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Underground fugue, p.21

Underground Fugue, page 21


Underground Fugue

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  There is no new news. They have heard it all already many times, and yet they cannot turn away. Most overground trains and bus services are back up and running, but there will be no Underground service on the Circle line or the Hammersmith and City lines for several days at least. King’s Cross Station will remain closed indefinitely too. The camera zooms in on the pop-up shrines that have appeared at the sites of all the bombings: bouquets of wilted flowers, candles, stuffed animals, hand-lettered notes and signs. Pictures of the missing. The numbers have gone up again. More than seven hundred injured. More than fifty dead.

  Niels turns to him. “Where were you yesterday? Did you get caught in all the mess?”

  In all his worry about Amir, Javad has hardly thought of his own near miss. It seems irrelevant, even self-indulgent, to speak about it now. Besides, he doesn’t want to think about those claustrophobic minutes down in the tunnel, stopped dead in darkness—the crackling announcements, the dark trek out along the tracks, the throngs at Euston Square. He doesn’t want to think about the exploded bus, the black and bloodied faces, the blown-off limbs. He wonders if those images will ever leave him. Trauma, he is well aware, like history, repeats.

  “I was on the Tube, actually, when it happened,” he says. “We got held up just out of Great Portland Street. They evacuated us through the tunnel to Euston Square.”

  “You didn’t tell me that,” Caroline says.

  He looks away. “You didn’t ask.”

  “You’re a lucky man,” Niels says.


  Caroline’s mobile phone lights up, vibrating as it bleeps. Across the table, their eyes meet and freeze. For a long moment, neither of them moves. Then she reaches forward and picks it up.

  Alarm sirens are shrieking. He can’t breathe.

  “Hallo?” she says.

  He waits, straightjacketed in fear.

  Her eyes grow wide. “Oh my god, Amir!”

  For a moment, he is afraid he hasn’t heard her right. Then she says the name again and relief floods in. Thank god. Not dead. It’s him.

  And then he and Niels are on their feet and shouting questions, but Caroline just keeps saying “oh my god” and waving them away with her free hand. Finally, she sets down the phone. Her eyes are red and wet.

  “What happened? Where is he? Is he all right?”

  She nods, then shakes her head. “He’s been arrested,” she says.


  Javad spends the rest of the night and all the next morning placing fruitless calls. His solicitor, Charles, still has not responded. The bugger was probably off playing golf. Javad leaves yet another message and hangs up. Nothing ever gets done at the weekend. He sits at the computer, trying different combinations of search terms: arrested, custody, rights.

  His efforts are interrupted by a rapping at his door. A loud, sharp rat-a-tat. He has a bad feeling even before he opens it and sees the two police officers in their black uniforms and white shirts and peaked caps. A police car is double parked in front of the house, bright blue lights flashing, blocking half the street. His first irrational thought is that Amir is dead. His second thought is that he too is under arrest. His heart knocks against his ribs.

  “Mr. Javad Asghari?” the taller of the two constable says, looking down at his clipboard. He pronounces the words slowly, flattening the vowels with the confused distaste reserved for a foreign name.

  “Yes. It’s Dr., actually.”

  “Right. We need to have a word.”

  Javad steps aside and lets them in. The constables’ expressions are flat and grim. It’s clear from the start that this it is not a polite inquiry but an inquisition. The taller officer does most of the talking. He has thin lips, a beefy face. The shorter cop looks on, pen poised. From time to time, his walkie-talkie squawks like a parrot on his chest. When exactly was Javad last in contact with his son? What was his son studying, what were his politics, what were his beliefs? Had he traveled recently to the Middle East? Did he still have relatives in Iran? Was he in contact with them? What did Javad know about his son’s activities at the Finsbury Park mosque? What was his relationship with the youth groups there? What was he doing in King’s Cross Station early in the morning of July the second?

  Javad tries to hold his voice steady. “Why have you arrested my son?”

  “Please answer the question, Mr. Asghari.”

  “Look, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but this is all a big mistake.”

  The policemen shake their heads. There was no mistake. They had it on closed-circuit TV.

  He stands by, helpless, as they rifle through the contents of Amir’s drawers, turn over every object on his desk. They confiscate a flash drive, a stack of notebooks, a map of London, the leaflet for the protest march, a broken radio scanner, the paperback Qur’an. They seize Javad’s computer from his office and a jug of hydrogen peroxide from the cupboard beneath the bathroom sink. They pull the SIM card out of his mobile phone. They shove the lot into plastic bags and haul them out to the police car.

  The street is quiet, watching. His neighbors are probably wondering what terrible thing he has done. Opposite, someone has set out planters of geraniums on a second-story balcony, a flare of red. The blue strobe lights of the squad car flash. The officers get in and slam the doors and drive away.


  Back inside, Javad pours himself a glass of Scotch even though it’s not yet noon. His hands are shaking. Jesus. He feels filthy, flayed. He reaches into his pocket for his phone, then remembers that it’s dead.

  His head is filled with static, like a TV station gone off air. They said they’d identified Amir on CCTV, at the Finsbury Park mosque, at King’s Cross. What the hell was he doing there?

  It was all a misunderstanding. A terrible mistake. It had to be.

  The relief he’d felt after Amir’s phone call the day before has crystallized into an icy rime of fear. They must think Amir had played some role in the bombings. Under the Terrorism Act, suspects could be held in custody without charge for up to fourteen days. The bags of evidence they’d just seized would be used to build their case.

  Good god. It couldn’t be.

  But the brain, as he knows well, was hardwired for prejudice and suspicion. Human beings were predisposed to perceiving meaning in coincidence, to seeing outsiders as threats. And he was an outsider. A foreigner with a hard-to-pronounce name—worse, a Muslim from the Middle East. The fact that his son was born in London of an English mother didn’t matter. People looked at blokes like them and they saw what they expected to see.

  He knocks back the Scotch and lies down on the sofa. Anger swirls inside him, hot and red. This was London, not Tehran, he tells himself. This was a democracy, governed by the rule of law.

  But who was to say such things couldn’t happen here? Human beings were human beings. Bad things could happen anywhere.

  He was already in England when they came to arrest his father in Tehran. Javad had spoken to him on the telephone the previous week. The line was poor. His father’s voice was hoarse and flat. The Shah was dead. The universities had been shut down. The war against Saddam Hussein would never end. “I didn’t think that it would come to this,” his father said.

  That was the last time he heard his father’s voice. Security agents came to the door the following Tuesday at 5:00 a.m. They blindfolded his father and pushed him into an unmarked car and drove away. His precise and gentle father, the engineer. There were no charges, no trial. He just disappeared. Everybody knew what that meant. Everybody knew the grim hulk of the Evin Prison, had seen the rows of bodies hanging from makeshift gallows rigged from mobile cranes.


  The sound of hammering jolts him awake. He moves too fast, without thinking, jerking forward, and his lumbar seizes with a searing wrench of pain.

  Shit. His goddamn back.

  The hammering stops, then starts up again. Not hammering, knocking. Someone is at the door. What now? Anger flares above the pain.

  He staggers up and hobbles to the door. Clenching pain radiates along his spine, through his pelvis, down his leg. A muscle spasm pressing on a nerve. This wasn’t good.

  It’s Esther. Her hair is loose around her face, tired circles beneath her eyes.

  “Please,” he says, “come in.”

  “I can only stay for a moment,” she says. “I saw the police and—I wanted to see if—” She frowns. “Are you okay?

  He grimaces. “I’ve just thrown out my back, I’m afraid.”

  “I’ve been calling and calling, but you didn’t pick up.”

  “I know. I’m sorry. They took away my SIM card.”

  “Who? What?”

  “The police. They searched the house. Amir has been arrested, it seems.”

  She presses her hands to her mouth, her eyes growing wide. “Oh! I was so worried! I thought—when you didn’t call—”

  “I know. We finally heard from him last night. I’m sorry—I should have rung to tell you—”

  “What happened?”

  “I don’t know.” He digs his hands into his back. “They said just now that they had footage of him on CCTV at Finsbury Park and King’s Cross. I don’t know what that’s about. I don’t know what’s going on.” The pain is searing, deep. He needs to lie down. He needs to get hold of his bloody solicitor, get his son released.

  “I’m so sorry,” she says. She has an odd expression on her face—one he can’t quite read.

  He feigns a shrug. “We’ll sort things out.”

  She is backing up. “I’m so sorry—” Still that odd look. “I have to get back—my mother—”

  “I understand.”

  Her eyes are shining as she turns away.



  Her mother dies on Sunday. It is three days after the bombings, July the tenth, three years to the day since Noah’s death. A black day. Jane says her mother’s soul must be meeting up with Noah’s up in heaven, but Esther has no faith. At least this time she is prepared. She has been holding vigil since the night before when Jane came in and touched her shoulder and said, “It’s time.” Out the window, there was just the grayest veil of light.

  She sat with Jane beside her mother’s bed and waited. She held her mother’s hand. It was cold and mottled purple blue. Her face was a yellow, wrinkled, shrunken mask. Her lips were bluish gray. She was breathing in the shallow and erratic pattern of the dying, as she had been for the last several days. At last she exhaled a long and jagged breath and seemed to hold it, and they waited, holding their breaths too, and then Jane took her mother’s wrist between her fingers and counted, and then she said that she was gone.

  Gone, through that porous membrane. Out of time.

  Downstairs, now, Zofia is talking on the phone in her lilting Polish voice. She is taking care of the death certificate and registration. She is ringing the Burial Office at the synagogue. Arrangements are being made.

  Jane has covered the body with a sheet. It must not be left alone, according to Jewish law. Esther stands at the bedroom window. The sound of hammering reverberates across the street. Work continued. Life went on. The sunlight brightens, then dims. It is chilly, or maybe it is only her fatigue. The stilled fan sits on the chair, a copy of last Friday’s Evening Standard tucked behind its rusty cage. Jane must have left it there. Terror Attacks: Pictures of the Missing, the headline reads. Even now, three days later, bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage of the exploded trains.

  Thank god Amir was not among them. But what had he done? He must have done something—he was in jail. What had she done? What would happen to him now? Her stomach twists beneath an acid wash of guilt and shame.

  She had followed him that day to Finsbury Park the way you followed someone in a dream: semiconscious, blind. She’d followed him as if he could lead her into that other underworld where the lost and missing dwelt.

  As if he could lead her to her son.

  Jane enters the bedroom and sets down a tray with a rack of toast and a pot of tea. “Here you are, then,” she says. “You must eat.”

  “I’ll try,” Esther says.

  “Are you all right?”

  “It hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

  “It takes time,” Jane says.

  “Oh, I know. Believe me.”

  Jane smiles gently. “She’s in a better place.”

  “You think?”

  “I do, yes.”

  “I wish I did.”

  Jane folds her into a hug. She feels soft and smells of lavender and bleach. Esther doesn’t want her to leave.


  A weight of exhaustion drops over her. Her skull feels welded tight. The interment has been scheduled for tomorrow. A funeral home van is on the way. She’ll need to notify Myrna, Vivian, Ruth. She should call Gil, too. She wonders if he’ll go out today to visit Noah’s grave in Queens. These past two years, she hadn’t gone with him. Wherever Noah was, she felt, it wasn’t there.

  She turns back to the window. The Byzantines found comfort, she supposes, in their golden angels with their placid, somber faces, their golden-haloed heads. The Hasidim imagined side-curled rabbis dancing in Messianic ecstasy with the risen dead. Muslims dreamed of shahids languishing in Paradise, sloe-eyed houris feeding them pomegranates and grapes. It was the same old story, whichever version you believed. But she believes in nothing. You just stop being—that is it.

  Her mother’s body is a rigid hump beneath the sheet. What is a body? Just minerals and water, atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen. Traces of copper, cobalt, iron, zinc. It is the stuff that everything in the universe is made of, indistinguishable from the stars, the earth.


  In the cemetery at Willesden, she stands by as the casket is lowered into the open grave. They are a small group, just her mother’s few remaining friends. They bend and toss handfuls of dirt into the grave as the rabbi chants the Kaddish. The dirt is damp and black. She wipes her hand off on her skirt. The sun is hot. Sweat beads across Ruth’s husband Gerry’s bald head. Myrna fans herself with her hat. Sunlight reflects off the polished headstones. Esther fingers the strand of pearls around her neck. Her mother’s pearls. Esther will wear them now to keep them alive and lustrous against her skin.

  “Good thing the plot isn’t over in West Ham,” Gerry huffs as they file back to the car park. “Eighty-seven graves were desecrated there the other day. The thugs pushed over and broke the headstones. They even tried to kick in the door to the Rothschild mausoleum. Spray-painted a swastika on the side.”

  “Despicable,” mutters Vivian’s husband Joseph, a gray-bearded gnome of a man.

  “Gerry, not now,” says Ruth.

  Gerry ignores her. “Do you know how many anti-Semitic incidents there have been here in England so far this year?”

  “Spare us, Gerry, please,” Ruth says.

  Gerry ignores her. “Five hundred and thirty-two. Can you believe it?”

  Joseph pushes out his lower lip. “Despicable,” he repeats.

  “That’s nearly two hate crimes per day,” says Gerry. “But you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, would you?”

  Their shoes crunch along the gravel path. Rows of headstones stretch to either side. She squints at the familiar Jewish names: Meyer, Marcus, Levy, Adler, Woolf. Were things really as bad as these old men feared?

  She thinks of her clever, crooked father, always trying to finagle things the way he’d done during the war. When people looked at him, what did they see? Did they see Shylock, Barabbas, another Fagin? Did they see the hook-nosed, crafty-eyed Eternal Jew?

  Ruth is at her elbow, Myrna on the other side. They are going on about bringing over food and keeping her company during the coming week.

  “I’m not sitting shiva,” Esther says.

  “How long will you be staying on in London?” Myrna asks.

  “Myrna, really,” Ruth says. “It’s much too soon for her to know, I’m sure.”

I should have thought she’d want to get away as soon as possible, after the events of this past week,” Myrna says.

  They talk about as if she isn’t there, as if she has already gone.

  What should she do? Was it really just last week that she’d told Javad she might stay? Oh, Javad, she thinks. How could she ever face him now?

  That night, she had lain there in Javad’s bed for a long time, watching him sleep. Her head rested on his shoulder, their legs entwined. His breath was soft and shallow. His lashes curled against his cheeks. She ran her fingertip along his stubbled jaw, along the crease that framed the tragus of his ear, his tender lower lip. He was beautiful. He was a stranger. She shifted her legs out from between his. He stirred and turned, his eyes still closed, and kissed her. “Don’t go,” he whispered. “Don’t ever leave.”

  For one brief moment, it had all seemed possible. The three of them, a family.

  Now everything was ruined. Everything was blown to bits.


  After the funeral, alone in the house for the first time in nearly fourteen weeks, she pulls back the curtains and throws open the windows, lets out the smells of medicine and death. In the grip of a surge of energy born of exhaustion, she clears away the dirty dishes and bottles and packets of pills, the oxygen tank and cannula and plastic mask, the used-up morphine syringes, the tubes of ointment and cream. Bach is playing on Radio 3. A fugue. She turns the volume up. The music swirls and swells. The voices intertwine, repeat.

  She strips the bed, bundles up the sheets, and stuffs them outside in the rubbish bin. She sits down on the top step, shakes out a cigarette, and puts it to her lips, but does not light it. She will quit now, she thinks.

  It has clouded in. The sky is a field of rippled gray. The air smells faintly of the sea. A memory rises to the surface, a memory from the time before America, before her father’s death, when it was still the three of them, a family. They were driving down to the seaside from the city, her father at the wheel, the smoke of his Rothmans mingling with the smells of motorway exhaust and the musky rapeseed fields. She bounced on the back seat, excited, counting number plates. She must have been seven or eight. In front of her, her mother reached across the seat and rubbed the back of her father’s neck, tracing the protrusions of his vertebrae, the follicles and moles. A private smile turned up the corners of her lips. Her father kept his gaze fixed on the road, his cigarette tipped out the open window, his other hand loose atop the wheel.

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