I am not supposed to be here.
That’s almost all I can think as I run as fast as I can away from Tavistock Square. It is 7 July 2005. I am not supposed to be here.
I am supposed to be at work. I never come this way. Why am I here today?
What if I’m running straight into another explosion?
Context: 7 July 2005 has been weird from the very moment I stepped out of my front door. The Tube station was shut, I had to get a bus to another, unfamiliar one and try all manner of complicated routes to find myself at Warren Street being told the line is now closed and I have to get off the Tube.
I am a worrier by nature. I hate to be late and I hate to be hot and I hate to be bothered and today I am all three and if these are the biggest worries I will have all day then things can only get better. Or so I think.
And so I get on a bus on Euston Road. It is the 73. It will eventually take me to my office on Essex Road, but the traffic in front is so heavy; I’ve never seen anything like it before. I look at my watch. I am so horrifically late.
I turn my head that way and this, craning my neck as if staring at the traffic will magically move it out of the way. My telekinesis failing miserably, I give up. A number 30 bus turns off to the right ahead of me.
When things like this happen – weirdly heavy traffic, the Tube system disintegrating before your eyes – you don’t think something big is afoot somewhere, that it’s affecting other people.
Instead you become a newborn baby, at the centre of your own universe and furious that this is happening to you right now, right here. It is all about you. Nobody has ever been inconvenienced as much as you. This is the last day I will ever think like this.
The bus is not moving. This is pointless. I get off by Euston Square and resolve to walk to Angel. I phone my mum, and we bitch about traffic and London and buses and relatives we don’t talk to any more.
It is not sunny, but it is warm and muggy. As I am updating my mother on the weather, I see Euston Road is being cordoned off by the fire brigade. They’re not letting pedestrians through.
All the traffic is being diverted down Upper Woburn Place and it seems we must now follow it. There are grumbling from hacked-off commuters. “That’s the only way round, I’m afraid,” says a fireman, pointing down toward what I now know to be Tavistock Square. “That’ll be the quickest way for you. Everything shut at King’s Cross.”
And of course he is unaware what he is sending us to but of course we all are and I am not even supposed to be here. When am I ever on this street at this time of day? Never.
On TV, explosions are huge, impressive fireballs. Booming, crashing, spectacular. Witnesses, who usually know the blast is coming thanks to pages and pages of script foreshadowing it, look on in shock and awe, rooted to the spot by this tragic and dangerous, yet strangely beautiful, inferno.
Real life is not TV.
There is a dullish thud, a crackle and then a crunching sound and a taste in my mouth that I don’t recognise and a souring of the air. I become unsteady on my feet because my ears feel a bit funny. And even though I have never, ever heard that sound before in person, I know instinctively what it is. I have not seen what has exploded but I know something has exploded and then there is dust and the sound echoes off the buildings and now people are running.
I realise I am still on the phone to my mother. She is saying my name over and over. “What is it? Are you still there?”
“Yes,” I say. “And I have to go. I have to run.” And I hang up. I start running.
Terrorism has a power that nobody really talks about – it’s not just the footage of blood-smeared faces or smoke billowing from stations or row after row of police officers barking orders into walkie-talkies. It’s the very real sense of not knowing what is going to happen next, but having the unnerving feeling that it will, in some way, involve you.
I run back up Upper Woburn Place and streak straight across Euston Road without even checking for any traffic and up Eversholt Street. I could run over lava. Crowds of us, running.
I phone my boyfriend as I run but it’s too hard to explain because I don’t really know what is happening and why I’m here and where I am going to go and we are cut off.
I assume I am going to be dead before I reach the end of the street. All I can think about, apart from the fact I am not supposed to be here, is the bombing in Omagh – a warning was given that there was a device at one end of the street and everyone ran away from it straight into another one at the opposite end.
What is going to happen to me what is going to happen to me what is going to happen to me? And when?
I do not want to stop but I do not want to be alone and so, while I run, I get out my phone and call work to let them know something has happened and I don’t know what and that I am running. Perhaps if social media had been as prevalent then I would’ve tweeted – maybe I really would have been that much of an arsehole, but I doubt it.
I breathlessly tell a colleague that something has blown up and that I am running, but it is not the person I was hoping would answer the phone – the soothing, level-headed office manager who I sit beside – and I can see a woman having a panic attack so I hang up and go over to her.
The woman is crying hysterically and is shoeless. Leaning against a wall, as everyone rushes by, shouting to get out of the way, she clutches her chest as I reach her.
“What’s happening?” she says, her chest heaving with sobs. “What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. But we have to run.”
She shakes her head. I want to stay a while. Well, I say for a while – this is all happening in milliseconds, but she decides to run off down a different street and so I carry on, surprised by how fast I can go. Wondering if I will ever stop.
People coming the other way try to ask us what is happening. I don’t say anything but motion with my hands that they should turn around, while others running shout their theories. But they don’t stop.
Some runners start to slow after a while but I do not stop again until I reach Mornington Crescent Tube station, where I fall against the wall, hyperventilating, retching as I try to stand.
My phone buzzes. Missed calls. Mum. Dad. Friends. Work. Something big is happening.
Mum finally gets through and tells me the news is saying there has been an electrical surge on the Tube network. I tell her that doesn’t make sense; I was above ground. Something blew up.
As we talk, her voice then starts to become strained and strangely melodic. I now recognise this as panic, worry. “You need to get out of there,” she says. “There’s pictures. On the news. It’s a bomb. There’s a bus. It was a bus. Don’t get on a bus.”
I don’t know what to do.
I stumble along Camden High Street in a daze, finally stopping at the really ugly Sainsbury’s. I feel sick and lost. I talk to some girls who’d also been running. They’re crying. I can’t remember what they say, how I reply. We babble, brimming with adrenaline and shock. We feel lucky but scared; it doesn’t feel over.
The office manager calls me, her voice calm and reassuring. I tell her I am too frightened to get on a bus, that I don’t know where to go. My boss is coming to get me, she says. I am not to move a muscle. I don’t.
He eventually arrives in his huge, petrol guzzling, errrr, big black car – I am not a motoring expert, so sue me – and surveys me as I open the door.
“Bleedin’ ‘ell,” he chirps. “You look green.” And I laugh and it feels so good to laugh, then I feel guilty for laughing when others cannot.
And it is 10:30 in the morning but I can’t wait to get drunk.