Late February, 1991. Friday
Friday afternoon, very cold, and Thomas Smith, sales manager, leaves his London offices for home. Tom has left a little early. Once a week he allows himself the chance to beat the crush of commuters travelling from Waterloo to the South Coast. He knows that the 15:30 train to Weymouth will be at worst three-quarters full, and that the one after that won’t have an empty seat. Tom hates to board anything later. He knows that any train after 15:45 will be little better than a cattle-truck.
As Tom walks across Waterloo Bridge he rehearses a new joke, one he heard today at lunch. The wind off the Thames is vicious but Tom’s eyes shine and he walks on. In December he had his first million-pound month and tomorrow his sales force are coming to a party to celebrate. That’s why Tom wants to remember the joke. He chants the punch-line almost like a mantra. Tom is 33.
While Tom Smith mutters and smiles despite the wind, in Amman, Jordan, Mohammed El-Hassi Siddiqi, 34, a physician, from Basrah, Iraq, is boarding a Jordanian 747 bound for London Heathrow Airport. El-Hassi is wrapped against the early evening chill and shivers, but it is not because of the cold. Elhassi is scared of flying. As the Jumbo Jet begins to roll, he prays.
Tom and El-Hassi are carrying briefcases and they both carry paperback books to read on their journey. When El-Hassi was studying in England he became a fan of the thriller-writer Dick Francis. He has Reflex to read on the flight, and is pleased, knowing he should finish it before the plane lands in London.
Tom Smith used to read every new Dick Francis but now thinks life’s too short. He is carrying Winning by Intimidation and a collection of poetry from soldiers of the Great War.
Tom and El-Hassi travel west. They do not know each other, nor will they ever see each other or touch each other, but they are destined to meet the following Monday in dark, unusual and desperate circumstances. On the Jumbo Jet, El-Hassi drinks orange juice and reads his novel. On the express to Southampton Tom first tries to read the business book, snaps it shut, then tries the poetry. But he can’t concentrate or get in the right mood. He drinks a second Bells & American to take the edge off the nagging ache in his gut.
“Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch!” Tom crosses himself as he cracks the joke, forehead, abdomen, shoulder, shoulder. The party is going very well, all his reps are well-oiled and most of them are laughing. The wives are in the kitchen sorting out the crispy stuff. Someone shouts, waving a glass.
“Christ, Tom, You’re a bloody heathen you know that?”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Tom says. He’s had a few too. “Did you hear the one about the Bishop and the salesman playing golf?”
Tom’s wife Susan comes in, leading a procession of women and plates of food. The men are laughing but Susan is not amused. “You promised, Tom.”
Tom looks forlorn. “OK. OK!” he says. “Who fancies some Karaoke?”
A thin woman, with dark eyes and black hair, looks for her husband’s face. The husband, Mike, Tom’s top salesman, sees her and he shakes his head briefly. Susan sees this. She puts down her plates and smiles. “Don’t worry, Siobahn. Tom will be good now I’m here.” Siobahn doesn’t speak but relaxes very slightly.
Someone turns up the Karaoke machine and starts singing “You’re The One That I Want.”
Tom grins and crunches into a piece of celery.
Later, Tom and one of the guys are drunk and they try to render their version of New York! New York! Kicking their legs high but rapidly losing touch with the words. At some point they fall together and demolish a glass coffee-table. They think it’s hilarious but neither of the wives laughs.
Later still, Tom. “So the salesman misses another putt, and of course he says, ‘Fuck it! I missed!’ again, and the Bishop looks up to the heavens and this time the sky does open up, just like he had warned it would, and a mighty hand appears and a finger points, and a huge bolt of lightning flashes to the earth, and, and… kills the bishop!”
He pauses, swigs half a glass of wine, “And a great voice booms out…”
From the men there is a shouted chorus of “Fuck it, I missed!”
Susan is unhappy. She has seen Siobahn’s dark face. It is not the time to remind Tom of his resolution. Instead she complains, “Tom, that is so old.”
“I know,” Tom says. “I’m a lapsed Catholic and a failed comedian.”
“Yes,” Susan says sharply. She is picking up some dirty plates. “Anyway, you shouldn’t, especially not with Mike and Siobahn here.”
Tom seems surprised. “Mikey’s OK.”
“They are both church-goers, Tom. It wouldn’t hurt for you to try.”
Tom stops. He thinks; then he speaks slowly. “You’re probably right, love. I’ll try to remember.” He nods to Siobahn, then nods to Mike. Then as if it had never happened, he turns to the party. “Hey, who wants some crisps?”
Later still, Tom has forgotten, and after some shop talk with a manager down from Leeds, he acts out the one about Jesus Christ nailed to the cross, showing off his miraculous powers, first pulling away one hand, then the other, then toppling forward, still nailed by the feet. Mike and Siobahn are putting their coats on as he tells the joke. Siobahn is flushed with anger and hurt, Mike is sad and embarrassed. Tom doesn’t see. As they are leaving, he slaps Mike’s back and congratulates him again for being his top salesman.
Mike sighs, then leans towards his boss, friend, and whispers. “Tom you’re a good mate and a good bloke. You don’t have to be a idiot, you know.”
Tom shrugs, “Someone’s gotta do it, Mikey. I ain’t no saint.”
Tom shakes Mike’s hand which is still strong and firm. Siobahn, he kisses lightly on a cool cheek and then they are gone. He goes back to the party.
The night winds down. A few people smoke. They drink coffee, talk about the war just won in the Gulf. Tom had found it harrowing. He cares about the deaths, the clinical accuracy of smart bombs, the fate of the Kurds; he was disgusted by the film of the carnage on the road to Basrah. Someone agrees and likens it to Hiroshima, mass-killing as a political statement. For some reason all this talk makes Tom think of his writing, the poetry in his desk, the snippet in his briefcase, the two half-finished novels stored away somewhere.
Suddenly Tom feels the minor cut on his hand from the accident earlier and now things are winding down he sees and hears the brash crowd he has surrounded himself with, the crowd he created, that he plays at being part of. His stomach lurches and he has to shake his head. Then he makes a dash for the safer ground of flippancy, cracking some silly remark.
“Hey, we won didn’t we?” someone says. “You’re not saying we shouldn’t have gone in are you? I mean the guy was another Hitler, wasn’t he?”
“There are ways…” Susan says softly, “and there are limits.” Then the guy from Leeds says they are only talking about a bunch of Arabs.
“Oh, God!” Susan says. “I think it’s time I went to bed!”
Tom is lying there now, his small bedside lamp light blue beside him, the book of war poetry in his hand. Susan’s back is hunched and cold. She is facing away from him and her light is out. He feels wretched.
“Susan?” he says, staring at the ceiling. There is no answer.
“Susan,” he says, “d’you think I’m an idiot?”
“Go to sleep.”
“Look,” he says, “just answer me, OK? Am I? Am I an idiot?”
Susan still faces away. “Well, you’re not a racist like that Jack Harvey.”
“No,” Tom says. “But Mike said something when he was leaving.”
“Will you go to sleep!”
Tom feels like crying. “Just tell me, Suze…”
Susan rolls over. She comes up on one elbow. She breathes once, deep.
“Tom, I married you because I loved you, and God knows I still love you. You’re funny and you’re not selfish – the reps don’t know what you do for them, or what you’ve given up, but I do. And I love your writing, Tom. Scrub that – when you wrote I loved your writing. We’re rich, and we call this happy. But ages ago I told you, I told you I’d rather you were writing and us poor. You didn’t believe me. So, yes, you’re an idiot.”
“Oh,” Tom says. He thinks he’s about to say something profound, maybe even mention his new poem. Instead he says, “I suppose this means a fuck is out of the question?”
“Yes,” Susan says. She rolls away, but then Tom kisses her shoulder, not sexually but to say thank-you. He puts down his book and looks up at the ceiling again. Susan keeps her eyes closed and her back turned, but she reaches behind her until she can touch him. Eventually Tom sleeps.
In the morning, hung-over, Tom gets up, dresses, goes out and drives to the forest. He is a long-distance runner and he is meeting his friends for their two hour Sunday run. They set off and he drops in alongside a gentle giant called Peter, a rock, a family man and a good Catholic.
“You’re a left-footer, aren’t you, Pete, a Roman Candle?”
Peter grunts, the pace is hard on him.
“So am I,” Tom says, almost apologising. “Once upon a time, the whole shebang, The Nine Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Corpus Christi, everything. I was even an altar boy for a while.”
Peter grunts again.
“I knew my Catechism off by heart, too! Who made you? God made me! Why did God make you? God made me to know him, love him and serve him, in this world and the next.”
“I knew it all, mate. I was a devout little bugger. Then one day it stopped. I don’t know why. Suddenly it seemed like so much bullshit, stuff to keep the masses in line.”
Peter finally speaks. The words are gasped. “You gotta have something.”
“Probably,” Tom says.
“Y’need a reason. Otherwise, what do we bother for?”
“Don’t see it.”
“Sense’ve purpose, then.”
“What’s wrong with just living?” Tom says.
“You tell me,” Peter says. “You asked the questions.”
Tom goes quiet. He runs easily, thinking without words. He can sense and smell the peculiar moment before the words of a poem begin to appear. Peter’s breath is laboured and Tom knows he is staying with the pace out of politeness. To let him off the hook he says something sarcastic then kicks hard to catch the front runners. Running this fast he feels exalted. He glories in the sense of his own body, the power, the air in his face, the frozen earth under his feet, the stark trees, distant horses grazing. His problems float away. Vaguely he thinks of a meeting in London tomorrow, talk of a partnership, a meeting in a hotel on Piccadilly. When he catches the guys at the front he tells them a joke and drops into step.
Somewhere between Saturday evening and the early hours of Monday, Susan has seized her chance, and when Tom comes downstairs on Monday morning there is a small folder next to his briefcase. Tom recognises it straight away and with a tiny shiver, sees his own handwriting, “This Time!” across it in a thick bold red pen. He knows precisely what is in the light-green envelope.
“Evidence I have Travelled?”
“Why now?” Tom says.
“Because you’re ready,” Susan says.
Tom has come down to breakfast psyched up, ready for one more week as a sales manager. He is glass and steel; he is cold and hard. He is not a poet or a writer of prose this morning. He is neither warmth nor wood, nor grass, nor water and he is not heart, and not soul. Instead he is what he thinks he must be; hard-headed, get-ahead, efficient. Susan should have tried this move after Tom’s Sunday run when she knows he is always mellow and at his most receptive, not now. Tom knows his next move is to be angry, so he picks up the stuff and manages not to say anything else.
Susan pours a little coffee for Tom, then listens to Today on Radio Four. When Tom is about to leave to catch the 7:08 to London, they properly kiss. Apart from this thing with the writing they both know everything is all right. Tom is aroused by the warmth of Susan’s kiss and he realises it’s been ten days. He thinks, when they met, when they met… and then, ah, what the hell. He kisses her again and leaves for work. Susan watches his back, watches him climb into his sports car and drive away. She waits until she can no longer hear the engine. It’s very cold, frost and ice on the road. When she is certain she can no longer hear her husband she goes inside their house, switches off the radio and sits down with a mug of coffee and his poems. She thinks they need a holiday, a few days somewhere warm and quiet.
Eleven minutes later, at two minutes past seven, Tom is parking his car at Southampton Parkway railway station. As Susan drinks her third coffee and reads another poem, Tom steps on to the platform. It’s busy of course, and everyone is well-wrapped up against the cold. Susan pops two rounds of bread into the toaster as the London train pulls into the station. She no longer thinks of the mechanics of her husband’s journey, just the train times.
Tom travels in the buffet car. He sips a coffee. The usual crowd is on the train – commuters, creatures of habit – a bridge game in one corner, the rest reading. Tom could read anything but he doesn’t read his manuscript. When it nags at him he tucks it away in the lid of his briefcase. He thinks, maybe on the way back down, if he can get a seat. The train rocks and clatters, racing to London, fields and fences whipping past the windows.
There is no screech of brakes, no squeal of wheels, no cries of despair. There is just the bang.
The noise has barely registered, before Tom’s first sensation is of being on a ship at sea. His table moves and he is earthless and choking, falling backwards, while the table, other things, he thinks, fly softly in the opposite direction. He has a moment where he wonders if perhaps these seconds are special and he thinks of the six o’clock news and there is red and he sleeps.
He regains consciousness in a dark, dark jungle with branches all around him. He can hear snakes, zithering, hissering, slithering along a wishy, silly floor. He thinks of water. Somewhere he hears something which he thinks of as crackling, then he becomes quiet again.
He wakes the second time and feels Susan lying heavily across his thighs, fast asleep. When he goes to move her she is hard and flat and wide and he feels fear. Susan? He is somewhere dark and he hurts. His eyes are sore and he thinks he can hear or smell water. He tries to sit up and feels terrific pain. He lets out a groan and then someone says, faintly, “Hello?”
Tom is cold; numb, so terribly frightened that he does not answer. Then the voice whispers again, “Hello?”
It is a tiny, fragile voice, and foreign. Tom cannot feel or sense where it is. He thinks of up and down and left and right but in the darkness, in this thing, this crush that holds him, he isn’t even sure where up is. He decides to speak. When he does, his dry mouth has difficulty forming a word. Eventually he croaks to the darkness and it replies, “Hello?”
He hears the fragile voice, he thinks below him but in the black the words float and he isn’t sure. He is hesitant. He still does not understand what has happened. For some reason he thinks he’s in hospital, dreaming under an anaesthetic. But gradually an older part of Tom remembers. “My name is Tom,” he says. “You?”
“My name is El-Hassi.”
Tom has heard what sounded like Elhassi. “I can’t quite hear you,” he says, “or where you are. What was your name again?”
From a different place, like something scurrying he hears the name again and he asks again, “Did you say Elhassi?”
“Yes. I am Arab.”
“I am from Iraq.”
Now Tom remembers – he was travelling, the hotel, the bang, the sudden puff, things changing shape, the falling, the dark.
“Listen,” Tom says. “This might sound silly but could you keep talking? I can’t work out where you are. If you keep talking, I can zero in on you.”
Suddenly he thinks of a smart bomb striking a bunker.
“I am here,” says the quiet voice. “What would you like me to say?”
“I don’t know, mate, anything. Sing a song for all I care.”
“Be calm,” says the quiet, foreign voice. Then Elhassi begins to chant, reminding Tom of the monotony of the rosary but sounding more real.
“La ilaha ilal Lah. La ilaha ilal Lah. La ilaha ilal Lah.”
It was to Tom’s right, close, quite close, below him or above him.
“La ilaha ilal Lah. La ilaha ilal Lah. La ilaha ilal Lah.”
To his right. Quite close. Maybe slightly above him.
“I’ve got you, mate! You can stop now.”
But the man continues, merely quieter, “La ilaha ilal Lah.” And the sound soothes Tom and then his focus improves, he hears noises, water, and begins to think the blackness has variations. Tom likes the chant.
“Are you hurt, mate? Are you OK?”
“I think I am hurt but it does not matter. I am all right, I think.”
“Are you trapped? I’m stuck under something, a girder I think. I can’t move anything.”
“I am also under things, friend. I cannot feel my legs now and I think one of my arms is broken.”
Tom tries to move but it is impossible. The discomfort makes him groan. “Shit mate, you seem pretty cool, you must be in pain.”
“Aren’t you frightened?”
The voice is soft. “Frightened? No. What is writ is writ. I am at peace.”
“Is that your chant thing? What is it, Buddist?”
“La ilaha ilal Lah. There is no God but Allah.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, mate, but it’s got a lovely sound to it.”
There were different shades of blackness around them now. Up, at least what Tom thought was up, was slightly lighter, approaching a dark grey, and over to his far left, was a medium-dark grey, cast with what he thought was a reflected lighter grey like a low-powered moon on a miserable night.
“Do you know what happened, mate?”
“No. I was travelling to London. I am a little confused.”
Tom thinks, Jesus, the train…
“Can you see anything?”
“Just a little, friend, but I think things are clearer.”
“I think I’m still in my chair,” Tom says. “We must have hit something. I was in the buffet when it happened.”
“I was in the buffet, also. Allah was with us, do you think? We are perhaps underneath some of the buffet. I cannot see or move to see, but I think so.”
Something in the voice.
“Are you all right?”
“Oh, I am sorry, my friend. No, I do not think I am all right. I feel wet and I am getting weaker, I think. I will be late for an appointment.”
Tom is feeling closed in, frightened, but suddenly this seems too funny. “You’re joking, right?”
“Yes, my friend.”
Tom speaks to the darkness. “What was your name again? Elhassi wasn’t it? How many people – what do you think – I mean…”
“I do not know, friend, and I am sad, but this must have been what Allah wished. Our lives are God’s.”
Tom tries to move and again the pain stops him.
“Give me a minute,” he says.
He had been in the buffet. He was thinking about his writing.
“Elhassi,” he asks thoughtfully, “When did you realise?”
“I did not. I was first aware when I awoke.”
“But it’s a train-wreck right? Why is it so dark?”
“I think we are beneath some wood, perhaps the buffet bar. It is this which has spared us so far.”
“Oh, yes. If you listen, you can hear the emergency services. But they are quite a way above us. I think perhaps we may have to wait a while.”
“They’ll think we’re dead…”
“They will be thorough.”
“We could shout. Bang on a girder or something.”
“Yes, we could my friend, but I would rather not.”
“Jesus Christ, why not?”
“You blaspheme. But I understand, you are worried. You must make your own choices. I already have made mine. I do not wish to divert the rescue services to help me. They will come to us when they are ready. I do not think Allah wishes me to think selfishly. If this is an end it is fitting.”
“Was an important prophet, a messiah, but not the son of God.”
“There is only one God and his prophet is Mohammed.”
“La ilaha ilal Lah.” Quieter.
“Elhassi, you married, any kids?”
“Yes, I have a son, seven.”
“Susan can’t have any. We lost one, it would’ve been a boy. He would be about seven now.”
Elahassi doesn’t answer. His voice has been getting weaker.
Tom closes his eyes. He thinks of his time as an altar-boy, how everything then was rote, ritual, how the Latin responses to the priest were just sounds, melodies like Elhassi’s. And he thinks of the smell of incense, then smells the forest pine of his runs, and he senses the deep warmth of Susan. Suddenly he wishes that they had made love on Saturday night. He feels like crying, not for himself, but at the thought of Susan, a policeman approaching her door.
And Tom realises there’s a danger he might think seriously about life and maybe an approaching death or two and he remembers his refuge in idiocy. He calls out to Elhassi who says, “Yes?” but faintly. Tom suddenly thinks it’s his duty to divert his fellow victim from sleep. He thinks it will be more than sleep. “So El-Hassi,” he says, “what does your name mean?”
“What does your name mean? Me, I’m Doubting Thomas.”
“I do not know, my friend but hass is to feel or touch, to sense.”
Touch? Seems about right. Right now, Tom wouldn’t mind reaching out and touching this bloke’s hand, but he can’t. He thinks about telling the spectacles, testicles joke, but it’s too dark and would be wasted on the Iraqui, and anyway, Tom can’t move his arms. Tom feels frustrated.
“This God of yours, El, what’s the score? I mean, what’s so wrong with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost?”
“There is only one God, my friend.”
“Yeah, and he wears a gold crown and his son has a big red heart sticking out of his chest; oh, and sometime he’s a bird, but I never really got that bit.”
Elhassi barely grunts but Tom thinks it might have been a laugh.
“So if we had to bet right now, what d’you reckon, El, your God or mine?”
“Allah knows me, friend. If you like, we can use yours.”
“I’m trying to be funny, El.”
“I know, my friend.”
Tom feels an odd peace and he decides what will be will be. He still has the urge, though, to reach out to touch this Arab, and he would like to cross himself once, just in case, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch. But he can’t move. He laughs. “Hey, El, I sure wish I could move these fucking arms. I know a few jokes but they need actions, you know?”
There is no answer but Tom keeps talking. He tells El-Hassi how awful he thought the killings were on the Road to Basrah. He talks about running, he describes every man in the running club, his best race, the day he broke the club record for a half-marathon. But the answers stop coming and he hears the sounds of people above him, the crackle of acetylene torches, controlled shouting. He decides to tell his friend about his writing, his dreams. He knows now that he should survive this, he has things to do. He thinks he needs a holiday with Susan, a few days somewhere warm and quiet.
He wants to write.
Return to Journal
Novelist, short-story writer and poet, Welsh-Irish Alex Keegan recently started submitting again after a three-year hiatus.
He lives near Reading, England and looks after two asylum-seeking refugees. A tough, warts-and-all critic, he teaches creative-writing at Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp on line and F2F.