Magazine article The Spectator

Table Talk

Magazine article The Spectator

Table Talk

Article excerpt

The three of us were sitting around a table in the parlour of a small public house. The pub had an old-fashioned appearance, one of those strange survivals you find in the City. It was dusty, and it smelled of stale beer. The setting, however, is not important for this story. My companions were not mournful men, but they were not merry. They seemed preoccupied, and occasionally glanced towards the door as if they were frightened of being overheard. Perhaps it was just the time of year. The days before Christmas can make certain people uneasy.

May I describe them to you? The first of them was of uncertain age, poised perhaps somewhere in his forties but already marked by an elderly manner. He had a slightly vapid yet querulous expression, as if he had once taken offence at a humiliation long since forgotten. He seemed to frown as he spoke. Given the nature of his story, this was perhaps understandable.

The second man would have passed as a moderately successful accountant, with a quick nervous smile and a habit of clearing his throat before he spoke. He had a slightly rueful expression, if he could be said to have any expression at all. He appeared to be agitated, and continually pushed the beer mat around the table when he told his own story. And as for me -- well, I am only the narrator and do not need to be described.

'I have never told anyone this before, ' the first man said. 'I don't like to think about it. Anyway, you wouldn't believe me.' 'No reason not to believe you, ' I replied.

'Not until you have told us.' 'Do you remember the bus disaster at Hammersmith? Two or three years back now. A double-decker came off the road, and smashed into the side of a small café.' 'There were many dead, weren't there?' the other man asked him.

'Too many. I was there, you see. I was in the café. Drinking tea, I think. I like strong tea. Still do. I must have seen the bus coming towards us, through the plate-glass window. But I don't remember that bit.

Perhaps I wasn't looking. Then all at once something -- terrifying -- came into the room. And then there was a moment of silence. Of intense silence as if all sound had been violently expelled. Then there was the screaming. Except that, no, it wasn't screaming. It was the noise of glass being shattered and splintered -- by objects. Then there were the flames. An explosion. And then there came the howling. I speak of it now as a sequence, but it might have happened in any order or without any order at all.

'Something fell with a thud on the table where I was sitting. It was a severed foot. I looked at it without moving, without any reaction at all. It was an absurd thing to see. I noticed that the blood had gone to the sole and heel, and that the wound itself was blanched as if all the blood had fled from the site of severing. I noticed, too, that my tea was not spilled. One of the other customers was leaning over the table, his head sagging, his arms down by his side. Like this. I did not know if he was dead. But I guessed that he was.

"The ambulances must be coming." I knew the voice. It was that of the old woman who ran the café. "Please be calm, " she was saying to me. "Nothing more can happen. We have to help these poor buggers." 'She went into the wrecked bus, and came out with a child in her arms. He seemed to be unhurt, and she kept on kissing him. He made no sound at all. He just stared up at her with great round eyes of confusion. She placed him gently by the counter. But he had no reaction at all.

'There was a young woman squatting on the floor of the café, surrounded by a pool of blood. Her dress was way up above her knees. She was screaming. The old woman went over to her, put her arm around her shoulders, and whispered to her. She went into the kitchen, and came back with a wet towel that she bound tightly around the young woman's head. I don't know in what period of time all this happened. There was no time.

'Someone called out from the top deck of the bus, sagging through the broken window of the café. …

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