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Underground fugue, p.19

Underground Fugue, page 19


Underground Fugue

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  They are just a minute or two out from Great Portland Street Station, deep inside the tunnel, when the train lurches abruptly to a stop. He staggers against the passengers standing by him around the pole. The engine moans and then the lights blink out and everything is dark.

  The darkness is dense and absolute, as if he’s underwater, or in a mine. He expects that the engine will rev back up and the lights will switch back on after a few moments, but nothing happens. He pulls out his mobile and flips it open, squinting at the blue square of the screen. 8:52 a.m. Now he’ll certainly be late. No signal bars, of course.

  The mass of bodies pulses around him in the darkness. He dislikes enclosed spaces. He is not fond of crowded cinemas, narrow corridors, small planes, lifts. He tugs at his tie. The woman seated in front of him starts to fan herself with a magazine. People shift in their seats. There are too many bodies, too little air, too many people crammed into this metal cylinder stopped inside this tunnel, two hundred meters underground. Panic begins to squeeze him in its python grip.

  Just breathe, he tells himself. Slowly in and out. Out and in.

  It is nearly fifteen minutes before a voice comes over the tannoy, a garbled South Asian drone. Through the static Javad thinks he makes out the words power surge…electrical fault.

  A ripple of grumbling passes through the carriage. “It’s absolutely shambolic!” a man’s voice says. “How the hell are they going to manage the Olympics if they can’t even run the bloody trains?”

  Javad wipes his forehead on his sleeve. His lower back is beginning to ache. Surely an electrical fault was something they could fix? Surely they were working on it already. How long would it take? He checks the time again. He feels as if he’s been down here, trapped, forever, but it’s only 9:08.

  Panic squeezes his throat. This is the way people feel in the MRI tube. Some hyperventilate, shake, scream. Most clinics pipe music into the tube to help relieve the anxiety. Others give patients mirrored glasses that create an optical illusion of greater space. He tries closing his eyes, wishing there were soothing music, and tries to breathe.

  After an interminable wait—he feels as if he has been standing here for days—a torch flashes in the tunnel outside the train. The driver’s voice comes on again. They are to be evacuated. “Hallelujah,” someone calls out.

  Slowly, they move forward through the train. He shuffles to the far end of the carriage, then the next. It is quiet, close, and hot. At the very front of the train, a door has been opened. He climbs down a short ladder and steps onto the tracks.

  The tunnel is dark and dank. It smells of burnt brake shoes, mold, and piss. People are holding up their mobiles as makeshift torches, blue-lit squares like miner’s lights. Javad takes his phone out and holds it up as well, although it is of little help. No one speaks. He picks his way into the darkness along the tracks. At least there’s no live rail. There is a faint scrabbling noise of mice. How horrid it must have been down here during the Blitz.

  Finally, they emerge into the dim space of a station. Emergency lights give off a weak glow. The younger and more impatient passengers are heaving themselves up onto the platform, which rises at chest height from where they stand down on the rails. Now another ladder is being propped against the platform’s edge. The driver, a turbaned Sikh, positions himself at the base, begins helping people up. His long beard is twisted into a thick strap beneath his chin. Gibberish squawks from the two-way radio strapped to his chest. “Mind your step,” he mumbles. “Mind your step.”

  “What in hell is going on?” demands the man in front of Javad, but the driver only shrugs.

  Javad climbs the ladder, stumbles up the stilled escalator steps and out of the station. And then he is on the street.

  Daylight stabs his eyes. The Euston Road is a gridlocked mass of cars and taxis and vans and double-decker busses lined up as far as he can see, a few intrepid motorbikers and cyclists weaving along the edge. Two pumper trucks are idling outside the Tube station, lights flashing. But he smells no smoke, sees no sign of an emergency. Thank god, he’s out.

  It is 9:46 a.m. His committee meeting will be nearly over—there’s no point hurrying now. Never mind. It’s a short walk from here, ten minutes at most. There is the reassurance of the air and trees and the concrete of the pavement firm beneath his feet. The tinted façade of the Wellcome Trust building reflects the fluttering leaves, the scudding clouds, the summer sky.


  He walks east along the Euston Road, the crowd of stranded commuters deepening as he goes. Men and women are waving frantically at occupied taxis, shouting into their mobile phones. It is madness. An entire city is late for work.

  He has not gone far when a man in a filthy, rumpled suit staggers into him, hard, bumping shoulders on his way past. Piss drunk, Javad thinks—how pathetic, so early in the day, and on a day like this. But there is something strange. It takes a moment before it comes to him that the far side of the man’s face and suit were black with soot. Javad wheels around, but the man has disappeared.

  His breath catches in his chest. What has happened? Not just a power surge, he thinks. Ahead a phalanx of police have blocked off the entire Euston Road and are diverting traffic and pedestrians south toward Tavistock Square. Red and yellow emergency lights flash. He follows the throngs funneling into Upper Woburn Place. The banners hanging above the tall red doors of the St. Pancras parish church flutter in the morning breeze. They seem to belong to a different dimension of time and space.

  He has just passed the entrance to the Hilton when it happens. The sound comes first: a massive crunching thud, like cars colliding, only louder—a great whooshing pop. It is followed by a strange, slow, silent puff of movement: a cloud of debris and shattered glass spraying into the air, a plume of white smoke rising up. A cordite smell. Amid it all, a metallic ribbon floats, twisting and flashing almost lazily, in the summer light.

  All around him, everything is frozen on a blast wave of shock. Cars and vans are stopped. The people standing along the pavement are stopped. Just ahead, at the northwest corner of Tavistock Square, a red bus is stopped. It’s one of those sightseeing busses with an open-air upper deck. It’s strange, Javad thinks—one didn’t ordinarily see tourist busses like that here. But then the image shifts and he realizes that it is not a tourist bus but a regular red double-decker bus, blown to bits.

  The roof of the bus is peeled back like the lid of a sardine tin, the upper deck exposed. People are hanging over the shattered sides, slumped forward in the seats. Bile rises in his throat.

  Somewhere, through the frozen stasis, comes the sound of pigeons cooing in the park. Very far away, a siren wails.

  Javad does not move. The air smells of melted plastic, acrid smoke, burnt flesh.

  And then a black Ford Focus is screeching up onto the pavement right in front of where he’s standing and four policemen are leaping out and running toward the bus. One policeman’s helmet falls off as he runs. It drops to the pavement, bounces twice, rolls to a stop amid the twisted shards of metal, bits of paper, blue shreds of blown-up seats. The policeman does not turn back.

  Suddenly everyone is running. People are stampeding down the street, streaming out of the British Medical Association building, hands pressed to their lips. The stone facade is splattered red with blood. A man with a TV camera on his shoulder is slowly turning in a circle, filming blind. Someone is shouting for people to move into the courtyard before more bombs go off.

  Javad becomes dimly aware that his mobile is vibrating in his pocket. He pulls it out and tries to hear above the clamor, digging a finger into his other ear.

  “Oh, thank god,” Caroline says.

  But she’s not calling to check up on him. It’s Amir she’s trying to reach.

  “How should I know?” he says. “I haven’t seen him in the past two weeks.”

  “What are you talking about? I thought he was with you.”

  “I thought he was with you.” A clanging fills his ears.
  “Jesus fucking Christ.”

  The line cuts out. He tries to ring her back, but he can’t get a signal now.

  Two men struggle past, carrying a café table repurposed as a stretcher, a man in a gray business suit lying limp across the top. The man looks unscathed, and Javad wonders if he’s suffered a blow to the head. But then he sees that both his legs have been blown off beneath the knees.

  He tries texting Caroline, his fingers trembling, clumsy on the keys, but the message will not go through. The circuits must be jammed.

  Somewhere nearby, a siren whoops.

  A woman with a soot-black and bloodied face stumbles toward him. A man runs up and drapes a cloth over her shoulders. She is trembling, in shock. Javad crosses the street.

  A woman comes out of the BMA house archway, her arms full of water bottles.

  “I’m a doctor,” he says. “How can I help?”

  “Over there,” the woman says, gesturing with her chin. There are bodies lying in the street. The police are cordoning off the square with yellow tape, pushing people back.

  Where in god’s name was Amir?


  It is past noon by the time he finally makes it over to the Institute. Everyone is in the staff lounge, gathered around the TV. On the screen is the blown-up double-decker bus, empty now, looking like a broken toy. A banner scrolling across the bottom reads Remain where you are. Do not travel.

  Li is hunched over his laptop at the table. “Now police say seven bombs,” he reports. “Edgware Road. King’s Cross. Liverpool Street. Russell Square. Aldgate East. Moorgate. Tavistock Square.”

  Seven bombs.

  Evelyn, the secretary, hands him a cup of tea. “We were all so worried you were on the Tube,” she says.

  “I was,” he says. “Fortunately, I was running late.”

  Somehow everyone in his lab has been accounted for. Everyone is safe. Thank god. His hands tremble as he takes the tea. His hands. He sets the cup down and goes over to the sink and washes them, scrubbing at his nails. The water is hot. He lets it burn. He feels detached from his body, light-headed with panic. Where was Amir?

  On TV, the camera cuts to the G8 Summit up in Scotland, Tony Blair on a podium, flanked by George Bush and Jacques Chirac. Blair’s mouth is moving. The closed captions read It is reasonably clear that there has been a series of terrorist attacks in London…All leaders share our complete resolution to defeat terrorism…

  Lalitha is sniffling into Wolff-Dieter’s broad Teutonic shoulder. Black rivulets of mascara smear her cheeks. “Who would do such a thing?” she says.

  Xiang Li glances up. “No one claims responsibility yet.”

  “Bastards,” Wolff-Dieter says.

  He turns back to the TV. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, looks beleaguered. We are working to return order to the situation. The entire Underground and bus and train networks have been suspended. Millions of commuters are stranded in Central London. The mobile phone network is overwhelmed.

  Javad stuffs his hand in his pocket, flips his mobile open and shut. A helicopter is throbbing dully overhead. Out the window, the view is the same as always: the chimneys and brick roof peaks of the hospital, the green treetops of Queen Square.

  There was no reason to think Amir would have been on the Tube so early on a Thursday morning, Javad tells himself. There was no reason for him to be in Bloomsbury over the summer break, or for that matter anywhere near Edgware Road or Liverpool Street or King’s Cross or Russell Square. The circuits were just jammed. He was probably perfectly okay.

  Behind him, voices rise and fall.

  “Is your phone working yet?”

  “Do you think it’s Al Qaeda? Maybe it’s a response to the Olympic bid.”

  “Only four bombs, they’re saying now. But there could be more to come.”

  Amir had said he was going to Caroline’s. Surely he’d said that. Hadn’t he?

  Again Javad hears the front door slam. Again the floorboards shake.

  Right, whatever, I won’t be around.


  They’ve been instructed to stay in place until the situation is secure. Javad goes into his office and shuts the door. He tries Amir’s mobile again, but the call will not connect. He tries Caroline on her landline, but she does not pick up. He jiggles the mouse on his computer. The little rainbow wheel spins and spins. The BBC website will not refresh.

  His desk is covered in piles of papers, printouts, scans. On top is a series of fMRI images of prefrontal cortices—Li’s first few volunteers. He absently picks up the sheet. Reduced prefrontal cortex mass was linked to violent behavior, he thinks. What sort of person sets off bombs on public transport? Who would do such a horrific thing?

  He has little faith that the police will identify the bombers any time soon. Three months on and they still hadn’t worked out the identity of that poor bloke, the Piano Man. Of course, all sorts of people had thought they recognized him. People rang in claiming he was their next-door neighbor, their long-lost friend. A Danish woman even said on television that she thought he was her Algerian-born husband. Facial recognition was a complex process, involving visual perception, pattern recognition, expert discrimination, and long-term memory. It was prone to error. People were constantly seeing patterns in random data, or perceiving faces in random objects, like clouds or trees.

  On top of the filing cabinet stands an old framed photograph of Amir at nine or ten in football kit—a fancy Barcelona jersey and silver Nike boots. Javad remembers him begging for those boots. Pricey buggers, they were, too, that he outgrew within the year. In the photograph, Amir’s face is round and sweet. He hardly recognizes his features now.

  Javad puts his head down on the desk. But the moment he shuts his eyes he is down again in that dark, hot, claustrophobic tunnel, picking his way along the tracks. Again there is that strange loud, whooshing pop, debris spraying through the air. Again, people are running, a helmet is dropping, a steel ribbon is twisting in the light. A man’s legs have been sheared off below the knees. A woman with a bloodied face is shaking. Again he is tying tourniquets with tablecloths, splinting shattered limbs with two-by-fours and duct tape. Sirens screaming in the background. Alarm bells clanging in his brain.

  He lifts his head and covers his face with his hands.

  His son, his son.

  Four bombs, one bus, three trains. His boy.


  Until the phone rings in the early afternoon, she has no idea.

  It’s the Marie Curie nurse, Jane. She just woke up and saw it on TV. Hasn’t Esther heard? Bombs in the Underground. Bombs on busses. Bombs on trains.

  “Oh my god,” Esther says.

  “There’s more than thirty dead, apparently, and hundreds, possibly even thousands, wounded! The city is completely shut down. It’s absolutely horrific. An utter catastrophe.”

  “Oh my god. I had no idea.”

  “Nothing’s running, and the public are being strongly advised to stay clear of Central London. So I’m stuck out in Bromley for the time being, I’m afraid. I’m terribly sorry. I’ll be there tomorrow, if I can.”

  “Who did it? Al Qaeda?”

  “They didn’t say.”

  Esther pulls the phone over to the window. The street is quiet. Parked cars, a little drizzle. The sky is gray. Through the phone she can hear the faint sound of sirens on Jane’s TV, as if the police cars and the fire trucks and ambulances were out in Kent instead of less than two miles from here.

  “Right during rush hour, it was, too,” Jane says. “Timed to cause maximum harm.”

  This was the world in which they now lived. Everything had changed.

  Already she is counting, accounting, just like on that other day four years ago, the names clicking through her head: Zofia, Myrna, Vivian, Ruth, Phil, Javad, Amir. Her throat constricts.

  “I’m sorry to leave you on your own tonight,” Jane says. “I’ll ring back if there’s any change.”

Don’t worry about us,” Esther says. “Stay safe.”


  Upstairs in her mother’s room, she turns on the TV, puts the sound on mute. It’s the same on every channel, block letters on red banners across the bottom of the screen: LIVE BREAKING NEWS, LONDON BLASTS. Over and over, the images repeat. Flashing ambulances and fire trucks, streets cordoned off with barricades and caution tape, rescue workers in bulky trousers and yellow vests. Dazed survivors, their faces bloodied or black with soot. People being carried off on stretchers. Mangled subway cars. The exploded bus, its side panels bent back like wings.

  Beyond it all, the towers burned. Smoke churned into the perfect blue.

  Nothing will ever be the same.

  That other day, they’d waited out in front of Noah’s school in a crush of parents frantic on their cell phones, teachers waving clipboards, kids crowding onto the sidewalk, hugging and crying and holding hands. At last Noah had emerged at his usual slow, ambling pace, his hair combed across his forehead, his backpack on his shoulders, his clarinet case and lunchbox in his hands. He was in ninth grade. He’d just turned fourteen. He was old enough to understand but not yet old enough to imagine that a thing like this could actually touch him.

  Aldgate, Liverpool Street, Edgware Road, King’s Cross, Russell Square.

  Russell Square. That was right where Javad worked.

  She tries ringing his mobile, but the call will not connect. She tries again but gets nothing but a busy tone. Finally, she dashes outside and runs across and rings his bell. She presses her face against the glass. The interior is dark.

  Just the other night, she lay there in the dark, her limbs entwined with his. His breath was soft in sleep, his face unguarded as a child’s. She slipped out of bed and dressed. The cat brushed against her ankles and leapt up onto the bed. It curled up in the warm, wet spot she left behind.

  There were eight million people in this city, she tells herself now. Only thirty-something dead. The odds were good. More than good. She tries to breathe.

  All day long, her mother drifts in and out of sleep, oblivious to the disaster playing out on the city’s streets. The end, the nurses say, is very near. Her mother’s face is gaunt, the whites of her eyes stained yellow, her breathing erratic, strained. But still the blood flows through her veins, still her heart taps out its beat. Every time she opens her eyes, she gives Esther a startled look, as if she’s surprised to find that she’s still there.

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