The train juddered into the station, its wheels screeching painfully: a sound which cut through George’s head. He was impatient to get out. He’d promised Mariam he’d meet her at the café, but he knew he was late. He could send a text, but would she notice in time? And how late should he say he’d be? There’d been a missed connection, then a signalling problem and now it was moving slower and slower as it rolled towards the platform.
‘We apologise for the delay and the inconvenience this may cause you,’ said the conductor over the loud-speaker.
George stood up to join the queue of irritated passengers waiting by the door. In front of him two blonde girls chattered, playing with their hair: he couldn’t hear what they were saying because of the screeches from train’s wheels. They’ll be talking about their boyfriends, or about clothes, or about some party they went to, he thought, and sighed. Ahead of them was a white-haired lady clutching an enormous suitcase, its contents held in by broad leather belts. George could see that she wouldn’t be getting out of the train quickly. And, by the door, there was a fat, round-faced man with an odd smile and a little quiff of hair, dressed in a smart blue suit that he somehow made look untidy.
The train shuddered, throwing them all to the left. George grabbed the chair next to him, but one of the blonde girls fell down. Her friend helped her up, and she looked round resentfully. Their conversation resumed.
The train drew towards the platform inch by inch. The wheels screeched again, rising to a fearsome crescendo. The train juddered to the right and then finally halted. In the sudden silence, George heard the blonde girls’ chatter:
‘But Aristotle, he’s all about people, y’know, he’s—like—a people person, while with Plato it’s all abstract, it’s all ideas and ideals…’
‘No, but, Plato wants to achieve the good, and that will be, like: good for everyone, for all people. A good form of rule. Something that would be clear for everyone.’
George couldn’t believe his ears. Was this some sort of travelling symposium? Then he remembered: The University was near the station. They must be two philosophy students. They didn’t look like philosophy students, he thought looking at their skinny jeans and crop tops, but then he wondered what philosophy students were supposed to look like these days.
They’d reached the platform. The fat man opened the door, and they heard distorted, over-loud words echo out from the station’s loud-speakers.
‘What did that say?’ asked the Plato girl. ‘Why can’t they make these announcements clearer if they’re meant to be important?’
Her friend, the Aristotle girl, shrugged: she was checking her mobile phone.
‘I can’t get a signal,’ she moaned.
At the front of the queue the fat man was trying to help the lady with her suitcase.
‘Won’t take a moment, madam,’ he said.
The case was very large and very heavy, and the fat man was struggling with it, trying to pull it to the right.
‘Just a second, just a second,’ he said, pulling once more. ‘It won’t take a second.’
He laughed, an odd, un-funny chuckle, which sounded to George like ‘arf-arf-arf’. It was the least comic laugh that George had ever heard.
‘It’s for my son,’ explained the lady, looking round. ‘He asked me to bring these books with me. Maybe we should look for a porter?’
‘A porter, madam? Arf-arf-arf. You’d be lucky to find one round here.’ And he gave her case another pull.
George checked his watch: he was over twenty-five minutes late. Mariam would be worried. He pictured her waiting for him at the café. He reached for his mobile but found that the philosophy girls were right: there was no signal.
Another blast of noise came out from the station speakers, deafening and unintelligible, the words swallowed up in distortion.
‘Did he say “incident”?’ George asked. Girl-Aristotle in front shrugged. But behind him, a woman in a smart business suit nodded. After her was a thin man in a light suit, with anger in his eyes.
‘More problems with signalling,’ he said. ‘Or maybe the wrong kind of leaves are on the line.’
At the back of the queue was a dark-skinned young man who said nothing: he too was inspecting his mobile phone. George looked out at the grey platform, which normally would have been bustling with commuters.
‘It must’ve been a serious incident. The platform’s empty. I think… maybe they’ve cleared the station.’
There was something eerie about the bare platform: where were the streams of commuters, coffees in their hands? Where were the tourists, pulling their cases? Where were the teenagers, the schoolkids?
The fat man was now on the platform and trying to pull the case down from the train.
‘Let’s see if gravity does the trick, arf-arf-arf’. George noticed how he was chortling with glee, as if he’d said something extremely witty. From inside the train, the old lady pushed, and then, like a cork bursting from the bottle, the case rolled onto the platform, knocking the fat man over on to his back. George smiled.
The little group of passengers descended one-by-one onto the empty platform. An icy wind bit into their faces, and the space was filled with another ear-splitting but incomprehensible message echoing from the loud-speakers. It seemed to be the same message, repeated over and over again.
‘He said evacuation!’ shouted girl-Plato, sounding as if she deserved a prize for guessing the word.
‘But where has everyone gone?’ said girl-Aristotle, looking at the other platforms.
‘That’s the evacuation,’ girl-Plato explained. ‘They’ve all been cleared.’
‘Obviously an emergency procedure has been implemented,’ said Arf-arf-arf. ‘Something serious must have happened.’
‘How can we tell?’ asked girl-Aristotle.
‘We’d better leave too,’ responded girl-Plato. ‘That’s the procedure.’
They walked towards the stairs but were met by two armed policemen striding down to meet them. They had heavy protective body armour, big black boots and shiny black helmets; they both carried guns.
‘What’s this? What are you doing here?’ one said.
‘It was the train,’ explained the old lady. ‘First it was late, and then we couldn’t get out the door, and now we can’t understand the announcements…’
The policeman explained that there was a danger of a serious terrorist incident and everyone in the entire station had been evacuated. Now it was under lockdown.
‘So, we’d better leave too!’ said girl-Plato.
‘No one’s allowed out now,’ the policeman replied. His colleague was speaking softly into his radio, and George could hear tiny, tinny, distorted words coming back.
‘Right,’ said the second policeman, turning off his radio. ‘First, we need identification from all of you. Then, you’ll have to stay in the waiting room.’
‘Why can’t I get a signal for my phone?’ asked girl-Aristotle.
‘It’s part of the lockdown procedure,’ explained the first policemen. ‘Complete blackout of all electronic media.’
The two girls moaned.
The policemen inspected their ID. The lady in the business suit asked if she could leave: she had an important meeting planned. The policeman just shook his head. George had his driving licence with him; he didn’t see what the others produced. He had the impression that the two policemen spent longer looking at his licence, and then tapping its details onto a little electronic reader. Maybe everyone thinks this when their ID is inspected, he thought. He looked closely at the two policemen: they seemed calm.
This isn’t really a terrorist incident, guessed George. It’s a practice, or perhaps there’s been a threat somewhere else, but nothing’s going to happen here.
‘This is just a practice, isn’t it?’ he asked quietly.
The one checking his driving licence said nothing, but the other policeman looked up.
‘We’re not allowed to comment on operational matters, sir,’ he said, but there was a half-smile playing over his mouth, and George thought that maybe he’d winked.
So, it was just a drill. He felt less frightened, but more annoyed. Why did they have to stay here? For a second, he imagined marching past the policemen. What right did they have to stop him? Why couldn’t he join Mariam? But then he thought of the consequences: they’d immediately be suspicious of him, he’d be stopped, maybe arrested… In this sort of situation, you do what you’re told, and there was no point protesting.
Mariam must be worried, he thought. Maybe the café had been affected by the lockdown as well; maybe she was stuck there. He pictured her looking at her mobile, checking to see if there was anything from him, wondering why she’d heard nothing. If only he could phone her!