Not (quite) getting blown up on the way home

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Posted on: 06 October 2011 by Alexander Hay

A packed carriage in the rush hour. What looks like an abandoned suitcase. Any number of neuroses, hang-ups, irrational fears and paranoia. What could possibly go wrong?

A suitcase, on its own, is usually inoffensive. But when left next to a tube train door, with no owner nearby, it acquires a menacing air.

I got on at King's Cross as usual, jammed into the glorified cattle truck with a typical range of tired, angry, vile fellow commuters. It was the evening rush hour, so moods were frayed, and not a seat was to be had.

So I didn't notice the suitcase that had been there before I got on, simply because there were so many people in the way. In fact, I didn't notice it until Camden Town when a rather stern looking office worker looked down and loudly asked: 'Whose suitcase is this?' There was no answer.

I looked down and saw it. A black nylon-covered suitcase of the kind that's got wheels and an extendible handle. It looked like it could hold a lot of explosive.

The next stop was Kentish Town and the time to that point seemed a lot longer than usual. The suitcase seemed to dominate the carriage and I felt an odd sense not of fear, but resignation. It could go off at any moment. At this distance, everyone would be shredded or maimed hideously. I realised this could be my last train ride ever, but I still wasn't afraid, at least at that point.

But another part of me found the concept of death rather strange, even this close by. As far as I knew, I'd never died before, or at least any time lately, and the concept seemed far too abstract to grasp, even when it could perhaps manifest itself a metre and a half away.

I entertained notions of getting off at Tufnell Park, away from the potential explosion. I didn't want to end up as a face in a documentary, with sombre music playing in the background, or have people who'd never met me undertake a one minute silence in my memory. It would all be very embarrassing.

One part of my brain kept me rooted to the spot, though - what if I missed the bus because of this? What was I doing buying into today's all-pervasive culture of fear? So I stayed, as another part of my brain squealed in fear and called me an idiot with added obscenities.

It was at Finchley Central that I realised I wasn't the only one living in abstract fear of hand luggage. A severe-looking station attendant in a London Underground-branded silver hi-vis boarded the train, glared at the suitcase, and then demanded to know who owned it.

"Oh, it's mine" said a weak voice some distance away, on one of the seats. The station attendant was not pleased.

"We've had at least two reports of that suitcase!" he growled, jabbing his walkie talkie in the direction of the owner. "You're not supposed to leave your luggage alone!"

"Err, OK..." said the owner, and the annoyed station attendant departed in a bad mood.

I then realised who the owner was. He looked like he was in his mid to late 20s, looked Asian and had a traditional-looking beard, but wore jeans and trainers with a short, styled haircut. In other words, he resembled the 7/7 bombers, right down to the street clothes he was wearing.

The panic returned. "Aren't you supposed to be anti-discriminatory?" the Guardian-reading part of my brain demanded.

"AAAAAAAHHHH! MUSLIM WITH A SUITCASE!!!" the scared-of-everything part of my brain replied.

"Don't care. Not getting off until it's our stop" the can't-be-bothered-to-walk-home section of my consciousness concluded. I remained standing near the suitcase.

So it was with some relief that I finally got to my destination and walked, quickly, away from the carriage. Making towards the bus stop, I saw my ride draw up and had a chat with the driver about the strange man who'd just walked past and written down the bus's licence plate number. I told the driver that he was known for writing down every car licence plate, skip code and wheely bin designation in the area and not to worry, but the driver still looked perturbed. I felt relief though, as I'd made it back alive and was just worrying for nothing, and -

The suitcase's owner trundled past me, oblivious. He'd got off at the same stop as me but I hadn't noticed. His suitcase followed him, rolling along as he absent mindedly pulled it behind him.

And for a brief moment, I panicked again

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Alexander Hay

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