Morning in the Caffe Nero at Euston station, the “modern” terminus, now hopelessly dated, a shopping centre caked in grime and pigeon shit. Waiting at the serving end for their caramel macchiato frappuccinos, two lads in the lads’ uniform, trimmed beard, electric blue suits, white shirt cuffs too short, to make wrist tatts visible, were talking security policy, vaguely midlands-northern accents.
“I’d put ’em on an island. I’d make ’em swim there through shark-infested waters.”
“I’d make ’em live on an island with lions. Make ’em know what was going to happen to their bodies.”
The words were jaunty, childish, but the tone wasn’t. It was flat, serious, deadened. It sounded mad, people around them clenched their teeth.
“Make ’em get torn apart, people hate the thought of that happening,” said lad one, of suicide bombers.
“Shutthefuckupshutthefuckup,” someone beside me said through clenched teeth.
Seventy-five years ago, I thought, squaddies in uniform, gals in factory overalls, would have been gathered here, waiting for the troop special, drinking tea, the silver urn steaming. I wonder if they talked like this about Hitler or Rommel or the Junkers pilots bombing them.
The other end of the line, in Manchester, things were more respectful, apparently. The area near the arena, where the bomb, and the bomber, had gone off, were beginning to be covered with flowers. The gig in question had been by Ariana Grande, safe pop, beloved of tweens and gentle, timidish teens. So there are teddy bears, and toys as well, the world ratcheted back thousands of years, gifts for the start of the journey.
The general election campaign had been suspended — “until further notice” it was said, a slightly ominous phrase — and PM Theresa May was heading a meeting of COBRA, the peacetime war cabinet.
There was no panic, no hysteria, that sort of tremulous, not-very-thought-through threat awareness one sometimes gets in the States. But while there was keeping calm, there was no carrying on. The country was in stasis, caught in the vast gap between the event itself, the horror of it, and the vacuity of its meaning. The news programs had nothing to say, zero content about the attack itself, but it would have been unseemly to talk about anything else. So they interviewed ambos, cab drivers, blood bank officials, then as the morning wore on, survivors, helpers. It was all stuff we all know about a bomb in a crowded place, that it’s loud, that no one knows what’s going on, that suddenly someone goes down beside you, and they’re dead.
Twenty plus dead, kids, teens, parent-kid couples, stomach-turning. Yet there was none of the “nuke the ragheads” stuff, just the lame-o five-year-olds’ boy-man fantasies of lions. The main emotion around was weariness, at the cruelty of it, the stupidity. This was Terror, yet there was no terror. Most odd.
This is what people said the war was like. There was no news sometimes, but you couldn’t stop looking at the news. Dribs and drabs came out through the day. A suicide bomber, yes, we knew, a bolt bomb, packed with hardware store bolts, very nasty. The name and identity by lunchtime: Salman Abedi, 22, kid born in Manchester, of political refugees from Libya. Name released by US authorities, hours before Brits did, odd, perhaps a political point being made about naming Muslim terrorists — even as British police were still conducting raids and blowing up suspicious packages, and might have been relying on non-disclosure.
Islamic State claiming responsibility, figuring it as a blow against decadence, was most likely opportunism. The brief possibility that this was some fucked-up young man attaching his misery to a cause, targeting young women and girls, began to fade in the public mind by late afternoon, when it was realised that the bomb was well put together. Abedi was known to security agencies, it was said. Someone noted that it was the fourth anniversary of the terrorist beheading of soldier Lee Rigby in London. As evening fell, the realisation had dawned that another attack was more possible than might have been thought eight hours earlier. May announced that the terror threat warning had been raised to “critical” (not by her, by an independent body), and that undercover cops and military personnel would be in the streets for the next few days, to secure railway stations and the like. The Euston bros will love that, the strong PM, the army, as if the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column had risen from their stone and were walking among us.
I won’t be surprised if there’s another incident or two in the next few days, either linked to some cell that the security forces didn’t find or a half-arsed copycat. Coming back to Paddington station in the evening, I looked around, its vastly high ceilings, the glory of its arches and glass stretching out along the tracks, thought as one does what it would be like if they hit here. In the broad hall, the station hawker was walking around — an employee in standard uniform, blue knit vest, yellow shirt, and a huge mailed glove on one hand, topped by a hooded hawk. The pigeons gather in the station all day until they’re crowding the place. The hawk never gets to fly, obvs, because it would, in an instant, tear the pigeons to pieces, rain feathers and blood down on us. All that happens is the hawk’s head is unhooded, it jumps around on the glove, grimacing, the hawker walks the station, arm held high, and the pigeons get the hell out of there, a cloud of thick purplish grey, out through the glass arches.
What would it be like if they hit here? The bang, or the shooting, the confusion, the vacuum of action, the paralysis that takes people over during the first moments of such events. I find no terror in the thought. The Bataclan, the shooting, executions that sends a chill through. But that’s presumably why they’ve switched to that. Terror holds no terror, on the one hand. Yet for those few days after, waiting for the election to be de-suspended, you go through the city, seeing it as targets, trying not to, imagining the scenario, and telling your mind, shutthefuckup shutthefuckup…..