Remembering the 7/7 Bombings

Like most days that end up being tumultuous, the 7th of July 2005 began like any other.  I walked my daughter to school.  Then I headed off to the west end for a few small purchases.  Walking home, I noticed the traffic was gridlocked, which was unusual.  Then I noticed that there were far more pedestrians than usual, many of them talking anxiously into their mobiles, which is what we called phones back then.  People nowadays call those phones bricks but they weren’t.  They were too small.  And not very good either because the people I saw seemed to be stabbing at their mobiles rather frantically.  The air itself felt frantic.

It was obvious that something that happened.  It just wasn’t obvious yet what it was.  When I reached Tavistock Square, about a block from where I live, it was cordoned off.  So I went around the corner, thinking to reach my street from the bottom end.  That was even more heavily cordoned off.  I stood on the corner of Russell Square and panic hit me.  What was going on?  Why were there so many police about?  And how was I going to get home?  Since I had nowhere else to go, I went to see if I could get into my local church.  Fortunately it was open.  The vicar, who lived locally and only needed to walk down the road to get to work, was already there.  He told me he’d heard there had been a bomb on the underground.  The curate arrived, in quite a state, as he’d had to get off the bus he was on and walk, so bad was the gridlocked traffic. 

Information rolled out very slowly and without much accuracy, at first.  You have to remember this was a time of no smart phones, no social media outlets, considerably fewer websites than we have now, and even less in the way of satellite connections.  The vicar and curate set up an ancient television in the church with a bunny aerial (so the picture was lousy) in an attempt to catch up on the news.  It was at first thought there were six bombs.  One image I saw that haunted me was a woman clutching a white bandage thing to her face because it had been burned.

And at this point I have to go away from this blog and make coffee because I CANNOT get through this story without crying.  Every year when this anniversary comes around, I cry.  The bombings were awful.  All bombings are awful.  I wasn’t part of them, I wasn’t injured, I know no one personally who was.  But I live in the area where it happened and I saw terror.  But I also saw unbelievable kindness.  In a state of some shock, realising that I couldn’t go home and didn’t know if and when I would be able to, I resigned myself to staying in the church all day and making tea.  All the doors were opened and all the staff and volunteers, like me, helped everyone who came through them.

People came to the church for all sorts of reasons.  The main one was that they were lost.  They had been turfed off their buses or their tubes or their trains and they were bravely trying to walk to work.  Some walked for over an hour.  What was interesting was that no one thought to turn around and walk home – they kept going.  The trouble was, they didn’t actually know how to get to work because they were usually on a bus or tube.  No smart phones, remember.  No google maps.  No GPS.  And no one carries an A-Z in their pocket.  So they came into the church most to ask for directions.  A battered old London A-Z was peered at quite a lot that day.  The curate fortunately knew where everything was and could give clear, concise directions.  I knew to get to places in the area – but I didn’t know the street names (I still don’t).  People also came in, on the way to work, to use the loo because they were desperate and had been walking for ages.  Others came in for comfort and support and ended up watching the TV all day, which I didn’t think was a good idea.  One of the BBC channels had cancelled all their programmes and had non-stop news.  None of it was good.  A big factor was that the phones that day were almost useless.  Almost all the networks went down at one point or another.  Even the church landline didn’t work half the time.  It was the briefest flavour of what an apocalypse would look like:  you don’t know what’s going on, nothing is working, and all communication networks are down.  Not knowing what was going on was the most terrifying.  The fact that it was so close to where I lived was even more terrifying.  The sense of shock never left me all day, yet I worked through it all, feeling rather distant but not saying anything of much importance.

I also spent all day worrying about how to get home.  I worried about my daughter but decided she was safest in school.  I went to ask one of the police officers guarding the nearest bit of cordon whether I’d be able to get home.  She didn’t know.  This was not reassuring.  The day was interminable.  It was grey and sticky and humid – exactly as it is today, in fact.  Around four o’clock, I decided to see if I could get my daughter and myself home.  I went to fetch her from school and discovered that most of the kids had been picked up by parents during the day.  There hadn’t been any lessons and they hadn’t been told much.  We took a different route home, skirting the cordon, until we got as close as we could to our street a block away.  I told the policeman there that I lived in a street within the cordon and he escorted us virtually to our front door, perhaps to ensure that we were safe, but maybe also ensuring we weren’t fibbing.  Strangely, this is the only memory my daughter has of that day.  Well, she was only five.  Years later in secondary school, she met someone from a different primary school who had actually felt the rumble of the bomb under her school.  Because the school was so close to Kings Cross, they were evacuated at once.  I’m grateful to this day that my daughter was safe.  That I was safe in the church.  Indeed, that the church was there at all.  Where else would I have gone?

It took days for that cordon to lift but the reminders never left the area.  There was a tent near Russell Square tube where one could sign a book.  There were flowers everywhere.  School was shut the next day and my daughter and I helped out in the church again.  I went because I couldn’t stand being at home with the thought of this act of unbelievable evil so close to my doorstep.  The bus that was blown up was one block from my front door.  Another of the bombs was just blocks away from my local tube station.  Everything was closed for a long, long time.  I walk past reminders of that day every day.  On Russell Square itself, on the spot where so many flowers were left for the dead and injured, an oak tree was planted, with a plaque.  I find this the most respectful commemorative act I’ve seen.  The commemorative “thing” on Tavistock Square is, to me, very ugly indeed.  At the spot where the bus’s roof was blown off, they cleared away the gardens and laid down a flat metal sheet with the names of the dead on it.  Not only is it ugly and thus disrespectful of the dead, but it’s depressing.  The oak tree signifies life and hope and reminds us that we must go on and we must live our lives.  The Tavistock Square memorial makes you want to lie down and die. 

Years later, it’s the kindness shown on that day that stays with me.  The vicar and the curate went out to see if they could help anyone near to where the bombings took place.  Everyone in the church spent the day helping others.  Not forgetting all the stories of bravery I’ve since heard, people helping others on that day without thought to themselves.  The day is being “remembered” less and less as the years go by but I still hear stories that have me in tears.  On Saturday, I listened to an interview on the radio with Daniel Biddle who had been severely injured in one of the bomb blasts.  His injuries were appalling and as I listened to him speak so clearly and with such amazing presence about the difficulties he’s suffered with since, I not only ended up in tears but also felt amazed that someone could go through such hell and wind up at the other end a truly inspiring individual.  My heart goes out to everyone who was injured or who lost loved ones.  (Link below)

On the thirteenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, I began writing a story called An Angel in the Mirror.  A friend had begun a publishing house which produced anthologies of various topics:  literary, sci-fi, flash fiction … and Christian.  I felt inspired to write something for the first Christian anthology despite, at the time, no longer feeling I could adhere to any fixed religion.  I’ve tried a few.  I tried Christianity.  I believe in God but I have problems with doctrine, ritual and approach.  So while I regard the years I spent attending my local church and trying to be part of the community as good years with good memories, full of good people, I’ve never really felt part of the Christian faith.  I’ve sometimes regret this.  I’ve never really been part of anything.  It seems it’s in my nature to always be apart.  However, the story I wanted to write had at its centre the church I’d come to love so much.  The entire story appeared instantly to me – I had no problem with the plot or characters, although I did have to edit it down considerably.  It was, basically, an easy story to write.  But it was also excruciating.  It begins with the day of the bombings, the events unfolding as I remembered them.  I had to do a great deal of research to get my facts right and found myself reliving the terrible events of that day.  So it was a tough ride.  It was also the hottest summer I can ever remember, temperatures reaching 40C daily and not dropping below 30C at night.  The plant life in Bloomsbury died.  The squares were brown.  No one slept.  It was a fraught time. 

The story tells of a middle-aged, or older, woman who works in the church and her experiences of that day and the days and years that follow.  Most of it is about the relationship she develops with a homeless guy she finds asleep in the doorway of the church on that fateful morning.  The friend who runs Clarendon House Books sent me a copy of the email sent to him by a reader for the Christian anthology, which states that the story was perhaps too long BUT to grab it with both hands because it was that good.  I was gobsmacked.  It was probably the first opinion I’d heard of my work by someone who didn’t know me and whom I didn’t know.  The story was accepted for the 2018 edition and appeared a second time in Gold:  The Best from Clarendon House Anthologies.  I have since also published it in my own collection of short stories:  The Nightmarist and Other Stories (Links below)

I gave a copy of The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Christian Stories Anthology 2018 to my vicar when he left the church, thinking he might enjoy the stories, that he might even like mine.  I was mortified when he wrote me a brief note later to say that it had made him cringe.  I realised this was because he thought I was the main character and that her thoughts were mine.  I wanted to write back and tell him that this is not how writers work.  Her opinions about the church are not mine.  She is my creation but she is not me.  Worse, he may have though the vicar in the church was based on him.  It wasn’t!  I made up a completely different sort of person.  In fact, no one I know ended up in the story at all.  This is not how I work.  I never put people I know into stories.  They’re stories.  It’s made up.  Only the bombs were real.  The church exists but the name has been changed.  I was never able to apologise to my ex-vicar for embarrassing him.  I thought I’d just end up embarrassing him, and myself further.  So I left it.

The pain of that day has never left me.  I wish it could be undone but it can’t.  One finds a way to go on, like the amazing Daniel Biddle has found a way to go on, but it doesn’t undo the traumatic memory and the scars never fade.  I don’t have any wise words to end this blog, only to say that all that counts in the end is kindness.

If you’d like to read An Angel in the Mirror, here is a link to my anthology:

The Nightmarist and Other Stories:

https://www.susannahjbell.com/the-nightmarist-and-other-stories.html

If you don’t want to buy The Nightmarist or want a taster first, I am giving away the story free for the month of July 2022 on my website:

https://www.susannahjbell.com/free-read-an-angel-in-the-mirror.html

Here is a link the Clarendon House anthologies I’ve appeared in:

https://www.susannahjbell.com/clarendon-house-anthologies.html

Here is a link to Clarendon House Books:

https://www.clarendonhousebooks.com/

Here’s the link to the BBC programme where I heard Daniel Biddle being interviewed:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0018wrq

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About Susannah J. Bell

I am a writer of science fiction and other strange and surreal works.
This entry was posted in 2022: A Fresh Start, General, Life in Bloomsbury, My Books and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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