Under The Streets Of London – Episode 68

Ray shifted and Bertie looked from one to the other and then impatiently to the door.

“Can I go, Mam? Please?”

“In a minute, Bertie.” Mary put out a hand. “It was you, wasn’t it?” she said softly.

“What?” Ray mumbled.

“The money. You gave us the money and the Irish lads theirs, too.”

“Dunno what you’re talking about,” Ray muttered, but he’d flushed scarlet and now Bertie had heard.

“You gave us the mystery parcel, Mr Matthews? Wow! You’re like Saint Nicholas himself.”

“Nonsense,” Ray said gruffly.

“But it was you,” Mary pressed until eventually Ray shrugged.

“What use is money to a single old bloke like me, eh? How could I stand there, with it filling my till from all the thirsty navvies, when you lot were suffering? It would have taken a heart of stone.”

Mary shook her head disbelievingly. To her shame, she’d always assumed that Ray’s heart was made of stone, or at least of cash. Yet all this time he’d been looking for ways to spend his money on others.

“And there were we thinking you were grumpy,” she said wonderingly.

At that Ray’s head came up.

“I am grumpy! Just maybe not quite so heartless as you thought, or as I thought, to be honest.

“This whole tunnel business has been a messy one, but maybe it’s forced us to stand together, and maybe I’ve liked that.”

That was true. Mary grabbed his hands.

“How will we ever repay you?”

Ray looked horrified at the suggestion but Bertie was quick off the mark.

“I know,” he said in his piping little voice. “Let him take me to the station, Mam. Now! I can hear the train coming!”

“May I?” Ray asked and Mary’s heart melted.

“Of course. I’d be delighted. And you must come and eat with us later.”

“We’ll see,” Ray said, letting Bertie drag him away, but Mary saw him smile and hoped he’d join them.

“Who’d have thought it?” she said to John as he wormed his way through the crowds to check on her. “Ray Matthews is our mystery benefactor!”

“Ray?” John’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.

Mary nodded.

“I think he’s lonely.”

John looked after the landlord, being pulled eagerly down the street by a determined Bertie.

“Well, he won’t be lonely any more,” he said ruefully. “I think poor Ray may just have bitten off a bigger mouthful than he knows with our lad!

“Now, come on, everyone’s heading to the station. Let’s leave William in charge of his shop, shall we, and give ourselves a break?”

Mary looked up at her husband, astonished.

“A break!” she teased. “Leave William in charge? Are you feeling quite well, John?”

“Hey!” he protested. “Surely a man can take his wife out! Juice, my lady?”

And with a flourish, John handed Mary a cup of William’s finest fresh juice and offered her his arm to escort her out to see the first-ever underground train reach its destination.

*  *  *  *

The cheers as the train pulled into the station were phenomenal. They were louder even than the roar of the water that terrible night of the Fleet sewer, or the crashing of the earth way back when the tunnel had first collapsed.

That had been the day Eliza had first set her eyes on Niall.

She remembered him lifting the great girder with his brother and marvelled at how far he had come, to now be sitting so smart and proud just behind the great John Fowler.

And rightly so, for without Niall the works might even now be just a scar across London and not the triumph that they were proving.

Not that it had been the most comfortable journey. Steam filled the tunnel, stinging your eyes, and the smoke from the fires was thick and smelly.

Niall was working on an enclosed carriage, neat enough to fit safely inside the tunnel, ready for the full opening of the line, but for now they had made do with open ones.

It wasn’t perfect, but luckily the wonder of travelling beneath the very streets of London had filled the visiting dignitaries with enough excitement to keep their minds off their clogged throats and sooty clothes, and they were all smiling like Amazonian adventurers as they emerged into the crowded streets.

“Niall!” she heard someone call. “Niall, over here!”

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.