Next to her, a bald man was playing Jelly Judo on his phone. On her other side, a fat woman reading a paperback, so close she could smell wet hair. Opposite, they were staring at phones, flicking through soggy newspapers, gazing up at the ads for vitamin supplements.
They all surged off the train, a tide of commuters carrying her along the platform. The departures board glowed 7:51. She traipsed down the tiled tunnel, past the billboards for budget holidays and smash-hit musicals, onto the escalator, the descending faces as cold as conveyor belt sushi, and into the ill-tempered crowd around the turnstiles. On the other side, the fast-food kiosks, the daylit concourse, and the big clock showing 7:56. She was threading through crosscurrents, halfway towards platform 11a, when something came over her.
Abruptly, she stopped.
A man in pinstripes had to sidestep, scalding his hand on takeaway coffee. People tutted as they veered around her. I’ll be late for work, she thought – her connection left in one minute. She raised the back of a hand to her forehead – like something from an old film – and then she let her knees buckle and her legs fold beneath her, and she went limp. McDonald’s golden arches slid out of view, ceiling beams appeared, and the floor cracked her on the back of the skull.
She lay there with her eyes closed, counting to ten, and beginning to wonder if anyone had noticed. A woman’s voice. A man saying, “I dunno, she just fell.” A prod at her shoulder, a timid shake. Someone said, “Should someone call an ambulance or something?” She made her eyelids flutter – she’d seen that somewhere too.
“She’s waking up!”
Slowly she widened one eye, then the other. Rain-streaked roof glass, bristles of anti- pigeon spikes. Half a dozen huddled strangers were gazing down at her with rapt attention.
“You alright, love?”
Somebody had clasped her hand and was warming it between their palms. Now a man in glasses knelt close with his lips puckered, blowing a minty breeze across her cheeks. A white-haired woman was saying, “Hello? Can you hear me, love?”
Various hands helped her sit up. One of them screwed the cap off a bottle of Evian and brought it to her lips.
“Give her some room.” “Let her breathe.”
Rows of eyes watched her take a sip and swallow. “You fainted, love.”
She looked from one face to another, a tremendous lightness ballooning up inside her, it was as much as she could do not to laugh.
“You’re in shock, dear,” a big woman told her, dabbing at her forehead with a moistened tissue.
She pushed away the woman’s hand. She was trying to take in all those faces, all those intent eyes. Before they blinked, before they looked away, before they hurried off to catch their trains.
There was a general stirring on the bus, a priming of briefcases and umbrellas, and the station came into view through the condensation. He filed down the aisle, a convict on a chain gang, down the stairs and out into the rain. The crowd bottle-necked at the subway entrance, then drove him down the out-of-service escalator and into the queue for the ticket barriers. Some wanker cut in front, a high-flyer in a peacoat with somewhere important to get to. As soon as he was extruded from the turnstile, one of those bibbed twats thrust a free paper at him.
Rounding the corner towards the westbound platform, he nearly walked smack into a woman coming the other way. He emergency-braked; someone behind ran into his back. This woman had tottered out of lane and was sort of swaying there in the middle of the tunnel with her eyes closed, and one hand held against her forehead. Then she was falling.
He caught her in his arms, bracing to take the weight of her, which wasn’t much because she was a slip of a thing. He eased her down onto her back, making sure she didn’t hit her head. Her eyes swivelled behind her eyelids.
Other people were gathering in a circle.
“Does she need an ambulance or something?” someone asked.
“Just let her get some air,” he said back, and there were murmurs of affirmation.
He shook the girl by the shoulders, gently at first, then harder. A large crowd had formed, dumbly watching.
“Stand back,” he instructed, “give her some room.”
The girl’s eyes came open.
“Don’t worry, love, you just fainted for a minute there.” He was expecting her to freak out, but instead she just gazed at him.
He helped her sit upright. “Easy does it, love.” She’d turned that dopey expression toward the assembled gawpers, taking in their faces one by one. He was beginning to wonder if she was on drugs, or maybe even had a stroke. He waved a hand in front of her face, and when those twinkly eyes focused on him, he peered into her pupils the way a doctor checks for concussion. Everyone watched in silence.
“You’re okay,” he said. “She’s okay.”
There were sighs, a volley of nervous laughter.
“Alright, folks,” he announced, standing up. “Show’s over.”
He held out his hand to pull the woman to her feet.
He gave his keys a deliberate jangle as he closed the front door. He dropped his briefcase by the fish tank and padded through to the kitchen.
“Hello babe.” His wife jumped as he took hold of her from behind.
“Oh hi, love.” She tried to wriggle free but he tightened his grasp. “Good day then?” She upturned a pan of spaghetti into a colander, spilling a fistful into the sink.
“Mmm, spag bol, is it?” he said.
“MARK?” she screamed almost directly in his ear as he was trying to plant a kiss on the back of her neck. Letting her go, he screwed a finger into his earhole.
“Give you a hand, babe?”
“MARK!” In answer there came a reverberating thump against the ceiling. “You’re in a funny mood,” she muttered.
He sniffed pensively, filling his chest. “Something happened today, actually.”
“Mmm?” She was trying to ram the saucepan into a space on the dishwasher shelf that wasn’t big enough. He made no comment. Now there were heavy footsteps pounding down the stairs.
He watched Mark slope into the kitchen – gangling, hunched shoulders, pasty from lack of daylight. If the boy stood up straight, he’d already be an inch taller than him.
“Alright, mate. How was school?”
Mark slumped into his seat at the table without a glance.
“He’s been suspended for a week,” said Maeve.
“Christ. What did you do this time?” The boy stretched his legs and looked toward the window. “What did he do this time?”
Maeve dangled spaghetti onto their son’s plate. “Swore at his maths teacher.”
With a sigh, he lowered himself gravely into the seat at the head of the table.
“Bloody hell, Mark. What’s got into you?” He aimed a stare, determined to catch his eye.
“Called him an effing c-word.” She flopped a tangle of pasta in front of him. “Help yourself to bolognaise.”
“Ah-ah!” he stopped the boy before he could grab the sauce. “Ladies first. And take your hood off, we’re having dinner.”
After Maeve had served herself, she hesitated with the bowl, unsure which way to offer it. He nodded towards Mark.
“And sit up properly,” he added. Mark struggled up from his slouch with an eyeroll. Already there was an odd tension around the table. His wife’s glance lingered on him before she tucked in.
“As I was saying,” he said, winching in pasta around his fork. “Something happened on the way to work this morning.”
Mark slurped in a strand of spaghetti.
“I was at Liverpool Street, heading towards the Central Line – and this girl coming the other way just collapses.” He paused to let them picture it. Maeve made a high- pitched noise. “Just went down right in front of me. I mean, if I hadn’t caught her she would’ve split her head open.”
“God,” said Maeve, frowning. “What was wrong with her?”
“Fainted. Probably anorexic or something. But she went down like a ton of bricks. And before I know what I’m doing, I’m catching her in my arms. Reflex.” He met Mark’s eye for a second. “Instinct just kicked in. Hundreds of people around – standing and staring.” He did an impression of them – slack-jawed, fish-counter eyes. “Nobody with a clue.” He shrugged. “So I had to take command of the situation.”
He felt his wife and son watching as he chewed and swallowed.
“I mean,” he dried his lips on his napkin, “I didn’t even know I knew how to do that. Not like I’ve had training, first aid or whatever. I must’ve just absorbed it from TV. Because I’m holding this girl’s head up, keep her airways clear, and telling these bystanders to stop crowding her. While I bring her back.”
“God,” Maeve whispered again. They both waited for him to finish chewing another mouthful.
“After a while she wakes up, and I tell her, ‘It’s okay, love, you’re gonna be fine. Here, have a drop of water, take your time, you took a nasty fall but everything’s fine.’” He sniffed and looked matter-of-factly at his wife, then at his son. After a moment, Maeve made a cooing noise, and the three of them carried on eating.
“Mark,” he said when it was nearly time for CSI. “Clear the table for your mum.” The boy collected their plates and set about reordering the contents of the dishwasher. He and Maeve looked steadily at one another as he picked his teeth.
She’d done it in practically every Central Line station in Zone 1. She’d refined the technique, learning how to gimbal woozily for a few seconds to give the crowd a chance to back up. And she’d perfected the fall – her Tesco bag took most of the impact, the sound of crunching groceries adding to the effect.
But by the sixth or seventh time, it was getting routine. She’d started to notice a certain indifference in those faces, even as they stooped to peer into her eyes and say reassuring things. She needed more.
At the last second, she’d been reluctant to let go of the handrail. The shriek was unintentional, and cut short when her wind was knocked out. Her skirt rode up as she cartwheeled down the steps, she came to a stop face down against paving stones. There was actual pain, she wondered if her wrist was broken. She lay still, heartbeat racing.
“Jesus!” There were footsteps running down the staircase. “Don’t move her!” She felt a hand on her shoulder. “What happened?”
“You’re not supposed to move the body.” “Is she conscious?”
“Should I call an ambulance?”
“She’s coming to!” someone barked close to her ear.
She saw a close-up of pavings and the toes of a pair of well-shined shoes. An electric shock shot up her elbow when she hoisted herself onto her side.
“Give her some room.”
“Should she be moving?”
“Try not to move, love, you might’ve broke something.”
She sat up, blinking. There were four or five people crouched around her, intently watching. She took in their faces as she flexed her wrist.
“Are you alright?” “You had a nasty fall.”
One woman put an arm around her. Someone else was collecting the spilled vegetables from her shopping bag. More passers-by were gathering for a look. Hot tears brimmed unexpectedly in her eyes.
“Take your time, love, don’t worry.”
She wept and laughed into this woman’s coat.
She didn’t do stairs again. It took some trial and error to hit upon something that worked.
She bought a cheap bicycle from a second-hand shop. She’d wait till pedestrians were congregated at a zebra crossing, then pedal across the junction. She’d kick the bike out in front of her so it rolled on for a few metres, let out a short scream and fling herself down. The bike would clatter to the ground, chiming its bell, and she’d be sure to knock her helmet loudly against the tarmac. It was best if she ended up on her back, so all those concerned faces were the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes.
Maeve was waiting, arms crossed, outside her work.
“We’ll be late,” she said by way of a greeting. She softened when he pulled her in for a hug, sliding one hand down the small of her back.
“Plenty of time.” He pulled her by the hand in the direction of the cinema. As he strode past, a blonde half his age definitely made eyes at him.
He’d started playing squash again on Thursday evenings, and hammered Chris from HR. His belly had flattened, it had been remarked that he looked taller. His boss had even dropped a few hints about a promotion. Now, pedestrians moved out of his path as he pulled Maeve toward the crossing, her heels stuttering to keep up.
The scream raised hairs on the back of his neck. A clatter of metal, and the gasp of a compressed air brake. A double-decker lurched to a wobbling halt. The street noise, the traffic, the pedestrian churn – everything fell still. He let go of his wife’s hand.
“Stay here, babe.”
He was making his way forward, pushing between a group of schoolboys and a woman with a hand clasped over her mouth. “Stand back, please,” he told a guy in headphones.
The casualty was sprawled flat on her back. Crimson streaked her face, there were spatters of it across the road. Nearby, the twisted frame of a bicycle was wedged under the bumper of a number 24 bus.
“Call an ambulance,” he instructed a girl who was videoing it on her phone. He kicked a grapefruit out of the way and stepped over a carton of smashed eggs. As he knelt down beside her, a hush fell over the watching crowd.
“Who saw what happened?” he asked, glancing around. “She came off her bike,” stated a middle-aged woman. “Bus knocked her down,” said another.
The bus driver was leaning out of his window to remonstrate with a cycle courier.
He unclipped the girl’s helmet strap, which was tight around her throat. He fingered her hair out of her face, it was sticky with gore. He stooped to put his ear by her lips, listening for breath. Silence up and down the street.
“She’s alive.” A collective breathing-out from the crowd. Now he was checking her over for injuries. Near her belly, a lurid red stain was seeping through her white cotton shirt – he staunched the bleeding with the flat of his hand. “Has somebody called the ambulance?”
Her eyelids flickered. Everyone leaned in closer.
“It’s alright, love,” he said loud and slow. “The ambulance is on its way.”
Her wide eyes had focused on him, and there was something unsettling about the way she was smiling.
“No, love, don’t try to move.” He had to take the pressure off her wound as she struggled to sit up. He noticed the tattered remains of the shopping bag she’d landed on, a ruptured squeezy ketchup bottle. There were sighs from the onlookers as she turned her head to blink at them.
“Where am I?” she asked, gazing about her with that strange, exalted expression. “What happened?”
He felt a sudden chill of recognition. “Did something happen?”
He was up on his feet. The bystanders closed around her as he backed away. He brought his sticky hand up to his nostrils and smelled tomato sauce.
Maeve was still standing where he’d left her.
“Come on,” he muttered, taking her arm. “If we get a move on, we’ll only miss the trailers.”
“We saw an accident today,” she told Mark, passing him the chips. “This poor woman run over by a bus.” She left a dramatic pause as she sawed off a portion of cod for herself. “Thank God your father was there.”
Mark glanced at his father, who was scraping the last chips free of the wrapper.
“What d’you mean?”
“One minute we’re walking to the cinema,” she went on, “and the next there’s this blood-curdling scream. And your father says ‘Wait here’ – which was fine with me, you know what I’m like with blood – and he’s off. Wading into the action like Bruce Willis.”
They both looked toward the head of the table. Slowly, he chewed, eyes fixed on his plate.
“Yeah?” Mark shook up the ketchup.
“Tending to this poor accident victim under the wheels of a bus. Telling everyone to keep back so he could do CPR.”
“I didn’t do CPR,” he put in quickly, without looking up. Mark squirted ketchup on his chips. “What’s CPR?” “Well, I don’t know the technical terms,” Maeve said. “And she wasn’t run over.”
“Your father’s being modest.”
“She fell off her bike, don’t exaggerate.”
“He’s being modest,” she assured Mark. “The whole street gasped when your father revived her.”
He put his fork down so hard it made the two of them jump. His cheeks erupted in a fiery flush.
“Sorry, love,” Maeve said after a moment’s silence. “I didn’t mean to …”
“Was it …” Mark started, morbidly smearing sauce around his plate. “Was she like really …”
“Look, she just came off her bike. End of.” He smiled and shrugged and forked a chip into his mouth.
“Well, even so,” offered Maeve tentatively. “You did the right thing. All anyone knew, she could’ve been dying.”
He snorted, and mouthed another chip before he’d swallowed the previous one. After a while, Mark asked if he could go back up to his PlayStation.
As they cleared the plates, he told Maeve he was sorry he’d snapped at her.
“It’s fine,” she said, over-brightly, shoving leftovers into the recycling.
He came up behind her while she was rinsing the plates, and tried to put his hands around her waist. She elbowed him off. Soon the sound of machine-gunfire resumed upstairs.
There was a desultory drizzle coming on as she wheeled her bike toward the junction by the bridge. It was bigger than anything she’d attempted before – traffic to and from the City, and North and South of the river, multiple pedestrian crossings. It was the end of the lunch hour and she could see buses queued up in three directions, throngs of people at the lights. But the feeling didn’t take her for some reason, and she carried on past.
Lately, she’d started hanging around until the ambulance arrived, even letting the paramedics shine a torch into her eyes. The last few times had been disappointments. She sensed the people tending to her were themselves only going through the motions. Before she’d finished insisting she felt fine, honestly – they were already drifting away.
She propped her bike against some railings, not bothering to lock it, and walked out into the middle of the bridge. She looked back at the pedestrians massing at the lights, putting up their hoods against the rain. As soon as the traffic halted, they surged forward, long-legged men in suits striding to the front with golf umbrellas angled into the wind. They came marching across the bridge toward her, eyes trained on the pavement ahead.
The gusset of her tights ripped when she threw a leg up. She heaved herself gracelessly onto the parapet, barking a knee against rusty iron. She sat for a few seconds, dizzy with the awareness of the great drop yawning open beneath her. The massive, slate- grey river roiling below. Cautiously she lowered herself onto the ledge, until the points of her shoes stuck out over the void. She closed her eyes, and waited for them to see her.
The clip-clop of leather soles and stilettos approaching. The rustle of passing raincoats. When she looked around, the pack had already gone by, thrusting on towards Southwark. The rest streamed past, hidden behind umbrellas.
As the pavement thinned out, a lone man came to a standstill twenty feet away. He had a half-eaten baguette in his hand, one cheek bulging mid-chew.
She felt that usual tingle when their eyes connected. She expected him to come towards her then, with his hands out, coaxing, no sudden moves.
But this man didn’t edge closer. He didn’t ask her name, or tell her she had so much to live for. He only stood there, staring with narrowed eyes. Then he carried on chewing the bulge of sandwich in his cheek.
David Lalé is a documentary film maker who lives in Oxford.