“This dog is black, but that dog is white.”
I had been in France just two weeks in 2001 and that was all I had learned from the daily Berlitz class I signed up for. I was in a group with two young American women who took four hours one morning to establish that when the teacher said “hier”, she meant “yesterday”, and we were talking in the past tense. “Je suis . . . “ they kept saying, the present first person that they insisted on using in response to every single question about anything. They would have taken a lot longer than four hours to establish the move to the past tense, had I not screamed, shortly before lunchtime and fearing another morning totally wasted: “IT’S THE PAST TENSE FOR GOD’S SAKE!” which endeared me to no one.
The teacher was annoyed that I had introduced any English into the proceedings, but not as disturbed as she was when I led the two Americans astray one afternoon and we enjoyed a lunch that finished about 2am the following morning in a local bar.
Each day, we had to come to class and say what we had been doing the night before. I decided to confess: “J’ai bu trois bouteilles St Emilion” (I drank three bottles of St Emilion). “Non, non, non, trois verres” (glasses) corrected the teacher. “Er, non. Trois bouteilles.” “Non! C’est impossible!”
As it happened, I learned more of the language in the bar that one night than I did in the classes, where, in addition to being able to describe the colour of different dogs, I was now able to say that they had four legs, two ears and liked to go for walks. At the end of the course, I felt just about confident enough to order a coffee, an orange juice and a shandy. I didn’t drink any of them, but it was marginally useful to know that, if so required, I could order one for somebody else. Where Berlitz and all the language books I bought to assist me fell down, was in their failure in teaching me how to say: “There is a man on board who says he has a bomb.”
I had always wanted to pull the emergency cord on a train and had come close so many times, usually on the First Great Western between Cardiff and Paddington when, in the days of smoking in public places, somebody lit up in a non-smoking carriage. I once came close to pulling it when someone refused to stop using his phone in the quiet carriage, too, and was probably just one can of Strongbow away from doing so; but the inate knowledge that you pulled the cord only in a state of real emergency, such as one that was a matter of life or death, always held me back. That, and the fact that First Great Western replaced cords with a box involving hammers, double-sheeted glass and incomprehensible instructions.
I never dreamed that the first (and only) occasion (to date) that I would pull an emergency cord would be on the Paris Metro. Nor did I imagine that I would bring the whole underground system to a crashing halt with a security alert that sent half the Paris police force running down into the confines of the Rue de Bac station, guns at the ready. Alcohol had been consumed.
It had been a normal sort of day. My Auntie Barbara and Uncle Brian were over from Canada in the summer of 2003, and we had just been to the Champs Elysses in the 1st arrondisement, where we saw the largest railway exhibition ever to be mounted on a road (we had come across it by accident; I had no interest at that moment in any locomotive other than one that could take me to a bar quickly). Next, we went to Montmartre, where there was a food and drink fayre, the kind that can be found in villages and towns over France all year round. There were dozens of wine growers, as there always are, encouraging us to sample their wares.
The clichés of Montmartre are best enjoyed on a Sunday, when, despite the increased number of tourists and dodgy artists drawing them, it still seems to provide a haven, a place suspended in time, in its old streets and lamp-posts lighting up rows of steep steps at dusk. Relaxing over a long lunch and taking in the view from the steps of Sacre Coeur, of the whole of Paris stretched out below, including the Eiffel Tower, which lights up at dusk, is one of the most enjoyable activities the city has to offer. We ate at the tiny Au Virage Lepic in the rue Lepic, which is less touristy than the many Prix Fixe restaurants in the main square, and if you manage to get a seat you can pass away hours admiring the paraphernalia on the walls and shelves while sampling the best boeuf Bourgignon in the city.
Topped up with more sample wines from the stalls, we took the bus from Montmartre to Pigalle and caught the Mairie d’Issy metro that would take us to Rue de Bac, the closest metro to my apartment on that line. The carriage was crowded, and although we found three seats together, we were prevented from taking them because a man with a case was taking up two seats: one for himself, and the other for a large black bin liner. I wanted to sit down, but worrying that he was carrying something delicate that could not be moved, asked him what was in the bag.
“A bomb,” he replied. I laughed nervously, but his face remained impassive. “And the case?” “Another bomb.” He was reading a newspaper written in a language I thought looked like Arabic, and in the wake of 9/11, I, like many others, was nervous of anyone of even slightly Arabian appearance who didn’t have a copy of The Times in his hand. And if someone of that appearance is running round the country telling you they are carrying a bomb, you tend to take it more seriously than you might once have done.
We decided to move carriages, one at a time at each stop. But I was still worried. In Britain, you could be put in prison for making hoax calls or joking about carrying bombs; in my eyes, he had already committed a crime, merely by the suggestion of it, and what if he really was going to blow the place up? I returned to our original carriage to check that the bomber was still there.
“He’s reading an Arab newspaper,” whispered my aunt, fully entering into the drama of the situation. I was cautious at being spurred to action by the assumptions of others and recalled the last time I had been encouraged to take action against an alleged miscreant in 1995 in Bath, where I was then living - this time, over lunch at the Theatre Vaults pub. There were Wanted posters up all over town, as the police, who had been trying to catch a rapist for over a decade, at last had a likeness. They were warning women to be wary of men trying to lure them to night clubs, as the rapist had been doing, and so, when a man joined us at our table and started asking us if he wanted to go with him to a club later on, bells started to ring. The more time went on, the more he resembled the man in the poster. I went to the other side of the bar, where the gay men hung out and asked them to look first at the poster and then at our new friend. “It’s him! It’s him!” they screamed. Never ask a gay man for an objective opinion if there is a drama to be made out of a mini-crisis. “You should call the police!”
I looked again, from poster to villain, villain to poster, and back again. Yes, I agreed; it was definitely him. I went back to my seat, grabbed my mobile and went outside to phone the police. I didn’t have the local number, so dialled 999, which gave events an air of urgency they didn’t actually warrant. I explained that a stranger had been acting suspiciously, trying to whisk us off to night clubs, but urged the police to take just a subtle look.
Within the minute, three coppers in full uniform were in the pub bar, demanding that the interloper go outside to answer some questions. They interrupted the man’s rendering of a Verdi Requiem; he had just come from his choral group and was excited about a forthcoming concert, the details of which we would never hear, because he came back crying and wanting to know who had shafted him with such a cruel joke. He left us to our guilt and, when we sobered up, noted that the man in the poster bore a greater resemblance to The Muppet Show’s Fozzie Bear than it did to any living human being.
So my record when it came to policing the streets was not a good one, and my inebriated judgment certainly dubious in deciding who to rope in to support my case. But my aunt and uncle were sure we had got our man, and with thinly disguised mounting hysteria, turned to me with anxious faces, expecting me to take action.
Right. I had a plan. We would go to the far end of the carriage, away from the bomber, and wait for our stop. Then, and only then, would I pull the emergency cord (I wasn’t that stupid; I wanted to get home, even if was not necessarily going to be in one piece).
We moved up the carriage until we reached the last door before the driver and, when the train stopped at Rue de Bac, I grabbed the cord and pulled. Heck, it felt good. All eyes turned to me immediately, angry passengers clearly convinced I was the proverbial train nutcase. I turned desperately to a French woman standing beside me and tried to justify my actions. As all British people do when they don’t speak the language, I shouted way too loudly: “L’HOMME DANS LE TRAIN – IL M’A DIT IL A UNE BOMB!”
The French woman let out a little scream that acted as a trigger to spread panic further along the carriage. When the doors opened at rue de Bac, I leapt out and went to the front of the train to speak to the driver, who was also rather put out by the unscheduled stop. She said she had a timetable to meet and she had to get to Montparnesse, so what was the hold up?
“L’HOMME M’A DIT IL A UNE BOMBE!” I cried again, panic now rising in my own voice on a par with that which was spreading through the whole train. Suddenly, there were bodies and noise everywhere. A group of German girls with rucksacks emerged from the middle of the train and started running frantically for the exit; frowning faces were leaning out of doors, asking each other whether they should run or risk being blown up; an old woman with a Chihuahua practically broke the poor thing’s neck as she yanked it off the train and up the station steps.
The word “bomb” travelled from carriage to carriage; movement was everywhere, panic spreading. I ran back up the platform to check whether my bomber had joined in the melee, but he was still sitting there, oblivious to the terror he had created around him. I ran back, struggling against the tide of chaos and madness where, just five minutes before, there had been utter calm and an easy route on the train’s way to Mairie d”Issy.
The unfolding drama now convinced the driver that she should call security, and very quickly a woman in uniform arrived and I once again became fluent in French. “Dans mon carriage, l’homme m’a dit il a deux bombs.” It was definitely two bombs now.
“And he can’t speak French or English,” said my uncle, even though the bomber had only spoken four words to us. “And he’s reading an Arab newspaper,” added my aunt, helpfully.
The official asked if the man was still on the train and I dutifully led her to where he was sitting, now with his black plastic bag on his lap. Apart from him, the carriage was empty, word having quickly spread that the whole of Paris was about to go up in smoke.
I don’t know what happened next because no one asked me for a statement; I, who had foiled Al Qaeda’s latest mission to annihilate the west, was redundant and ordered away, along with the last straddling passengers. We left the station and made for the nearest bar, meeting, running in the opposite direction down the Metro steps, the Paris police force, batons and guns poised for action.
We ordered a drink and contemplated our adventure. Had I done the right thing? I think so. If ever I was going to pull an emergency cord in life, this was the time to do it: one small pull for mankind, one great haul in the battle against terrorism. My bomber deserved to go to the guillotine for posing a threat, irrespective of whether there had been any intention behind it.
My aunt, uncle and I toasted our victory with a fervour not seen since the Storming of the Bastille in 1789. An hour later, we were not quite so confident of the validity of our actions or our pigeon French. Maybe he had said that his bum was on the seat.