London A – Z: A Memoir

Picture Credits: lukas-vanatko

The “A – Z” is a pocket-sized street atlas of the city of London.   

Alsatian  That first night in London, you opened your bedroom door to find a large dog lying on the landing. Alsatian. Standing there in your floral nightie, the breed name dinged through your sleepy brain, conjuring old school textbook chapters on Nazi-occupied Germany. 

Bladder This dog thing happened in Autumn 1986, just after your 24th birthday. Even though you were in your nightie and your bladder was full, this wasn’t really your bedroom. Instead, that second-floor room with the pale pink walls came with your new barmaid job, and you had woken and stumbled across to that door because you needed to pee. Now, with this dog (see “A” above) lying there, you tiptoed back to your single bed where you lay on your back and listened to the London night traffic. 

Country, n.  The United Kingdom, where you had just landed, has four component countries. Though, according to Wikipedia, “the descriptive name one uses for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be controversial, with the choice often revealing one’s political preferences.”  Country, a. In your native (southern) Ireland, teachers, college pals and Dublin city bus conductors would hear your rural accent and tag you as being “country” or “from down the country.”     

Donegal Your pub boss-man, who lived in an apartment at the other end of that upstairs landing, hailed from County Donegal. However, from his English accent, to his politician’s haircut, to his Anglo-only drinking friends, most people could never detect his Irishness (see “P” below).

Emigrant, emigré  Sometimes an emigrant departs their own country in order to live or stay living. Sometimes, they leave because the leaving is less painful, less shameful than staying.  Since the 1700s, the Irish are particularly good at being emigrants. Later, in the 21st century, many off-shore Irish will tag themselves as “expats.” Note: Emigrants are not the same as asylees or refugees.

Fear  Since graduating from your Dublin college, a slow-boil fear has thrummed inside–both while working your Irish government teacher’s job and while figuring out how to flee that job. After you fled, you moved back into your parents’ house down the country. There, in the daily newspaper, you spotted an advertisement for this London pub job. Live-in, free accommodation.  These words made you fantasize about a city and about mornings when you could eat your breakfast without watching the disappointment, the disgust in your parents’ eyes.   

Glasses In your free room with the pale pink walls and the pink corner hand basin, you night-dreamed about pint glasses, G & T glasses, half-pint glasses, brandy, whiskey glasses et al. In those dreams, you were sloshing something into or over the wrong glass–all while the boss-man watched from his barstool (see “F” above and “S” below). In real life, during your lunchtime and evening bar shifts, he often departed his barstool to come behind the bar to fix your latest mistake. Once he was out of the customers’ earshot, he hissed at you: “You’re going to run me bloody bankrupt.”  

Home The morning cleaning woman, also Irish, tossed this word (home) around.  Sometimes she meant your native land. Sometimes she meant the nearby flat where she and her (also immigrant) husband and kids lived. Over your morning tea, you learned that their London-born kids were “shandies,” as in, half beer and half lemonade, as in, first generation. Sometimes, you silently begged her to say, “Look, why don’t you come home to ours for a bite of supper tonight?”

P.S. You didn’t know this in 1986, but after London, for the rest of your life, you will always pause before you say that word, “home.”   

Irish Republican Army (IRA)   Two years earlier, in September 1984, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) had bombed the Brighton Hotel while then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her conservative party cabinet were staying there.  That bomb killed five people and injured 31. Thatcher escaped. Back (pause) home, in southern Ireland, you had known or cared very little about the sectarian war up north. Ditto for all previous, off-shore IRA bombings.

Job  As well as the free bedroom, the agreed price for that London job included a breakfast and lunch of warmed up sausage rolls or scotch eggs–or whatever hadn’t sold at yesterday’s pub lunch. Some days, when you worked the lunch counter, you wondered if everything got sold, what would you eat next morning? This never happened, and, over and over, you told yourself that this job was infinitely better than teaching children in a freezing parochial school (your old job). 

Kid We kid ourselves about all kinds of things. Even in the worst of setups, we don’t interrogate our own fallacies and fantasies.   “You’ve honestly got to be kidding.” Back then or now, who ever dares to say that to themselves?

Lunge  After that first night with the Alsatian, you tried again. And again. But every night, that dog lay stretched just beyond your bedroom threshold. Where was this dog during daylight hours? One Saturday night, you heard the tick-swish doggie sound on the back stairs.  From your bed you pictured him (her?) down there, patrolling from pub window to window. Who had he (she?) been trained to look for, to lunge at? Another night, after the boss-man let you and the live-out barmaid have an after-work drink, you were really, really bursting to pee. So you set your hand on the door jam and arched your leg high to step over. The hackles rose and the Alsatian gave a low growl—the precursor to a doggie lunge?  You didn’t wait to find out.

Mathematics  You have always been bad at them.  Still, you wonder if most of life can’t be reduced to a balance sheet of what you are now and what, someday, you hope to be or acquire (see “e” above).  It could also be boiled down to a set of math puzzlers. For example, if a dog’s girth measures XYZ meters, just how high would a girl need to arch her leg to climb across? Or: how many milliliters of urine can accumulate in a human bladder before it causes cystitis? Or: thanks to her country-girl skills at hoisting herself over acres of dry-stone walls—walls that had been built by her father and grandfather and great-grandfather—would she be equally adept at  hand-hoisting herself up onto that pink hand basin to pee?     

Navvy Early in this job, the seasoned, live-out barmaid issued the boss-man’s no-serve rule: “No serving anyone in boots.” You asked. She clarified. Ah! Just as you’d suspected, this rule was not about footwear. Instead, it referred to Irish navvies (construction workers). Daytimes, due to the size of that bar and the issue of depth perception, this no-boots rule was hard to apply or enforce. Nighttimes, you rehearsed that scene for that day when you would have to cite this rule to a navvy, a thirsty man who smelled or looked like your father.    

Object, v.  Years later, in your 21st-century woke-ness, you will wonder why you did not do this (object), or why you did not become a conscientious objector,n. Nope. Fear is not an alibi or an excuse.  But how about that free room with its pink walls and handbasin-turned-night-toilet?

Passing  Speaking of “woke-ness,” you will learn that there is a term for what your boss-man was doing. He was “passing” as English. Later, in a hateful part of your heart, you will also say that he was passing as human. Later, too, you will do a little of this (passing) yourself, in America. Not because you don’t want to be Irish, but because some days, you will be too busy, in too much of a rush to answer the “who-are-you” questions.  

Quintessential  From its cottage-styled windows, to its dark-wood bar and banquettes, the Rose & Crown pub, where you worked and lived, was quintessentially English, such as one might see in a tourist brochure or website.

Race, racism  On your afternoon rambles around north London, you saw how, in contrast to 1980s Ireland, there were many Black and brown faces. Why did none of these faces appear at the bar in The Rose & Crown?  Oh, wait. Once, half-way through a busy lunch, a Black man appeared in that pub doorway. He glanced inside, then retreated back outside as if he’d seen enough to know that this place was not for him.  

Surveilled   Mornings, when you and the cleaning woman stood whispering, you listened for the boss-man’s footstep on the back stairs. At night, when you tried to fill and tabulate someone’s drinks order, you knew he was watching from his bar stool.  Afternoons, when you stopped at a corner shop for cigarettes and salty snacks, the lady shopkeeper and newsagent watched your every move. When you asked for your brand of cigarettes, she always winced at your accent. Amid all this, the Alsatian kept watch at your bedroom door. 

StiffThis is an American slang word for the act of not paying, as promised, for an agreed service or job. One morning the boss-man summoned you to his office. There, he said that, due to tanking pub sales, he could no longer afford a full-time barmaid. You could keep your free room for two nights, and he would leave your final paycheck under the bar cash register or till.  Next day, after a fitful, sleepless night, you checked for your money.

Terrorist  In that corner shop, where a stack of Evening Standards sat between you and the lady shopkeeper (the one who winced at your accent), you wanted to ask her this: “From my thick hair to my green eyes, to my soft voice, who or what do I really, really look or sound like to you?”

Ugly There are plenty of ugly cities, but London is not one of them. Millions of folks travel to see its Trafalgar Square, its British museum et al. In fact, years later, you will fly to Heathrow Airport to join these tourists with their cameras and their A-Z guide maps. On that trip, London will feel cinematic, not real, as if you had never been there before (see “V” below).

Vantage point  How you see a place depends on what parts you are allowed or have the leisure to see. It also depends on where you have flown from –whether (see “H” above) you have traveled from a place where your favorite coffee mug sits on a shelf and where your winter coat hangs on the back of a door. Big cities look different when a hotel room key sits snug in your pocket.  

Waste Later, you will regret all of your wasted months and years and botched attempts at a grown-up life. Later, you will want to erase or photoshop that girl standing there in her nightie, staring at an Alsatian dog.

Xenophobia See “P” and “R” above.

Zonked  On departure day, your money hasn’t been left under that cash register or till (see “S” above).  When you knocked on his apartment and office doors, there was no response.  Still, even without your check, you splurged for a taxi (not the Tube) to the British Rail night train to take you to the night ferry to take you back across the Irish sea and (pause) home. In that taxi, after a jittery, sleepless night in that pink room, you were bone-weary tired, aka, zonked. Tonight, would the Alsatian automatically sense that there was nobody behind that bedroom door—nobody to protect or protect against? You didn’t bloody care.  Neither did you care that, while your London black cab nudged through the afternoon traffic, your middle-aged London cabbie kept gawking at you in his rear-view. You didn’t care because by then, you were all surveilled, all gawkedout. 

Outside Eusten station, your middle-aged cabbie swiveled all the way around to face you. His face was kind; his eyes soft. He said, “Look, I have to ask you this, love: Are you… are you all right?” 

Zonked as you were, you managed to push out four words: “I’m fine. Thank you.”

Áine Greaney

Áine Greaney

Áine Greaney is an Irish author who now lives and writes on the seacoast north of Boston. In addition to her five books, her short essays and fiction have been published in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland and Canada. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Litro, Creative Nonfiction, The Fish Anthology, Another Chicago Magazine, Books Ireland and other publications. She teaches expressive and creative writing in community and healthcare settings. Her sixth book, a young adult/crossover novel set in Boston and a remote island off the west of Ireland, is under completion.

Áine Greaney is an Irish author who now lives and writes on the seacoast north of Boston. In addition to her five books, her short essays and fiction have been published in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland and Canada. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Litro, Creative Nonfiction, The Fish Anthology, Another Chicago Magazine, Books Ireland and other publications. She teaches expressive and creative writing in community and healthcare settings. Her sixth book, a young adult/crossover novel set in Boston and a remote island off the west of Ireland, is under completion.

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