Chapter Sixty Two: Heart Of The City

We left Carr Saunders at nine o’clock this morning, Fliss and Jenny up ahead, Flora and me trailing behind, a little sleepy in the summer breeze as we headed down Tottenham Court Road to Goodge Street tube station.  Fliss had her guitar case slung over her back, and her blonde hair trailed over it in soft waves, moving in the breeze.  She was wearing her blue and white checked dress, and looked very young and fresh.

  They were just shutting the station when we arrived.  Not many people were around, it seemed, and there were temporary signs propped up in the station itself: ‘No Service From This Station.’  Jenny sighed in slight irritation as we paused by the gates, unsure as to what to do.  “Well,” she said, slowly, “we’re only travelling to Tottenham Court Road on the Northern Line, let’s walk it, we can pick up a train there instead.”

  Tottenham Court Road was busy with the morning’s commuters, sharply dressed, but harassed.  As we walked past a mural painted on the wall of a café opposite Heals, I heard a woman grumble that a power failure the morning after the Olympic decision was “typical.”  Somehow, we ended up at Warren Street instead of Tottenham Court Road, having read the map wrong and walked in the wrong direction, it was there that we discovered that the whole network was out, due to a power surge, and that we’d have to get a bus if we wanted to get to Bethnal Green.  We hesitated outside the station as the crowds surged past us, pushing us back to the edge of the pavement.  We were travelling to Bethnal Green in order to lay down some recordings of Fliss’ songs, as Jenny knows someone there who has a home studio that we could borrow, so our journey was important, but not as crucial as that of those who were struggling to get to work.  I shiver to think of it now, but in the busy disruption this morning, my thoughts were simple and uncomplicated, so it was with this common sense that I said, “We don’t really know where we’re going, let’s walk down to Tottenham Court Road and see if the Central line’s likely to be back on soon, if we get a bus, we’ll get lost.”

  The others exchanged glances, then nodded in agreement, and we set off back the way we’d just come.  The wide pavements of Tottenham Court Road were still heaving with people as we walked, but everyone seemed to be walking briskly, with a sort of pent up aggression, the strain showed a little on their faces as they contemplated hours docked from pay, and as shoes unsuited to distance walking began to pinch and rub.  There was no new news when we reached Tottenham Court Road, and not knowing how long the network was likely to be down, we headed for Oxford Circus, in search of a souvenir shop that Fliss wanted to find that sold ‘Mind The Gap’ mugs and London tube map shirts.  She was intent on finding a pair of London tube map boxer shorts for Kylie to wear on stage.  It seems strange now to recall how quickly our minds switched from travel to shopping, how calm we were, how everything felt like a big, exciting, bright and vivid summer adventure, but it would be a lie to say I sensed a wrongness in the air at that point, because I didn’t.

  We stopped for a travel update at Oxford Circus and, as we waited, patiently and placidly, in the queue of commuters a dazed looking man in a suit, carrying a briefcase was overheard to say that he’d been on a train earlier where there’d been some kind of explosion, different lines and destinations were bandied around as people tried to find out how to reach previously simple destinations.  A man in a London Underground uniform listened to a voice on a receiver, interrupting another’s bus stop directions as the news came through that all the buses across London had just been withdrawn.  A surge of apprehension, dread, and sheer nervous adrenalin began to work its way through my body as I began to suspect that something bigger than a simple electrical fault had happened.

  As we walked back along Oxford Circus towards Tottenham Court Road, police cars and ambulances roared past us, sirens at full, jarring, blare, and when I looked up, I could see helicopters in the sky.  The commuters and tourists on Tottenham Court Road seemed dazed and weary then, still moving with purpose past the shops, along the crowded pavement.  Further along the road, I saw an unusually motionless crowd, so big that it was blocking the wide pavement and spilling out into the road.  As we drew closer, I heard Jem’s ‘They’ blaring out of some open shop doorway, and as we reached the crowd, we became a part of their uneasy stillness and silence.  They were gathered around a shop window, in which there was a television showing Sky News.  Unusually, the volume had been turned up, meaning that we could hear as well as see the headlines: ‘EXPLOSIONS IN CENTRAL LONDON’ against the footage of ambulances and stretchers outside underground stations.  And as we stood in the silent crowd, with sirens screaming past us, people walking round us, confirmation came through of an explosion on a bus.

  STOP

  Don’t try to think.

  Don’t process, don’t analyse.

  Just stand still and wait.

  Wait.

  Wait.

I could feel the sense of nervousness, of tiredness, climbing as I watched the images and personal testimonies as they rolled across the screen.  At last, my mind cleared a little, and I was able to view the footage rather more subjectively, not just as someone in central London, failing to match the terror on screen with the surreal calm around me, but as a Manchester girl, as someone with loved ones who wouldn’t have the advantage of what, I suppose, was the reaction at street level.  My first thought was of Fergus, hearing something in passing at work, and not knowing if I was safe.  My second, rapid, thought was of my mother turning on the television and seeing the same footage that I was seeing; Ambulances and stretchers, the mangled remains of a London bus, strangely calm survivors, with blood on their clothes and faces, relating things that they should never be asked to relate, debris and dazed faces…  I knew that Fliss was next to me, even though I hadn’t looked to check, and I found myself speaking in an odd, tight voice that didn’t feel as though it belonged to me, “I need to borrow your mobile.”

  She handed it to me in silence and, barely taking her eyes off the screen, gave me wordless instructions as to how to use it.  Fergus’ mobile was switched to ansaphone, so I left a brief message, telling him we were all fine and not to worry, I’d phone him later.  Thomas answered when I phoned home, and I exhaled in relief as I heard his voice, “Maggie? To what do I owe the pleasure?” his voice was jocular and slightly amused.

  My hands had been shaking ever since I had taken Fliss’ mobile from her, I realised, but there was no time to worry about that now “Is my mum around?” I asked; a slight tremor in my voice as I tried to stay calm.

  “She’s still in bed, but she’s awake, if you want me to fetch her…” he trailed off as though ready to put the receiver down and go into the bedroom to fetch her.

  “No,” I said, quickly, “I need to tell you, then you can tell her… There’s been some explosions in London, but I’m O.K, we’re all O.K.  It looks worse on T.V, I think, so, try to stop her from watching the news today, if you can.”

  “I’ll do my best,” he promised, and I sensed that the tone had changed now: he knew it was serious.  There was an awkward pause, “Are you sure you’re O.K?”

  A siren wailed in my ear, bringing me back to the immediate situation as I replied, “Yes, I’m fine… I have to go.” The amount of police cars, police vans, ambulances and helicopters had increased as I wrapped up the call and handed the phone back to Fliss.  A man pushing a woman in a wheelchair was trying to fight his way through the crowd, and as we stepped aside, reluctantly, to let them through, I knew that we had heard and seen everything on the screen that could be useful to us at that point: It was time to go back to the hall.  Helicopters, police vans, and ambulances accompanied us as we headed back down Tottenham Court Road, parting from us as we turned off down Goodge Street and they continued in the direction of Warren Street.  I didn’t realise until much, much later just where they were heading, or how many people they would take away.

  We hadn’t long arrived back at Carr Saunders when a fax arrived at Reception, advising everyone to stay exactly where they were for the moment.  With little else to do, we joined the crowd of guests in the T.V lounge and watched the latest news.  Unlike the crowd on Tottenham Court Road, the lounge was noisy with conversation, making what little news there was hard to understand.  It sounded like six tube bombs and a bus bomb, but no one seemed that sure, and after a while, we retreated to our rooms.  Across the corridor, I could hear Fliss playing chords on her guitar as Flora slept and I read Dodie Smith’s ‘The Town In Bloom.’  Hours passed in still, uneasy, silence.

In the afternoon, I heard what sounded like air gun shots, and it was only later tonight, when watching the T.V once more, that I realised that what I’d been hearing was controlled explosions being carried out.

    In the early evening, Flora woke up and stretched.  She got to her feet, and began, restlessly, to pace the room, “I can’t stand this,” she snapped, “I need to know what’s happening!”

  Without moving from the bed, or putting down my book, I reminded her of the advice we’d been given to stay put. 

  “I don’t care,” she snapped, “I need to go out!”

  I put my book down with a sigh, “To get drunk?” I asked.  She glared at me.  “Well, today’s a perfect day to drown your sorrows I suppose,” I murmured, almost to myself.

  She glared at me for a few minutes in barely contained fury, then her bottom lip began to tremble, her eyes began to blink, and she collapsed onto her bed in floods of tears.  I felt like joining in, but I was too tired to cry, and I felt as though enough tears had been cried already.  There were four bombs and, so far, thirty-seven people are dead, hundreds more are injured.

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