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SAVIOUR

I had seen death before but not like that. The subway car jiggled as it ran over the points giving me my cue. I took my son’s arm and edging between the other passengers I led him to the door.

Standing behind him, I placed my hands on his shoulders, and he leant back slightly, pressing the back of his head into my stomach. I felt no premonition, but I needed to touch him then, to feel his flesh, warm against mine. His reflection in the door window smiled at me, but for some reason, I did not smile back. I only squeezed his shoulder. I watched as my son pushed his tongue through the gap where his tooth had been, the tooth that he had lost the day before. My son was growing up, and something about that idea made me proud as I imagined the man he would grow into, but there was another part of me that lamented this change, that made me feel lonely, that made me feel sad.

The train driver hit the brakes as we approached a tight corner and sparks flew from the wheels like the fireflies I had captured in my net as a child. I watched, mesmerised, as they twisted and arched in the darkness of the tunnel, fusing with our reflection before fading like burnt-out flashbulbs.

My eyes focused on the last incandescent glow, solitary, radiating over my son’s head. It did not fade, that spark, but expanded until everything around me was white. There was no noise: no renting of steel, no breaking of glass, no screams; just a loud ringing in my ears that silenced even my thoughts.

Everything flowed away from me. My son’s reflection drifted away from itself and yet stayed stationary at the same time. The space between us rippled and my son’s face fragmented, separated and then combined with itself. I gripped his shoulders tight, and he saw me do this, saw the fear in my eyes, saw me flying away against the explosion.

I was spinning through the air, I could not breathe, there was a sharp tear in my shoulder and then blackness. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, but still, I could not see. I am not sure how long I lay there on the floor, prostrate, but from the depths of the impenetrable darkness rose the image of my son, and I cast off the lethargy that had been covering me like a blanket of stones and struggled to my feet. For more than perception, more than the ringing in my ears, knives that pierced my shoulder, banging of my head or fear in my heart—more than any of these things, more than even the thought them, I wanted my son.

In the darkness of the unmoving train my hands, blindly groping on the floor, discerned all manner of objects that filled me with revulsion: limbs, discarded shoes, sticky hair and soft bodies.
Slowly the darkness began to fragment into different tones and shades. The outline of the seats and windows began to form, and I could make out crumpled bodies on the floor. Some moved slowly, dragging themselves forward, some rocked back and forth, some were motionless, and others lay in such impossible configurations that I was grateful for my impaired vision.

I stumbled among the injured. Scared, questioning eyes followed me, but I had no answer for them. I called my son’s name as I squeezed passed tangled metal, but I could not hear my voice over the buzzing in my ears. I felt the soft flesh of bodies beneath my feet, and I felt sick. Danny had been right in front of me. I had been touching him.

I made out the figure of a large man slumped in the corner. One hand clutched a fragment of a newspaper, the other clasped a steel rod that protruded from just under his left nipple. I pushed the man sideways, and he fell to the floor. His mouth gaped breathlessly. His eyes bulged in his purple face.

Where the man had been, in the corner of the car, crumpled on the floor, was my son. His eyes were closed—one of his shoes were missing. I knelt before him, taking his face in my hands. His flesh was still warm. There was a large gash running perpendicular to his left temple. I spoke his name and brushed back the hair that hung over his face. His eyes fluttered open, and I hugged him, but he cried out, cradling his arm. Slowly, I helped him to his feet, and we made our way to where the door of the train had once been.

I lifted my son onto the tracks, his face contorted in pain but he did not cry. At one end of the tunnel, there was a small light, in the other direction was only a blackness that I could never have brought myself to enter. We picked our way through the bodies, focused on the light and the scattered column of people that were moving in the same direction, not wanting to look at the corpses and dismembered limbs that lay around us.

A man staggered, naked apart from a torn pair of underpants and a single shoe, his skin blackened from the flames. He lurched, reeling to one side before collapsing against the tunnel wall. The left side of his face was gone, his blonde hair falling over the missing portion of the skull. Below the jagged line of bone was a bloody mass of brain, reaching from the centre of his forehead to the tip of his ear. My son and I had time to see the man as he paused on the tracks and then lurched forward again, we had time to see how broken and bloody he was, how his whole body trembled, how his left leg dragged behind him like a shadow.

The man called to us, reaching out his hand as he collapsed against a wall. Before I could stop him, Danny was crouching in front of him.

“Kerry,” the man said. “I didn’t say anything. I promised the money to John…Look it’s all gone now…the dog can’t speak stupid…” Then the words came in a torrent and Danny looked at me for help.

The man licked his lips. He closed his eyes and smiled. His head nodded forward, and then he jerked upright as if an electric current had passed through him. He tipped forward, seeming to lunge at my son and I moved between them. The man’s forehead pressed against my cheek and I could feel his sticky blood on my skin. A grating sound came from the back of his throat. The smell of his blood filled my senses. It smelled metallic and of death, and I felt that I shouldn’t breathe it in or it would contaminate me, devouring me from the inside. Gently, I eased the man back against the stone wall.

“We have to help him,” Danny said.
“We have to go.”
“But Dad, we can’t just leave him.”
“The paramedics will be here soon.”

Danny continued to look up at me, the whites of his eyes bright in contrast with the black and grime that covered his face.

I left him, that man, alone in the darkness, I left him. We moved wordlessly toward the light. My son walked apart from me lost in his thoughts. We reached Paddington Station, and Danny sat with his back against a wall.

“What happened?” a man asked.
“The side of the train was ripped open. It was blown outwards.”
“What are you saying?”
“I think it was a bomb.”
“Shit,” he replied, taking off his cap and running his hands through his greasy hair.

The platform was far enough away from the explosion that its stained floor tiles, poster splattered walls, and worn down steps were undamaged. It welcomed the survivors—partly because they believed that the terrorists were only interested in bombing trains and partly because the stark walls seemed to offer some semblance of authority. The faded posters for mortgages and warnings against sexually transmitted diseases were normal and secure; and also partly (according to some of the whispers that I heard) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to remain together in the light.

There was a shout at the far side of the platform as a couple of paramedics descended the stairs. They surveyed the severity of injuries and set about their work. They were soon joined by others and then the firefighters were on the tracks and making their way down the tunnel with torches toward the train.

A nurse in her twenties, lipstick smeared hastily over her lips, her shirt buttoned incorrectly, inspected Danny’s arm.

“It’s just badly bruised.” She placed his arm into a sling and ruffled his hair.
“Your shoulder is going to need stitches,” she said, probing my wound with her fingers. As she cleaned and bandaged my arm, Danny lay with his head in my lap, silent, his eyes staring back into the blackness of the tunnel.

People staggered around the platform, searching for loved ones, calling out their names, over and over and over again: John, Kyle, Linda, Tom. And we knew, my son and I, that those people had not made it, that they were one of the bodies we had walked passed to get to the platform.

I watched them stumble on the tracks, clawing through the rubble and corpses, crying, flailing their arms and falling in the dirt and I felt convinced that I had before me a vision of hell.

END OF EXCERPT


Disfigured Liberty

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A Psychiatric Hospital, a London bomb, an abusive father, a hedonistic rock star, bereaved parents, and a suicide bomber, come together for this literary sojourn into the grimy depths of sadness and regret.

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