Helena saw the man the moment she reached the platform, and for an instant she stiffened instinctively, and caught Peter’s hand tight.
Peter wriggled. “Mum,” he said in his little-boy voice. “You’re hurting me!”
Helena forced her fingers to relax slightly. “Sorry, darling,” she said and smiled briefly, tight-lipped, down at her son. Then she cast another anxious glance at the man.
He hadn’t seen her, wasn’t even looking at her, and to most people there would be nothing unusual about him. He was young – early twenties, maybe – with a short beard and dressed warm, in a heavy brown leather jacket, a bag over his shoulder. Everyone was dressed warm – it was snowing in the street above – and most people were carrying bags. There was absolutely nothing unusual about him, except his brown skin and pronounced Semitic features.
An Arab, Helena thought. He’s an Arab, and he’s here on the Underground. Oh my God.
She herself knew that her reaction was completely irrational. She must have brushed past hundreds of Arabs on the street without even noticing them. But she couldn’t suppress the memories of suburban trains, torn apart like cardboard boxes, because of a few young men just like this one. And she had Peter with her.
She had a sudden, insane impulse to go back up the escalator. To hell with the trip uptown to see her parents. She’d go another time, next weekend maybe.
But the crowd was pressing behind her, pushing her ever closer to the Arab by the pillar, and she’d have a hard time fighting her way back up. And – she thought suddenly – wasn’t this unfair to him? She remembered how she had more than once declaimed online and to friends how it was unfair to tag all Arabs – and by extension all Muslims, and all brown people – as terrorists. And here she was thinking like the bigots she had condemned so many times.
Well, yes, but online and in a restaurant she wasn’t at risk of being blown to pieces, and her son with her.
She was still struggling with herself when the crowd had pushed her right next to the young man by the pillar. It was a large crowd, much larger than usual at this time of the day, and she cursed herself for having picked today to come.
Standing by the man’s side, she glanced at him quickly from the corner of her eye. He was looking straight ahead at the station chart on the wall across the line, oblivious of her existence. She thought she could see a little muscle twitching at the edge of his beard. Was he tense? Was he tense because he was nerving himself to press a switch which would complete a circuit and send an electric impulse to a detonator which would –
Stop it, she told herself. Stop it, this is too damned much. He’s just a student like a thousand others in this station, at this moment. What a hypocrite you are.
The crowd was getting really too large to manage, and she began slowly advancing towards the edge of the platform, or she might miss this train; and the next one to her parent’s station was half an hour later. The young man by her side was edging forward, too. They would be on the train together.
Don’t think about it, she told herself, gritting her teeth. Don’t.
In order not to have to look at him, she peered down the track past the platform to where it vanished into darkness round a curve in the tunnel. She hated the Underground, hated the feeling of confinement it gave her, the feeling of being crushed against people to whom she, with her life and interests and everything else, was just a lump of matter occupying space that prevented them from stretching their legs out. But there was no other practicable way of mass transit in the city, unless she wanted to spend hours on a bus every day.
The train was coming. She could see the light of its headlamps, yellow on the curving concrete wall. Quite automatically, obeying a childhood habit, she leaned a little forward, to have a better look. She never even noticed when Peter’s hand slipped loose from hers.
The next thing she did notice, though, was a terrified cry. She jumped round.
Peter was down on the tracks.
She never knew whether he’d fallen off, or been pushed by the crowd, but there he was sitting between the rails, his tiny face screwed up with fear. And the rails were thrumming as the train began to pull into the station.
She opened her own mouth, to scream.
By her side, a blur of movement.
The Arab moved so fast she barely saw him. One moment, he was standing beside her, like a statue, bag over his shoulder. The next moment, he was down on the track, vaulting over the nearer rail, scooping up Peter and turning even as he flung the boy back towards the platform, Peter turning over in the air as he hurtled towards her, and she fell backwards with him in her arms, falling on people behind as the train roared past, and she was down on the ground and people around her, white faces shocked and bloodless. And the scene dissolved in a rain of tears.
“Ma’am?” A heavily accented voice. “Ma’am? Are you all right?”
She knew who it was before she even looked up. He was bending over her, concern on his bearded face. “Are you OK?” he said. “And the boy?”
Peter was clutching her tight, but was already beginning to calm down. “He’ll be all right,” she said, and tried to smile. “You...how did you move so fast, down there and up again?”
He shrugged. “Good reflexes. Well, if you’re all right, then...”
“Wait,” she said, climbing with difficulty to her feet. “I haven’t thanked you.”
“That’s all right. As long as the boy’s fine.” He was actually quite good-looking, she saw, with clear brown eyes and excellent teeth which flashed when he smiled. “I am very glad he is safe.”
She looked down at her son and she was suddenly crying again, great sobs racking her body. “Thank you,” she sobbed. “I owe everything to you – my life...”
“Stop it, please. You owe me nothing.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Your train is about to leave, ma’am, you should board it.”
“Yes...aren’t you coming too?”
He shook his head slightly. “My train is not this one, the chart says. Have a safe journey.”
“Thanks again,” she said, as she boarded. She turned as the doors were beginning to close, and looked to where he was waiting, watching her. “Wait,” she called. “What’s your name?”
His lips moved, saying something, but she only caught the first syllable, “Ali...”
The train moved off into the tunnel. She kept looking at him through the window until the platform vanished and she could see him no longer.
Then she looked down at Peter, and hugged him as tightly as she could.
She had just reached the top of the escalator when she noticed the police. In black uniforms, visored helmets and body armour, they were rushing down on the other side, running, not waiting for the escalator. At the same moment her mobile began ringing.
It was her mother. “Helena! Are you all right?”
“All right? Of course. Why do you ask?”
“Haven’t you heard what happened on the Underground?”
“Oh, that. I’m all right and so is Peter. But how did you get to hear that...” She stopped suddenly, realising. “No.” Her voice rose. "No."
Her mother had not even noticed. “There’s been a bomb, a train blown apart, god alone knows how many dead. Where are you?”
“I’m at the station, Mother! At the station. I’m all right. I’ll be there soon.” There were more police coming, and some of them were pointing at the passengers leaving the escalator, pointing them to one side. She could no longer hear what her mother was saying due to the noise. So she cut the call.
A policewoman was talking to the man in front of her, a TV set on the wall behind. A news bulletin showed images of smoke and mangled metal, survivors staggering past the camera. A police officer appeared on the screen.
“It was obviously a suicide bombing,” he said, “Based on closed-circuit TV cameras, we already have a suspect. He’s...”
“Ma’am?” the policewoman said. “Ma’am? A few questions, please.”
Helena hardly registered her voice. The TV screen was beginning to fade from the policeman’s face to that of the suspect, and she could not look away.
Of course, even before the image appeared, she knew who she would see there.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014