From the life of Chris Coffey
By Stevie Kilgour
Name – Chris Coffey
Age – 76
Born – Cork, Republic of Ireland
Lives – Hackney, London.
Occupation – Retired Stonemason.
A dull November night in Hackney, East London and Chris walks slowly and aided by an old walking stick to his regular table with a familiar comfortable chair and a reliable newspaper. “One red ale, please.” he asks in a strong Southern Irish accent. He doesn’t look up from obstacles in front of him. Table – sturdy. Chair – soft and pulled out enough for him to get on to. His walking stick is hooked on the edge of the table. A pint of red ale from the local Truman’s brewery is put in front of him as he takes his seat. He places a £5 note and a tissue on the table. He pushes the money to the barman and slowly unwraps several small biscuits he has brought from home. He arranges the contents of the table; paper dead centre. Ale to his left in a short reach. The candle on the table is moved as far from him as possible. He places the tissues on his left – takes a bite of one of the biscuits and puts it back in the tissue. He looks up and smiles,
“S, s, s, s, so, so what’s his name? The darts player. Phil Taylor. He got beat by the bald guy.”
We begin to talk.
Chris lived by the docks in Cork which was a hive of merchant ships, coal and oat ships. There was also a Ford Motors plant which when it closed offered its Cork employees a choice of redundancy or relocated jobs in Dagenham, England. Industry was leaving Cork. Like all Irish school children, he left school at 14 and went straight into work. He worked as a delivery cyclist for a chemist – delivering medicines to local schools and elderly homes.
In Ireland, young men would be paid a ‘schoolboy wage’ from 14 to 16 years old. At the age of 16 they would be paid a full time adult wage. Chris was promised a job with full pay when he turned 16 years old – this promise was never delivered and he was forced to leave his job. He took the opportunity to visit England, London whenever possible as he had an older brother who lived in Shepherd’s Bush. His brother visited Cork and Chris went to London with his brother as he was out of work. Chris grew homesick and made several visits between London and Cork over the next year till he could decide where his future was.
Chris paid another visit to Ilford and met his future wife – a woman from Cork. Chris soon married and with his new wife at the age of 22. His wife and child made various moves between Cork and London over the years and Chris eventually settled back in London which was the final move him and his family would make. His wife also became homesick and moved back to Cork with the child – Chris stayed in London to work. He lived in various locations working as a stonemason working on Regents Canal in East London.
2016 sees Chris at the age of 76 years old and regular customers in a local bar called the Sebright Arms – a pub he has frequented for a decade. Today he sits and shares stories of trying to get over Tower Bridge as it began to raise up. He talks of being conned as a youngster in Edgware Road by a man he trusted. He is cared for in his Hackney flat. He enjoys televised sports and a recent bout of ill health has raised some concerns and made his life uncomfortable at times. He sees his son on a regular basis – who now lives in East London also. Chris still walks the short journey to the pub from his flat. He is respected and known in the local community by people of all backgrounds – something rare in London especially. Although old fashioned in his demeanour, Chris has respect for all people. He has never returned to Ireland and still does not own a passport.
“I’ll tell you what Steve. You, know, you know, what’s its name? Err. “
Like most of the conversation I struggle to know how to help – I have no ideas where he is going with this. I feel the need to blurt out a random name of someone we both may know. Or even to say a place name in Ireland.
“Err, what’s it called.” Chris gestures with his hand two arms in the air
“Tower Bridge” he says.
“Well, I tell you what. I was going to work across to err, South London and I ran through the barrier and I tell you what. I had a few drinks and the bridge was opening up to let a big fecking ship though.”
I listen on wide eyed and shocked – Chris begins to laugh. Clearly enjoying the shock on my face.
“I tell you what, I was running and it was getting harder and harder to run. It was steep. And I was struggling.”
Taking another sip from my pint of ale and adjusting the voice recorder for the climax of the story. Chris leans over the table.
“I got so close to the top it was so steep but I could see the gap and suddenly my feet left the surface and you know what?”
Chris is smiling.
“And, and, and you know what?! It was a police officer picking me up by my collar and walking me back down.” Chris begins to laugh as I breathe a sigh of relief, but I’m not sure what I was expecting from his story.
“Wow! When was that?” I ask
“1972.” Chris replies instantly almost like he was remembering a birthday, wedding or special occasion.
“1972! You are lucky. Nowadays they would have shot you dead. They’d think you was a terrorist.”
Chris sips from his ale.
“Speaking of terrorists.” He says
He rolls up his sleeve to reveal an Irish flag with the words ‘Óglaigh na hÉireann’ tattooed around the top. Being familiar with Irish Republican Army tattoos and the culture from my own family – I can’t read Gaelic.
“What’s that translate as?” I ask.
“Soldiers of Ireland.” He says.
“Does that have something to do with you being in England?” I laugh nervously.
Chris remains silent. He sips from his ale again and looks up at the big screen in the corner.
“Van Gerwin. That’s who beat Phil Taylor” he says.
I think back to our earlier conversation about Darts.
“All the years I have been coming here to this pub and all the jobs I have had and places and people I have known in London – I loved all of it. But I do miss Ireland now, more than ever.”