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Underground fugue, p.20

Underground Fugue, page 20


Underground Fugue

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  Esther turns her mother from one side onto the other, changes the bed pad, sponges her off and checks for pressure sores, applies glycerin to her lips, administers her meds. The bedside table is piled with pill packets, boxes of latex gloves, tissues, wet wipes, syringes, tubes of cream. She wouldn’t have thought she could manage this, just a few weeks back. But none of it bothers her now.

  From time to time, the telephone rings, and Esther’s heart flips. But it’s just Ruth, then Myrna, making sure that she’s all right. Of course she’s all right, she says. She hasn’t even left the house. She never goes anywhere, anyway.

  That other day, there had been a stream of calls and emails as well, many from people she hadn’t heard from in years, wanting to make sure they were safe. It was kind of them to call, but she wanted to tell them that she was much more likely to die of cancer or get run over by a bus than to have been in the World Trade Center that day. She lived and worked uptown; she hadn’t been south of Canal Street in ages, maybe years. Still, they were close. They could hear the sirens. They could smell the burning in the air.

  Everybody had their near-miss story. Gil’s younger brother, who had an office in the South Tower, had flown out the day before for a conference in L.A. Esther’s college roommate had just stepped off the PATH. The cousin of one of the doormen in her building, a security guard, had called in sick that day. Of course, some were not so lucky. The father of one of Noah’s classmates had gone to work as usual and was at his desk on the 102nd floor of One World Trade when the first plane hit. The odds were always in your favor until they weren’t. Some people called it luck. Some called it fate.

  She keeps the radio on all day in the kitchen, the TV on upstairs. Grave reporters and officials offer the same formulaic sound bites again and again. Already the attacks have their own logo, their own theme song and sound effects. By late afternoon, four attacks have been confirmed: one on a Metropolitan line train at Aldgate, one on a Circle line train between Paddington and Edgware Road, one on a Piccadilly line train between King’s Cross and Russell Square, and one on a Number 30 bus at Tavistock Square. By early evening, the BBC is reporting thirty-seven verified fatalities, more than three hundred injured and hospitalized, hundreds more “walking wounded” wandering the streets. It is apparent that it was a coordinated terrorist attack. A group affiliated with Al Qaeda may have claimed responsibility. CCTV footage is being studied by the police.

  Esther leans back and shuts her eyes. Her temples throb. She would like to beam herself somewhere the hatred could not reach. But it was everywhere, bubbling like magma beneath the earth’s mantle, pressure building at the seams. There were those who said America had had it coming, that bullies had to pay the price. This was payback for Kandahar and Tora Bora, Fallujah and Najaf, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Retribution for the materialism, the hedonism, the blithe cultural imperialism, the arrogance of the West. And hadn’t she too been caught up with the rest of them in that end-of-century surge of hedge fund wealth and dotcom speculation, that blinkered optimistic swell? It had felt like progress, then. The rich cigar-and-martini bankers growing richer, the great slick cities getting slicker, the Dow soaring, mortgage rates falling, the old communist empires collapsing, peace breaking out in places like Belfast and the West Bank. Swords were being beaten into ploughshares! They thought they’d left their parents’ bloody century far behind.

  But it was still there, all along, just beneath the surface—the seismic fault of hate.


  When she hears from Javad at last, it’s late. He has had to walk all the way home from Bloomsbury. She is so relieved that she can hardly speak.

  He tells her about the Tube, the bus. About Amir.

  His voice is flat. “I don’t know where he could be.”

  There’s a buzzing in her ears, a swarm of fear. “Come over,” she says.

  “I’m absolutely knackered.”

  “You shouldn’t be alone. Not now. Come on, I’ll make you something to eat.”

  It is more than an hour before he shows up. He has taken a shower, changed into jeans. His hair is wet. He has been trying to ring through to the emergency helpline, he says. He follows her into the kitchen. She sweeps the newspapers to the side of the table and gestures to a seat.

  “What can I get you?”

  “Maybe just a cup of tea. I haven’t got much of an appetite, I’m afraid.” He takes his phone out of his pocket and sets it before him on the table. He rests his forehead on his hands. “I just can’t imagine where he could be.”

  “He’s probably just stranded somewhere, like everybody else,” she says.

  “He could still ring.”

  “Maybe his battery is dead.”

  He pushes up his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. “We had our little tiff and he stomped off and I thought, right, that’s it then, he’s gone back to his mum’s. And here I was, feeling guilty that he was nursing her and her broken ankle instead of being off on holiday with me. And it turns out he only stayed a couple days and then took off! It’s been well over a week, and no one has a clue as to where he could be. And now, nothing, not a peep. You’d think, at a time like this, he’d ring, just to say that he’s all right. Unless—”

  “Javad, don’t.”

  The electric kettle puffs out steam. She pours the tea and comes to sit.

  “It’s not like him,” he says. “He’s never done anything like this. He’s not that sort of kid.” He takes a breath, looks down at the silent phone, the untouched cup of tea. “I went into his room the other day,” he says. “I’m ashamed to say it—I had a bit of a snoop. There were all these weird photographs on his laptop…dilapidated buildings, tunnels, what seemed to be building sites…some of the images looked like the Underground, others seemed to have been taken from a great height. And then on his desk, he’s got all these books on Islam, Arabic grammars, flyers for political protest marches. The Qur’an. I don’t know what to make of it.” His eyes are clouded with pain. “The truth is I don’t know him. I don’t know what he gets up to, who he hangs around with. I don’t know anything at all.”

  She crosses her arms and presses them into her stomach. “What does his mother think?”

  His jaw tightens. “Who knows? Half the time she’s drunk.”

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

  He picks up the teacup, then sets it down again without drinking. “You know, when he was small, he used to beg me to let him come and live with me. I had him only every other weekend. I could have taken her to court, tried to overturn the custody decree. He begged me. But I was selfish. I didn’t know how I’d manage with a child all on my own. I worried about my career. And she was desperate, absolutely desperate, to keep him. He seemed to cope all right. He has coped all right. Or so I thought.” He exhales a shuddering breath. “I should have fought harder for him. It was a mistake.”

  “It’s not your fault.”

  “I don’t know.” He picks up the phone and flips it open and shut, as if willing it to ring.

  “You can’t blame yourself. Trust me, I know.”

  His face constricts. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—”

  She pushes her chair back. “Please let me get you something to eat. You must be starving.”

  “No, really, I can’t.”

  “Are you sure? Have you eaten anything today? I’ve got cheese, grapes, coffee cake, eggs, soup…”

  “I’d better be getting back,” he says, standing. “Just in case.”

  She stands as well. “I wish I could come with you.”

  “I know you can’t. I understand.”

  She wraps her arms around him and presses her face into his chest and breathes in his shirt’s starchy, laundered smell. She can feel his heart pulsing behind his ribs. Was it really just the other night that they’d had sex? Things were only just beginning—and now this. She clings to him even as she feels his grip release. She wishes there were something she could do. But she can only cross her fin
gers, hold her thumbs, pray to a god she does not believe exists.

  “Let me know if you hear anything,” she says into his shoulder. “Please.”


  “No matter how late it is.” She steps back and looks at him. “You won’t wake me up. Since Jane’s not here, I’m sure I won’t sleep at all tonight.”

  He nods.


  He tries to smile. “Yes.”


  She sits beside her mother’s bed, the TV on, the volume low. Her mother’s chest is pumping like a bellows. In and out, in and out. It is hard labor, dying. Just like birth. Abruptly, all movement stops. Esther waits. Nothing. Every time this happens, she panics and thinks, this is it. But then her mother gasps and shudders and the shallow, raspy breaths start up again. Her ribcage rises and falls, her mouth agape. Cheyne-Stokes breathing, it is called, the nurses said. It is quite common at the end. Yet another normal, abnormal thing.

  “She’s a stubborn one,” Jane said. “She must be waiting for something.”

  “The other day I could have sworn she kept saying ‘I’m sorry.’ I don’t know who she imagined she was talking to.”

  “Sometimes they do that,” Jane said. “They’re waiting to set the past in order so they can move on.”

  Esther just prays it’s not tonight.

  The News at Ten is given over exclusively to the bombings. There are more eyewitness reports from shell-shocked survivors with blackened clothes and bloody, lacerated skin. More images of the blown-up bus cordoned off with caution tape. Blurry cell phone photographs of the mangled, smoke-filled trains. Hundreds of people still missing. Rescue efforts are being hampered by the toxic dust and heat. Clearing the deep Underground tunnels of all the bodies could take days.

  Please don’t let Amir be lost down in that hell, she prays. Please, please, please.

  She remembers little now of those awful hours of limbo between the sergeant’s phone call and the confirmation, squawking over the squad car radio from the search crews down the river, that her son was dead. She’d stood there at the pullout. Down the gorge the green-flecked water spilled. Her teeth chattered and her knees shook. Possibilities swung back and forth, like saloon doors. Nothing had happened. The worst had happened. Her son was fine. Her son was dead. Marcie Ellis, her voice high and false with guilty relief that her sons were not the ones gone missing, had said, “I’m sure everything will be okay.” It was a lie. Everything had already, irrevocably, changed.

  She looks over now at her mother’s purple eyelids, her cracked, pale lips, the loose cords of mottled yellow skin. It was just a body like all those other bodies. Skin and bone and blood and piss and shit. The body, her mother had once told her long ago when she was little, was like a suit of clothes. Eventually, after many years, you got tired of it and didn’t want it any more. After that she’d imagined old people unzipping their wrinkled skins and casting them aside like the blown cocoons she’d sometimes find in spring, stuck to the underside of a broad leaf. This body was not her mother. Her mother was already gone.

  On TV, Ken Livingstone is at the mic. We will not be afraid, intimidated, or cowed by this cowardly act of terrorism. Citizens are being urged to be vigilant. Muslims are being advised for the time being to stay off the streets.

  Emergency telephone numbers scroll across the bottom of the screen. One 0800 number is the Missing Persons Helpline. Another 0800 number is the Anti-Terrorist Hotline. Anyone with any information whatsoever in connection to the bombings should call the intelligence investigation line immediately.

  Now, amid the worry, sounds a higher, sharper drone of fear. Javad’s words from earlier ricochet inside her head. What did any of it mean? Those photographs on the computer, the Tube, that first late night, the Qur’an, the mosque. Pattern or coincidence? How could you tell?

  You couldn’t know anybody, really.

  She should know that by now.

  The TV flickers in the darkness. The 0800 numbers scroll across the bottom of the screen. Her cell phone lies beside her on the bedside table. She wishes Javad would call. If only he would say, He’s back, he’s safe, everything’s all right. But a sinkhole has opened up inside her and hope has fallen in.

  On TV, the police commissioner is speaking. The most important thing is we need the community’s help. They always come up trumps giving us information.

  What had happened to Amir?

  Beside her, her mother continues to breathe erratically. A gasp. A long pause. Another breath.

  The buzzing swarm inside her head is growing louder. Again she is following Amir down the steep, rumbling escalators at Warren Street onto the Tube. Again she is standing outside the Finsbury Park Tube station, scanning the empty street. Again she sees those mud-caked boots, that cap pulled low, those eyes.

  The look he gave her now feels like a warning: Don’t you dare say a word.

  What does she know?

  She is afraid of what will happen if she speaks. She is afraid of what will happen if she does not. The details flap and swirl like swifts.

  She reaches over for her phone and taps in the number of the Anti-Terrorist Hotline. The screen glows bright blue in the dark.

  She takes a breath and presses Talk.


  He spends the night in front of the computer, clicking between the news and message boards and back to email again. He checks his mobile. He paces. He passes the closed door to his son’s room, does not go in. He takes off his clothes and lies down on the bed, but his perseverating mind just races, chasing away sleep, running over and over the things he knows, or thought he did: that his son hardly ever got up that early in the morning, that he had no reason to be anywhere near Central London now that term was out, that he was a sensible, good kid. But above it all, the questions keep circling like buzzards. Where is he? Why doesn’t he call? Where has he been?

  Near dawn, unable to stand it any longer, he throws on his clothes and leaves the house. The early morning air is cool, the streets quiet, as if nothing has happened. A frayed moon hangs low over the London rooftops. Delivery vans are unloading. A street sweeper chugs past. How could the daily business of the world be going on at a time like this? Overhead, a plane blinks along the flight path to Heathrow.

  He walks fast, aimlessly, in a white fog of fear. The words missing beat inside his head. Hands in his pockets, he flips his silent phone open and shut. The streets seem strange, as if all the familiar landmarks have been erased. He registers only disconnected elements: brick, glass, stone, concrete. A lamppost, a phone box, a plane tree, a shop window, a sign marked with letters he cannot understand.

  A fortnight ago, they’d quarreled. Over what? Over money. Over nothing. Over a stupid comment—a joke. He would take his words back in an instant if he could.

  He looks up at the empty sky. He will be more generous in the future, he vows. He will be more patient, more understanding, less caught up in his work. He will do anything it takes.

  The boy had stomped upstairs; the door had slammed. He’d gone off to his mother’s, Javad assumed. It was a reasonable assumption. She was laid up with a broken ankle. She needed him there—she’d practically begged. But when Niels returned at the weekend, Amir had taken off. Where had he gone? Back home, Caroline had assumed. It was a reasonable assumption too. Why would she have thought to check?

  Neither of them had a bloody clue.

  He thinks of the little boy in the photograph in Caroline’s collage, running away along the white-foam line left by the waves along the Margate sand. If he looked closely, in the far corner of the image he could see faint traces of what must have been his own footprints in the sand. So long ago. If only he could take that moment back.

  In the photograph he’d seen on Esther’s mother’s chest of drawers, her son had the open, guileless, faintly freckled face of a boy who hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet. He looked like her, especially about the eyes. A terrible thing, he’d thought then, looking at
the photograph, the missing pieces of her story clicking into place. The worst. He couldn’t fathom how one went on after such a loss, how one could bear that kind of grief.

  It had bothered him, at first, that she hadn’t told him, although he understood. It threw everything he’d thought he knew about her in a different light. But mostly, it was tenderness that he felt. He had wanted to make it better, to hold her and tell her everything would be all right.

  It was a bad omen, he thinks now, then feels ashamed. He is as bad as his old superstitious grandmother, dangling blue amulets and burning esfand to ward off the evil eye. It wasn’t as if bad luck were a communicable disease. But right now the thought is more than he can stand.

  You can’t blame yourself, she’d said. But of course he did. If only they’d gone on holiday, as he’d originally planned, they’d be together right this moment, gazing out at the blue Aegean from some idyllic isle. But he hadn’t done it. He’d chosen to be with Esther instead. He was a fool.


  Caroline glares at him from across her kitchen table, her broken foot in its pink cast propped on a chair. Her short blond hair is disheveled, and she is still in her dressing gown even though it’s nearly night. He has gone over there in hopes that she might be able to provide the names or phone numbers of Amir’s friends—some kind of clue—but he should have known better. She’s no use. All they can do is sit and wait. Their phones lie inert between them on the table. No calls, no texts.

  Sky News is playing on a little flat-screen TV suspended above the sleek quartz countertop. Niels leans back in his chair, watching the TV. His longish hair is combed back from a high forehead, and he is wearing an expensive gray linen shirt and black, expensive jeans. Dutch, not Swedish, Javad reminds himself.

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