I am sitting in the third carriage. If it is not rush hour or if it is not inexplicably full or if I cannot spot any peculiar looking types through the windows as the train pulls in, then I always prefer to sit in the third carriage. It is not one of those obsessive compulsive things that are quite fashionable these days, and which people are always self-righteously flaunting like so many adopted African babies.
‘What have you got?’
The questions popping out in a torment of prurient delight.
‘I’ve got a phobia of dirt, bums, fog, peas and dragonflies. I’ve got xenophobia, arachnophobia, anorexia and arachibutyrophobia. That’s the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of my mouth. What have you got?’
‘I’ve got one from Malawi, one from Zimbabwe and one from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or was it just the Congo – I can never quite remember…’
People parade these various manifestations of their psychological waywardness as if they were actually good things to possess, like reliable pelvic floors or feet that have resisted the temptation to acquire bunions. People are always being told to be proud of things that by rights should be tucked unobtrusively away on a high shelf with the knickers-turned-dusters and the half-empty bottle of Gordons. People display too much.
Too much emotion, too much flesh, too much sex.
It is simply that I like to sit in the third carriage if at all possible. I know my daughter, who will be thirty-two in May, likes to pick her nose when she thinks nobody is looking. My husband likes to remove articles he fancies the look of from the newspapers and save them until the weekend, even though there is nothing I hate more than opening the paper and discovering these little scissored interventions.
I like to sit in the third carriage.
The little things, the ones that prevent us from sinking.
I have the paper open in front of me and I am reading the kind of story I like best. It is about a sailor in the Fastnet disaster. He was severely injured during the storm and was abandoned in the cockpit of his boat by the three other surviving members of the crew who fled in the single lifeboat.
The story is complicated by the conflicting account of one of these crewmembers, who claims they all believed the injured sailor was dead. He says that the two others persuaded him into the lifeboat against his better judgment.
Stories with complications, preferably moral, are my favourite kind of all. There is nothing so disappointing as a tale of unmitigated heroism.
I dip my paper a little and stare thoughtfully at my reflection in the carriage window. What would I do in such a situation? Would I attempt to rescue my friend, or would I obey my basic instincts for self-preservation? I have always distrusted the sea, even in its blandest incarnations. Slap me in between forty-foot high walls of water in a sinking craft, and I would no doubt take my chances in the lifeboat.
But the more interesting question, in this case, is of what occurred after the storm. Fast-forward to the sailors, resembling, in their conical orange blankets, nothing so much as soggy party hats; picture them bracing themselves for an awkward reunion; skip to the protestations, the fervour, the accusations. Who is telling the truth, the sailor who claims he was abandoned or the man who claims that he thought his friend was beyond help?
Can they both be telling the truth?
Imagine. You are the man who takes one last troubled glance at the prone figure in the cockpit; who feels the life coursing through his veins; who flees. Would you not, faced afterwards with guilt as lofty and insuperable as those great vertical swoops of water, subtly alter the composition of your memories? It would be the work of a moment to adjust the scene, already violent and dark and disturbed, to dim the lights still further and thus obscure the weakly waving hand and the mouth opening and shutting in silent supplication, to tinker with the shading of the picture so that the injured man’s face appears an even more lifeless shade of blue. And after those simple adjustments, how the conscience would slump out of its high, foamy agitation, rearrange itself into a calm surface and cool reflective shallows.
As I ponder this I take a quick glance around the carriage.
It is replete, groaning in fact, with the usual suspects. There’s Sickly, over there in the seat nearest to the doors, industriously working away at a sneeze and looking forward to privileging us with a little sprinkle of his home-brew. There’s Loopy, slap bang in the centre as always, energetically declaiming to the empty seats around him while a nerve on his forehead twitches like the premonition of disaster. There’s Snogging Couple (the worst of all) who have of course plumped for the seats directly opposite me and are writhing like a pale misshapen sea creature over the armrest, mouths clamped firm and revolting as suckers over one another’s faces.
Then – I am ticking them off – Youf, Pensioner, Sweaty, Fatso, Suspiciously Skinny (who may also fall under the category Addict) and Edgy (who may also fall under the category Terrorist). Then of course there are the sub-species of the above.
I, for example, fall under the umbrella Pensioner, but not into sub-species D (dandruff, doddery, disabled, dementia, all but dead) but into sub-species S (self-sufficient, smart, sense of adventure, some way to go yet). The classification of the occupants of the third carriage takes but an instant (all present and correct, except today we are missing Addict – perhaps s/he is on the run from one of the Edgy’s subcategories, Dealer) and does not absorb me. I have been playing this game for too long and the groups never change, except for the sub-strata of Youf and they change so quickly they always look the same.
I hoick the paper back up in front of my face and turn the page. Restrictive lending criteria, Lehman brothers, quantitative easing. Sounds like a very gradual penectomy. Why is our current Prime Minister so ugly? And why do female politicians wear those horrible square-toed boots? Maybe it’s some kind of Masonic signal.
‘Ah, excellent! I see from your boots that you are another self-important simpering lunatic given to flaunting your odious sibilant voice on Radio 4 at an offensive hour in the morning! Become MP for West Riding.’
Thus musing, I keep myself pleasantly occupied until Holloway Road. The doors wearily sigh open and Loopy gets off. I am a little disappointed as his performance was more than usually entertaining.
Just as the doors are closing and the carriage is composing its new character in a self-conscious ruffle of hair and handbags, a group of boys shoulder and shove their way on. I count them swiftly. There are ten. They are all wearing grey or brown hooded tops – except for one in bright orange – pulled over their faces. From the back this makes them look like a troupe of jumbo rubber stamps. Or burnt-out oversized light bulbs. Under these grey hoods they are wearing black caps that stick out from their heads like dreadfully bodged skin grafts. Seven of them are black and three are white. There is a collective stiffening in the carriage, except for Sleepy, a corpulent woman snoring at the far end of the carriage with some kind of floaty fabric over her face. Even Edgy clutches his large bulging rucksack to his chest, which assuages my anxiety about him, at least.
I pull the paper higher up so that my view of whatever disagreeable antics will undoubtedly ensue is obscured. Then I think better of it and lower the paper again. If I have the paper too high then the boys might get curious who is behind it. But if the paper is too low then I might be tempted to look at them and by looking at them I would be opening myself up to a charge of ‘dissing’. Then I think this whole debate is quite ridiculous and fold the paper on my lap. They are small, slight, underfed little things, barely over eleven years of age. They will only indulge in a bit of harmless, if antisocial, tomfoolery. It is quite absurd we are prepared to let a group of small boys affect our equilibrium so profoundly.
I blame the media. I also blame Loopy. His departure means that the third carriage was one short of individuals in the lacking-strong-adhesive-in-the-mental-department category. I suppose this is fate’s way of making up the maths: one fully qualified old Loop = ten little putative Loops. But these boys actually fall out of my system of categorisation. They are too young even for Youf. They are children, who come without a capital because children are normally accompanied – or used to be – by Mothers variously Hopeless or Hopelessly Posh.
Nearly Dead is quivering with unease next to me. I hope the presence of the boys does not precipitate some kind of unfortunate coronary incident. I am cross that Nearly Dead thought that he’d be in good company next to me, as Next-to-Nearly Dead, and I am cross that the boys have chosen to disrupt the peace of the third carriage. In fact, if they start any funny business, this time – this time – I really will say something.
As the train pulls away the boys keep in a tight knot next to Sickly, furtively eyeing the occupants of the carriage. My brow is itching to frown and my lips are limbering up nicely in preparation for a good hearty disapproving suck of air but I force myself to assume an expression of serene benevolence. It really is too silly to allow oneself to be intimidated by a group of tots dressing up in their big brothers’ attitudes and clothing. Both are patently ill-fitting.
Time passes in that peculiar vertiginous, runaway way it has of passing on the Tube, both faster and more erratically, as if you have missed out crucial fragments along the way.
The boys do nothing, except for one of them, who opens the window that says ‘Do Not Open.’ The voice comes on over the tannoy, informing us that we are nearly at Arsenal. Nearly Dead visibly relaxes and begins to pluck and scrabble at the veritable hillock of carrier bags round his feet. I don’t know why old people gravitate to carrier bags. I certainly haven’t felt the urge – yet – to heap myself with the things. Or perhaps carrier bags gravitate to old people. On your seventy-fifth birthday, you could be sitting with your feet uncovered and daintily together, quite unencumbered and with not so much as a trace of plastic in sight, virtuously clutching your Senior Citizens Travelcard, and all of a sudden a flock of the things might land at your feet and shoo and hiss as much as you like, they would refuse to budge. And gradually you would discover that they are omnivorous creatures and like nothing better than to be fed on an illogical diet of open Werthers Originals, weeks-old Daily Express sports sections and packs of broken Rich Tea biscuits. You would develop a certain affection for them, the way they rustle and whisper to one another and nestle round your feet like bloated-bellied pigeons.
I am contemplating this peculiar phenomenon when the train suddenly, typically, jerks to a halt with no explanation. Where our ears were full of the whoosh and rumble of movement, now there is only silence, hot and conspicuous as communal embarrassment.
It starts with the one in orange.
He is the ringleader. He is the tallest and unlike the others his cap is not pulled forward so that everything above the nose is obscured. Rather, it is tipped cockily back on his head and he surveys Sickly, Nearly Dead, Edgy and me with a cool appraising stare. I think that he could have grown up to be quite a handsome boy and then I feel ashamed of myself for thinking in the past tense.
He looks around the others. They have that manically self-possessed look about them that says, ‘Pick me first. No, don’t pick me. Pick me! No, pick him.’ He makes his selection: the one it was always going to be, the runt of the pack. He summons him and whispers in his ear.
The runt listens, and then throws up his arms, a grin making mad exploratory leaps across his face. He is scared and pathetically grateful. He shrieks, in an unbroken high-pitched whine, ‘Eeeh, blud! Naway, man!’
Blood; man. Concepts of which these boys know nothing.
The orange-clad boy prods the runt. The train is still stationary.
Nearly Dead has stopped gathering his flight of carrier bags and has forgotten the cardinal rule of Tube travel: he is looking, open mouthed, at these youngsters. I almost tell him to look away but then I remember that I don’t need to because it is Nearly Dead’s right to look and if anything at all untoward happens then this time I really will say something.
The runt – who is always the most dangerous – looks at his leader once more for approval and then launches into his task, which appears to be fairly innocuous: he runs to the other end of the carriage. His feet are loud in the absolute silence. Sleepy grunts and shifts in her sleep. When he reaches the end of the carriage he stops and does a little strutting dance. The eyes of his pack are on him now and he wants to impress. He does a Michael Jackson moonwalk and pretends to trip against Businessman. He steadies himself against Businessman’s knees and leans just a little too close into Businessman’s face, shouting with an expression of mock sincerity, ‘Eeeh, sarry, man!’
Businessman’s face is impassive. Entirely immobile. Not even the flicker of an eyelid. Now, I should say something. This is the kind of unhinged moment upon which it all hangs; all it would take would be a sharp word now and the boys hurtling around the carriage like so many loose nails inside a tin would take their places, quiet, chastened. The peculiar non-linear time that is such a defining feature of Tube travel would transport us more rapidly to Arsenal, suck all the boys out and leave us in peace all the way to our final destinations.
I open my mouth. I say nothing.
Businessman is a man. He is younger than me. He has a strong jaw and a heavy brow. He has said nothing. I would make him ashamed if I spoke. I will wait. Things are still recoverable.
Now another of the boys is careering down the train. He bounces against our knees. He makes his performance bigger, better, than the runt’s. He makes an obscene gesture when he reaches Nearly Dead. Nearly Dead shuts his eyes. He wears a corpse’s expression of inhuman patience.
Sickly is too intently interested in the contents of his handkerchief (why is it always a handkerchief, never a tissue?); Edgy is fiddling with the straps of his rucksack as if he really wishes he were about to detonate a bomb; Sweaty’s mouth moves as he reads each irrelevant advertisement carefully.
Another boy, and another. Cartridges shot from a capricious scattergun at the head of the carriage. Holding the trigger, the boy in the orange jacket. They are out of breath, parading and mincing and sprinting. The runt stamps on one of Nearly Dead’s bags and released, unwrapped Werther’s Originals dive for cover under my feet and under Businessman’s. None of us does anything. I try to catch Businessman’s eye. The boys are shouting now, elated because of their miraculous feat.
They have made themselves invisible.
It is too late for me to say anything.
The boys are mocking us now. One sits down next to Nearly Dead and composes himself in a parody of him. Hoots of laughter.
Why is the carriage still not moving? Edgy is tinkering manically with his watch. Businessman is busy murdering, in a variety of inventive ways, the incompetent driver or whomsoever it is that has caused this delay. I can see it in his eyes. Nearly Dead is saying Aves in his head.
The runt scampers to the middle of the carriage. He turns away from Nearly Dead and myself and appears to be busy around his midriff. For a moment I do not understand what greater disgrace he can be concocting but then his trousers fall to his knees and he presents us with his exposed rear. He rotates slowly, on one foot, taut and serene as a Rodin sculpture on a turning pedestal. We are all looking without looking.
The boys are screaming with laughter, now. They are having fun. They are discovering what fun it is to be invisible. Now two more of them begin cavorting, displaying tiny flat children’s buttocks.
Sleepy wakes up with a jolt at the far end of the carriage. Her head gives a bewildered shake under her headscarf. We still cannot see her face.
Another of the boys drops his trousers. And another. It is a grown-up gesture but, to me, lacks the aggression it needs to stop it seeming simply rather pathetic.
Their capering and writhing becomes more frantic. They experience the ghost’s rage. What do I have to do to make them notice me?
But we are all hanging our heads. The train is still stationary, and until it moves we are stuck in a dreadful moral stasis, our paralysed failed consciences on display for all to see, like pinned-out butterflies on a board.
Until now, the boy in the orange hood has been lounging at the far end of the carriage, directing operations, an ironic, adult smile on his face. Now, though, he moves gracefully down the carriage, backwards. His buttocks gleam like two dark moons.
He reaches the end of the carriage. He cannot see, but I can, that Sleepy has retied the patterned headscarf firmly around her head, that she is now sitting up and that her face is livid, alight. We know instantly that she is going to reverse our fortunes. She is going into battle with burnished weapons. We will creep quietly onto the battlefield after her, collecting up the pieces of our shattered mutual faith. The grey-hooded boys sense this too because they fall silent. The lad in the orange jacket does not immediately realise the significance of their silence, does not know what is armed and bristling behind him and so carries on wriggling and simpering – one step – another step…
Sleepy, who is more fully awake than the rest of us will ever be again, has risen, clamps her broad firm hands on the boy’s shoulders. She presses the weight of the great overloaded crate of her bosom against the boy’s stiff back and he trips and stumbles to his knees. He twists his neck to try and catch a glimpse of his assailant.
‘Ow!’ he shouts. I wince at the childish exclamation.
‘You!’ Sleepy has a strong Jamaican accent. Her voice travels down the carriage like a sudden wash of cool water. ‘I never t’ought I see you bring shame on you family in dis way!’ The way she pronounces ‘shame’ makes it the longest word in the English language. She pulls him up by the arms. His trousers are round his ankles. She butts him forward with her righteous bosom. His thin knees have turned in on each other in reciprocal recrimination. ‘Look at me, boy! I say look at me! Dis boy,’ she releases one of his arms to cuff the back of his head and proclaims to all of us, ‘dis boy is de son of de niece of my oldest friend! No, boy, you keep you trousers dere, you was de one wantin to take dem off for everyone to see, now they see, boy – and does he nat live only tree streets away from me?’
The train lurches into motion. The wheels move to a rhythm as faintly sickening and reassuring as resumed normality. The boy is fighting against his captor’s grip, is gamely trying to wriggle out of her grasp and pull his trousers up, but the old woman holds firm. She continues her diatribe, which I can no longer hear because of the noise of the train, and punctuates it with slaps to the boy’s head.
The rest of the lads are cowering behind Sickly. They know that now they are all too visible.
‘…You moder is gonna give you so many bruises you’re not gonna want to sit down fo’ a week!’
The train begins to brake. I blink as the sanitised brightness of the station bursts into the carriage. I thank God we are finally moored.
Now the woman executes her piece de resistance. Before she lets go of the boy, she slaps him across the bum with her broad zealous palm. She stretches her arm to its furthest extent and uses this momentum to sear the full force of her anger onto his flesh. He scrunches his face but does not cry out at this toddler’s humiliation.
His pack is silent. They pull the zips of their hooded jackets as high as they’ll go.
‘You moder is gonna be so mad wid you you lucky if she let you breat’e!’ Sleepy lets go of him. She puts her hands on her wide hips. ‘You all dere!’ she shouts to the cowering pack of boys. ‘If I get my hands on you…’ She mimes the wringing of a neck. ‘You be t’ankful you moders never know what shame you bringing to dem!’
She surveys the rest of us as if she would like to pull down our trousers and smack some sense into us too. Then she turns away: we are not worth looking at.
We know she is right.
She flings the loose end of her scarf over her shoulder and steps off the train, her shoulders stiff, straight and unyielding as true justice. We all watch her go. We wonder if we had better get off this benighted third carriage ourselves but we are too stunned and the doors are closing too quickly. I would leave but I do not want to leave Nearly Dead by himself. Besides, I have vowed that if there is so much as a hint of any more intolerable behaviour I will not tolerate it. I have been set an example.
The doors shut and once more we are propelled into darkness. For a moment all is still. The boy in the orange jacket is the stillest of all. He is quite crushed.
Then things begin to move. First, Nearly Dead, who scrabbles ineffectually amongst his plastic bags. Then the runt.
The runt stands.
He casually stretches.
He says something to the other boys. It is in the language they use that used to resemble English. I do not understand what he says.
One of the boys glances at us and then poses a question to the runt. The runt shrugs. He sticks his middle finger up in the air like a lazy meteorologist testing the wind. His face is full of defiance. He knows that there will be a resurgence of his grey topsy-turvy kingdom. Storm threatens. They are not the same boys who jostled onto the third carriage at Holloway Park. They are a pack running loose in an atmosphere too stacked with electricity to contain itself.
They saunter over to the boy in the orange jacket. He does not move and I see that he knew they would come for him. He now wears his orange hooded top like a life jacket.
Their ferocity is startling. They yap and bay. They bark and snarl. The runt deals the first blow, a blow so slight upon the orange arm it is almost a caress. The next smallest blows in his face.
‘Eeey, mate, easy, eeey, man!’ His voice is thin and naked. They do not listen to him. He tries to smile. ‘Whoah, man! Wha’s the deal?’
The tannoy cuts across him. We are coming into Finsbury Park. The boys’ faces are set and inscrutable. The runt deals a more vicious blow.
We have forgotten to pretend we are not there and we are all staring, willing this boy safely off the train, willing him out of the pack of baying hounds at his heels, but we are not staring at them, we are staring at each other. Our wide, wide eyes flash a question between us, flickering up and down the carriage it goes, a Mayday appeal transmitted between so many individuals that it becomes faint, its signal fades. Then accusation takes its place; it flares up like the hope of action and we are all galvanised by it; we sit straighter in our seats and our eyes gleam flick-knife bright saying, ‘You, it should be you.’ There is no forgiveness in our eyes, only mutual hate deepening and darkening like the whooshing crazy hurtle of a tunnel towards the centre of the earth. We are beyond categorisation; we have become individuals both softened and sharpened by our loathing. Now the train is slowing into the station and I can see the morbidly cheerful advertisements flashing by.
People are starting to slump in their chairs, exhausted by this merciless interrogation. The boys cluster round their former leader pinching and punching, pressing him against the doors so that when they open he will tumble out.
I have finally mustered the courage. I must not let this go on. It is sickening. The train stops and the doors slide open and the boy crashes downwards onto the floor and all the others pile out on top of him. As I rush to the next door – because I am going to follow them, I am going to stop them even if no one else will, I am a member of a better and an older civilisation in which such intervention was right – I glance back at the rest of the infamous members of the third carriage. They are limp as puppets. They hang in their seats like cloth rags.
I step out onto the platform and for a moment the motionlessness of it dazzles me and I take a moment to orient myself. The boys are goading the orange-jacketed one along the platform dangerously close to the edge. They are slapping him, kicking when they can. A trickle of blood runs from his nose; there are tears in his clear long-lashed eyes.
Hands clutching his orange jacket. The way a heart might clutch after a sudden shock of bad news. Passengers board the train hastily, pressing into one another with the complicity almost of lovers. The doors shut. The train moves off as quickly as it can, the carriages shunting into one another in an ecstasy of haste. The wheels move to the rhythm we must get away we must get away we must get away…
He cannot understand why they have turned on him. He does not see why he deserves this betrayal.
The platform is now empty with the exception of a heavily pregnant woman leaning against the wall at the far end of the platform, her hand at the small of her back and a heap of shopping at her feet, and a young man standing in between me and the gaggle of boys. He is thin and tall and wears a fashionable pinstripe suit. His hair is gelled into a row of spikes on the crown of his head and he has a thick pouting mouth. It is an incongruous violent red. I try to catch his eye as I gather my strength for the final push. I find being out of that horrendous carriage toughening; a new fire courses through my veins; I am no longer a coward. I look at the red-mouthed young man again.
The gang is getting rougher, more daring as it sees that the platform is almost empty. I will need the young man’s help.
I feel better – I am stronger – but can one individual, and a woman, and past her prime, be expected to stop a determined gang of ten? Is such courage not simply madness? Is it right to embark on such a mission of self-destruction? Like casting oneself loose at the mercy of forty-foot waves. I need the young man.
The orange boy manages to wriggle free for a moment and breaks into a run but one of the others grabs him by the ankles and he is brought down. I hear a crack as his head hits the floor.
I quicken my pace, narrowing the gap between myself and the young man. I nod at him as if to encourage him, I point my hand to show what I am about to do and will he join me? The man’s eyes narrow and he stares at the floor. There are the white veins of an Ipod in his ears; they are bright against his black pinstripe suit as two plucked white feathers; he cannot hear the words, vile, diseased words, that the gang is pelting at their victim. The boy in orange has his palms up and pleading, and they are tender palms. He waves them in surrender. The gang presses on, grey hoods angled down.
I stop as I draw level with the young man. I say to him, ‘Excuse me?’ The white veins in his ears tremble. ‘Excuse me?’
The boys have drawn away from us again, are nearly at the end of the platform. The hunted one makes a dash for the stairs that lead out into the real world but three of them head him off and claw him with their little nails like fighting cocks. They press him against the yellow barrier and his arms are thrown up and spread-eagled. They remind me of the pictures of Christian martyrs in the Prado or the Louvre.
I find that I am uttering inarticulate cries. They come out of my mouth like bubbles from the mouth of a drowning man. ‘What…?’ I say. ‘But…’ ‘But…’
What I am seeing is so clearly an illusion. My brain receives it like reported speech. ‘And then the young boy was punched in the stomach by one of his assailants and doubled over, coughing and screaming.’ It is a scene in a film. It is the outraged front cover of a newspaper. It is a tasteless art installation. I feel that I have seen it before in countless TV series; the plot is predictable – the only difference is that now the lights are not dimmed and there is no music playing. I fumble in my bag – maybe I should call the police? – but then I remember that I will have no signal and I haven’t the presence of mind to work those yellow emergency machines and there is a disabling rushing in my ears, round and full and consuming like the noise of a train plunging down a tunnel.
I totter a few unsteady steps backwards. I must not approach them. I haven’t the heart to make it real. One cannot clamber onto a stage before the play is over. The rushing in my ears grows louder and the sound of the boys’ shouts becomes more distant. Perhaps my mind has come up with this thunderous tinnitus to protect itself. A psychic pair of white veins in my ears. The young man does nothing.
If this were real I would think, they are surely going to kill him.
If this were illusion there would be a kind of cinematic beauty to the way that at this precise moment the boy scrabbles himself out of his attackers’ clutches, the way that his eyes meet mine from far off down the platform – they look at me in disbelief and condemnation and with a child’s understanding. Perhaps a director would cast the moment that the boy leaps on to the tracks in black and white. Perhaps they would highlight the confident orange of his jacket. His life jacket. I do not know what a director would do with what happens barely a second afterwards, when the train bursts out of the tunnel.
I stumble to a metal bench and sit down. I will not be sick. The mingled orange and red, the colours of a glorious sunset. I will not be sick. Black skin on the black tracks. A shocking glimpse of white. An impression of parts no longer together, a suggestion of fragmentation, like the brightly coloured blocks of a broken child’s toy.
The train has stopped halfway into the station and I can see the greedy luminous faces of passengers pressed against the windows of the carriages. The platform is still oddly empty. It is as if we have been given back some of the time the trains snatch from us and it has come to us in the form of stillness: long drained seconds.
The broken figure on the tracks is the source of all this absence, he radiates it in orange and red beams. Even a couple of the hooded boys linger, peering over the edge of the platform like curious toddlers peeking into a pond to see themselves reflected. Then they are gone in a fluster of shocked air. Trainers squeaking like a faint appeal.
I really cannot look. Such a mess of blood and brains and bone, such a splattered spray, a wild spume of him breaking and broken against the walls of the tunnel and the front of the train. But I cannot look. I want to back away with my head averted, but I know I must wait for the police so I can present my statement as both the young man and the pregnant woman are gone.
I hate the young man. I wish each fibre of his were displayed as gaudily and brazenly across the walls of this station as the orange jacketed boy’s. I would pick up every ounce of child’s flesh, if I could, wrap each tenderly in orange cloth the colour of fruits yet to ripen. I took more than my allotted pound of flesh from this boy and now I, like Shylock, am condemned.
Why didn’t the young man run towards them? With all his youth and masculinity why didn’t he stop them? I start to cry, and each tear is heavy and bloody, the weight of a pound. Now I stagger up and run a terrible elderly knock-kneed run towards the end of the platform. Time has been attributed wrongly, that is all. It is just that my actions are out of synch with his. My hand is out in front of me and ‘Stop!’ I cry, I wail; ‘Stop!’ Then I make myself look down at the disordered beauty of him there on the tracks and the bright hopeful glistening shards of bone stare brilliantly back at me.
Four hours later, I sign my statement at the police station and give it to the desk sergeant.
Before I do so, I read it through again to make sure it’s clear. It is very short and simply written.
The desk sergeant reads it through and commends me on its detail and conciseness. She says that I may be required to give further evidence. I say that is fine, thank her – why do I do that? – and leave.
I ring my husband standing outside the automatic doors. I tell him I have finished and that I am going to ring a taxi. I am tired and it will be quicker and also I do not want to travel on the Tube again today. I dial the number of a taxi company but after it has rung twice I put my phone back in my bag and begin to walk. It will take me an hour but I am not in a rush. I don’t even really want to get home at all.
I find the Sailor Predicament once more occupying my mind. I can see the dark muscular architecture of the waves, the way they smack the boat in one irate heave, like a giant irritated palm slapping down a mosquito. Too much reality would be a permanent storm for the man who took the lifeboat.
Give him low lighting, grant him temporary short sight, bless him with sea-spray to cloud his vision. Do not let him see the faint Morse of flexing fingers. Spare him the sight of shut eyes opening. Let the delicate mechanism of his conscience, its fine whorls and flaps and folds, remain intact.
I am glad there were no witnesses or cockpit recorders on that boat. I am glad that there were no cameras to produce their own grainy, hopeless version of reality. I want some give, I want some slack. Stories like that do not benefit from a taut harness anchoring truth to reality: if one sinks, they both go down.
In my statement I wrote, ‘I followed the group of them from the third carriage of the train at Finsbury Park because I was worried that they would do some harm to the boy in the orange hooded jacket. The train departed and they immediately hounded the boy towards the rear end of the platform. They chased him to the barriers and hemmed him in. There was no one else on the platform at that moment except for a young man and a pregnant woman.
‘I could hear the sound of another train coming down the tunnel and I began to run towards the boys. I shouted at them to stop and that I had called the police. I shouted again and they turned around and looked at me.
‘I shouted out that the police would arrive at any moment and that they had better leave the boy alone while they had the chance. At this the gang began to disperse.
‘It was at this moment that the boy in the orange hooded jacket jumped onto the tracks. I do not know why he did this, as he did not appear to be in any imminent danger. A second later the train appeared in the tunnel and crushed the boy under its wheels.’
I arrive home and let my husband put his arm around me and ask if I am all right. He is sympathetic; he accommodates himself to my silence.
I open the paper to block out the sight and sound and smell of what I have witnessed today. I wish that this one defensive act, the erection of a paper shield between oneself and a carriage full of folk, could be enough. If force of will could suffice.
It goes dark outside. The moon comes out.
Before I shut the paper, one final story catches my eye.
The story is about a group of thirty Indian schoolchildren who had been allowed to go out into the playground to watch an eclipse. So eager were they not to spoil the experience of seeing such godlike purity of brightness dimmed and supplanted that they removed the protective glasses their teachers had given them the better to appreciate the contrast between light and dark. They squinted up into the beams of light, the orderly rows of upturned eyes like a string of frogspawn laid at noon upon the sand. The sky grew dark, for all of them. They gasped. The moon became a dark wide pupil in the dark sky. She glared down at the children and placed her own dark curse upon them. She moved on. The children continued to stare, sightless now, as the brightness of the sun returned. Twenty-eight of the thirty children never regained their sight.
There are some realities we cannot stand.
Slivers of useless iris, forever upturned, fifty-six faint echoes of a waning moon.