name's Kate and I'd like to sing you a little song:

Didn't we have a lovely time the day we went to London Gran woke up late, we got in a state And I almost forgot to pack my best dress Our Mary got jam all over her coat And had to go back to change it But now we're all here, so let's have a beer As the miles go by."

It was a bit too early into the journey for the passengers to have acquired Auntie's spirit of group travel, therefore Auntie Kate only got a feeble smattering of applause. She sat down again with good grace but I could tell her ego was a bit deflated.

The miles did indeed go by, and before too long we pulled into London's Victoria Coach Station. Our hotel was supposed to be only ten minutes' walk from the Coach Station, but half an hour later we were still wandering around the streets. Gran sat down on her case and fanned herself with a magazine. The sky hung blue and hard above us and the pavements were hot and litter-strewn.

"This is Glenister Place," pondered Mam, screwing up her eyes against the bright sun. She'd been swapping from sunglasses to reading glasses and was now trying to read the map au naturel. "Glenister Close should be over there somewhere," she said, pointing over to the right.

She was right, and we soon found the Glenister Hotel. The front view and the foyer certainly seemed worthy of the amount of money we were spending to stay there.

We were directed to the third floor. We'd booked two twin rooms, but Gran and Auntie Kate's room contained a double bed. Auntie and I backtracked to the reception desk where we explained our problem.

The receptionist seemed to have insufficient grasp of the English language to be able to understand our difficulty. Or else maybe she had a problem with our Welsh accents. After a ten minute circular conversation we gave up and returned to the third floor.

"It's okay, Auntie. I'll share with Mam, you and Gran can have the twin bed room," I volunteered. From Dad's constant jokes I knew Mam snored like a dragon, but what else could I do? It was better for me and Mam to share than Auntie sharing a bed with a woman to whom she was only related by marriage.

After we'd freshened up, we decided it was time to start exploring the great city of London. We headed for Madame Tussaud's and the Planetarium. Gran wasn't totally sure what the Planetarium was all about but she humoured the rest of us.

But the show was well worth the journey. I'd seen the film of Billy Elliott but the stage show was a total revelation - the dancing was fantastic.

Back at our hotel we headed to the bar for a nightcap. Without Mam noticing I slipped a double gin into a glass of lemonade. For me, not for her. And it worked: if she'd snored at all I was totally unaware of it.

The next morning I decided I could certainly get used to rising at 8am and tucking into a full English cooked breakfast which had been cooked by someone else. My normal weekday involved rising at six and bolting down a cup of coffee and a piece of toast before heading off to the factory for a day of circuit board assembly. But I knew that a repetitive, mundane job was better than no job at all. And I'd been lucky to get two days off when I wanted them.

After breakfast we headed back to Victoria Coach Station to deposit our bags in the left luggage facility. Then off on the tube for a morning of shopping. The only trouble was that Auntie Kate got us onto the wrong tube line and we ended up quite some distance from Oxford Street. So we consulted the map on the platform, walked down a bewildering sequence of corridors and stepped onto another train, hoping we'd got it right this time.

There was nothing I really wanted to buy, but I was looking forward to a good morning of browsing in London's top stores.

My anticipation was punctuated by a loud BOOM and a pall of acrid smoke. Bits of debris flew through the air. Then the lights went out. We were in total darkness. I clutched Mam's arm. "Are you all right?"

"Y-yes, dear."

"Gran? Auntie? Are you still there?"

"Yes," they replied in unison. "What's going on?" whimpered Gran.

"Some sort of explosion," muttered Auntie Kate. "Bloody London. The shower in our room wasn't working properly, and now the train's broken down."

Indeed it had stopped, and we were in complete darkness. There was a moment of silence before people started to panic. Somewhere ahead in the carriage a woman was screaming for her child.

"It's okay, everyone," said a man to our left. "Just stay in your seats. I'm sure we'll be up and running again shortly. Stay calm and no-one will get hurt."

"I've got news for you, mate! I'm hurt already," groaned another man.

"Well I'm not staying here another minute!" shouted a woman. "How can we open these doors? Is there any way we can break a window?"

Someone had a little penlight torch. We could see the tiny beam bobbing around. The air was thick with the acrid smell of burning yet thankfully there were no flames.

A woman ahead of us started to panic. "How long will it take them to come and help us. Does anyone know what's happened. God, we could be down here for hours!"

"Keep calm, missus," chipped in another voice. "We'll get out of here one way or another."

One of the men managed to push through to the next carriage ahead. He said he could feel the door between the two carriages had been broken by the explosion. He inhaled sharply.

"Are you OK?" called the broad Cockney voice.

"Uh, yeah," the man replied. "Just stay where you are for goodness' sake."

"Why's that, mate?"

"Tell you in a minute when I come back."

"I think I've cut my head on something," said Gran tearfully. "It's ever so sore."

Mam felt in the dark and agreed. "Yes, love. I think you're bleeding. Hang on, I've got a tissue in my bag."

I heard the man return to our carriage. He and the Cockney were holding a whispered conversation but I couldn't hear what they were saying. Then he cleared his throat.

"Okay, folks. I've found a way out. Now the next carriage seems to be the one where the explosion happened. The side's ripped out of it, and if we're careful we should be able to get out onto the track."

"What about the electricity?"

"Seems to be off. Must have gone off when the lights went out."

"What if it comes on again?"

"We'll have to take that chance. Or should I say, it's up to each of us as individuals whether we choose to take that chance. If you want to wait for help, stay put. If not, follow me. I suggest we form a line, hold onto the person in front of you. I'll try to lead you by the safest path."

I thought my eyes might have become used to the dark by now, and that I might be able to see something, but it was totally black. Mam, Gran, Auntie Kate and I thought we'd all prefer to take our chances and get off the train. Our leader seemed to think we'd be all right if we avoided treading on the rails. At least we'd be doing something. Waiting in the darkened carriage with people sobbing, coughing and moaning all around was giving me the creeps. What if folk were dying, or perhaps already dead?

"Are you coming with us?" asked a foreign voice to my left.

"Yes," I replied.

"Then hold on to me, and ask the rest of your group to hold onto the person in front."

We picked our way forward in silence, through the twisted metal and rubber of the door into the next carriage. As in our carriage, people were whimpering and crying, and some were trying to find their way out of the wreckage. I stumbled in the dark over something that felt like a trouser-clad leg. The person made no complaint and I hoped whoever it was was still alive.

It was tricky getting out of the carriage. I was first, and felt a bit panicked when the woman ahead of me suddenly lost contact. But within a moment of hearing her feet landing on the ground I felt her hand reach up and touch my leg.

"Come on," she called. "Lie on your stomach and let yourself slip down."

I did so, surprised that the ground was so far away. Then I reached up and helped Gran down. She got a bit hysterical and I had to do my utmost to convince her it was all right to let go of the train. I leaned her sobbing, heaving little body against the wall of the tunnel and reached up for Mam. She's taller and made the drop more easily. Last of all was Auntie Kate.

"Bloody hell, I've lost one of my shoes somewhere back there," she grumbled. "Cost me a fortune they did! I'm going to have to put the other one in my handbag 'cos I feel silly dotting along like Jake the Peg."

"Oh Kate, shut up!" said Mam with a giggle. "Anyway, what's the use of one shoe? Just leave it behind!"

Our human chain assembled in the tunnel and moved forward under the guidance of our leader, who said his name was Paul. Saint Paul, one of the women dubbed him. She reckoned he'd been sent by God to lead us out of this mess.

I heaved a sigh of relief as we moved along the row of carriages. People inside them were talking loudly, agitated and confused. Some were crying. I wasn't aware I was holding my breath until we left the train behind. I took a deep breath of the dusty, smoky air and headed off into the unknown holding onto the foreign woman's elbow, with Gran closely attached to my arm.

Eventually we came to a place in the tunnel where we could see green lights on the wall. We paused.

"You know what that means, folks," said Paul. "Electricity. Now we really do have to be careful. Would you rather I went on ahead on my own until I find a station, or would you prefer we all went together? I'd suggest a show of hands but we can't see each other," he said with laughter in his voice.

We decided almost unanimously that it would be safer for us to wait there. There were around twenty of us, and we were all worried about getting electrocuted or run down by a train. So Paul went off on his own with the instruction that if no-one came within an hour someone else should set off for help.

"How will we know when an hour is up?" asked one of the women.

"Has anyone got a watch they can see? Luminous hands, a lighted face?" was Paul's response.

"I've got a talking watch," called a woman at the back. She demonstrated it.

"Cool! Where'd you get it?" was the response from a young lad.

"From the blind association. I'm blind."

"You must be used to the dark then, dear," said my Gran.

"Oh," she replied. "I can tell light from dark, but I can't see a great deal else. This is just as scary for me as it is for you."

Having agreed our plan, Paul set off down the tunnel. His footsteps became fainter, and then we were on our own.

"Well, we can't really play 'I spy with my little eye' to while away the time," said Auntie Kate. "Why don't we sing something?"

I couldn't help thinking how ridiculous it was: twenty people standing there in the dark singing 'We all live in a Yellow Submarine'. But it raised our spirits a bit and we moved on to 'My Way'. Then a woman screamed. The singing faltered.

"What's wrong?" called the Cockney man.

"Something ran over my foot. I think it was a rat!"

"Don't worry, missus. You probably gave it more of a scare than it gave you."

"Ugh, rats!" she sobbed. "Dirty, filthy things!"

"Hey, I think I can see a light over there!" called someone else.

She was right. We could see a torch beam bobbing towards us.

"Hallo!" we all called in unison.

And so we were led to safety by the emergency services. Three strong, uniformed men in charge of the situation. They had been aware from the computer system that something was wrong down here, but Paul had made his way out to King's Cross station and alerted them to where we were. They told us that it was likely a power surge had caused the explosion.

And so before long we reached the deserted, eerie underground platforms of King's Cross station and made our way up the escalators into daylight. The area around the station was cordoned off with plastic tape, and the streets were full of police, firemen and ambulance crews.

What a sorry looking lot we were, soot stained and battered. My Gran had a deep cut on the top of her head, so she had to go to hospital. There was no way we were letting her out of our sight in the situation so we all went along together. As we left King's Cross in a minibus which had been commandeered for the emergency I was amazed how quiet and deserted the streets of London had become. They took us across the river to some big hospital and sat us down to wait with a load of other people who were similarly bruised and cut. They'd come from other parts of London where there seemed to have been at least a couple more similar explosions. There was a rumour that it was terrorists, not a power surge, that had caused the problem.

Then I thought of Dad at home, wondering whether he'd seen anything on the news and was worried about us. He would have got home from night shift around nine a.m. and it was now getting on for eleven. I went outside to use my mobile, which was fortunately still in my handbag and still working.

Dad picked up on the first ring. "Oh, our Rachel! I've seen on the news about the trouble in London! Are you all right?"

"Yes, Dad. Gran's got a bit of a cut on her head, but Mam and Auntie Kate and I are fine. What are they saying on the news?"

"They thought at first it was a power surge caused the explosions, but now they're saying it was suicide bombers. Quite a few people dead. And you got mixed up in it!"

"Yes, Dad. We were on the underground, on a train. The carriage next to ours exploded."

"But you're sure you're all right?"

"Yes, Dad."

My blood ran cold, but I swallowed my panic as Dad said he was coming to London in the car to pick us up. I stopped a passer-by to find out what hospital we were in. Hopefully by the time Dad got here Gran would have been seen by a doctor and we would be free to leave.

Sure enough, when I got back to where Mam and the others were waiting there was a television fixed to the wall giving a running commentary of the morning's events from several locations. Underground trains and a bus blown to bits by suicide bombers. Mam went outside to ring Dad on her mobile. She was feeling a bit shaky and wanted to hear his voice. I stayed in the vast waiting room with Gran and Auntie Kate, glued to the TV. Then when Mam came back, Auntie Kate went out to phone her family.

In this way time went by, and at last Gran was taken into a cubicle, patched up and pronounced fit to go home. After what seemed an incredibly long time, Dad appeared through the revolving door and swept us all up in his arms. He didn't usually go in for public displays of affection but today was different.

Even with Mam's map it took us ages to find our way out of London to the M25 and then the M4. We were all tired, and navigation was never Mam's greatest attribute. It was late afternoon by the time we reached the hallowed Second Severn Crossing, rising up on the landscape like the glorious gates to heaven. Back to our own part of the planet. Back to comparative safety. Yes, didn't we have a lovely time the day we went to London .

By Karenne Griffin

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