"Long, long before his valedictory message reached back to his base on Centauri 45, long, long before the remorseless grip of the black hole ahead of him had wreaked its awesomely destructive power, the oxygen levels in the spacecraft became seriously depleted and he blacked out."
Canadian backpacker Richard Ainsworth turned over the final page of his science-fiction novel and closed the paperback with quiet satisfaction. He was pleased to have finished the work now because, on the long train journey ahead, all he planned to do was grab some sleep and then some more sleep.
He stretched out his long legs. He had always been lean but he'd lost a little weight on his wandering and he was certainly well-tanned now. He hadn't shaved for several days but, if anything, that made him rather fashionably good-looking. Since, however, he hadn't washed his hair or showered for the same period, his attractiveness was somewhat diminished.
His travels in South-East Asia had brought him here to the wonderfully-named Tiruchchirappalli in the state of Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India. None of his mates back in Canada would have heard of the place but, as his guide book explained, it was the capital of Tamil kingdoms during the 10th to 17th centuries.
When he had first announced to his family that he intended to spend six months travelling, his mother had been anxious ("There's so much to see here in Canada") but his father was supportive ("It'll make a man of you"), while his younger sister was immensely envious, a feeling later assuaged by his regular reports from Internet cafés.
The experience had not been without mishaps: a terrible stomach upset in Hanoi, a mugging in Luang Prabang, a bicycle accident in Jaipur. But there had been so many wonderful times: scenic splendours like Ha Long Bay and the floating market in Bangkok, architectural wonders like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, oddities like the Chu Chi tunnels outside Saigon and the ghats at Varanasi, plus all the exotic foods and the numerous instant friendships.
Tiruchchirappalli railway station was just the sort of place that would enliven his dreams for years to come.
It was teeming with people queuing for tickets or food, guarding their luggage, asking for information or shouting to relatives, occupying every seat and sprawled on the floor, pushing, pulling, shoving. There were families trying to console distraught babies and not to lose wandering children, travellers attempting to snatch some sleep, beggars pleading for rupees, sellers of newspapers and cigarettes and all manner of foods, officials checking tickets and offering travel advice. The men were generally wearing the long, white sheets of cloth called dhoti topped by plain shirts, while the women sported the more colourful and more highly patterned saris.
As he glanced around, he noted the official giving an intended passenger a hard time, the teenager with headphones and a distant gaze, the beggar with a deformed face, the nervous young man with both hands in his baggy pockets, the pretty young woman in the bright salwar kameez, the dark young man with an even darker cloak, the Sikh mouthing a quiet prayer, the insistent seller of some kind of nuts, and to his rear the sweet little girl in a beautiful silk pavada with her grandparents who smiled at him as she hugged a kind of animal toy.
The noise was incredible as all these people talked, called, shouted, asked, answered, declaimed, exhorted, argued, cried, bought, sold, begged and generally made their presence known. And then there were the smells: the fresh fruits and vegetables, the cooked meats, the selection of spices, the cut flowers, the range of body odours, the uncleaned toilets. The air in the hall shimmered from so many people and so many aromas.
It was a veritable assault on the senses and above it all hung an expectant madness.
Richard wished that his girlfriend Jane could be here to share this seething mass of humanity, this cacophony of sounds, this palette of vibrant colours, this assault of smells. It was this kind of experience that made him feel so alive. She, though, had not wanted to give up her job to go travelling. Indeed she'd wanted them to use their savings to put down a deposit on a flat and move in together. She thought that, after three years of dating, it was time. Maybe she was right – but he'd wanted to explore more of the world first.
Another few months and he'd be ready to return to Toronto and Jane. He hoped that she would like the bird tattoo he'd had done on the back of his left shoulder but he was sure that his family wouldn't approve.
He leaned down to put the novel into his backpack but struggled because so much was already squeezed into it. He bent down further to force the book into the bottom-most section.
Then the world went crazy.
From somewhere terrifyingly close, an automatic weapon opened up, spraying bullets in his general direction. He could hear rather than see bodies crashing around him and then a whistling whine almost parted his hair. Splashes of blood appeared on his trousers but he was not hurt so far as he could tell. The shooting paused a second. There was screaming and crying and moaning and the pandemonium of hundreds of people stampeding for the few exits. Out of the corner of one eye, he caught sight of the little girl in the pavada a short distance behind him trying to hide behind the bloody bodies of her grandparents.
The shooting started up again. The stream of the bullets seemed to swing from side to side and he knew from the grotesque crashing and falling sounds that bodies were being torn into and collapsing all over the seats, the stalls, the floor. Then the shooting stopped again.
Perhaps Richard should simply have tried to pretend that he was dead, but he knew that he couldn't maintain that awkward posture and in any event he felt a strange sense of responsibility to do something, anything, to stop the slaughter. As if in a nightmarish dream, he slowly stood up and immediately took in the scene of carnage.
The dark young man had flung his cloak to the ground and now brandished some kind of automatic weapon. Spent cartridges were scattered at his feet. An odd smell permeated the location and tiny wisps of smoke drifted from the hot barrel and appeared to hang around his manic face. He had clearly exhausted one magazine but had several others clipped to his belt. His right hand fell to one of the new magazines.
Thoughts flashed through Richard's mind like carriages on a passing express train. If I stand here, I die. If I attempt to turn and run, I die. So does that little girl. So do many of those still left in the station. I have do do something. I have to do something unexpected.
Richard started to walk at a steady pace towards the terrorist, staring him firmly straight in the eyes. His legs felt unbelievably weak but he forced himself to move forward step by faltering step. Rivulets were working their way down each side of his face and under his T-shirt, but this was not sweat, it was naked fear.
Clearly the man was totally nonplussed by this bizarre sight. The backpacker should be running from him not striding towards him; he should be frightened, not seemingly fearless. He snatched at one of the full magazines on his belt and snapped it into his weapon.
This was a moment in time.
Richard knew that, in the next second, he would live or die. Somehow he had to engage the man and win some time for whatever was now going to happen. Holding the man's eyes with his own hard stare, he challenged him as calmly but authoritatively as he could in the horrifying circumstances: "Who are you? What do you want?"
The terrorist looked shocked to be addressed in this way but he appeared to understand English. He ignored the first question but obviously felt compelled to give some sort of answer to the second: "I Tamil. I fight for my people. Sinhalese government win war but still hurt my people." He swallowed hard and then continued breathlessly: "World forget Tamils! Now world remember because of me, because of this!!"
As this surreal exchange took place, the hall was emptying, its occupants pushing past stalls and over bodies to find an exit and a release from this insanity
The proclamation over, the terrorist raised his weapon and aimed it at the Canadian. Richard knew that he had to say something more and very fast. He had to hold the man's attention but not antagonise him. The guy was Tamil. He was from Sri Lanka.
Richard suddenly remembered something he had read about the Sanskrit epic the “Ramayana”. He could hardly believe it was him speaking as he heard himself announce: "So you're from Sri Lanka. The island used to be connected to India, didn't it? The god Rama built a bridge, didn't he?"
He could see that the man was utterly thrown by this conversation which was as banal as it was incongruous, so he pressed on before the weapon could be fired. "Rama was helped by monkeys, wasn't he? How many monkeys do you think there were?"
The man with the gun was now a man transfixed by a situation he could never have imagined possible. He responded querulously: "I don't know. Why you ask this silly question?"
Richard spoke in terms which implied that this was the most normal possible conversation in the middle of a terrorist assault: "Well, I've often wondered and I thought you might know. It must have been a huge job. It must have needed lots of monkeys. What do you think? One hundred? Two hundred?"
The hall was now silent except for the moans of the dying and the wounded. Everyone who could do so had fled. Richard felt that, whatever happened now, many lives had been saved. His own, he was still very unsure about. Seconds ago, he had had no idea what he was going to say to the terrorist and how the killer would react. Now he wondered whether it might be possible to reason with the man.
Then, over the left shoulder of the Tamil, Richard spotted a tall, uniformed police marksman edging forward from behind a pillar and carefully taking aim with a rifle. He wanted to scream out "No!" - he didn't actually want this man to die in spite of all the murder and mayhem he had committed. But, if he gave any indication that something was happening, the terrorist would start up again and he would be the first to die. So he pretended that nothing untoward was occurring and held the man's eyes with as neutral but as fixed a stare as he could manage in such a terrifying situation.
This was the moment in time.
In the bizarre stillness of the macabre scene and the echo chamber effect of the emptied train station, the crash of the policeman's rifle was shocking. Richard saw the terrorist's head blow apart a split second before the bullet sped onwards and downwards, clipping his right shoulder, simultaneously lifting and spinning his body, and another split second later he heard the cutting scream of the child behind him.
As his body twisted round, he glimpsed the terrorist crumbling to his knees and falling face forward with arms outstretched, the automatic weapon clattering to the ground, and, as his unwilling pirouette continued, he witnessed the little girl – her tiny chest already a mass of ugly red - fall backwards and lie still. The energy of the spin having diminished, he crumpled downwards and, head smashing into the concrete floor, he blacked out.
Published on 4 September 2009
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