1849

“Come on George darling, stay with me now.”
George turned around and returned to his sister.
“Where are we going next?”
They had just visited the British Museum and admired all the big sculptures. Father consulted his pocket guide book. “Ah, we shall visit the Thames Tunnel. It is a bit of a journey but it should be well worth it.”
It was George’s first visit to London. The trip by stagecoach from Birmingham to the capital had been pretty rough, but it had paid off. London was so big, and its monuments were impressive. To ensure that they made the most of their stay, the Simmons family used a trusted guide book, the Handbook for London. It even gave them a suggested itinerary for each day of their visit.
Getting to the Thames Tunnel proved almost as much of a challenge as getting to London had been. During the seemingly interminable cab ride George’s father entertained his family with facts about the marvel of engineering they were about to see.
“It took eighteen years to complete, you know! And it’s the first underwater tunnel in the world! A work of sheer genius, and Mr Brunel is still so young as well. You know he nearly died several times over during the construction? He was ever so brave, going down in that diving bell and all that. And what luck to us that he did, as now we get to admire the results!”
George noticed that their cab seemed to be taking unnecessary detours. Mr Simmons remained blissfully unaware and happily paid the driver an extortionate amount when they finally arrived at their destination.
They were at a rather inconspicuous-looking hole in the ground, at the edge of the river Thames. If it had not been for all the other people milling around, George would have assumed they had been led to the wrong place.
“Well, come on, let us go in!” Mr Simmons grabbed his wife by the arm and tugged her to the tunnel entrance with some force.
“Come on Georgie, we’d better follow them before we lose them,” his sister Elizabeth sighed.
“I understand it is a wonder of engineering, but what can be so exciting about a tunnel?” George grumbled. “You even have to pay to get in!” It was only a penny, but even so. Walking on the street was free!
“Oh I know, but Father is so excited about it. You know he fancies himself a bit of an engineer. Let’s just humour him and not spoil the day.”
George shrugged but followed his sister anyway.
When they descended into the tunnel, he was unexpectedly engulfed in a world of light and sound. The tunnel was quite busy, not just with visitors but also with performers and women selling souvenirs. It was so overwhelming it took George a minute to notice the actual tunnel. It was vast, a double-barrel stretch of brick cylinders running as far as the eye could see. Well-dressed people were promenading up and down, occasionally stopping to buy a commemorative handkerchief or coin.
“Well will you look at that!” Mr Simmons had gone up to one of the walls and was stroking the brickwork appreciatively. “Imagine, the whole weight of the Thames is pressing down on this and there is not even a crack!”
George tried to imagine the enormous water mass just over their heads. It made him feel quite small, and also a bit sick with awe.
“Can I interest you in a commemorative coin, Sir, Madam? A special token to remember this day by?” The lady selling souvenirs smiled at George. “You can’t get these coins anywhere else in the world, you know.”
“Of course, of course!” Mr Simmons was eager to please, eager to be entertained. “And we will buy a pamphlet, too, please.”
While Mr Simmons bent over and inspected the different coins on offer to ensure he got the one in the best condition, George slowly wandered further into the tunnel. It was making his mind boggle, the sheer length of it. He could hear reverent chatter around him, murmuring like the Thames above. He remembered his father saying how young Mr Brunel was when he built this. Maybe George should become an engineer as well. It would certainly do his father proud. But no, he already knew he could never build anything like this. He’d always remain second-rate compared to this. And on George wandered, pondering his future, farther and farther away from his family and into the tunnel.

-Mara Arts (2017)