It was around eight in the evening when Jeremy King and I walked into Liverpool Street Station on our way to join our friends in a pub in Notting Hill. It had been a warm, pleasant summer day, but we had spent most of it in our office and were more than eager to knock back a few pints and leave it all behind us. We’d already stopped for a couple at our local, and as we descended the escalator towards the Central Line we were laughing heartily from the booze. The station was relatively busy, given it was a Friday evening, but after a certain amount of alcohol we were happy to talk loudly without fear of drawing attention to ourselves.
We waited on the Westbound platform for about two minutes, chatting about football or something, I can’t remember. When the train pulled in we found the carriage to our right was much busier than the one to our left, so naturally we opted for the near-empty one. We chose to stand at the end where we stepped on, so we could see the whole carriage stretch out in front of us.
There were a few people dotted about it, no more than about five or six all sitting separately along the aisle. There was just one person standing near us, at the end of the nearest row of seats, a Middle-Eastern-looking man dressed in a grey sports top and black waterproof trousers, with a white baseball cap over his head. In one hand he held a large, brown leather briefcase.
Jeremy and I carried on talking as the doors closed, and it was only due to a cursory glance down the aisle that I noticed the man walking towards us a few moments after the train had started moving. I wouldn’t have looked twice, only his eyes were trained right on us. Within seconds of my eyes resting on him he was standing less than a yard away.
Realising that we had been approached by a stranger, we stopped talking and stared at him. He was staring straight back at us with great, bloodshot eyes that bulged out of his head like squeezed balloons, the skin around them grey and tired and his beard scant and wiry as if the face it grew on was not rich enough to sustain it. One eye was looking in a different direction to the other. His head sat disjointedly atop a neck that leered forward from his body. I was immediately frightened.
A long, silent moment passed, in which I expected him to speak. I turned to Jeremy, who glanced at me just as questioningly. But before either of us got the chance to say something, he spoke.
‘I’m holding a bomb in my right hand.’
A breath – I don’t know whose. A clang somewhere in the train. The gentle movement of the carriage swaying to and fro. A tap on a window. The eyes continued to stare. Perhaps it was the beer, but something hadn’t quite clicked in my head.
‘Excuse me?’ I said.
Now he breathed deeply, his breath juttering like a broken engine, but keeping those eyes fixed on mine.
‘I’m holding a bomb in my right hand.’
I looked down and there was the large, brown briefcase, held tight in his firm, terrified grip.
Before either of us could think of a single thing to do, the worst and most bizarre thing happened. At that moment the train began to slow down, and with my eyes focussed entirely on the man before me, it slowed and slowed and then stopped altogether, in the middle of a great, black tunnel.
The silence was deeper than the universe. Everything became very, very still. I stared at the man, and he stared back at me. My brain did not think. I became aware of almost nothing apart from the man’s face. For a second I absented the train altogether.
Jeremy did nothing either. There was total and absolute silence. No one did a thing. I don’t know how long the train was still for – it could have been two minutes, it could have been twenty – but for the entire time, none of the three of us spoke, moved or so much as thought. It was for all the world as if time had stopped. His words had both sunk in and not. I could only tell they had had an effect because no one was speaking. But within me they had evidently not sunk in, because I felt almost completely fine; in fact, I almost felt good. I mustn’t have believed him.
We stood in silence like this for a while, like a stand off in which we were waiting for both ourselves and the other person to make a move. Then, after an eternity, the train cracked back into action again, and slowly started moving once more down the line towards Bank.
‘What do you mean?’ Jeremy blurted out.
The man flicked his ugly, red eyes and considered him for a second.
‘I have a bomb,’ he said, simple as day. His English did not sound good.
‘You don’t really mean you’ve got a bomb?’ I retorted, catapulted back to life by the movement of the train.
‘Of course I do.’
There was a pause. Then Jeremy said: ‘This is ridiculous!’ He was loud, far louder than I would have dared to be.
‘Jeremy!’ I hissed. But the man did not seem to react.
‘But, honestly!’ he continued. ‘If you’ve got a bomb, you don’t just walk up to any old anyone and tell them, do you? This is a total – a total balls.’
The man held Jeremy’s gaze carefully, not showing a single sign of emotion or reaction on his face.
‘It is not a lie.’
‘Well why should we believe you?’ said Jeremy.
‘Yes,’ I barged in. ‘Why should we believe you?’
The man continued to show no reaction at all. The eyes flicked for a few moments from me to Jeremy, me to Jeremy, me to Jeremy – then settled once more on me.
‘Why would I be lying?’
‘Why would you be telling the truth?’ said Jeremy.
I withheld a sudden urge to laugh out loud as the absurdity of the situation struck me. My mind had left me, but I could still realise that we were arguing with a stranger over whether or not he was carrying a bomb. It made me really, really want to laugh.
‘Why should I not tell the truth?’ he replied.
‘For God’s sake,’ Jeremy almost shouted. ‘Just tell us! Are you carrying a briefcase full of toys or are you going to blow us all up to high heaven?’
A woman at the far end of the carriage looked up at the sound of shouting, but she was too far away to have heard what Jeremy had said.
My urge to laugh withdrew and was replaced by something very unpleasant. I looked now up the aisle at the five or six people sitting there; then I looked over my shoulder at the near-full carriage behind us.
‘What the hell is this?’ whispered Jeremy.
The man again rolled his great eyes between us, and although his face was unchanging I sensed that the movement was a great effort for him. I thought he looked like a drug addict; maybe he was high on something. But then again his ugly demeanour could have been the result of all sorts of things. Maybe he really was a terrorist; maybe he had been put through some kind of ISIS training camp; maybe he was being forced into this against his will. Maybe he was having doubts. Or maybe he really did intend to kill everyone on this train.
‘I will tell you honestly,’ he said, ‘that I will tell you nothing about myself. But I promise you, this’ – he gestured delicately to the briefcase – ‘is a bomb.’
‘Are you going to kill us?’ I looked at Jeremy in surprise at these words, but he was looking at me; then I realised that I had said them.
‘Yes.’ Said the man.
‘Then why haven’t you done it already?’ spat Jeremy. The man simply looked at him again. ‘Well? Why haven’t you?’
Again silence, interrupted now by the tanoy system announcing that the next stop was Bank. Jeremy turned to me and said, ‘Right, we’re getting the hell off this train.’
‘If you get off the train at this station,’ said the man, ‘I will detonate the bomb.’
Until then I had somehow felt that I had been in a nightmare. I was toying with the idea that someone had slipped some kind of drug into my drink earlier and I was hallucinating. But the feeling that this might all not be real fell away like a child in an avalanche the moment the train pulled into Bank station. Somehow the light and sight of people talking and getting on and off slapped me so hard in the face that I felt that, had I been asleep, I would have woken up. Jeremy and I gazed out the open door beside us like it was the gateway to heaven and we were on the last train to hell.
‘Don’t move,’ said the terrorist. ‘Don’t say a word. Don’t do anything.’
I watched people moving up and down the platform, heard a woman crying with laughter down the phone. For thirty seconds or so we stood there, facing our captor while the door was open right beside us; then it slid shut, and the train began moving again. He took a great, wheezing breath in through his nostrils, and blew it all out over several moments.
All sign of the alcohol that had been in my body just minutes ago had evaporated. I stared at the man, still trying to make sense of this situation that I simply could not get my head round.
I thought back to the 7/7 bombings in 2005. I had just arrived in my office when we first heard that there had been several explosions across London, and one of them was on a Circle line train that had just left Liverpool Street. I had walked out of Liverpool Street barely minutes before – I didn’t hear the bang, but I heard people shouting and screaming somewhere behind me as I stepped onto the street outside. I stopped and waited for a minute or two to see if I could find out what was happening, but continued on to the office when I thought I might be late. It wasn’t long before it was all over the news: three bombs had exploded on the London Underground at 8.50 that morning. Another went off on a bus in Tavistock square at 9.47. I suppose it occurred to me that I had had some kind of brush with death that morning, but I didn’t take it seriously. Terrorist attacks were something that happened to other people, not to me. The idea that I would be confronted by such a situation seemed otherworldly.
I remember looking at the photos of the bombers the papers dragged up in the following days. They were al-Qaeda, I think, before it became ISIS – did it become ISIS? Aren’t they the same thing? They were Muslim extremists whatever. They looked exactly like this man in front of me. I examined his body once more and tried to pin down how old he was. It was too difficult though. He was somewhere in between ages, like a child that has been enslaved all its life. He could have been as old as fifty, but the exhaustion on his face laid on years that were not there. I wondered if his fellow terrorists were on other tube trains across London, preparing to detonate their own bombs. Perhaps they already had and the news hadn’t spread yet. Perhaps he was waiting for a particular time to explode.
Jeremy was saying something to the man again but I don’t know what. I was thinking about dying. Why on earth don’t we think about our mortality until we are forced to? Why didn’t I think this would happen? What was I expecting – to live forever?
‘Just tell us,’ Jeremy was hissing between harsh, strained breaths. ‘Do you want something from us?’
Again the man considered him for a few seconds. ‘No. I do not.’
‘Then why are you doing this!?’
‘Come on!’ my friend spat, ‘Is there something we can do? I don’t care if you don’t even have a bomb, but there must be something? And if you do, can we convince you not to set it off?’
‘For God’s sake!’ said Jeremy, at which the man seemed to flinch; his first emotional response to anything. I was absolutely certain he reacted to the name of God.
‘Listen,’ I said. ‘There must be something we can do. There must be something you want. I don’t know what it is and I don’t care what it is, because whatever it is, we’ll do it. If you want money, we’ll give you money. If you want protection, we’ll give you protection. If you want a ticket to nowhere, we’ll give you a ticket to nowhere. We’re wealthy men, my friend. We can get you whatever you want, whatever you need. Just say the word, and this can all be over.’
‘Yes,’ said Jeremy. ‘We are wealthy men. Very wealthy. We can buy you whatever you need. We’re some of the wealthiest men in the country.’
‘Just please let us see our families again.’
‘The next station is St. Paul’s’, said the tanoy.
The man stared and stared at us. I wanted to punch him in the face.
‘Well!?’ said Jeremy. ‘Come on! We can get you whatever you need! I don’t even care if there is a bomb in your hand or not. If you need help we can give it to you. Therapy, whatever. It’s on me.’
By the man’s non-answer, I wondered if we hadn’t said something deeply offensive to him. If he was a Muslim intent on the destruction of the West, I doubted that offering him money was a good idea.
‘I-‘ said the man – but then he closed his mouth again, just as the train pulled into St. Paul’s.
I watched out for his free hand to move towards the briefcase, suddenly thinking that he might be waiting for a more central station like St. Paul’s to detonate – but his hand stayed where it was. I tried to think of what to do, but my mind kept driving furiously over to my wife and children. Stay here, stay in the present moment, damn it. Focus!
The doors opened to the station, and I watched the terrorist intently for any sign he was going to do something. I wasn’t just going to let him get on with it; I was going to damn well stop him. If he made a move Jeremy and I would have him.
A lot more people stepped onto our carriage now. At least five or six came and settled on the aisle of seats nearest us. I saw Jeremy clawing his eyes over them, both of us wondering how we might get them to help us. Or whether we might save their lives. Then suddenly there was a hand on my shoulder.
‘Harry! Jeremy!’ came a familiar voice, and we both turned with what must have been the most terrible expressions to see a work colleague of ours, big Richard Lingham, stepping onto the train as drunk as a sailor. Seeing our faces, however, he lost the great grin on his face. ‘What’s the matter?’
The doors shut behind him.
I looked at Richard only briefly before bringing my eyes back to the terrorist.
‘I’m afraid you’ve stepped into rather an awkward situation, Richard,’ said Jeremy, also watching the terrorist.
‘Oh, yes?’ said Richard. ‘Who’s this?’
‘Tell your friend to shut the hell up,’ said the terrorist to me and Jeremy.
‘Richard,’ I hissed. ‘Don’t do anything.’
‘Why?’ he replied, his voice now sunk with worry. ‘What on earth’s going on?’
‘He’s got a bomb, Richard.’
‘Ssh! Keep the noise down!’
‘Don’t make a move, don’t do anything,’ said the terrorist, evaluating Richard with a kind of distant disgust. ‘Just stay still.’
Richard immediately fell silent, and although I wasn’t looking at him I could tell he was staring at the terrorist with those fat, malignant eyes of his. Richard Lingham wasn’t the sort to sit down quietly, especially not after a few pints. I realised it was quite possible he would try to make a move and cause the man to set off the bomb. I needed to explain the situation before he tried anything.
‘Okay,’ I said to the terrorist, who continued to stare at us. ‘You’ve got us this far. You’ve told us what’s in your hand. But what do we do now? Do you want us to help you?’
Still he maintained his hellish silence.
‘Where are you going to set it off?’ said Jeremy, and I sensed Richard snap his head at the words.
‘The next station is Chancery Lane,’ rang the tanoy.
‘You’ll see,’ said the terrorist.
I glanced at Jeremy, suddenly certain he was going to do it at the next station.
‘Jeremy,’ I whispered, but the man cut me short.
‘Shut up!’ he spat. ‘Don’t do a thing! I want to watch you squirm as you die. I want to see the suffering on your faces.’
The train pulled out of the tunnel and the light flooded in.
‘Jeremy,’ I whispered again, feeling the horror building up inside me like a poison. ‘Jeremy-‘
‘This is it,’ whispered Jeremy.
The train slowed down and down, then stopped –
The man leered at us in the vacuum –
The doors opened –
As fast as sound Richard Lingham stepped forward and, with all the force in his right hand, smacked the terrorist fist-first in the face. The terrorist spun backwards and flung his briefcase-holding hand up in the air, and as he placed his foot to steady himself he tripped clean over the legs of a woman sitting behind him. The briefcase went flying.
Jeremy and I jumped forward instantly to try and catch it, but no – NO! – we couldn’t! I reached out and out and, with all the horror in the world in my eyes, watched it fall hard to the ground.
I tensed and waited – for one second, two seconds. Three seconds. Four. No explosion.
I opened my eyes again. There was the briefcase, wide open on the floor – with nothing inside it.
We were straight back on our feet and onto the man within moments. As commuters watched, we dragged him out onto the platform, along with the empty briefcase, while Richard sent him a few more of the best from his right fist.
‘You filthy Muslim dog!’ Richard was crying in his face. ‘You despicable little Iraqi! How dare you do this to my friends! How dare you!’ There was a cry from somewhere up the station, and then the sound of running; the station’s police were on their way. ‘You dirty black Jihadi! You shouldn’t even be in this country! Send them all back!’
‘Only a Muslim would do this! Only a bloody Muslim!’
‘Richard, please!’ Shocked though I was, even I knew what he was saying was terrible.
‘What are you, stoned? High? Injected some heroin? Working for ISIS? Filthy jihadi rag-head!’
Two police officers had come thundering down the platform, and they were tearing Richard away from the man now.
‘Muslim pig! Iraqi whore! Go back to where you came from!’