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Image / Self / Real-life Stories

‘New York is burning. There’s a flipping cat stuck under the floorboards’


by Sophie Grenham
09th Sep 2021
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Sophie Grenham reflects on 9/11, 20 years ago

It’s the end of the summer and my family and I begin the tedium of packing after several weeks at our holiday home in coastal south Cork. I’m seventeen and due to start at UCD tomorrow.

Of course, we can’t leave because there’s a cat trapped under the floorboards.

I can’t fathom how it got in there in the first place. All I remember is the patio doors being open, a set of black and white legs skittering up the stairs, and much indignant roaring from my father.

My mother and I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. ‘It’s just a cat, Dad,’ I say, calmly. ‘Surely it’ll find its way out when we’re gone? I don’t want to miss registration.’ But Dad is having none of it.

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"For a few seconds, I’m not sure what we’re looking at. I see a fuzzy image of two skyscrapers. One of them is on fire, black smoke billowing from a gaping hole at the top. I remember they’re the Twin Towers, which I saw when we visited my parents’ friend Vicky only last year"

‘No!’ he booms. ‘We’re not leaving until that thing is found, or it’ll crawl into a nook and die and we’ll never get the smell out!’ So begins a waiting game. Without a word, my older brother Michael pulls a deck chair up to the patio doors and lights a cigarette, resigned. We soon hear faint yowls from the cat, as it realises its predicament.

It’s going to be a long afternoon.

Mum and I escape to the village pub for lunch, leaving the men to keep watch. We manage to nab the last two seats at the counter, where we order baked mussels in breadcrumbs and garlic butter, and their signature dish, French onion soup. This gastronomic wonder is covered in melted gruyère cheese that drips down the side of the bowl and sets, leaving crusty morsels which I love to pick off and savour. Sadly, they’ve since changed the recipe.

Our seaside house belonged to my late grandparents. They liked coming to this very pub where my grandfather gifted the owners an angry rubber shark from Jaws in 1975. It still dangles, faded, on a string in the front window, incongruous among curiosities such as milk jugs, bird cages, booze miniatures and jolly figurines. It must take them an age to clean it all.

When our food arrives, a hush deadens the room. I freeze, broth slopping from my spoon back into the bowl. There’s a clatter behind the bar as staff scrabble for the television remote and turn the volume up.

For a few seconds, I’m not sure what we’re looking at. I see a fuzzy image of two skyscrapers. One of them is on fire, black smoke billowing from a gaping hole at the top. I remember they’re the Twin Towers, which I saw when we visited my parents’ friend Vicky only last year. I’ve known Vicky since I was five-years-old – she taught me how to eat spaghetti properly. I observe Kay Burley’s stunned face on Sky News, telling us what little she knows. Something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

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"Haunting scenes show bewildered souls covered in ash, roaming the streets. All international flights are suspended indefinitely. New York is burning."

‘That can’t be New York,’ I mouth. I feel like I’m watching Independence Day and the mothership is about to start firing.

A second plane flies into the second tower. Gasps of horror ripple through the pub. My father calls my mother on her mobile. He’s just spoken to Vicky, who lives near Central Park – she and her son Chris are safe. The World Trade Center is on the south end of the island, so we don’t need to worry. Yet we are anything but calm. We finish up our lunch and hurry back to the house.

When we arrive, Michael and Dad are dug into the news, their cat lookout posts long abandoned. The phone is going nuts. They say what happened is an act of terrorism by a group called Al-Qaeda, led by some guy named Bin Laden. Haunting scenes show bewildered souls covered in ash, roaming the streets. All international flights are suspended indefinitely. New York is burning.

I’m supposed to start university in the next 24 hours. There’s a flipping cat under the floorboards.

This all feels like a really bad dream, only none of us get to wake up. As the fire gradually subsides and New York’s emergency services rescue who they can, so begins the recovery. While our backs are turned, the cat slips out – at least we think he did. We overload the car and lock up our summer lives.

"Starting the next chapter shouldn’t feel any stranger than it needs to be"

When I arrive at UCD the following day, all flags are at half mast. The college is eerily silent for a first day. I meet my future best friend in the registration queue and we chat
excitedly about what classes we’re taking.

Since 2001, we’ve had to remove shoes, belts and jackets at airport security and aren’t allowed liquids or pastes over 100ml. Air travel changed forever when America ceased to
be invincible – but it had no bearing on my college life.

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If I’ve learned anything about human nature in the last two decades, it’s this – you can get used to anything. I wonder how undergraduates in the era of Covid-19 will manage this new reality, meeting their classmates and professors for the first time – in masks. Starting the next chapter shouldn’t feel any stranger than it needs to be. Staff and students
will adapt and get on with their education as best they can. And who knows? Maybe one of today’s freshers will tell their story in 2041.

And so the cycle continues.

I just hope it did for the poor cat.

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