LONDON – I cannot say that last Thursday morning came as a great surprise.
I mean, why should our country, with Prime Minister Tony Blair so much in President Bush’s pocket, and so much a part of the Iraq fray, have continued to get off scot-free?
In fact, as I was chasing around central London trying to locate my young children, there was a grim familiarity about the scene. I had imagined it quite a few times in the past months, and the reality was spot on: being apart from my children in the melee of terrorism, no mobile phone contact, transport system paralyzed, crowds of desperation.
We Londoners had seen the emergency services rehearsing their paces in a mock terrorist attack on the television news awhile ago, and all of us had rehearsed our own private horrors in our own minds. It was until that morning simply a question of when the atrocity would occur.
The “if” had gone out the window long ago.
The school summer holidays had started on Wednesday. So on Thursday my domestic hat was already firmly on, as it will be for the next nine weeks. With my youngest child safe at his nursery for the morning, I thought a quick trip to Peter Jones, the famous department store in Chelsea, for a duvet in the sales and maybe some pillowcases too, would be just the ticket before an afternoon when the simultaneous demands of three young sons would begin to kick in in earnest.
Agata, our au pair, suggested she could take the older boys to the Natural History or the Science Museum in South Kensington – holiday staples both – and this they declared an excellent wheeze. I could give them a lift on my way.
It was 9:45 a.m., and Agata and I noticed an awful lot of people at bus stops on Kensington High Street. Useless bloody London Transport, we said to each other, vaguely. Even if the car radio had not been stolen two years ago, we wouldn’t have thought to switch it on. Rush hour and queues at bus stops go hand in hand like jam and sandwiches here.
The 7- and 5-year-olds were arguing roundly in the back about which of the two museums they wanted to go to. Agata and I suggested the dinosaurs and the rockets – why not? Best of both worlds.
Or so it seemed until less than an hour later, when their accommodating mother so urgently needed to locate them.
The terrorist attacks that had been dubbed “inevitable” by our metropolitan police commissioner materialized as I wandered out of linens to the toy department. I looked up to see rolling news graphics on a plasma TV screen. Explosions all over London. Tube network closed. Roof of a double-decker bus blasted off. Fatalities, number unknown.
And although I had long expected terrorism, of course I didn’t expect it right then. The threat level had even been taken down a notch within the last month. A few terms ago, my sons’ school had issued a “Cascade List” – to be kept to hand “at all times” – with the numbers of fellow parents to be telephoned “in the event.”
What precise event it did not state, but we all knew. What on earth good, I found myself asking, was that cascade list when the children weren’t at school at all but at a museum instead with an au pair and a mobile phone that I quickly discovered was moribund?
It was then I remembered that Agata had said she was intending to take a bus home. In World War II, during the Blitz, the London underground had been a sanctuary, but the threat of modern-day terrorism had turned the network, instead, into the riskiest place of all. Agata knew that we don’t like the children traveling on the tube if we can help it and haven’t for some time, perhaps a year or two.
Same reason as why our country friends decided against joining us on an outing to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in the West End last Christmas. A slightly querulous notion of “why risk it?” And now a trusty old double-decker had been blown apart in Tavistock Square and suddenly all its peers were implicated in a risk of underground proportions.
I dropped my shopping basket and ran to my car, all the while trying to raise Agata on her mobile to tell her to wait for me and not to get a bus. The phone network was eternally busy. I screeched my way to the museums – which one had they gone to first? Which son would have been more likely to have got his way?
My husband, Donovan, managed at last to get through to my mobile and told me to come home. Not until I’ve got our boys, I said. He offered to bicycle the three miles to join me in my search.
I must have rung Agata 100 times. The Science Museum was closed when I got there; at the crowded Natural History nearby, a kindly man made an announcement for Agata to come to the information desk. She didn’t appear. Donovan, a photographer who grew up in the unpredictable ‘70s in Belfast, arrived pouring with sweat.
His fear from experience was that, if there were more than three bombs in any short period, there could be a lot more, as had been the case so often in Northern Ireland. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you get the hell out.
He finally reached Agata on his mobile. She was on a bus home, going along Kensington High Street. He bawled at her to get off at once and go to the nearest open space.
When we met up on the street, Agata knew nothing of the horrors that had been taking place that morning. The news had not yet filtered to her, even on the phone with Donovan whose message had consisted only of his bare instruction to get off the bus.
Our story was piffling, a mere trifle, compared to that of thousands of others directly involved and bereaved, and I had felt my children would probably be all right if we managed to whisk them from the city center. But, all in the car safely and heading home, I cried a bit.
We returned to see Tony Blair on the news being the statesman – less hammy for sure than when Diana died and just right to leave the G-8 meeting in Scotland so swiftly – but talking of how these attacks would not change our “values” and “way of life.”
They seemed like the rather meaningless and wishy-washy platitudes that politicians tend to employ in the face of such atrocities, but in this instance they stuck in the gullet more than usual.
I suspect Blair’s codependent love affair with George Bush and our repellent involvement in Iraq is largely responsible for today’s “inevitable.” Of course, the prime minister is right: Few Londoners will want to appear to let the terrorists “win,” to allow them to thwart our freedom of movement, to compromise our principles of liberty and democracy or to resort to religious hatred.
But, we might not have had to think about this so much in the first place had he not willingly followed the Americans to war. And over the coming days in London and all England, who can guarantee there will not be some racist backlash against our Muslim communities?
For myself, for other parents of young children, and for indeed the majority, we can only hope not. It feels a bit rich when Blair insists the attacks must not change our way of life. Easy to say, but several hundred people’s lives were changed on Thursday, beyond measure.
For the rest of us, while our lives may not change quite so manifestly (we shall just continue to avoid the tube and even West End musicals with our children), our famous British resilience or, as the cliché has it, our “stiff upper lip” is quivering a little. With full-blown anger as well as low-burn fear for the future.
As well it might.
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