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Sunday, July 20, 2008
A central line train approaches the platform. Photograph: David Levene
At 9.45am on Saturday, June 23 2007, I killed a man. A perfectly ordinary man, on a perfectly ordinary summer's day. CCTV pictures show him entering the station, unremarkable among all the passengers going to the West End. He waited at the front of the platform until he could hear my train approaching, then he calmly stepped down on to the tracks and looked directly at me as he waited for the impact.
The impact was only a matter of seconds in coming, but those seconds felt like minutes. This wasn't how it was meant to be. It wasn't how I had imagined it during my years as a Central line train driver. We talk of "jumpers"; workmates tell of blurry images flashing in front of them, of the shock of the impact. I wasn't expecting to see a young man in jeans and a summer shirt waiting for death, looking me in the eye.
As I hit the emergency brake, I was thinking, "Please, get out of the way. Now. Please let it be a prank." Youngsters on the track are a regular event, though no less frightening for that, and for train drivers it's something we learn to live with.
But this wasn't a typical game of "chicken": he wasn't laughing and he wasn't with friends. When it became clear he wasn't going to move out of the way, I closed my eyes, covered my face and held my breath.
By the time we were stationary, four of my eight cars were in the platform and I was on autopilot. I told the passengers there would be a delay in opening the doors due to an "incident", and was calling the line controller for assistance when I heard a tap on my cab door. A smart man inquired, "Do you know there's a person under your train?" I looked at the blood on the windscreen momentarily before assuring him that, yes, I was aware.
He paused for a heartbeat, looked at his watch and said, "So, how long before we get on the move again?"
I was to look back on this exchange with amusement and also, strangely, comfort: in the midst of the horror, normality was briefly restored by a commuter asking for alternative travel arrangements.
I'd advised the passengers to stay where they were and not to try to open the doors because we weren't fully in the platform; amazingly, they all complied. I walked back through the carriages opening the adjoining doors and shouting: "Please leave the train, and leave the station as quickly as possible!" Terrorist attacks were still very much on people's minds, and as each carriage emptied I looked to the next, seeing anxious faces through the windows. No one tried to leave until I opened the doors. Only a few asked the reason, none complained. I was hugely impressed.
The next few hours were a blur of activity as the body was removed and service restored: station staff, police, firefighters, the emergency support unit and trauma counsellors all came and went in a smooth, well-practised exercise. I was reassured that it wasn't my fault, that there was nothing I could have done; it was his choice. All of which I knew, but it was good to hear from someone else.
As a child of the enlightenment, a rationalist and an atheist, I was sure I wouldn't be unduly affected by the death of a person unknown. I was told I'd need some time off in case of post-traumatic stress; I agreed to counselling to assess my fitness to resume work, but was convinced this would be a formality.
My return to work was speedy and for weeks I was seemingly unaffected. But in August a policeman came to brief me before the inquest and to show me the pictures. The unknown person now had a name, a family and a tragic story.
Henrik Alexandersson had moved from Sweden to find work in London; he was successful and popular, but had been unwell. For some reason, he'd convinced himself his illness was Aids-related and that week he had gone for a check-up to find out the truth. By that Saturday, he could bear to wait no longer: he called his parents in such a state of distress that they booked a flight to London (arriving just hours too late.) He left a suicide note, and headed off for his fateful meeting with me. Had he waited a day longer, he would have learned that the tests were negative.
I left work and went home in the full realisation that perhaps I am not such a rationalist after all, because I sobbed my heart out in the arms of my partner. A year has passed now, but I can still see Henrik standing on the track, awaiting the inevitable.
These photos, taken from a Flickr set, show what appears to be some sort of crashed spacecraft in London's Potters Field. They offer no explanation as to what's going on over there across the pond. Do any of you know what this is? Movie shoot? Publicity stunt? Photoshoppery? Actual alien invasion? Let's hear your guesses, both educated and uneducated, in the comments. Update: It's an ad for a new car. Boo.
Flickr via NotCot]
Flickr via NotCot]