Tuesday, 7 July 2015

7th July 2005 - A Fictional Tribute

I'm so glad that so may tributes were made today, for all those who were affected by the London bombings.  I'd like to add mine for what it's worth. I hope you enjoy reading.


I clatter down the steps to the tube in my impossibly high black Nicole Farhi shoes.  They’re not the kind of footwear any girl should be running in but today I need every ounce of confidence I can muster and these certainly give me that.  I just wish I wasn’t so late.  Not when I’m about to meet my new boss who, rumour has it, eats recruitment consultants like me as a light snack before he even contemplates breakfast. Apparently he’s a stickler for punctuality.  I look at my watch – eight thirty five, I’m going to be really pushing it to get to the office before nine.   Let’s just hope the trains are running smoothly.
To my dismay the foyer of the station looks like Selfridges on the first day of the January sales. My tube pass in hand and with the skill of a seasoned commuter, I make a concerted attempt to get to the ticket barrier, weaving my way around the ditherers and the women with pushchairs. Couldn’t they at least wait until the rush hour is over? 
I push through the ticket barrier and dash towards the escalator.  The slim heels of my shoes catch between the ridges of the steps and my progress is slow.  Behind me I feel the bulk of a businessman trying to speed down in his shiny flat shoes, his toes catching at my ankles but I refuse to move aside.  And then we’re brought to a halt by a woman standing in the way.  Doesn’t she know the unwritten rule of the underground escalators? 
“Excuse me.” I say as I come to a halt, the man behind me almost bumping into me.  I flinch involuntarily away from this bulk.
‘Sorry?’ the woman turns to face me.
‘You need to keep moving on this side,’ I try to explain. ‘If you want to stand still you need to be on the right.’
She shakes her head as though I’m a creature from another planet but does not move.  The man tuts behind me, it’s like a pressure pot in here but as we near the bottom of the escalator I give up. What difference will a few seconds make now?
Once more on level ground I weave in front of her and head for the next escalator, continuing my journey into the bowels of the earth.
The smell of dust mingling with iron filings hits the back of my throat as I reach the platform just in time to see the doors closing as they swallow up a mass of commuters.
“Damn!” those few seconds could have made a world of difference after all. I really hate the tube, hate the stale fetid air which flows through the tunnels, constantly recycled but never refreshed.  The thought of carbon dioxide expelled from unwashed bodies disgusts me. If there was any other way I could get to work I would use it but the tube is fast and efficient and free from the congestion on the roads.
Although a train has just left, the platform is still jam packed. The monitor announces the arrival of next train in two minutes but underground minutes are unlike any other.  They can bend and stretch to suit themselves and are really no indication of the actual passage of time.   
I glance again at my watch – eight forty – I might still make it if I’m really lucky although I will have to make a dash for it at the other end.  I’m already feeling sticky and sweaty in my suit and the cloying air is just making me sweat even more.
Commuters are merging onto the platform at an alarming rate, and I try to breathe slowly and deeply; I’ve never been any good in crowds.  Normally I prefer to travel in a centre carriage.  It’s a ritual I have, a kind of safety net, but there are too many people standing in the middle of the platform so I elbow my way down to where the crowds thin slightly. I morph myself into the smallest space possible so that when the train does arrive I will be in a position to squeeze through the doors at the front of the queue.
The swell of sweating bodies around me makes me feel ill. The monitor above chalks off another minute and I can literally feel people tense as they prepare themselves for the surge forward when the tube arrives; those at the back panicking that they won’t manage to squeeze on.
A rush of even hotter air announces the imminent arrival of the train and I clutch my handbag closer to me to ensure that we do not get separated in the push forward, as we go over the top!
Today I’m lucky, I’ve judged the position just right and am standing right where the doors open.  I don’t think I would‘ve made it onto the train if I had ended up standing in the middle of the carriage, away from the doors.  I take a deep breath and allow myself to be pushed forward into the train.  I’ve learnt over time that the only thing you can do when it’s this busy is to go with the flow.  Once on the train I’m pushed three quarters of the way down the middle of the carriage.  Standing in between the seated I reach up to hold onto the thing that looks like an upside down Zebedee.  They’re supposed to help you keep your balance but they are so bendy that you just end up swaying all over the place with your armpit in someone else’s face.  There’s not much chance of movement today though as we’re all packed into the train like sardines in a tin.  As the doors attempt to close there’s one last surge as people panic that they won’t get on. The doors bounce back and then finally close.   
If it was hot on the platform it's hotter inside the train. I have the misfortune to be standing next to a man who smells like he needs an introduction to soap and water and I’m so close to the woman on the other side of me that I can’t move away from him. I grit my teeth and wonder if I can hold my breath all the way to Covent Garden. 
Surreptitiously I take a look around the carriage being very careful not make eye contact.
               A man two seats down is reading his book – lucky thing – at least he has something to take his mind off the heat.  I try to take a peek at the cover to see what he’s reading but he’s holding it at an angle and I can’t make it out.
The headlines from the smattering of newspapers I can see scream Olympic success.  I smile ruefully, my hangover this morning is a direct result of that victory. What a brilliant night! Six of us, all friends since uni, celebrating the winning bid for the 2012 Olympics. Dan, one of our friends, works on the bid committee and our joy was as much for him and all his hard work as it was for the city itself.  What a huge boost for London, especially pipping the smug French to the post.   I only hope that we can pull it off. How wonderful it would be to have a good sporting name across the world, rather than be known for losing at the last minute or for hooliganism.  It's a shame really because most of us are proud of being British and our strong heritage. 
               Despite my moans about the tube I love living in London and quite honestly at the moment I love my life.  In two months time I’m going to be married to the most wonderful man in the world and I can’t wait.  Phil really is the man of my dreams, the other half of my jigsaw piece.  We met at the Fresher’s fair at university before we had even begun our courses, him law, me business studies, and for me it was love at first sight.  He says he was pretty bowled over by me too – instantly taken with my dark curly hair and green eyes.   His nickname for me is catty, not, he says as a reflection on my temperament but because of the colour of my eyes. 
               After I had done the rounds of the fair, joining up for a few of the sporty clubs, I headed to the student union bar and there he was again, waiting to be served.  Deciding to seize the moment I squeezed in next to him.
               “Hello again,” I said softly
               He smiled at me; that smile lighting up his face and reaching his dark brown eyes.
               “Hello!”
It was definitely a pleased to see you type of hello.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked, and with those words we sealed our fate. 
We’ve been together ever since, even when he decided to go to York after uni to take his post-graduate course.  Life wasn’t easy but we survived the separation and soon he was back down in London and we were sharing a flat in Finsbury Park. When he asked me to marry him I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation. I’ll never find anyone like Phil and wouldn’t want to. On 25 September 2005 we’re going to tie the knot in my village church and I just can’t wait. Then it's off on honeymoon to Mauritius for two weeks of sun, sand, romance and whatever else you’re supposed to do on honeymoon. Despite the discomfort in the carriage I smile.  Phil seems to be anticipating our honeymoon with exuberance at the moment; he can’t seem to keep his hands off me, not that I’m complaining.  I’m not usually one for early morning frolics but today, despite a slight thumping hangover and a revolting taste in my mouth I couldn’t resist him when he reached of for me in our waking moments. I know I should be feeling remorseful because I knew it would make me late but in that moment all rational thoughts left my head. I’m paying for it now though and will do so even more, I’m sure, when I get to the office.
I love the hustle and bustle of London, the endless opportunities for entertainment and culture.  There are so many places to visit, restaurants to eat at, cinemas, theatres and clubs to dance the night away in.  I love the wide pavements and streets and the tall buildings; the architecture and the sense of history. Right now, my life is just about perfect.  
               Tonight, Phil and I are having a rare night in tonight on our own.  We’ve been out so much really or had friends round to us, that I am quite looking forward to a cosy night in.   We had a new dining room tables and chairs delivered last week and I’m going to dress the table with candles, and cook us a romantic meal. I bought some huge king prawns yesterday which I’m going to sizzle in garlic and chilli and eat with huge chunks of garlic bread.  Then I’m planning to cook steaks with pepper sauce, roasted Mediterranean vegetables and new potatoes. And for desert, well, I think we might make that up as we go along.
The tube stops at Kings Cross and the pack of sardines wriggles as commuters squeeze their way off before a new surge of passengers squash themselves back in. In the mêlée I manage to bag myself a seat and plonk myself down triumphant.  It's not very far to my destination but at least the air smells a bit better down here. 
The doors squeeze shut once more and the tube hauls itself away from the platform. I close my eyes and picture my wedding dress.  I can’t wait to go for a fitting on Saturday, one more glimpse at the most beautiful dress I could ever imagine wearing.  It has a gorgeous cream bodice which fits like a second skin, and is covered in tiny pearls which have been individually sewn on. The back is all laced up with satin laces and it fits so snugly I even look like I have a cleavage. The skirt flares out in the most delightful river of satin into a huge train at the back. 
               I have to confess that I am usually a trousers kind of girl and don’t possess that many dresses.  And although I have a bit of a penchant for shoes, I’m more of a tom boy that a girly girl but if you can’t be girly on your wedding day when can you be?
I’m planning on wearing my hair up and with selected curls framing my face in an exotic gypsy style. I aim to be tanned and even though I can’t afford a holiday this summer I’m planning on spending as much of my spare time on sunny days sunbathing in Hyde Park.

An enormous bang rips me from my day-dreaming and throws me out of my seat. Oh my God what the hell is going on? My eyes are open wide but I can’t see a thing – it’s pitch black and for a moment I think I’ve gone blind. I can’t hear anything either.  Am I deaf?  Am I dead?  Is this what being dead feels like? I don’t feel dead. I don’t think I do anyway. There are bodies all around me, someone actually lying across me.  I start to choke, and for a brief moment I’m reassured that I’m not dead.  But the relief is fleeting as I can’t stop coughing.  There’s smoke everywhere, and I can’t breathe.  My lungs are burning. Panic rips through me. Is the carriage on fire?  Am I going to die here anyway?  A barbequed sardine burnt to a crisp. Kings Cross. A fire at King’s Cross. Oh please God! Not again. Phil! I’ll never see Phil again.  Nooooo!!!!!!!
               Calm down, clam down.  Think.  I need a mask. Something to put over my face.  Tissues? Don’t know where my bag is. Gone. I reach down. My trousers are torn.  Can I rip a piece off and hold it over my face, stop the worst of the smoke from getting into my lungs.  Will I suffocate anyway doing that? It's hot. So bloody hot down here. No air.  Got to have air. It's like being underwater. A strange weird treading water type of atmosphere.
               The emergency lights click on and it's not pitch black anymore. I’m not blind. I can make out shapes in the eerie gloom but little else. My hearing is shot. It sounds like there’s water rushing through my ears and everything is distorted, speed has slowed right down like the batteries are running out. But I can hear screaming and anguished cries. The person who was lying across me shuffles up, fishes for their mobile phone and it lights up silhouetting them. Scary. A sane thinking person rips a fire extinguisher off the wall and smashes open the window.  A rush of air floods in and Thank God we can all breathe a little easier!
               ‘What the hell happened?’ comes the question. ‘Did we crash?’
               ‘Does anyone know we’re down here?’
               ‘How long will it take to rescue us?’
There are more questions than answers and although now we don’t appear to be in any real danger I realise we could still die down here.  Slowly and painfully because nobody knows where we are.
               There’s a faint humming in the distance and someone shushing us halts the questions.
               ‘What’s that noise?’
Straining to hear. Straining to understand. And then the realisation. Oh my God it's another train.
               Quickly I curl back up again, my head in my hands, bracing myself for the crash as the other train hits us, my face pressed into the dust and the dirt on the floor. A flood of relief as the train seems to pass by. Thank God it’s on another line.   
               ‘They don’t know we’re here,’ a voice declares and I wonder what’s going on in the outside world.  Is everything going on as normal up there while in a moment our whole world has changed?
               As my hearing starts to improve the screams become louder.  My God how many people have been injured? I begin to feel a dull throb in my leg where my trousers have been ripped and tentatively I feel for the damage.  I wince as my hand presses on my leg.  It’s sticky. With blood? I hold my hand up to my face but all I can see is a black ooze.
               ‘Are you hurt?’ It’s the man who was lying on top of me.  The man with the phone.
               ‘I think so, my leg.’ I say and now that I’m aware of my injury the pain intensifies. Around me people are beginning to move to assess their injuries.  There’s a woman a few bodies down from me who has started to scream and I wonder how badly hurt she is.
               ‘Everyone keep calm.’ A voice seems to take control. ‘Anyone who can, stand up, then we’ll know who has been injured the most.’
I try to haul myself up against the carriage seat but although my brain is telling my leg to move the instruction is just not reaching it.  
               ‘Hold still.’ The man next to me says again, ‘Let me have a look at you.’ 
His hand touches my leg and the pain surges through me like an electric shock.  I bite my teeth together refusing to scream. I must not panic.  
               ‘You’re loosing a lot of blood.’
And as he says it I wonder for one brief moment whether I’m going to loose my leg. Panic judders up again but I force it back down again. 
‘Here.’  He takes his tie off and wraps it around my thigh tightening it in a tourniquet. ‘This should help with the blood loss.’
‘Thank you.’ I say and my words woefully inadequate. ‘Thank you so much.  Are you hurt?’
‘Not so much I don’t think.  A bump on the head, my face is sore.  But I’m fine. I’m Simon by the way.’
“Ali,” I reply thinking that if I am going to die at least I won’t be alone.
               ‘First aid we need first aid,’ a voice shouts and the reply comes:
               ‘On the wall. There are first aid boxes on the walls. By the end of the carriage.’ 
               ‘It’s here. But it’s locked!’
               ‘Bloody typical of London Transport.  No bloody contingency plans for an emergency.’
               ‘Shush, I think I can hear something. I think it’s the driver. I can’t hear what he is saying. Everyone. Quiet please.’
               Even the whimpers of those badly injured die down as we all strain to hear what’s going on.  Perhaps, if the driver is alive, then just maybe he’ll be able to get us out of here, if not in one piece then at least alive.  I’ve never been big on religion but silently now I start to pray. Please God let us get out I don’t want this heap of metal to become my coffin. 
               ‘Right. I could just about make him out,’ says a man at the end of the carriage. ‘The driver is alive and he thinks if he can move the train just a little then he can get us out of here.  We’ll have to walk down the tracks and they may be live but he thinks it’s going to be OK.  We have to wait until he can see if he can move. We need to let the other carriages know so pass the message down and eventually it’ll get to the end.  Tell them not to worry if the train starts to move.’
               As the message is passed down the carriage I hope that this is not a case of Chinese whispers which ends up with a completely distorted message at the end. I hope those people all down the track, if there is anyone alive that is, finds out that there’s still hope.
               There’s a buzz of excitement in the carriage now.  Perhaps the driver will be able to radio a message to the outside world. Perhaps we will be able to escape down the tracks.  No one seems to care how difficult that might be, or how dangerous, because anything is better than this and everyone is clinging onto the one faint hope of survival.
               But I’m worried.  What if I can’t walk?  What if I can’t manage to make my escape with the others? What if they leave me here to die with those who too are dying or are already dead?  No, that’s not going to happen. I don’t care how bloody difficult or painful it’s going to be, I’m going to get off this train with everyone else.
               Now that we have something to hope for the waiting seems endless, each minute drags out like an hour.  In the meantime I decide to try and hoist myself into one of the seats. At least then I’ll have a fighting chance.
               ‘What are you doing?  You need to keep still. Keep that leg flat.’
               ‘I need to get off this train. I’m getting ready to go when the rest of you do.  There’s no way I’m staying here.’
               ‘But that’s mad. You’ll never make it.  Stay here.  We can alert the emergency services they’ll be here soon.’
‘I’m not staying down here.’ My mother always said I had a stubborn streak and the thought of staying down here, alone but for the dead or the dying terrifies me. I can’t just give up.
The train jolts slightly and then slowly the doors open.  The driver directs everyone down a wooden ladder and onto the track. Unlike this morning’s dash down the escalator there’s no panic and no mad dash to get out first.  We are British people in a crisis and we’re doing things in a polite manner; banding together to help our fellow man.  Or woman.
‘After you, Madam,’
‘No after you, Sir.’
It could only happen here. 
Despite excruciating pain I’ve hauled myself onto the seat.  It has set the blood pumping but as long as I don’t bleed to death before I get to the end of the track I know I’ll be alright.  The now familiar voice is at my ear.
‘Are you sure you want to go through with this?’
               ‘No question.’
               ‘Right then, we’d better get you on your feet. Let’s see if you can make it to the end of the carriage. That’ll be a start.’
               He’s given me a lifeline.  He’s given me his faith.  And no matter what happens to us on the outside, right now this stranger is the most important person in my life.    
               ‘Thank you.’
               Again the words seem balefully inadequate. I take a deep breath and lever myself onto my feet.  Hot stabbing coals pierce my leg and judder into my spine and I wonder how the hell I’m going manage all the way down the tracks? Would I be best to stay here after all? My instinct is to sag back down onto the seat and let him walk past me to freedom.  But I’ve made a song and dance about getting off this train and I’ve never been a quitter.
               ‘You OK?’
               ‘Yes,’ I almost cry out in pain.
               ‘Think you can make it?’
               ‘Yes,’ I lie.
               ‘Lean on me then.’
               And I do. Another thing my mother has always said about me is that I’m independent.  Far too independent by half used to be her curse when I wouldn’t do what she wanted me to.  I hate depending on anyone to help me through anything.  But right now I know I don’t have a choice and I’m just grateful that although I began this journey on my own, there is someone here who will help me finish it. 
               We do a weird crab like shuffle across the carriage and it takes like about a week.  People are waiting patiently behind me. 
               ‘Let the others get off the train first,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to hold them up.’
               ‘I’m staying with you,’ Simon says.  And I’ve never been so pleased in my life.  If he’d said he was going to go it alone I’d have let him save his own skin.  But I know I’m not going to make it without him and I’m sure he knows it too.
               ‘You sure?’
               ‘Positive.’
               ‘Let’s go then.’
               My saviour heads halfway down the ladder before reaching up to help me down.  The track is eerily lit by the emergency lights but is never-ending. 
               ‘This is the long walk to freedom,’ I hear someone say jokily, obviously trying to mask his own fear. He’s not far wrong there.
               ‘Let me carry you,’ Simon says when I’ve made my excruciating way to the bottom of the ladder. 
               ‘No way.  It's too far. Go in front on me and let me lean on you. You can be my crutch.’ And so we begin our own long walk.
With each step I feel like I’m about to pass out. Around me I can hear people jokingly trying to encourage each other on, boost the spirits but I tune it out in my effort to concentrate.  We walk between the lines of the track because we still don’t know if they’re live and I’m so afraid that my legs are about to give out on me. Frying tonight. The phrase keeps coming into my head.  Oh God please let me get out of here.
               The longer we walk the less able I feel that I can continue. I’m mad to even attempt this. I shouldn’t have been so stubborn. I should have waited for the paramedics to come and get me.
               ‘You OK?’  Simon asks when I nearly stumble for the second time in as many minutes.
               ‘Yeah. I’m fine.’  I grit my teeth determined to find the strength to carry on.  Each step is a step nearer to freedom.
               And then I hear it.  The talking gets louder and in the distance I can make out the silhouettes of my fellow travellers being lifted onto the platform by other dark shapes.
               ‘Look!’ I whisper unable to believe my eyes – am I hallucinating?
               ‘No, I can see it too.  Just a little while longer and we’ll have made it.  Can’t wait to get a breath of fresh air. My lungs feel like they are clogged up with smoke.’
               ‘Mine too.’
               In front of us the pace quickens and with a last final surge of energy we finally reach the platform and are lifted up the tracks.  The strong arms of someone hauling me on to the platform is the last thing I remember before finally passing out.

                             
              

2 comments:

  1. A powerful story that captures the reality of the chaos of the morning tube travel perfectly and how quickly normality can turn into a dystopia. I really enjoyed reading this, even though it sent shivers down my spine. I was at the exact tube station the day before the bombing. I must admit I was relieved I wasn't there on the 7th but I was deeply saddened for the people and families directly affected by this atrocity. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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  2. Hi Nicola - thank you for your lovely comments. That must have been really scary for you knowing that you were there the day before. I narrowly missed the Kings Cross Fire and also a bomb in the place that I worked so I guess we must lead charmed lives. But it certainly makes you think. and like you my heart goes out to everyone who was affected by this terrible act of violence.

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