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Underground fugue, p.17

Underground Fugue, page 17


Underground Fugue

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  For a moment she doesn’t understand.

  “Property values won’t keep on going up forever,” he says. “It’s a good time to sell, I should think.”

  “Actually, I’ve been thinking I might stay.”

  He slows and turns. “Stay on? Here in London?”

  It is the first time she has said the words out loud. “For a while, anyway.” Saying it aloud makes it feel real.

  “You don’t need to get back, then?”

  “There’s nothing for me there.”


  “This is all just—a lot.” She shrugs. “I need some time.”

  He puts his arm around her shoulder and draws her in. Softly, he says, “I’d like it if you stayed.”

  She leans her head against his shoulder. He smells of aftershave and musk. “I’m a basket case,” she says. “I’m warning you. My life’s a mess.”

  “Esther, Esther,” he says in a singsong. He presses his lips into her hair.

  “Trust me, I’m a basket case.”

  “I think that you’re just fine.”

  They meander down one street and up another. Through the occasional lit window, she catches a glimpse of the blue flicker of a TV; a row of bud vases on a windowsill, each containing a single miniature red rose; a harp’s curved neck and scroll. The secret interiors of other people’s lives.

  By the time they loop back to their own block, her feet ache. It is late. At the bottom of their steps, he puts both arms around her and draws her in. His lips are warm and wet. The universe has narrowed to a single point. There is nothing in the world right now that she wants more than this.


  It is not difficult to flee. He stuffs some clothes into his rucksack, silences his phone. He deletes his father’s texts unread. His parents each assume he’s with the other. Sod them both, he thinks.

  Most nights he stays at Bigsby’s. They hang around playing World of Warcraft, smoking weed, and watching their favorite DVDs: 28 Days Later, The Zone, Mad Max. The best bits are the settings: blighted wastelands, derelict buildings, radioactive skies. His hard drive is full of photographs of places just like these, only his photographs are real.

  They argue over where to explore next. Bigsby wants to have a poke around Millennium Mills down in the Docklands, but for weeks now, Mole has been drawing up a hit list of “ghost stations” in the Tube. He’s been collecting maps and diagrams and photographs of disused tunnels, platforms, branch lines, tracks. He sprawls on Bigsby’s sofa, munching on crisps, his laptop propped on his skinny thighs. “Right then,” he says. “Down Street. Aldwych. Belsize Park. Mark Lane. King’s Cross. Have your pick.”

  “Has anyone got into any of them yet?” Amir asks.

  “You can hire the Aldwych booking hall for fancy parties, for fuck’s sake,” Mole says.

  “Martin,” Amir says. “People like us.”

  Stoned, Bigsby gets all philosophical. “The raight question,” he says, cracking a Foster’s, “is not has anyone got in, but why more haven’t even tried?”

  Mole shrugs. “There’s rumors.”

  “I’ll tell ye why,” Bigsby continues. “Because it’s not possible. It’s a panopticon out there.”

  Mole rolls his eyes. “A what? Speak bloody English.”

  “Bentham,” Bigsby says. “The power of surveillance.” He mimes pressing the shutter of a camera. “Smile, yer on CCTV!”

  “That’s why you got to be a ninja, Biggs,” Mole says.

  “And never mind the live rails, the zero-clearance tunnels, station workers, locked doors, cleaners, mice, transport police. They won’t just rap yer knuckles and send ye packing, either. Ye’ll go raight to jail.”

  “You shouldn’t smoke, Biggs, it makes you paranoid,” Amir says, and even Bigsby laughs, but they know that what he says is true.

  The fuse has been lit all the same. He can feel it crackling in the air. It’s all right there, waiting for them, right beneath their feet.


  Come study with me, Miranda texts.

  Since the night of that last revision party back in May, that has been their little joke. That night, Ian showed up with a fifth of vodka and Miranda’s flatmate handed round a batch of chocolate biscuits laced with weed, and the study session soon degenerated into a loud and inebriated argument over 9/11 and the Mossad conspiracy, with Miranda uselessly attempting to shift the conversation back to the Muslim umma and their exam. And then, somehow, it was two in the morning and Amir and Miranda were lying on her bed, her shirt pushed up, her breasts cupped in his hands.

  “I like studying with you,” she said, smiling, coming up for air.

  She was always smiling.

  He likes her smile. He’s never had a proper girlfriend before, and he’s not certain if Miranda counts exactly as a girlfriend now, seeing as they haven’t done much, really, other than have sex. He likes the secrecy of it, the dark kernel of it lodged behind his breastbone, the silent understanding of two bodies that words can never match.

  Some days he stops at the Costa’s on the Seven Sisters Road where Miranda works now that term is out. He sits outside and reads the paper or just watches the people coming in and out of Finsbury Park Station over the road. When he goes inside to order, sometimes he’ll pretend he doesn’t know her. He’ll put on a fake posh accent and say, “A flat white and a toastie, please, Miss.” The other barista just rolls her eyes and says, “Yo, Miranda. Your toy boy’s here.” But Miranda just smiles and shakes the frothed milk back and forth as she pours it over the espresso to form a swirly heart.

  Other days, he wanders through the park, watching the lawn bowlers and the duffers on the tennis courts, or lies out on the grass beneath a tree, looking up at the leaves, his earphones in, his iPod cranked up high. He’s lived in London his whole life, but this is a whole other world: gritty, dirty, real. It’s like that storm drain or manhole you’ve walked over a thousand times but never noticed until you knew where to look. Everything is multiple. It is strange. Even his own face, reflected in the bathroom mirror, seems a doppelganger of his former self.

  The Finsbury Park mosque is not far from Miranda’s flat, just a few blocks from the Tube. It’s a newish redbrick building with bright green window trim—an odd primary-school touch. The concrete minaret along the side could be mistaken for a lift shaft, but sometimes you can hear the call to prayer from the street: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. Even though it has been ages since the police raided the mosque and arrested the former imam and his jihadi radicals, the street out front is still cordoned off with traffic cones and caution tape. A CCTV camera keeps watch beneath the streetlamp across. Most days there’s a policeman stationed there as well, pacing up and down along the spiked brick wall.

  A couple of weeks ago, for the first time, he went in. He slipped off his shoes and stood among the other men and tried to follow as they raised their hands in reverence, crossed them in supplication, and bowed their heads and knelt, prostrate, touching their foreheads to the ground.

  Their voices rose as one: Subhaana rabbiyal-a’laa. Glory is to my Lord, the Most High.

  Something twisted inside him then, a kind of longing for something for which he had no name.


  They decide to start with King’s Cross on the theory that it will be easier to get into a cut-and-cover station than the deep Underground. Even so, it takes a while to find a way in. Bigsby is tempted by the Gothic clock tower of the old Midland Grand, cordoned off for renovations, but Mole urges them on. They scout the concourse of the main King’s Cross Station, mugging alongside the tourists for an obligatory PLATFORM 9 ¾ photo op. They suss out the Thameslink platforms, the Underground ticket halls, the warren of tunnels running underneath.

  The disused Metropolitan line platform they’re searching for is one of the oldest bits of the Underground, Mole says, built way back in 1863. Two high-explosive bombs dropped here and killed a man during the Blitz. The old Met line station house, closed since
then, is easy enough to locate. It’s around the back of the main station, a blank white building wedged between a Royal Pizza parlor and a dodgy payday lender’s shop. The metal fire door—handle-less, locked—is signposted KEEP CLEAR–EXIT FROM EMERGENCY ESCAPE ROUTE–THESE DOORS ARE ALARMED. There’s no way in from there.

  But down a narrow, brick-paved side street, looking down from a narrow bridge onto an exposed stretch of track, they spot the disused platform. They lean over the railing, gazing down. It’s nothing but a weedy patch of concrete in the shadow of a high retaining wall. Trains run past it all day long, as they have done since 1941—for more than sixty years. It is right there, for anyone to see. It’s just a different kind of seeing, like walking into a dark room on a bright, sunny day and letting your eyes adjust to the lack of light.

  Bigsby is all for abseiling straight onto the platform from the bridge, but the drop looks dangerous and there are windows and CCTV cameras everywhere they look. They note the locations of the cameras, the security systems, the fire exit stairs. Somewhere, there’s got to be a crack.

  It’s Amir’s idea to follow the graffiti tags, and sure enough, good old Tox leads them straight in. Two nights later they are back, dressed in dark hoodies and trainers, armed with cameras, stoked on adrenaline. Warnings rumble through their heads like freights: Lights mean workers. Dark tracks are live. Rail trespass carries an automatic fine of one thousand quid.

  Breathing hard, dry-mouthed, hearts gunning in their chests, they drop down and wait. The disused platform is lit up bright as day. Above them is the bridge they were standing on the other day. Just street noises overhead. Amir pulls out his camera and fires off a bunch of shots. Everything’s in sharp focus, clear, hard edged. The rails flash in the sodium glare.

  Moving out of the light, they climb a flight of stairs to a crossover passage and find themselves in a long corridor that has the musty smell and feeling of a catacomb or tomb. The walls are scabby with rust, the ceiling draped with old wires and cables and rusty pipes. The corridor is bricked up at the end, but a sign posted on the wall still states: KING’S CROSS 200M. NUMBER OF STEPS TO EXIT: 44.

  Mole says, “Always so helpful, they are, the T.A.”

  An abandoned place remembers, Bigsby always says. They might be the first people to have set foot here since the Blitz.

  Amir takes out his camera and documents their finds. Retaining wall. Escape tunnels. Alarmed doors. Tracks. The camera flashes. He works fast. Getting in is the challenge. Sticking around is just asking to get caught.


  They are right out in the glare, back on the open platform, when it happens. The vibration comes before the sound, a faint humming along the rails. Deep in the dark recess of the tunnel, a red eye blinks.

  “Fuck,” Bigsby says.

  Mole dashes for the thin line of shadows behind the platform pillars and they tuck in behind him, pressing their backs against the wall, and wait.

  “Don’t move,” Mole hisses.

  Amir holds his breath.

  A shuddering fills the narrow space, the thrum of diesel, and then with a spray of light out of the tunnel comes a blue train like a slit-eyed monster, a work train, thundering along the tracks.

  And then with a gust of stale and gritty breath it’s passed, snaking across the open stretch of track and into the black mouth of the far tunnel, taillights blinking, the engine noise subsiding like an ebbing wave.

  They exhale, doubled over, gasping, almost laughing, surrendering to relief.

  Bigsby exhales hard. “That was a heart attack.”

  “You should see the look on your face!” Amir says. “It’s brilliant.”

  “Fuck off,” Bigsby says.

  Everything is vibrating, everything is sharp and hard and clear. The lights along the tracks are shining extra bright. They are utterly, intensely alive.

  Twenty minutes later they are out, surfacing like divers rising from a wreck, breathing their private prayers of thanks to the patron gods of exploration for bringing them back from the world of the dead. They’ve peeled back the layers of history; they’ve turned back time.

  Zombies move along the main concourse of the King’s Cross Station, mobile phones and iPods playing static in their zombie ears. Their zombie eyes are dead. They take no notice of the three boys in black hoodies and jeans. Late-night zombie cleaners follow, obliviously sweeping, dragging rubbish carts behind.

  Only the CCTV cameras watch with their all-seeing eyes.


  Time has pooled, the way a river eddies along the bank, out of the flowing stream. Time ripples outward, decoupled from the turning of the earth, the diurnal movement of the sun. All that’s left are fragments. The membrane is frayed.

  There’s no more pain, no more fear. She has given in to the dull oblivion of morphine, its weightless dissolving warmth. She floats above her body, hardly aware of the pumping labor of her failing heart and lungs. She leaves it to the ministrations of the women who turn and prod and wipe, whispering as they come and go. Only her dreams are vivid. Only the past is real.


  The women whisper by the samovar in the refugee hall; the men shake open the daily papers, smoke from their cigarettes rising in the air. War, everybody says, is very near. Arms are being smuggled into Danzig. Fortifications are going up along the German frontier. The Polish army is calling up its men. What happened to Czechoslovakia, everybody is saying, cannot be permitted to happen here.

  Letters arrive from their father every couple of days. Meine liebsten Kinder, he writes, his cursive elegant, his updates bland. Lonia pictures his ink-smudged fingers, his glass of cognac, his cigarette smoldering in the ashtray to a tail of ash. Seated at the kitchen table, she contemplates the nib of her pen, the blank stationery page. Her replies are just as bland. She does not mention Hugo’s Zionist friends, their talk of blockades and bribes. She does not mention Isaac: his yeshiva bocher face, the thrilling flicker of his tongue, his demanding gaze.

  Isaac comes and goes, disappearing without warning, reappearing a few days later, offering no explanation for where he’s been. Rumors ripple through the hall. Some say that he’s an anarchist. Others say he is a spy. Lonia believes the stories he has told her: that his parents died when he was a child, that he was raised by an aunt and uncle in the hills of Subcarpathian Rus, that he studied in Berlin. The details—of the Ruthenian peasants gathering for the crush, of riding the U-Bahn across the Oberbaumbrücke—give his stories the ring of truth whether they are true or not.

  In the afternoons, they walk together along the streets of Kazimierz. The flat stone facades along Krakowska Street are gray. The cobblestones are gray. Gray clouds spit summer rain. At the Third Bridge crossing, Lonia stops and leans over the iron balustrade. A whippy wind is blowing hard ridges in the water. The Wisła, too, is gray, the color of concrete.

  “Poland is finished,” Isaac says. “We are in the worst place one could be.”

  “That’s thinking positively,” Lonia says.

  The river slides beneath them, moving fast today. The ducks paddle close to the muddy bank, out of the stream. From here, the river flowed north to Warszawa and from there all the way to Danzig and the open sea.

  “I want you to come with me,” Isaac says.

  “Come with you where?”

  “We’ll see.”

  “And how, exactly, do you propose we get to wherever this is? Perhaps you have a flying carpet? Or maybe you’ll just snap your fingers and entrance permits will magically appear?”

  He gives her a sideways smile. His eyes are dark and hard. “You just have to trust me.”

  “Easy for you to say. You don’t have a brother or a father. You’re not leaving anyone behind.”

  “Go to Palestine with Hugo, then, if that’s the way you feel.”

  She sighs. “We haven’t got papers yet. You know that.”

  He takes her hand, interlacing his fingers with hers, rubbing his thumb along her metacarpal bones. H
er hand feels very small in his.

  “Come with me, Lonia.”

  “I just want to go home.”

  She tries to pull her hand back, but he tightens his grip. “I have a contact,” he says. “He says he can get us visas to England.”

  “Oh he does, does he?”

  He makes a wry face. “There is only one problem.”

  “Only one? What’s that?”

  “I’m afraid I had to tell him we were married.”

  She laughs. Married!

  “The point is there’s a chance. It’s just a matter of money.”

  “Oh! Of course it is. I see.” She pauses. “And what about Hugo?”

  “I’ll try, Lonia, but it will be difficult. I can’t promise anything.”

  From here she can’t see the embankment where they walked at midsummer amid the flaming bonfires and flickering wreaths. It seems like months have passed, not just weeks. Time no longer seems to function in the ordinary way. A blink ago she was a schoolgirl in Moravská Ostrava. A hundred years ago, she kissed her father goodbye.


  Back at the flat, she pulls out from underneath the mattress the leather pouch her father gave her that contains her mother’s diamond ring. She slides it onto the third finger of her left hand. It is too big. She holds her hand out. The diamond is shot through with spears of light. Married, she thinks. She’s almost eighteen.

  Outside the open window of her bedroom, a bird is singing: a few melodious trills followed by a rapid sequence of chirps and clicks. A nightingale, she thinks. She can hear the old woman doing something in the kitchen, banging pans. She turns back to the window. The romantics had it wrong; you could hardly call it singing, this noise the nightingale makes. It whistles, chatters, makes a squeaky sound like kisses blown through puckered lips.

  She slides her mother’s ring off her finger and tucks it back into the leather pouch. Should she let Isaac sell the ring? She imagines it tucked inside the crease of Isaac’s jacket pocket, in the fat fist of a black market dealer, on the plump white finger of some Polish bride. Please forgive me, Mama, she thinks.

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