maybe you do need to know what happened after all
‘What has happened?’
(‘We are united’)
I can’t even remember what I did the night before, but I packed, late, so I packed everything. I was going to my favourite place on earth & I was going surfing. Cornwall has this amazing ability to make me forget about things that don’t really matter at the end of the day. Suddenly there is the sea and the weather and life, and nothing else matters. I was terrified I would forget something that would spoil my trip so I packed the lot. I remember finding my wetsuit in the middle of the night & thinking how incongruous a wetsuit was in Stoke Newington at midnight.
I slept in, as usual, and left in a bit of a rush. My work bag, my trolley dolly and yet another bag. Luck seemed to be on my side as a bus appeared and I hauled my luggage on as it took me to the station. Thank God, I thought, I don’t have to drag it all up the road to Manor House. The walk I did every day, and always in a hurry, always late. The bus was there, for once, when I needed it, and I had claimed back a few of those extra minutes I had spent in bed.
I think I may even have bought a ticket as the trusty Oyster card had run out. To be honest I can’t be sure. Everything that happened afterwards has somehow enveloped those earlier memories. What I do know is that there were people around going about their daily business of getting the tube. The person that stood behind me in the queue for the ticket machine might have had a different routine from me, and they may not be here anymore. How can I not know?
I stood on the escalator and didn’t walk down it, a habit broken by my late night packing excesses. The tube with luggage, I had meant to be early to avoid the crush. Something already wasn’t right…’severe delays’, again my memory fails, but I recall that heart sinking feeling…..’I’m late and now they’re late too’. People all over the platform, it felt unusual, I was late and things were not right. The platform was crowded and the board was empty. Not a train near enough to be announced. Why was I so uneasy?
Eventually it arrived. ‘Life’s too short’, the same old thought as it pulls in and the sardines flash before my eyes. Usually there is a thinning as it passes. I stand in front of the same advertising spot every day. I know that’s where the doors will be. The advert changes but the spot is always the same. What was it that day? I read it repeatedly every morning, despite the frustration it stirs up, I can’t help myself. Waiting and reading. This time there was no thinning, I didn’t want to get on.
I glanced at the board. Empty. It was never empty, there was always another one coming. Not today, I had to get on. I squeezed myself on with my cumbersome luggage and put my mind into rush hour neutral mode. Where did I buy the paper? I was reading it to distract myself from the claustrophobia. Trying to spot myself in Trafalgar Square the day before as we won the Olympics. What else was I thinking about? Who else?
My inner alert switched on automatically as we pulled into Finsbury Park. There are always seats to be had here if you can get yourself positioned so you can sit down just as they stand up. I tried to edge myself in between the seats, like a hunter. A man pushed past me, aggressively. People change when they are thrust into such uncomfortable proximity with each other. He was hunting that seat too. Were we fighting? The anger surged, and again ‘life’s too short’. Not even the prize of a seat excused that kind of disrespect. We had both lost. He knew it too and he couldn’t face me. He was in a suit, I think, and short. I could only see the back of his head, was he embarrassed? Suddenly I didn’t care and I broke the rule, I spoke. ‘That is so rude!’. He didn’t move, but he knew. And I knew. I had said it and I felt better. On we went, limbs touching limbs. Was I still reading?
No more memories until the bang. Was it a bang? I don’t remember being shocked, it was more like a pop. I felt that huge surge of mass frustration. Packed tube and now we’re stuck in a tunnel. For a minutiae of a second everyone switched off almost completely, a communal sigh, it’s too packed to get frustrated about this. Then it changed. Without a word, so many people and not a word, just a silent gasp of many voices. The lights went out and instantly there was smoke. Thick, black, smoke. My God, my mind was off, I need to turn it on again, this is different. This is bad. Wake up!
Movement, and there must have been voices, but no instant panic. Confusion, I just felt it, I didn’t hear it. Did I wake up? What did I think? I’m stuck, I can’t move, it’s dark, but there are lights, they must have been emergency. It felt like a very slow awakening. I don’t know what happened first. There was a man, a hero, he was a leader. He threw all his weight into opening the doors. ‘Help me’, he said. ‘I need some men’. They wouldn’t open. Men appeared. How did they get there through the crush? They pulled, three on each door. It opened, only enough for him to wedge himself between them. I was swimming in sickly thick black smoke. Asthma, will it happen? What will happen then? I can’t move, I can’t get out. This isn’t a just good story for being late to work, this is real, this is serious, this is scary. I can’t get scared because then I’ll be frightened. I keep it together, how did I do that? His voice,’ it’s ok there’s fresh air coming in here’ keeps me calm. There’s authority in that voice. Deep down I know he knows no more than me. But he is telling us we’re going to be ok, and I believe him. I believe him because I have to. There’s no choice, the other option is too dark.
The overriding memory is of calm. There is panic, but not mass. The girl next to me is shaking like an epileptic. I hold her arms to try and stop her. It feels good to be helping someone, to be relatively more in control. The doors won’t open any further, but he is still between them. What is it? What has happened? Has the train just stopped and this is happening only to us, does anyone know? ‘Pull the emergency cord’ I say. No-one has even thought of this. ‘Then they will know’, I think. I pull it and it’s limp, I keep pulling but nothing happens. ‘It’s not just us’, I think. Something is wrong. The smoke keeps coming, ‘breathe through your clothes’ someone says. We all try, but somehow it seems pointless. Either we are going to die or we aren’t. Clothes aren’t going to change that. But still, another voice of authority is a comfort. What has happened? Why is there smoke? I try not to think but I have to, I can’t do nothing. I can’t stand and wait, to die. I have to think, I have to do something. There is smoke, there must be fire. Fire moves, fast. Don’t think, don’t think. You’ll lose control if you think like that, stop it. We’ve got to get out before the fire comes. I can’t die here, alone, next to the man I fought with. He still can’t look at me. I can’t die alone , in a dark tunnel, I can’t. ‘Break the windows’ I hear myself say, ‘’why don’t we break the windows’. They throw themselves at them, nothing. I remember the overheating train story and talking about the friend with a hammer only yesterday. Why didn’t I listen, why didn’t I have a hammer? ’I always will from now on’, I think. ‘From now on’ doesn’t exist though, the only thing that exists is now. They hang off the overhead rails and swing at the windows with their feet, they are relentless. Finally it shatters but still in one piece. Laminated? Toughened? I should know. They peel it back, cutting themselves, blood, but no-one seems to care. We are getting out. ‘What if the fire’s outside?’ someone cries. ‘Should we really be breaking the windows?’’ It’s alright’, he says,’ there’s fresh air coming in here’. I breathe, I am still alive.
They peel back the windows, and I feel sick. The tunnel is there. Ten centimetres away. I worry about getting my white jumper dirty if I have to climb out of there, but I know I can’t. There’s no space, we’re trapped, in a tunnel, drowning in smoke. Don’t panic, it will just breed panic,’ there’s fresh air’ he says.
I used the torch at some stage too, when they broke the windows I think. My dad gave it to me,’everlasting’ he said. It had saved me once when we got locked in the house in Cornwall, we had to climb out in the dark. It’s going to save me again, he will be so pleased, he has saved me with his torch. But he hasn’t, the tunnel is there, it has only helped us to discover we’re trapped.
‘Is there smoke in the next door carriage?’ ’Can we get the back door open?’ Messages pass up and down the carriage. We can’t move so the message has to. Chinese whispers.
I’m still in control, fighting the fear. This is fear. I have never felt this before, this is a new emotion, a heightened emotion, I am scared, I think I am going to die. I can’t die…….think!
There are rumours of the back door being open. No-one can see, we have to go by what we can hear. They say it’s open, but are the whispers true? ‘Get out, get out’ we cry. ‘Get out into the tunnel’. ‘What if the fire’s out there?’ ‘What if the tracks are live?’ More authority, male again, ‘they will have turned the power off’. How does he know? He doesn’t. They’re moving, they’re getting out. Thank God, it’s over, we’re getting out. I think there was quiet, there was sobbing but there was relief, we waited.
No-one was moving, why not? It shouldn’t take that long, they’re not moving, we’re still here.’ Are you getting out?’ ‘No!’ ‘Why not?’ ‘We’re scared!’ ‘Well we want to get out’. Voices, noises, frustration, panic, no, there can’t be panic. He speaks, ‘If you don’t want to get out can you move to the side. There are people back here who want to get out’. ‘We want to get out!’, that was me, I heard it. Still nothing, from somewhere ‘let’s push!’. Oh my God no, that will be chaos, we can’t have chaos, need to keep order. He is calmed, don’t push. We wait.
Smoke, oh God, this is too long, it’s not funny……….enough. Why is everyone black? Black lipstick, perfectly applied, black nostrils, someone even has black earholes, do we breathe through our ears? I must look like them too.
‘There are people on the tracks’ ‘Who?’ “passengers I think’. I can’t remember. More talk, more whispers, more smoke. Then it ended ‘Two policemen, I can see two policemen, they’re coming down the tracks!’ I am me again, relief, humour…….’oh that makes me feel a whole heap better, two policemen…great!’. Sarcasm, but it wasn’t really because it did. It was a joke, but it wasn’t. I think there was one earlier, when, I don’t know… ‘trust me to wear a white top today’.
They’re here, they’ve come to get us…….. they know.
Suddenly more than the moment matters, my luggage. What is in there? Mental checklist….nothing. Oh no wait…my ipod! What is wrong with me?! Life, smoke, fire, death, ipod! I can’t take my luggage, too cumbersome, will hold everyone up, I’ll look like a selfish, despicable, materialistic person. Leave the luggage. But I bend down, no-one will notice, unzip the pocket…there it is, put it in my bag, that’s ok, now I can leave the luggage!
Movement, at last, it’s actually happening, I never thought it would. I look at my luggage, leave it.
‘Is that yours?’ ‘Yes but I’m leaving it’. ‘Don’t be silly, you can’t leave it, I’ll carry it’……. Who are you?
The two little policemen are there, with a torch, helping us down. ‘How far is it?’ I say, I thought I’d heard half an hour, I couldn’t cope with that, I don’t know why, I was too weak ‘2 minutes’ they say, I could have kissed them….I know, policemen, but I could have.
We walked along the tracks, the girl who had been shaking like a stick insect was still next to me. Dark tunnel, everyone thinks that must have been the scariest bit, it was euphoria!
‘At least I know I’m crap in a crisis!’ she said, we laughed….’Yea, you can put that on your CV, ‘I’m crap in a crisis!’’ We were out.
Another policeman helped me on to the platform. Guilt, all the way along the tracks, the man with my bags, how could I have let him, they don’t matter, it can all be bought again, nothing in there matters. He emerges out of the tunnel, two heavy bags, the fruits of my late night packing.’ Thank you so much, I feel so guilty, thank you.’ ‘Were you going to the airport?’ ‘No, I’m going to Cornwall’ “Well have a nice week end then’ and he was gone…..British in a crisis to the end!
We walk up the steps and we’re outside, people everywhere, still calm…shock…black faces. We are united in our blackness and we don’t want to leave.