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Underground fugue, p.22

Underground Fugue, page 22


Underground Fugue

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  She remembers kicking off her shoes and running to touch the water. Where were they? Somewhere like Margate or Weymouth or Poole. The tide was out. The sand was smooth and flat, marked with the faint claw prints of crabs and birds, the sky the palest watercolor wash of blue. Gulls were reeling overhead. She had not understood until that moment that England really was an island, surrounded by the sea. Of course, it was only the English Channel; the coast of France was not even fifty miles away. But she didn’t know that then.

  How many had fled, like her parents, to the shores of this green isle? She pictures them approaching—Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, South Asians, Eastern Europeans, Muslims, Jews. A line of black dots slowly growing larger: a flotilla of invaders, opportunists, asylum seekers, refugees. The headlands rise out of the mist. Did they find what they were searching for? They should have listened to the ancient Greeks, who understood the beguilement of islands, the fickleness of the sea.

  The next thing she knew, her father had grabbed her mother by the wrist and was pulling her toward the water’s edge. Come on, Lonia! he was shouting. You can’t come to the seaside and not even get your feet wet! Her mother was squealing and pulling back, trying to wedge her heels into the sand, crying, Stop it, Isaac, I mean it, stop! You know that I can’t swim! They wrestled and splashed through the shallow water, her mother’s rolled-up trousers turning dark and wet as she pulled free and lunged away, her father kicking water at her in great shining sheets, until he stumbled and lost his balance and went down into the little waves, and then she was laughing or crying and running back and he was yelling Scheiße! trying to stand, droplets of water flying from his hair.

  She remembers standing there, rooted in a kind of fascinated fear, until she worked out that they were not struggling any longer but embracing, her father pinioning her mother’s arms behind her back with one hand, the other hand behind her neck, pulling her lips to his, and they were kissing, up to their knees in seawater, dripping wet in all their clothes, twined like the caduceus’s twin snakes, the familiar turned dangerous and strange.

  He saved my life, her mother always said.

  She misses them. She misses the child she used to be.

  Something rubs against her ankles. It’s Javad’s gray cat. She crouches down and rubs her fingers along the silky fur between its ears. It purrs and doesn’t run away.


  The story breaks the following day. In her mother’s bedroom, Esther clicks on the TV. The identities of four suicide bombers have been confirmed. Raids in West Yorkshire have been carried out by the police. Blurry CCTV images show four figures entering the Luton train station, heading toward the platform for the Thameslink train that would take them to King’s Cross. Four boys with dark hair, black T-shirts, backpacks, jeans. British boys. Homegrown radicals. The oldest was thirty, the youngest was nineteen. Shehzad Tanweer, Mohammad Sidique Khan, Germaine Lindsay, Hasib Hussain.

  The driver’s license mug shot of Hussain, the youngest bomber, shows a dogged, loyal face with small black eyes, a broad nose, an adolescent scruff of beard. His license was recovered from the wreckage of the Number 30 bus at Tavistock Square. When Hussain’s mother rang the helpline to report him missing, the identification was made.

  Esther takes a step backward and sits down on the edge of the bare mattress. She can scarcely breathe. How was it possible for an ID card to survive a blast like that intact when so many were dead? The absurdity of the detail jangles like an out of tune note. She puts her hands over her face and starts to weep. Four boys from West Yorkshire had blown themselves up. Four boys were dead. They had done this. Not Amir.

  It is the first time she has cried since her mother’s death, the first time she has cried in all these weeks. Great waves roil up from deep inside her, raw and wracked. She sobs so hard her chest aches. She could not have said why she is crying, but she cannot stop. She is crying for Amir, locked away in jail. It was her fault, her terrible mistake. She is crying for those four boys and for her boy and for all the lost boys, everywhere and in all time, for the dead boys and for their mothers and fathers who would miss them forever, despite everything they did, for the yearning that will never cease. She is crying for herself. She sobs and sobs. She pulls her knees into her chest and rolls over on the mattress and cries until she is empty, turned inside out, a hollow gourd, her eyes burning and swollen, her throat raw, until she falls asleep.


  The walls of the cell are stained brown as nicotine, the floor a vinyl slab. A bare bulb hanging from the high concrete ceiling casts a sallow glare. The low shelf bunk is covered with a thin plastic pad. Pipes hiss beneath the bunk, too hot to touch even in the July heat. The open toilet reeks. The only window is a tiny Plexiglas peephole in the door. The door is two inches thick. They’ve confiscated his rucksack, his iPod, his wallet, his belt, his shoes, his phone.

  The lights never go out. There is no way to tell if it is day or night. The silence swells. He wedges the bog roll beneath his head for a pillow, but still he cannot sleep. He counts the filthy tiles that line the walls, gets nearly to one hundred, loses track, starts again. He stands up and paces out the area of the cell. Barely twelve-foot square.

  There’s nothing to do, not even a magazine to read. Time has stopped. He tries to remember stuff he memorized in school: capital cities of Europe, Latin conjugations, the genealogies of the kings of England (he still gets all the Henrys and the Edwards bolloxed up). He tried to recite his favorite football team rosters, the playlists on his iPod. Panic sirens inside his head. In places like this, he knows, people go mad.

  In his memory, he revisits the places they’ve explored: sewers and the drains, an abandoned asylum out in Surrey, the Pimlico steam tunnel, the disused platform at King’s Cross. How easily they’d trespassed. How easily they’d crossed the line. Now he’s crossed the other way. His grandfather died in prison in Tehran. The fact of it had been nothing but an abstract concept until now.

  They arrested him when he got back to London. It was the day after the attacks. The whole transport system was still in chaos, security on high alert. The cops surrounded him as he stepped off the train onto the platform. They cuffed his hands with tight plastic ties behind his back. They emptied the contents of his pockets into their helmets and patted him down, loosening his belt. One of the policemen took his rucksack and disappeared.

  “We’re doing this for your own safety,” a cop with a South London accent said.

  There was nothing but dirty clothes and climbing gear inside that rucksack. “I didn’t do anything!” he said.

  Then they took him by the elbows and marched him out of the station and into a police van and dumped him out at Paddington Green.

  In the custody suite, he filled in forms. Polaroids were taken; his right hand was washed and his fingertips dipped in grease and pressed onto a glass-topped scanner. His heart clenched like a fist. He had a right to a solicitor, didn’t he? A right to make a phone call to let someone know that he was here? The custody sergeant laughed. “Open up, mate,” he said, swabbing DNA from the inside of his cheeks.


  He’d gone up north to Yorkshire with Bigsby—a spur-of-the-moment trip. He was still pissed off at his parents, tired of sleeping on grotty couches, ready for a change of pace. Miranda was busy at work; Mole had gone off to explore the Paris sewers with some froggy friends. So when Bigsby proposed a laddered-up one-hundred-footer at the top of Farsley, he agreed. They hopped on a train to Leeds.

  The countryside blurred past the rain-smeared windows of the carriage. The drab backs of buildings gave way to wooded stretches interspersed by rolling fields studded with golden wheels of hay. Bigsby pulled out a paperback Baudrillard and read. Amir put his feet up on the facing seat and let the rocking of the train lull him to sleep.

  Bigsby came from a long line of colliers and keelmen who worked the drift mines and bell pits and piloted barges along the Aire, big ruddy men with lantern jaws like his. He was the youn
gest of five siblings, the only one to go to university. His family treated him with the bemusement accorded an eccentric, and paid little heed to where they went or what they did. They stayed out late, cycling back half-drunk along the towpath, and then slept in until noon. They stuffed themselves with the massive amounts of meat and veg his mum served up for tea. Amir had expected the usual questions—where are you from, what’s with the funny name—but no one said a thing.

  The mill Bigsby had his eye on was an old Victorian hulk with broken windows and decrepit brickwork in a dingy little town halfway between Bradford and Leeds. The chimney was to be torn down, the building converted into a housing estate. They tramped around the property. The mill had once made woolen cloth for army uniforms, Bigsby said. When the chimney was first built, they’d hoisted the townspeople to the top in a barrel run up the inside of the stack. The local band played polkas at the base. Afterward, a few of the band members went up with their instruments and played from the open chimney top.

  An old wooden ladder was bolted to the chimney’s crumbling exterior brick. Bigsby led off, running a fixed line up the ladder’s edge. From the top, he flashed his torch and waved. Amir double-checked his carabiner, tugged on the figure eight. It was a soggy night and the splintered rungs were slick. A few were broken, others missing. From above, Bigsby pulled the rope tight, yanking at the harness around his waist. Half way up, Amir paused to catch his breath and his knees began to shake. His neck and fingers ached. Far below stretched a web of sodium vapor lights. He told himself to focus on the ring of light his headlamp cast against the brick. He trusted Bigsby, but he didn’t want to think about what would happen if he fell.

  But oh! That dizzy twinge that sparked along his coccyx as he reached the chimney top, a hundred and thirty feet up in the air. If he’d had a trumpet, he would have played a fanfare like a member of that Farsley band from long ago, sending triumphal notes of victory out across the wet West Yorkshire night. Oh, the height, the view, the free-drop thrill! And even better was the feeling when his feet touched back on solid ground.

  “To new heights,” he and Bigsby toasted the next day at the pub. They drew up a new list on a bar coaster: bridges, rooftops, towers, tower cranes. The vertical city. The freedom of the night.


  But here he is now, stuck underground in the bowels of the Paddington Green nick. Other than the duty officer who brings him watery coffee and ham sandwiches on limp wheat bread, he has not seen or spoken to a single person since they locked him up.

  Panic refluxes in his chest. The cell walls contract. The hot pipes hiss like snakes. His shirt is damp with sweat. He shuts his eyes and the light bulb glows on in afterimage, the filament a crimson streak. He understands now, for the first time, what power meant. He’d lived within its great machinery his entire life without even knowing it was there. He listened to the news and read the history books, he used the words—order, governance, surveillance, law enforcement, state—like everybody did, without understanding. Power: from the Latin posse, root of possible and possess. He got Bigsby’s theories now. Even paranoid Tawfiq was right.

  He swings his legs over the edge of the bunk and leans forward, head in hands. The air is stale. The toilet stinks. He wants to go home. He wants his father. He wants his mother. He was screwed. He’d never get out of here. He’d never see any of them again.

  He stands up and kicks the door, sending a shock of pain through his sock-covered toes and up his leg. For a second, the peephole darkens and an eye appears. Then the sound of footsteps, fading away.


  The cell door swings open and the officer says, “Get up and come with me.”

  Amir sits up and runs his fingers through his hair. Had he fallen asleep? He’s had the same clothes on since the day he was picked up. He probably stinks.

  They step out of the lift and he blinks in the unaccustomed daylight. What day was it?

  “Tuesday, July the twelfth,” the officer says. “Your lucky day, if you’re released.”

  He is led into an interrogation room. A plainclothes CID officer, dressed in jeans and a blue polo shirt, is sitting at a table. A tape recorder has been placed between them. A rectangular, archaic thing. The officer pops in a tape.

  “Do you know why you’ve been arrested?” the officer says.

  Amir shakes his head.

  The officer sets two large plastic evidence bags on the table. Amir recognizes his own belongings: notebooks, a paperback, the broken radio scanner he’d dismantled when he was twelve or thirteen. How did they get his things out of his room at home? In a smaller bag were items from his rucksack: his phone, wallet, iPod, keys.

  “This is what we have determined,” the officer says. He counts off the items on his fingers as he speaks.

  One, left thumb up. He was in possession of suspicious documents—ambiguous drawings in his notebooks, an Islamic protest march pamphlet, the copy of the Qur’an, various incriminating maps.

  Two, first finger. He associated with a radical Islamic group at SOAS.

  Three. He had close personal connections to Iran.

  Four. He’d made visits to the North London mosque on three occasions between 21 May and 30 June, all documented on CCTV. All three visits were at times when the youth group, long suspected of radical activity, met.

  Five. He was spotted on CCTV in King’s Cross Station at 2:45 a.m. on July the second along with two other young men. Photographs on the camera found in his rucksack confirmed that they’d been inside a restricted area to which they must have broken in.

  Six. Right thumb up. Two hands now. He had visited Leeds, possibly in connection with a known terrorist cell.

  Seven. When they picked him up in London, he had on a hoodie that was too warm for the season and was carrying a bulky rucksack.

  Eight. Wires were observed to be protruding from a pocket in the rucksack.

  Nine. He was fiddling in a suspicious way with his mobile phone.

  Ten. There is no ten. The officer lowers his hands. “Is there anything you want to say?” His narrative has the quality of a dream. Everything is wrong and yet everything still fits.

  “We had a poke around King’s Cross, that’s the truth,” Amir says. “We’re into exploring, my mates and me—abandoned buildings, restricted places, stuff like that. But that’s it. That’s all we were doing there, I swear.”

  The officer takes out a pile of photographs, glossy black and whites. “Do you know any of these men?”

  Amir shakes his head. He has never seen them before in his life.

  “Do you recognize these names? Germaine Lindsay? Hasib Hussain? Shehzad Tanweer? Mohammad Sidique Kahn?”

  Again, he shakes his head.

  “You did not make contact with them in Leeds?”

  He was with his mate, John Biggs, he tells the detective. You could ask him or his parents. On July seventh, he was in Leeds with them.

  “You’re a lucky bugger,” the officer says, sweeping the photographs away. “These bastards blew themselves up last week. We know what they did and how they did it.”

  It was a series of coincidences, circumstantial evidence. They were looking for a fifth bomber, but they had no proof that it was Amir.

  “You’ll likely be charged with trespassing and possibly burglary in connection with the King’s Cross incident,” the detective says. “In the meantime, it’s your lucky day. You’re being released on bail.”

  He slides a typed form and a pen across the table. Amir signs his name.

  “The conditions of police bail stipulate that you may not leave the country,” the officer recites. “You must remain in residence at your permanent address. You must adhere to a nighttime curfew between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. You must refrain from contacting or associating with Mr. Martin Conway and Mr. John Biggs. You must sign on at a police station once a week until your magistrate’s court hearing date. Failure to comply with these conditions is a criminal offense. Do you understand?”

sp; “Yes, sir,” Amir says.

  “Get the hell out of here, then,” he says.


  He is lying flat on his back, in corpse pose, zoned out on muscle relaxants, thinking about the amygdala: the two almond-shaped nuclei lodged deep in the temporal lobes of the brain. The anxiety response is triggered here—a chemical reaction that travels out along the ventral amygdalofugal pathway, governing one’s conditioned fear of dangers, real or perceived—loud noises, for instance, or certain facial features, or the color of a person’s skin. When activated, it shows up as a little red and yellow blob on the gray fMRI scan. An isolated thunderstorm, a little fugue of fear.

  The landline rings. He rolls over and fumbles for the telephone. The amygdala signals the hypothalamus. Cortisol, norepinephrine, vasopressin flood in.

  “Baba. It’s me.”

  He’s been released.

  By the time Javad arrives at Paddington, twenty minutes later, numbness has overtaken the first shock of relief. There he is, his son, standing across the concrete plaza on the steps in front of the police station. His son’s hair is dirty, his cheeks scruffy with a four-day growth of beard. A rucksack is propped between his feet. Javad tells the taxi driver to wait. He gets out and waves and Amir breaks into a run. He takes his son in his arms and grasps him tight.

  This. This child he has made. This musky smell. This heft. This is the infant he held in the palm of one hand, naked and new, blinking in the light. This the skinny boy he chased, the boy he tried to teach and care for, now become a man. He has failed. He presses his face into his hair and shoulder, breathes in, holds him tight.

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