A few minutes later, they were all in the waiting room which—like most waiting rooms—smelt of fried food and was at once cold, stuffy and clammy. There was a vending machine in one corner, and George immediately thought of a coffee and a muffin. The ones from vending machines were never nice, but it would be better than nothing. He checked the prices, and put some coins in.
‘There’s no point, mate.’ He realised that the thin man in the suit was behind him. ‘It’ll never work. Those things never do.’
Sure enough, when George tapped in the code for a latte with sugar, nothing happened. He pressed the button to get his money back, but it seemed to be stuck.
‘Typical,’ said the thin man. He slapped the machine with surprising force, then kicked it: it rocked, but no coins emerged.
‘Told you so,’ he said, sounding pleased with himself. He walked back to the other passengers, who were grouped round Arf-arf-arf.
‘Now, I’m just a backroom boy,’ Arf-arf-arf was explaining, ‘but I think we’ll be here some time.’
He glanced round to make sure that he had their attention.
‘We need to stay calm and wait from the police to complete their procedures.’
‘Calm?’ said the thin man. ‘This is third time this week that the train’s been delayed.’
‘But this isn’t an ordinary delay,’ countered Arf-arf-arf. ‘There’s real danger here. The police told us that it could be a terrorist attack.’
‘How we can be sure it’s an attack?’ asked girl-Aristotle.
‘The police told us,’ replied her friend.
‘They can make mistakes…’
‘Come now, come now,’ interrupted Arf-arf-arf. ‘We must trust the word of the law.’
‘Another attack,’ muttered the thin man. ‘It’s those bloody Muslims again. Get rid of them and there’d be none of this.’
‘Now, now…’ said Arf-arf-arf, glancing at the dark-skinned young man. He was sitting to one side, his eyes on his phone.
The two philosophy girls looked at him.
‘What’s he doing?’ whispered girl-Plato. ‘He hasn’t got a signal, has he?’
‘No,’ said girl-Aristotle. ‘He’s playing a game.’
‘Muslims! Bloody Muslims, again,’ said the thin man, noticing the dark-skinned man for the first time. ‘I’d send them all home.’
The vehemence of his words made the dark-skinned man look up. He saw them all looking at him and seemed to understand something. He replied slowly and hesitatingly:
‘I yam not Moosleem. I yam Spa-anish, from Santiago de Compostela.’
George loved the way he pronounced the place-name. It was like listening to a mountain stream splashing down a series of rocks. He had a sudden vision of an old, sand-coloured city, with narrow, medieval streets, and he wished he could visit it.
‘There, you see. Arf-arf-arf. He’s no trouble.’
The thin man looked momentarily angry, as if the young man’s words were somehow a provocation. ‘Muslims!’ he said again. ‘I work for an insurance company. You can be sure when one of those Pakis sends in a claim, nine times out of ten it’s a fake. They’re just trying it on. Muslims.’
His words made George feel awkward. He wanted to say something, to confess something… He thought of Mariam, and phrases buzzed into his mind, one after another. Tell him you’re married to a Muslim… But you’re not married… Is she a Muslim? Now she says she doesn’t know. She still wears that thing on her head. She says being a Muslim isn’t a yes/no thing. She’s not your wife anyway… She took the spare room and shares your bed every night. You can’t blame her: she’s a widow and she lost her son… and I lost Judy…
‘Now steady on,’ said Arf-arf-arf. ‘There’s room here for everyone who respects our laws.’
‘Look where that’s got us!’ said the thin man. ‘You can’t even catch the train without some rag-head setting off a bomb. Don’t talk to me about laws.’
The two philosophy girls stared at him. George could feel a lump in his throat. He thought of Mariam, his Mariam, and knew he had to speak. He opened his mouth, hoping that words would simply come. But before he could start, the lady in the business suit spoke.
‘I am a Muslim.’
All eyes turned to her. There were gasps.
‘What?’ said the thin man. ‘But… But… you can’t be!’
The smart woman smiled coldly.
‘Religion’s no respecter of skin colour. You probably would’ve called Jesus a Paki.’
‘But you weren’t born a Muslim, were you?’ asked Arf-arf-arf.
‘No,’ explained the smart woman. ‘I’m a vicar’s daughter. I was brought up in the C of E. But I had a crisis of faith in my mid-20s and grew interested in the other religions. Islam seemed the most logical of all of them. It gave my life structure.’
‘You call this “structure”?’ said the thin man.
‘But what about the way they treat women?’ asked girl-Plato.
‘When you find a religious faith…’ began the smart woman.
Her words were interrupted by another monstrous wave of noise erupting from the loud-speaker system, echoing and buzzing across the platform. None of them could hear any of the business-woman’s words. George suddenly missed Mariam intensely.