The underground train squealed to a halt and a herd of camera-hugging tourists and overage hippies squeezed through the opening doors onto the platform. Standing as usual, I instinctively drew in my stomach and rescued my London Review of Books. Ooohs! and Aaahs! revealed that they were on a tour of “the world’s longest art gallery”, here a station with naivístic artwork in solid red and green.
Order was restored as the driver warned he was preparing to close the doors. The carriage was now half-empty and we could relax. I returned to Seymore Hersch where I left off, trying to grasp the complexities of the Syrian conflict. My reading was interrupted by animated female voices and the thunder of footsteps. Somebody about to miss their station, I thought, as I glanced at the sliding doors. No chance! I prepared to rescue a possible damsel in distress, caught between the doors.
A young woman in black running tights and orange sneakers came striding along the aisle of the train, dragging a black case on small wheels. Startled faces looked up at the sound of the wheels skidding across the hard floor. Approaching, she drew back her arm like a bowler going for a strike, and swung the case expertly through the gap between the rapidly-closing doors. She scored! The case sailed out onto the platform as the doors closed with a dull thud. She turned to her friend and raised her arm, clenched fist pumping in the air. “Right on!” they shouted and she returned to her seat, attracting disapproving looks from older passengers. “What if they think there is a bomb inside!” exclaimed her friend, and burst into a fit of giggles. And that’s just what they did.
The train accelerated slowly, heading for the dark cavernous tunnel. Calm descended on the carriage and passengers bowed their heads again over their cell phones.
From my vantage point by the door I could follow the case as it rolled in a wide arc, gradually coming to a halt in the middle of the platform. The train gathered up speed. I noticed people on the platform pointing in the direction of the case. Some were making quickly for the exit, others speaking earnestly into their phones.
I was not the only one watching the case on its lonely journey. The driver saw it too out of the corner of his eye, but turned to enter his cab. Already behind schedule, he slammed the door and pushed the accelerator into drive, happy to enter the safety of the tunnel and leave the problem behind.
The monitors in the railway control room flickered as they routinely switched between different stations. George and Mick, on duty but sleepy after a heavy lunch, were rudely roused when Tommy, their supervisor, shouted “What’s happening there?” Mick hit the button and zoomed in, seeing people running for the exits. They all watched as the lone piece of luggage, still upright, came to a standstill on the almost deserted platform. “Alarm, alarm“ shouted George, “stop all trains on the blue line!” Red lamps were flashing.In the background phones were ringing, but nobody answered. A robot-like voice repeated: “bomb alert, bomb alert”.
I tried to pick up the thread of the article about Syria, but the two women were still chatting loudly for me to think. A few hundred meters into the tunnel the train shuddered to a halt, ceiling lights dimmed and then came on again. It suddenly got very quiet. Behind me even the two women felt the need to whisper. I looked around. There were about fifteen people in the carriage: mothers with small children in prams, a few sleepy young men in caps, oldies with walkers and tired-looking middle-aged women with bulging shopping bags. Some appeared bored and resigned at the delay, others grappled with their phones.The train passed through a string of multi-ethnic suburbs. I was the odd white man out in the carriage.
The only sound apart from phone chatter was air hissing in the braking system. A small boy started whining but was quickly silenced with thin slices of banana. A crackling sound from the loudspeakers was greeted with groans, usually meaning a longer delay. Passengers looked automatically up to the ceiling, expecting the usual excuses. The driver cleared his throat loudly, and a couple of children started wailing. An automatic “Schhh!” came from mothers.
I could hear that he was nervous, not the usual monotonous official voice. “We..ahh …. we have a delay. A brief …. delay. Train in front is, er, er, running a bit.” Fumbling with his microphone he switched it off in a cloud of atmospherics, swallowing the final syllables.
We waited, and waited. Now everyone with a phone was telling someone else that they would be late; for a meeting, to fetch the dog/car/kids, for the kick-off or for a connecting bus or train. I tried to get the local news, but the signal was too weak in the tunnel.
An unexpected jerk and the train sprung into life again, engines throbbing and brakes hissing. The driver announced what we already felt: “Now we are on our way again, but we will only be crawling along.” Nobody cared, as long as we were moving there was hope. Passengers fed the good news into their phones, updating friends, colleagues, day care centres and the rest. Eventually we rolled slowly into the next station, out of the dark tunnel into the bright lights on the platform. Passengers were already crowding the doors, hoping to make up for lost time.
A disturbing feeling spread through the carriage; something was wrong. All the figures standing on the platform were in uniform: police in dark blue, others in black with white helmets and shields, some holding staring dogs with muzzles. They were lined up along the edge of the platform. Through the windows we saw stern, searching faces peering in at us. Some passengers instinctively took a step back from the doors, others returned to their seats. Police were not popular in this part of the city.
The train stopped with a loud hiss, but the buzzer which normally heralded the opening of the doors remained ominously silent. The doors remained firmly closed. “Open the doors”. “ I’m already late”. “What’s going on?” “Let us out!” “I’m missing the match.” “Is it a robbery d’you think?” asked someone.
Phones were again hauled out of pockets and bags, but the loudspeakers crackled and a new voice announced, “This is the police speaking. Due to a security incident we must keep the train here until further notice. We apologise for the inconvenience. Please be patient.” and then shut down. People returned to their seats, looking round suspiciously. Nobody said anything. We were in the third carriage. This is going to take time, I thought, and sat down on an empty “priority seat” across the aisle from the two women. It felt appropriate.
After twenty minutes the doors on our carriage opened without warning, but not to let us off the train. Each pair of doors was blocked by armed policemen with helmets and unusual, bulging uniforms. Two large policemen entered by the front doors and stood to attention, unspeaking, waiting. The silence spread like an invisible blanket of fog through the carriage A rather old moth-eaten police dog was then paraded up and down the centre aisle, sniffing in all the corners. It showed som interest in my feet and my first instinct was to kick out at the smelly beast, but thought better of it. Two policemen started checking ID-cards, reluctantly hauled out from pockets and handbags. I couldn’t hear what they asked, but guessed it had to do with the black case. When questioned, passengers instinctively put on their most innocent faces and slowly shook their heads. They looked uncomfortable and I felt them looking in my direction. I hoped the police didn’t notice, but they did.
They were business-like rather than polite, have a long hard look at my ID-card. “Where you going then?” “Home”, I said, trying to stay calm. Police were not noted for their sense of humour, so I curbed my jocular tendencies. “Where’s that?” “Next station.” “What you got in there?” one asked, pointing at my rucksack. “Book, tea, dried fruit, socks.” “Open it!” I almost said “Why” but did as they asked. They rooted around and emptied the contents on the seat. When a rather dog-eared copy of “The Clash of Fundamentalisms” by Tariq Ali fell out, I knew I was in trouble.
“Did you see anything unusual on your journey?” “Unusual … no, I was reading.” “See any luggage left unattended?” “There was a black case, but one of those women threw it out onto the platform.” As I said this I pointed to where I thought the young women had been sitting, but their seats were empty. They had moved without me noticing. I turned and saw them sitting quietly at the end of the carriage, with an older couple.
“Come with us”, said one of the policemen, in a tone I couldn’t refuse. Together they pulled me up reluctantly from my seat and dragged me towards the doors of the carriage. In the melee, my London Review of Books dropped onto the floor. Instinctively I tried to retrieve it. The last thing I remember was a big black bootprint staring at me from Seymore Hersh’s article.