‘On se voit la semaine prochaine?’
‘Oui, rentre bien,’ I said, leaning over to give Elodie the bises.
She disappeared behind the closing tube doors. I inched past a trio of excitable American students, and after assuring myself that I wasn’t depriving anyone frail or pregnant of the same privilege, lowered myself into an empty seat. Southwark brought no incident. Waterloo offered only four or five drunk teenagers dressed in velour and trainers that cost more than my council tax for the whole month. At Westminster, I counted the stops. Five until mine. There wasn’t time, not really, but I pulled my book out of my bag anyway. I was reading a classic that had been collecting dust on my bedside table for months, a book which I was eager to finish and forget. If I could fit in even a couple of pages before bed, I would be that much closer to the end.
Page 74. I flicked through the paperback to see how long I still had left. 342 pages in total. Eugh. I read the first line on page 74 once, twice, three times, then shut it. It was late, and I couldn’t be bothered to concentrate on the endless description of the main character’s relationship with his mother. Not tonight. I stared ahead and my eye unwittingly met the eye of the man across from me. We both looked away immediately. I lowered my gaze to his lap, where he was fiddling with the wires of a generation of iPod that they no longer make. I could hear the buzz from his earphones. He was listening to something embarrassing, the kind of music that you wouldn’t want anyone to know you listened to. Flo Rida or someone equally uninspiring. His knee jerked up and down in time to the rhythm.
Green Park. A moment of panic as the doors opened to let passengers off. A woman shaking an older woman and a young child wailing much too loudly. Mother, daughter, grandchild. I watched, mildly interested, but mostly irritated by the noise. Once I was home I had big plans to take a mug of tea to bed with me, where I was going to watch an episode of the new BBC comedy that made me belly laugh, or maybe just half of one, depending on how long I could keep my eyes open.
‘Mum, please!’ the daughter shouted, desperately. ‘Just get off the bloody train!’
The mother’s eyes were tightly closed. They weren’t going to make it. I prayed that the daughter wouldn’t hold us up by jamming her foot in the door to gain a few extra seconds.
More people were looking at the source of the commotion now, similarly annoyed at the audacity of someone disrupting the peace of the carriage.
‘Mum!’ She shoved her mother, whose head was lolling around on her wrinkled neck, catching on the back of her seat. Drunk. ‘Mum! Get up!’
I tutted to myself. The doors closed and the train started moving again. The granddaughter, no older than six, clutching a dirty teddybear with one eye, had become hysterical. I caught the eye of the iPod man again, and he raised his eyebrow very slightly in my direction. I decided I’d make a conscious effort not to look at him for the rest of my journey.
‘Nanny!’ the little girl sobbed, and the train jerked to a halt.
Someone had pressed the emergency stop.
‘For fucksake,’ I heard someone mutter under their breath.
An inconvenience. Another minute away from my bed and my show.
The two women were still positioned in their eery tableau, the younger one dressed in a flowery dress, with fussy diamante sandals - a party outfit picked out especially for a summer’s evening - towering imploringly over the older one, whose checked shirt hung loose out of shabby jeans, completely unresponsive, her dignity left at the party.
‘Mum, please,’ the daughter’s voice broke. She was no longer shouting.
Another passenger approached to offer help. ‘What seems to be the problem?’
Very British: polite, but detached.
‘It’s my mum. She won’t open her eyes. She has a condition...’ the daughter said, holding the child close to her leg with one hand, and with the other steadily tugging at the shoulder of her unconscious mother. My heart dropped a little in my chest.
Not drunk then, genuinely unwell. We were between stations, and there was no sign of movement from either the train or the prostrate woman.
‘She’s not breathing,’ the daughter said, ‘I don’t think she’s breathing. It’s her heart.’
‘Nanny!’ the little girl howled, prompted to despair by the concern on the faces surrounding her. ‘I love my nanny! I want to see my nanny forever!’
I swallowed hard. These were private scenes, the kind that usually take place behind closed doors, and then become diluted and more easily digestible by the time they reach your ears.
Time sped up and suddenly everyone was getting involved. The helpful passenger helped. I’m not sure what he did, but I know he did more than me. The daughter passed the little girl onto the lap of a kindly curly-haired passenger, who cooed meaningless reassurances into her little ear.
‘Has she had anything to drink?’ the helpful passenger asked, voicing my own shameful doubt.
‘We had a couple of bottles of wine with our dinner,’ the daughter said, and, despite myself, I felt a wave of disgust towards the woman speaking.
Why would you drink with your mother - how could you watch her drink - when you know she has a heart condition? I thought, but even as I thought it I remembered all the times I’ve been with people I love and seen them do things they’re not supposed to do and intervened with nothing more than a disapproving look. You never think the one time you step out of line will be the time that the thing that you don’t want to happen happens.
‘She’s dead,’ someone whispered, and we all stopped looking.
‘That’s it, you all just sit around and do nothing!’ the daughter said and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
I wished the curly-haired girl hadn’t already handled the weeping child; that’s the only help I felt equipped to offer up. I could ask her about the teddybear with the missing eye, turn her away from the sight of her dead grandmother, stroke her wavy hair. At a loss, I peered into my handbag. I don’t know what I was looking for; I don’t carry anything that would be of use in a situation such as this one. We were past tissues and bottle of water territory. The interior pocket where I keep a packet of paracetamol was no use to us now.
The curly-haired girl could do little to calm the granddaughter down. She’d heard the whispers; she was beyond reassurance. Her nose ran and ran, and her glasses slipped down her button nose. Nobody pushed them back up for her. She didn’t need anyone to keep her from looking at her grandmother. She kept her own face turned away. She didn’t want to see.
A soft-faced Asian man with a can in one hand made his way to the scene from another carriage, and, through her tears, the daughter peered at him suspiciously.
‘Come to see the show, have you?’ she accused, her face screwed up, ready to attack.
‘I’m a doctor,’ he said, calmly, placing his beer on an air vent.
The daughter wasn’t convinced, ‘And you think you’re going to come anywhere near my mother when you’ve been drinking?’
‘I’ve had half a beer,’ he said, and again, I felt like I shouldn’t be witnessing any of this.
I wished Elodie was still on the train. Safety in numbers. We could have both pretended to do something together, rather than me just pretending alone. My book was still on my lap. The man with the iPod hadn’t turned off his music, which I found strange. He’d stopped jiggling his knee around though, and this time when he caught me looking at him he didn’t look away. You can’t afford to be too polite when there’s a death in your carriage.
I kept thinking to myself, ‘there’s a woman over there, a person, and she’s just died, and I haven’t helped and I’m still not helping.’
I was pulling what I thought was a compassionate face, but even the fact that I was concerned about looking compassionate was troubling to me.
‘There are a lot of other people who aren’t helping either,’ I thought, and couldn’t keep from peeking at the granddaughter from the corner of my eye and wondering whether she’d truly registered that her grandmother was dead. I was twenty seconds away from hot, wet tears, and I knew that I couldn’t dare cry. This was nothing to do with me, my non action proved that much; I didn’t have any right to be sad. And yet I was. I could see on every other face in the carriage that there was an inner dialogue much like my own playing in all their minds.
Too many cooks spoil the broth, even though this was a human woman, and not a broth. We were all feeling a tangible guilt that we hadn’t taken a First Aid course and didn’t instinctively know how to help and what to do to save this crying little girl’s beloved grandmother.
‘We need to get her off the train,’ someone said.
‘Has anyone called for help?’ someone else said.
I hadn’t even thought to say these two obvious things. I was less than useless. Was I in a state of shock, or was I simply a shit? At least I’m not listening to Flo Rida, I thought, but I might as well have been.
While I continued to detachedly think about the whole event as if it were already over rather than still right in front of me and in the process of happening, the Asian doctor did useful, proactive things like try to get the dead woman to prove she wasn’t dead after all.
‘Mary?’ he said, after having managed to convince the daughter that he was truly a doctor and not an alcoholic, and in return she’d granted him her mother’s name. ‘Mary? Can you squeeze my hand?’
‘Mmm,’ Mary mumbled, and with that murmur the whole carriage released the breath that we’d been holding for the last five minutes.
She wasn’t dead.
The doctor proceeded to do many other ingenious things like get Mary to open her eyes and sit up straight, and by the time we pulled into Bond Street, Mary was loathe to let go of the doctor’s hand and had become quite attached.
At Bond Street, hoards of useful people, loaded with useful equipment, and prepped to be useful in stressful situations just like this one, piled into the carriage to help Mary, and Mary’s daughter, and Mary’s granddaughter. The general consensus was that she’d had too much to drink and passed out. Nothing more, nothing less. But we’d all had quite the scare.
For the last three stops I kept my head down. I didn’t feel like looking at anybody. I was glad that Mary was okay, but I wasn’t very glad about anything else.
When I got home, as planned, I made a mug of tea, got into bed, and put on my show. I watched three episodes. I didn’t laugh once.