Behind the black cloud there is a clear blue sky- surviving a terrorist attack and finding healing through music
On 3rd of June, 2017 I was caught up in the London Bridge attack.
This is my memory, as it appears to me now:
running for my life
A wave of hot sirens
I expect each footstep to be my last as I am certain the ground beneath me will explode at any moment.
Going one way, then the next
Trying to rely on my better instincts
The primal ones beyond, in some region of my brain that could save me
A genius instinctive part
But it all came down to luck, and I knew it then. Luck was all there was. Or fate, a rolling of the dice
will I live or will I die?
I would have lived well, loved well. This I know.
But focus- get out.
I kept calling her name, under my breath. A girl I just met, a friend I had just made. Gemma, Gemma. I hope you’re ok. I looked for you but I could not find you.
Where is the adult in charge? Can someone tell me where to go? Where is safe? In desperation I call my husband who’s away on a stag do. I’m in the middle of something terrible. I don’t know where to go. He tells me calmly to get as far away from London Bridge station as I can. To get as far away from the shard as possible. I look up but the shard looms over me, the shard is everywhere. I run in one direction but then gunshots reverberate and I see the terror on the faces of two men run towards me, so I instinctively ahead of them. As it happened, it was the wrong direction. Human beings aren’t very good at locating the source of a sound. It takes me a minute to realise this, as I run towards a police car, I turn back and run towards Tower bridge.
My husband calls me back, I’m in a sea of people looking similarly stricken, confused and shocked. He tells me what’s happened. A van crashed into people, it looks like a terrorist attack, just get out of there as soon as you can. Go back to Laura’s house, you won’t be able to go North tonight. I hear a helicopter loom over my head and I’m terrified that there’s more to come. Every part of me thrusts me forward, utterly aware that there’s no guarantee of my safety. I pass people in restaurants, happy and oblivious. I begin to feel like I’m a strange parallel universe where there are terrible things unfolding and strange people acting as if nothing is wrong. Part of me thinks I should be telling them to run, but another part of me suspects that the real terror has passed and that this terror is the one left behind, ricocheting around my own world. At tower bridge, I run until I find a bus stop. I meet a teenage couple, visibly shaken, and I recognize them from the chaos earlier. It turns out they’re from Kentish Town too. I tell them to stay with friends in South London tonight. I realise I am acting like the adult that knows what to do, even though I am a body on automatic pilot, saying the right things.
When I get to Laura’s she tells me she has seen the white, traumatized face of her neighbour. He had seen terrible things, and she told them to me. The news rolled on for hours, and it finally emerged that the gunshots I had heard had been the police shooting the terrorists. What felt like hours rolled on and I saw footage of people streaming the streets in panic, just like me. Then the various atrocities came to light, and I watched, feeling empty and hollow and separate from everything around me.
The next day I felt like a sleep walker, walking around in a fuzzy nightmare where the normality I’d come to expect no longer felt true. I walked around like an apparition of my former self, where my spirit hovered somewhere overhead, in a protected place. After the emptiness came the anger. A ball of pure hot white energy pulsed through me and I went to the gym and thrashed as much of the rage out of me as I could. Pictures of the horrors unfolded all over again on 24-hour news, images I didn’t need. Pictures that were a strange reflection of what had become a private hell. Behind the molton heat of anger and disbelief, my heart was breaking. A sense of isolation had crystalised within me. When I talked to others, I spoke through a screen of loneliness. Perhaps this is true of all trauma, or perhaps this was because I was alone when the attack happened.
After the anger, came the crying. I sobbed in the shower, I screamed with frustration and grief for the victims.
On Monday, I attempted normality. I arranged to see my brother and his friends in town. In an unfortunate coincidence they had been trapped in a building overlooking London Bridge during the attack. Their terror had been different to mine, but they were shell shocked too. I left to teach a lesson and ended up on the tube during rush hour. In my dazed state, I hadn’t thought ahead or anticipated what my journey home would be like.
The packed carriage was boiling hot, and it felt like there was no space to breathe. I was flanked by blank faces holding open newspapers- pictures of the devastation, the aftermath, and the victims surrounded me. Seeing the faces of those who were cruelly taken away was too much to bear. Tears started streaming down my face. I begged silently for someone to notice, to offer me their seat so I could catch my breath. No one did. The grief hit me in the chest like a tidal wave, and I could no longer contain it. Huge sobs rose up until I could no longer contain them. Finally, someone offered me their seat, and I collapsed into it, trying to catch my breath. A softly spoke lady asked me my name, and someone else cleared a space for her to sit down. She asked me what had happened and I managed to tell her, between gasps, that I’d been at London bridge. The faces remained blank but shifted uneasily in their seats. Shame washed over me, and I felt so small. The lady told me her name was Chip, and I’ll always remember her kindness. Her humanity brought me a step closer to calm.
When I got to the ticket barriers, I realised I’d left my card on the tube. The guard on duty saw my distress and took me to the office where he offered me a cup of tea. He told me he’d been in similar situations during his career and told me he understood. He promised me it would get better. Every time I’m at Kentish town station now I look for him, to thank him, but I’ve not seen him since.
The next few days I felt heavy with sadness and wondered if the happiness I had worked hard for would return. I realised I needed to protect myself and avoid telling people that I had been there, until I had made the closest thing to peace with it, at least.
I tried to find an explanation of what was happening to me, and worried that I had PTSD. I found an article online, that had been written just after the Manchester attack and it advised victims not to take sleeping pills or to seek counselling too quickly. Apparently, the brain needs time to process trauma first. Interfering with this process can increase the likelihood of developing PTSD. This was immensely helpful advice, as it’s human nature to want to block out the memories when you’re going through something like this.
By Thursday, it was time for my rehearsal with the choir. I was anxious about getting on the tube, but it was a lot easier than it had been on Monday. I told a couple of choir friends ahead of time, and they greeted me with a warm hug and no questions. It meant everything. Our show at Union Chapel was coming up and I wondered if I would feel strong enough to perform.
During the rehearsal, our conductor spoke with sadness about the attack- there was a palpable feeling of emotion in the room and it dawned on me that everyone had been affected in their own way. We hoped that we could bring some beauty and harmony (literally and figuratively) to the broken hearts at our show at Union Chapel (and hopefully our own). To close the rehearsal, we got into a circle, closed our eyes and sang ‘Hide and Seek’ by Imogen Heap. Every note felt like medicine, and every word rang true.
Where are we?
What the hell is going on?
The dust has only just begun to form
Crop circles in the carpet
Spin me ’round again
And rub my eyes
This can’t be happening
When busy streets amass with
People who would stop to hold
Their heads heavy
Something very special happened in that moment. The black cloud that had been hovering over me began to shift, and the thick layer of isolation I had felt began to slip away. I felt a thawing, a sense that this darkness would pass and that crucially- I was not alone. It as a human truth that however alone we feel, we are not alone- we are loved, and we are able to give love.
I am not the same person as I was a year ago- not exactly. At the core, I am- but my reality has changed. When life happens to you, in various ways, your heart may break. Then it may heal again, but it will be different. It will not be the same, and you will not be the same. But perhaps in that space you will be filled with a deeper compassion than you had before.
Our show at the Union Chapel was a healing experience and helped me feel like myself again- I hope that it did the same for others who had similar experiences. If this is you, I urge you to connect with others- through music, dance, sport- whichever medium you are comfortable with. Behind every black cloud there is a clear blue sky, and you will find it again.