The Tunnel
November 7, 2020

The snowstorm — unusual for this time of year — mounted an assault on the icy but tractable train tracks leading from Gatwick to London. It reminded Tom — as any snowstorm did — of the 1967 blizzard in Chicago. He was a new lawyer working at the time in a small firm at the edge of the Loop. A law school friend called with the weather report. “Get out while you can,” he offered and, following his advice, Tom left the office around three. His Corvair had its engine in the back, over the rear wheels, and he hoped the added traction would get him home before the roads became impassable. The wind whipped the drifts along the Outer Drive to heights he never imagined. He noticed the blinking of diffuse red lights in one monstrous drift and realized it was a city bus, submerged as if in a tunnel. Cars and trucks were strewn across the eight-lane road, abandoned like a resigned chess match. The twenty-minute drive took four hours. This British storm was not nearly as bad. After many starts and stops and slow going, the half-hour trip to Victoria station took two hours. Victoria was a yawning behemoth. He knew that from the writing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was from here, of course, that Dr. Watson and an aged priest caught the Continental Express to avoid the dastardly Professor Moriarty. As Tom studied a wall-mounted map to get his bearings, he wondered if somewhere in this modern-day transit ecosystem a similar adventure was underway.

It was his first time in London. Fiona had booked him at the St. Ermin’s Hotel, less than half a mile from the station. She told him it was best to walk there from Victoria, but now, seeing him covered in snow dragging his suitcase into the white, overdone lobby, she burst out laughing. “Tommy the snowman,” she shouted as she rose from a tufted chair to greet him. The enormous chandelier and the ridiculously appointed grand staircase that spun off in two directions for her only added to the hilarity of the moment. He stamped his feet and shook off the snow like a shaggy dog shaking off bathwater and joined Fiona in laughter. “I didn’t mean for you to walk in the midst of a snowstorm, idiot,” she said. Fiona was glad to see Tom. After a hug, she checked him in and took him to his room. “I’ll give you a couple of hours to rest and freshen up. Half seven, downstairs.”

He laid down but didn’t sleep — part jet lag and part excitement over being in London with Fiona. Two hours later, she caught up with him on the short landing of the staircase, two steps up from the floor of the lobby. “Right on time,” she said. “Good.”

Tom pointed to the door in the middle of the landing. “Odd to have a door here. Where does it lead?”

Fiona leaned close and whispered, pretending to reveal a dark secret. “A mystery, Tommy. Rumor is that it leads to an underground tunnel. Makes the hotel more attractive, doesn’t it? The Bourne Identity, I think, was filmed here.” Spooks, tunnels: He loved Fiona for booking him here.

They had met three months earlier in New York at a week-long seminar — Finance for Non-Financial Managers — and became friends. She worked for a British manufacturer with holdings in the US. He had moved to New York to take a position with a large law firm. It was good having someone at the seminar to help understand what was going on. “Are the debits on the left or right,” she whispered on that first day. She was short, with curly brown hair in an era belonging to leggy, straight-haired blondes, but Tom found her ruddy complexion and ready smile attractive. They had lunches and dinners together. She was a good company. On that last day, as she stepped in the taxi headed for the airport, he promised he’d be over to see her someday, one of those vague promises one gives freely without much thought or meaning behind it. That, at least, was how Fiona took it. He never mentioned a wife or a family during their time together and she never asked. He was wearing a wedding ring and she could have asked, but she felt the question itself would have carried baggage. They were business people at a seminar who happened to sit next to one another.

And now, barely four months after returning to London, Tom called. A lawsuit brought by a British conglomerate against one of his clients required him to be in London. He’d hired a UK firm to work with him on depositions. He’ll be sitting in. “We can spend some time together,” he said. And then, as an afterthought, “If that suits.”

“Of course,” she said. “It will be fun. I’ll show you around.” Later, she worried about having said “fun.” She meant it in a platonic sense. Unless and until he explained away that ring, that’s the way it would stay.

It had stopped snowing. Fiona led Tom around the corner to The Feathers, a little restaurant sheathed in dark stained wood. He half expected the waiters to be of highly polished walnut. They talked of nothing, the weather, of course, football — hers, his — the election. “Tell me more about the tunnel,” he said.

Fiona smiled as if not wanting to go there, but relented when faced with Tom’s suggestion of a pout. “Well, like I said, the hotel was a center for espionage during the war. Very hush-hush. Churchill set up the Special Operations Executive on one of the floors. On another, MI6 was ensconced. After the war, spies continued to meet here. Philby and Burgess worked out of this hotel. So I don’t doubt there could be a secret tunnel. Not sure where it would lead: Parliament maybe, could have been Westminster or the just to the Underground. Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Let’s ask to see it,” Tom said.

“Just like an American,” Fiona laughed. “No one admits to its existence, but you’ll demand to see it. Why the interest in tunnels?”

The Feathers was a noisy place at a busy time and while the steak and kidney pie was good, parts of the conversation got by Tom. This was due in some measure to the noise and his need for sleep, but also because Fiona had that British mumble making it virtually impossible for a non-Brit to understand the last few words of many sentences. “How difficult was it to mumble, murmur, mumble?” Tom handled these as he had in New York, by nodding and smiling and saying things like, “Of course” and “um hum.” Here he thought she said, “Interested in the Chunnel?”

“That would be fun,” he said.

“What?”

“Taking the Chunnel to Paris.”

“You don’t have time for that on this trip, Tommy. Maybe next time. It is an experience.” Fiona paid the bill. On the walk back to the hotel, Tom became a bit anxious. They had spent a good deal of time together in New York, but it had been a nonsexual relationship. Now visiting her on her home court, so to speak, he wondered if she would like it to be something more. For his part, he hoped for an affair with Fiona, even if the odds of seeing her on any regular basis were high. With the boldness of an out of towner, he asked, “Time for a drink?”

“No thanks, Tommy,” she said with the slightest hesitation and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re going to need your beauty sleep.” Tom had a meeting set for the next morning at the solicitor’s chambers and Fiona agreed to take him there. She said goodbye at the hotel entrance. “Sleep well.”

Tom’s body clock was screwed up. He was awake when he should have been asleep and asleep when he should have been awake. Wide-eyed at three-thirty in the morning, he dressed and wandered down to the deserted lobby. There was a young man lightly dozing on a chair behind the desk. “About that tunnel,” Tom said, startling him. “I’m an architect and would love to take a quick look.”

“Impossible,” the young man said, standing up. “I mean, there is no tunnel.”

“As I said, I’m an architect, and I have a professional interest in it. We’re thinking of putting one in between the White House and the Pentagon. Having a look would be most helpful.” Never mind that those two were four miles apart, while from St. Ermin’s to Westminster was at most half a mile. Tom was amazed at the brashness of his lies. And then he added, “I’ll make it worth your while.”

“You can offer a million pounds,” the man said, “but there is no tunnel.”

“Then where does that door lead,” Tom asked, pointing.

“I have no idea where it once led, but now there’s just a brick wall behind it.” He beckoned Tom to follow. They went to the door, and he unlocked it. Tom came face to face with the red brick wall.

“Can you tell me what you know? Surely that can’t get you in trouble.”

“At one time, before I was born, the place was crawling with spies and politicians. That’s what I’ve always heard. It makes sense that during the war, let’s say, getting safely and anonymously to and from the hotel was a priority. Every schoolboy knows about the Blitz: The city was bombed fifty-seven days in a row. So a tunnel makes sense. Whether it’s here or used to be here, I really don’t know.”

Tom thanked him and returned to his room. He told Fiona about it the next morning on the way to the solicitor’s office.

She laughed. “Ballsy. Okay, I did some digging, no pun intended. There are dozens of them beneath London, Tom. A few ancient but most dating from the First World War. More were added during the Second and also during the Cold War. There’s even a public tour that will take you to many of them. If you have time, I recommend it. But whether or not there was a tunnel at St. Ermin’s and what it may or may not have been used for is something we’ll have to leave to conjecture.”

“I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with that. Dinner?” he ventured.

“That would be delightful.”

She arrived in the lobby that evening with a brochure for Tom describing some of the tunnels running beneath London. One, she said, was used by Charles II to sneak off to a high-class brothel. They had a pleasant dinner in the hotel at the Caxton Grill, during which they drank wine and talked about her life in London. She was born and still lived in Barking, east of the city center. “Takes about forty minutes by underground to get to my office,” she told him. “About par for the course. Probably like New York.” Tom’s daily commute was actually longer by about fifteen minutes.

Fiona again insisted on paying for dinner. Then she surprised him: “Does the drink offer still stand?”

After a couple of drinks at the bar, Tom took her hand. Fiona kept her hand in his for a minute and then tapping on his wedding ring, she gently pulled her hand away. “We’re both a bit tipsy, Tommy. You leave in the morning. Let’s not spoil it.”

Tom was going to argue the point, profess his interest, but in the end, he said nothing. “See you in the morning.”

While packing and getting ready for bed, Tom thought about what would have been spoiled had Fiona come upstairs with him. His marriage? Maybe it would have made it better. He had to laugh at this thought. It’s probably how every philanderer since Abraham rationalized his infidelity. No, sleeping with Fiona would have added stress to his marriage. And would it have been fair to Fiona? Unlikely. The odds were he’d never see her again, and she didn’t impress Tom as the type that would welcome a one-off roll in the hay. So he concluded that Fiona was right. Which, paradoxically, made her all the more attractive in his eyes.

At breakfast before catching the train to Gatwick, Fiona took both of Tom’s hands in hers. “I really will miss you, Tommy. You’ve been a good friend.” They promised to make every effort to see one another — on one side of the Atlantic or the other.

“I’ve got to come back, Fiona. I’m determined to find out more about this mysterious tunnel underneath the St. Ermin’s tunnel.” They laughed and kissed, and as he wheeled his luggage out of the door, he noticed that it started snowing.


Photo by Cedric Lim Ah Tock from Pexels

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