Tuesday, 7 July 2015

7/7 recollections of an adopted Londoner

What I've reproduced below is part of a longer post that you can find over here and was written back in 2007 by Worcester Park resident and American ex-pat The Noble Savage and is equally, make that particularly, relevant today.

If you're going to spend some time in silence today then reading this would be a fitting way to spend it.

Please feel free to add your own stories in the comments

"I was in central London the day the July 7 bombings happened. I pulled up to the train station and was told the Underground was shut. There were rumours of a fire. I called my boss to tell him I’d be late and asked him which bus would take me from Westminster Bridge to Oxford Street. I began walking to the bus stop when my phone rang and my boss was saying not to get a bus as there’d been reports of an explosion on one. He told me to stay away from tourist attractions and government buildings. He tells me this as I stood on Westminster Bridge. If I were one to freak out, I probably would’ve thrown myself from the bridge into the Thames right then and there. Amidst all the chaos and confusion, as I fought to stand still in a stream of people pushing forward, scurrying in all directions and at a loss as to what to do or where they should go, I made a decision. I would go on. So I began walking.

I walked through Westminster and up towards Trafalgar Square. Police sirens filled the air like wails at a young child’s wake. The roads were eerily empty as only emergency vehicles sped through. Stores were full of people crowded around tvs and radios. Tourists stood stricken on street corners, their maps fluttering in the warm breeze. And still, the suited masses walked on. Up past Trafalgar Square, down Haymarket. Through Piccadilly Circus. Cut over to Regent Street. Thousands of us, all walking the dutiful route. No signal on my phone, I was cut off from anyone I knew. These strangers, the ones I walked with, were my only lifeline, the only thing keeping me from feeling small and alone.

I’d chosen poorly in footwear that day, not realising that I would be walking miles to work. Blisters formed and I hobbled along, my pace slowing. I stopped for a coffee to refuel and try to hear the latest news. Standing in line at Cafe Nero, the woman behind me suddenly shrieked and then collapsed onto the floor, clutching her mobile to her chest. I immediately turned and crouched down beside her, thinking she had suffered a heart attack. I looked into her eyes and saw the kind of terror that is reserved for a loss of the highest magnitude. Real loss. Though I hadn’t seen it on anyone else, I knew that look. I’d made it before.

Sobs shook her body and she managed to choke out a strangled, fragmented sentence: “My husband. On the Tube. In hospital. Not good.” I touched her arm and looked into her eyes again, but she didn’t see me. I was a ghost to her, an apparition. Her heart was still beating but it had been blown apart, like London itself. I watched the manager flag down a policeman and the woman was bundled into a car. The fragments of her heart still lay around my feet. I wanted to scoop them up and make it whole again for her. But all I could do was keep walking. Stopping would mean being witness to more heartbreak, more carnage. I took my shoes off and stuffed them in my bag. Barefoot, I set off again, into the fray once more.

I made it up to Oxford Street and began walking down to Bond Street station, near where I worked. The streets were silent. Only a few dozen people wandered around. I saw faces pressed up against glass in high rise office buildings, like paper dolls in a house of cards. They looked so fragile and trapped. I was glad to be on the streets, amongst everything. I felt safer in the open, for some reason. The thought of being holed up in a building, not knowing what was happening to my city outside, wasn’t appealing. I came upon a fruit stand where a crowd of people were listening to the radio. Eyewitnesses to the Tavistock Square bus bombing talked of seeing limbs fly into the air and blood splatter bystanders. One woman said she saw a man with no arms wandering around in shock. Hands flew to mouths and brows were knitted. But when the crowd dispersed, we all kept walking. The only people contemplating ‘going home’ were American tourists. As if that were even an option.

I arrived at my office, feet filthy and bleeding, my face ashen. Two hours had passed since I arrived at Waterloo and began my walk. I collapsed into my chair, let my bag fall to my side, and then I cried. I cried for that woman in the coffee shop and wondered if her husband had made it through alive. I cried for the man with no arms. I cried for the people who were stuck underground and who had to walk along dark tunnels to freedom, wondering if they were next. And then I cried because I finally knew that I was a Londoner, that this was my city and that I belonged.

On the way home, on foot once again, I walked with a colleague back along the same route. In a new pair of shoes I’d hastily bought, we trod the same path and felt the same camaraderie as if we were marching to a bomb shelter in the East End together. The sheer mass of the crowds was amazing. Thousands upon thousands of people, mostly silent, walking en masse through Whitehall, and then over the Jubilee bridge. Everyone was desperate to get home, but at the same time, didn’t want to go home at all. When I arrived home, I spent ages making phone calls, assuring family and friends that I was okay. Physically I was, but inside I felt haunted. A strange mixture of pride, sadness, fear, tenacity and love boiled inside me, ready to spill over. I needed to talk to someone. I arranged to meet a few friends in the pub as none of us wanted to be alone. We needed to be together, to reassure one another that everything was okay, that life goes on, and that we were strong enough to withstand this. It’s the British way, and what has made them renowned around the world. Over pints of beer in neighbourhood pubs, with quiet words and silent hugs, we began healing. No drama, no wailing, no running home to mama, just the British way of dealing with tragedy. And I was finally one of them."

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