Column: The last train from London
When I laid my essay on Dickens’ use of history in the box at the head of the lecture hall that sunny spring day in ’85, my graduate studies at University of London were complete. The lectures I’d heard in the months preceding were no standard fare, if only to American ears. That was a long time ago.
I’ve all but forgotten those lectures, but on the day I turned in that essay, I had no idea that the coming hours would make bedrock the youthful notion that, on balance, people are good.
I had less than an hour get to Paddington Station and catch the late train to Cardigan, Wales. There I would ferry across the Irish Sea to Dublin, catch another train to Galway, and meet up with a classmate at South Park. It all sounded simple enough, and it all began with a walk to Russell Square and maybe a half dozen tube stops with a change at King’s Cross.
All was going according to plan as the train rolled westward through the Paddington marshalling yards. I yearned for rural scenery, but the soporific train rhythm made heavy eyelids. I rolled my faux-Baracuta jacket into a pillow and wedged it between the seat back and window. It was a six-hour ride, I reasoned. There’d be plenty of time to watch the world go by after a snooze.
I woke well after 8:30 to the sight of dusk lit ocean beyond coastal city lights. The train hadn’t slowed, and the people around me showed no signs of readying for departure. When we finally reached the station, I stepped onto the platform only to see in the distance the 9 p.m. ferry heading to sea.
I hailed a cab and asked the driver to take me to the terminal. As he drove, I inquired whether he knew when the next ferry would depart. He informed me the Dublin Ferry would not be back until 9 a.m., but that the Dun Laoghaire ferry left at 3. When I told him I’d hang out in the terminal for the 3 a.m., the cabbie asked me to wait and walked over to a pay phone. About a minute later he returned.
“You can’t stay in the terminal,” he said. “It closes down between shifts. I’ll take you to my aunt’s B&B and pick you up in time to catch the ferry.”
He drove me to a quaint house on a promontory above the bay. After introductions, the cabbie left and my host took me to small room with a single bed. I thanked her and she bade me goodnight.
At 2:15 the smell of bangers and brewing tea roused me, so I collected my belongings and walked to the kitchen.
“Eat up,” said my gracious host. “You’ll get no meal on the night ferry.”
As I ate, we shared pleasantries uninterrupted until her nephew knocked at the door. I thanked her and asked what I owed. She declined payment and wished me safe passage.
At the pier, I asked the cabbie to take some money to his aunt. He too declined. I paid the fare and thanked him for all he and his aunt had done.
Somehow I thought an Irish Sea voyage would be like crossing the English Channel. Time-wise it was more like taking Amtrak to Denver, only longer and tempestuous, too. When I finally stepped onto land, the sun was well high, and the pier bustled with departing lorries, autos and pedestrians. I surveyed the area for transportation options into Dublin. Spotting a rail by the road, I headed that direction.
By the time I got to the rail, the traffic and the people oddly vanished — suddenly not a soul around. A sign explained train schedule, mostly in Gaelic except the words, “closed weekends.” With no other choice, I set out north.
After about a mile I came to a sign that said “Dublin, 10.6 km.” As I tried to remember the mileage of a 10K, I heard an automobile approaching. I stepped up on the curb and a Volkswagen van passed, only to slow down, stop and back up. As the driver came into view, right elbow resting on the open window, I noticed he wore a black short sleeve shirt and a clerical collar.
He asked me where I was headed. I told him I was looking for Irish Rail in Dublin.
“I’ll take you to Heuston Station,” he said, “if you don’t mind stopping at the TV station so I can drop off some tapes.”
With the priest’s help, I made the train in plenty of time, and the balance of my trip ended as wrinkle-free as it had begun.
On arrival in Galway, I walked to South Park. My classmate had not arrived yet, so I walked down to the shore. Standing there taking in the North Atlantic, saltwater licking the cobble beneath my Stan Smiths, it occurred to me that my journey from London would not have been possible but for the kindness of strangers.
That journey did not end at the Atlantic’s edge.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.
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