PRE-VALENTINE NERVES: JANUARY 16TH 2006
I have always wanted to pull the emergency cord on a train, but never imagined that the first time I did so, it would be on the Paris metro. Nor did I imagine that I would bring the whole system to a grinding halt with a security alert that sent half the Paris police force running down into the confines of the Rue de Bac station.
It had been a normal sort of day. My aunt and uncle were over from Canada, and we had just visited the railway exhibition on the Champs Elysses (by acccident; I have no interest in any locomotive other than one that can take me to a bar quickly). Next, we went to Montmartre, where there was some kind of fete going on, with wine growers from all over France encouraging us to sample their wares. You can't beat Montmartre on a Sunday. It might be packed with tourists and dodgy artists, but relaxing over a long lunch and taking in the view from the church of Sacre Coeur, of the whole of Paris stretched out below, is one of Paris's greatest pleasures. The tiny, traditional restaurants down the side streets are 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 paraphenalia on the walls and shelves while sampling the best boeuf bourgignon in the city.
We took the bus from Montmartre to Pigalle and caught the metro that would take us to Rue de Bac. The carriage was crowded and 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 an Arab newspaper and, in the wake of September 11th, I, like many others, am nervous of anyone of even slightly Arabian appearance (or a suntan, come to that); 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 can be put in prison for making hoax calls or joking about carrying bombs; in my eyes, he had already committed a crime, 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 and then decided that pulling the emergency cord would cover all bases. I waited until our stop (I'm not that stupid) before doing so, attracting the attention of fellow passengers who clearly thought I was the train nutter.
Enlisting the support of a French woman, to whom I had explained "L'homme dans le train - il m'a dit il a une bomb", we went to the front of the train to speak to the driver. She showed little interest because she had a timetable to meet and she had to get to Montparnesse, but the hysteria I had now created was on my side. A group of German girls emerged from the middle of the train and were running frantically for the exit; anxious faces were hanging out of the doors; a woman with a Yorkshire terrier 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 rising, all except in the seat where my bomber sat, oblivious to the terror he had created around him. The scenes of chaos and madness where, just five minutes before, there had been utter calm and an easy route on the train's way to Chateau de Vincennes, convinced the driver that she should call security. Very quickly, a woman in uniform arrived and I became fluent in French once more. "Dans mon carriage, l'homme m'a dit il a deux bombs." "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. We left the station and made for the nearest bar, meeting, coming in the opposite direction, the Paris police force, truncheons at the ready. Did I do the right thing? I think so. The man deserved to go to the guillotine for posing a threat, irrespective of whether there was any truth to it. When I sobered up, I was not so sure. Maybe he had said that his bum was on the seat.