Sunday, 31 May 2009

More often than not


“More often than not, they make it."

It was a calm, matter of fact tone that made the answer reassuring, as tough suicide attempts, and how commonplace they were, was just part of the business. And although it was said matter of factedly, it was all right that way, because the answer was not a bad one.

As we were ushered off the train earlier that day by an almost incomprehensible droning command over the speaker system, I saw people on the station's bridge overpass perch their elbows on its railings, gazing down onto the tracks and the stalled train. I was yet to see.


Having not caught the words on the train, but instead simply followed the gentle surge of people, a wave of shrugs and sighs, I did not understand why were being ushered out or why these people on the bridge had stalled, effectively blocking the surge. Why were they perching? Were they perhaps waiting for more information about replacement buses?

A gentle summer's day had settled itself over London with a gentle breeze disheveling the sprouting weeds on this final, open-air stretch of the Northern Line. Eager to get home to wives and dinners, I thought, these people should not be stalling.

I climbed the stairs slowly, turned left onto the bridge and, once the tracks were below me, glanced over my shoulder.

A paramedic hovered over the clothed bundle. From the angle it was hard to tell in what direction the body was lying, or if it was only a severed leg, or a torso with limps stuck under the wheel of the southbound train. I looked away.

Hesitating, I decided to walk on, to get away from the claustrophobic slow pace of the scrum. The young woman walking ahead of me in a summery skirt slowed down, finally halting.

The perching people inspired a certain distaste. Ghouls, vultures, voyeurs. Had the clothed bundle not moved? I asked myself. Or had it moved at the hands of the paramedic? It had looked as though the paramedic was cradling something with her hands - a head? - as another paramedic, standing, spoke to her. Why cradle a limbless torso or a severed leg? The body was a person, a person still alive if only - possibly? probably? - only just.

In the small station house, it was my turn to stall, to ask someone where I was going, where the buses were in this unfamiliar sprawl of frighteningly suburban London. But then the futility of the effort of finding a station employee not dealing with the drama below made me abandon the thought within a second.

A tall, attractive man, probably in his late 30s with black hair and facial hair a day or two past stubble, said to another man, "She only speaks Polish." And then louder, to project beyond his companion, but still with a steady voice, searchingly, "Does anyone speak Polish?"

She is still able to speak, I thought. The bundle is a person, a person who is speaking, or was speaking when they first reached her.

The barriers were wide open, the word “Exit” blinking steadfastly on the small black screen. I touched my prepaid Oyster Card to the yellow plate. Nothing. Darn it. I walked out.

Two yellow paramedic vehicles stood parked next to the entrance. Two men, one clutching a yellow stretcher, advanced calmly but quickly towards the station. Maybe the woman cradling the bundle was not a paramedic, after all, but just a ticket sales woman called on, on this sunny July day, to save someone's life, or give the correct impression that someone cared if you lived or died, to give the impression - right or wrong - that your life could be saved.

"Polish," I thought as the two paramedics passed behind me in the station.

2007. I had been away from the Europe for two years apart from the occasional brief trip. The demographic of the British Isles was noticeably, audibly changed. I had noticed them, the Poles. The Poles that, according to a newspaper article that had caught my eye in the months leading up to my return, were rejuvenating, even saving from closure, Catholic churches across Ireland. That were fixing broken plumbing, insulating windows, plastering walls, installing sockets at far lower prices than any pre-2004 Polish EU entry British craftsman had to offer And searching for a flat, which explained my presence at Finchley Central that afternoon, I came across the occasional listing in Polish in the flat mate wanted sections of housing websites once reserved for backpacking, party hungry Australians landing in London.

My thoughts also flew to tales of trafficking from the East. Tales that had almost pushed me to join the police force in anger over the treatment of women. Bundles of flesh, an apt expression.

Had this woman been trafficked? Suburbia's dark corners are impenetrable. Hedges and fences make tired eyes blind. Or had she simply come to join family, to work hard, and been betrayed? Raped by an uncle?

Following the road up onto the high street, I saw ever more people, mostly young men, hang their frames over the sides of the railway bridge, peering down, pouring their curiosity onto the scene.

The word ‘ghoul’ reappeared in my thoughts - Leave her alone, you ghouls, leave her alone.

All my journalistic training was once and for all swept down the drain. No sense of entitlement to information swept through me. Yet I realized I would rely on journalists later to tell me if she lived or died. I would go online and demand to know. Of course, hours later, I’d understand that the news was not one woman’s life or death, but the delays her decision to try to go from the former to the latter had caused commuters.

Ambulances screeched past. Too many for one wayward fool, one sad girl. Had the driver hit the brakes to save her? Had passengers flown of their seats, faces hitting faces?

Hours later, after many bus trips, phone calls, and two unsuccessful flat visits - one too far away, one inhabited by folk too young, too inexperienced - I made my way tiredly to an underground station on the Northern Line I knew would be open, as it was at a safe distance from the afternoon's snuff movie magic.

Grey dusk fell heavily, morosely onto Archway Road. At the station, I explained to the attendant, an attractive middle aged black woman with her medium length hair in a ponytail, that I'd been on the Northern Line when the woman threw herself on the tracks, that the barriers were left open to shuttle us out, that the full four pounds had been deducted from my Oyster Card because I hadn't been able to touch out - Was it possible to have it back?

My four pounds were refunded.

"Did she survive?"
"They haven't told us yet. But more often than not they do."

She handed back the Oyster Card.

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