Written by Cat Harwood
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#Halted #LondonAttack #Terrorism
On June 3rd, a trio of terrorists in a rented van struck pedestrians on London Bridge before going to do a series of knifings at nearby pubs and Borough Market. This attack has become known as the London Attack, or the London Bridge attack, and led to 48 people being injured and 7 killed. Amplifying the tragedy of this event, was it’s proximity to a number of other terrorist attacks that have occurred in the UK in 2017 such as the Westminster Bridge attack on the 22d of March and Manchester on the 22d of May.
This story follows my experience on the evening of the London Bridge attack and the Sunday after when I found myself stuck in a stopped tube car.
“Halted” processes the aftermath of such a horrific event through an exploration of fear and the thin line between trust and apprehension. How this balance creates the order of the public spaces, we far too often take for granted. And most importantly, what happens when that comfortable status quo begins to break down.
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“Cat pondered how fertile the ground her current situation could be for such warped behavior. Strangers stuck on a tube. How such a small confined space somehow had such unconfined uses for violence. For terror.”
There is a sound to motion.
Generally anyway. But this one seemed unnameable. Not quite a whirring, far from any semblance of a squeak. It’s the feeling of forward, of progression that has now utterly halted in its tracks. This silence, where there once was the anxious squealing of a tube car on rails, had struck this sparsely populated car in a universally abrupt manner. Cat, looking up, caught the eyes of not just one stranger (a social taboo of the highest order, only punishable by being outside in the rain without an umbrella, London’s greatest punishment for such crimes), but the gaze’s of each and every person who was also stuck sipping that same stagnant air as her. This was surely not looking like a good start to her day.
A social faux pas on any other day would have been a mere nuisance on the same level of an auto-corrected spelling mistake to a boss or a crush. Annoying sure, and would no doubt swarm relentlessly around your brain’s fragrant pile of errands and other worries (at least, until the night of sleep fell and drove it away again). But this was a strange sort of affair to occur on a Sunday afternoon after what was so large an incident that it had already assumed the name of the city itself “The London Attack.”
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Cat was not thirsty to engage in the righteous hashtagging and tweeting that was boiling away online that very moment that would surely continue far into the night. No, she felt a kind of stinging ache (of the funny bone variety) just thinking of a version of Cat, just a short two years ago who would have been happy to falsely insert herself into the narrative of the attack. Back then she was hollowed and hungry for connection, and seemed to crave a cocktail of the horrific and herself.
That need was no longer present the night of the attack.
She had been close to the incident, that is to say by Waterloo on the Southbank, a twenty-minute walk or a short drive away. However, she knew full well that where she had spent an evening slightly dozing off at a theater production, some of Saturday’s other revelers had been met with knives or a van hell bent on veering them off a bridge.
She felt burdened by this separation of experience. The collected loves, favorite books, and pet peeves of those lost seemed to disintegrate like rocks into sand, yet here she was, alive and well to moan about some play to her boyfriend over Skype. Her only wound a burn she had gained from cooking dinner the night prior.
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It seemed cruel that such small matters of going to one market for dinner or deciding to take a stroll on London Bridge can be the markers of who wins the right to continue on with their own unique banalities.
That thought, on choices and the power they sheepishly held, had stuck with Cat ever since news of the incident hit her phone as she was on her way home that Saturday night. It was why she had clung to her bed covers more than usual the morning after the attack, playing with the fantasy that perhaps the small rectangle of her room could somehow break away from the dull-brick building in which it inhabited. Free to float off from her little makeshift home of leafy London and out into the uncaring cosmos.With an all-American urge to resist the nagging that suddenly made her mind feel numb with what ifs, and complaints from far too lethargic muscles, Cat had sprung from her post-Saturday night cocoon. Showered, dressed, and with two slabs of chunky peanut butter toast rumbling in her stomach, she made her way down the hallway of her flat, her left hand making one last anxious grab on the keys in her backpack before swinging the door closed with a clank.
Cat was going to sink into old habits.
Meaning the most tried and true method of comfort and self-care. Eating. Specifically: fatty meats, sugars, and carbs. And with a craving for Polish food set deep in her heart, she left the world of clashing dark green leaves and neon-jacketed police officers for the subdued browns and grays of London’s Underground World: The Tube.
This is how Cat ended up in the dim of emergency lights later that Sunday afternoon, a silent hiss of air pumping into the tube car, and the questioning glances of the increasingly less strange strangers around her.
Her throat contracted, as if the halt of the tube had made a collision with her larynx, instead of some seemingly invisible wall. This collision was made worse by the increasing build up of worries in her mind that she had hoped to leave far behind in her bedcovers. It seemed that a quiet mind during extraordinary times craved company. Her mind went to action movies, dramatic one-act plays. She concocted the kind of commotion that only came about when people were unconcerned with social order. When their own paranoias painted the shared public space as fragile and uncertain. Communal resources now prizes to be divided up and won for the only thing that mattered. That of yourself and those you love. Cat pondered how fertile the ground her current situation could be for such warped behavior. Strangers stuck on a tube. How such a small confined space somehow had such unconfined uses for violence. For terror.
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And that girl. She was sitting four seats down from Cat. A 20-something with long blonde hair, pale skin, and wide rectangular frames that made her brown eyes seem wide and accusing, like an owl’s. Her thin dangling earbud cords seemed like the strings of a doll in the dark of the tube car, waiting to be pulled. And those eyes. She kept turning her head and darting her gaze straight at Cat. Her eyes cohabitated with a wild hesitation, they spoke a question that soon came to rest on each person’s face in that car: What is going on?
The silence remained. Whether the girl and the rest of the tube car was cowed by the social contract of noncommunicating on the tube, or by something darker and more recent, was foggy.
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The tall, tan-skinned man in the brown leather jacket and jeans with patches. The mom with her rust-colored hair squeezed into a messy bun, a baby in her arms. Even the typical commuter, in a sleek-fitting suit and impeccable oxfords, seemed to share in a state of quiet qualms.
They and Cat had all seemingly rejected the narrative desired by the people who had orchestrated the attacks from last evening. They had left the house after all, having adopted that most British of lips, upper and stiff, and went on with their days as usual. A Sunday afternoon out was an occurrence that would not falter in the face of fear, and yet here they were now. One small moment of abnormality popped into their laps, and they were caught in a perfectly laid trap, the kind that lies beyond the falsely calm and collected surface. The fear of a mind that is given nothing else to do but wait in an increasingly warm, quiet, and uncertain dark.
Just as this dark started to feel unbearable, it subsided.
With the light returned and that ungraspable sound of motion once more moving forward, the collective feeling of fear, of a mind left to wander into terror, disintegrated into the thick and layered social fabric of the tube once more.
The Mom had gone back to softly humming to her baby, the leather-jacketed man was flipping through some mindless app on his phone, but that 20-something dollish girl…she still looked to Cat with a question mark. Her face the only one still painted with a smirk, this time in past tense: “What just happened?”
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The mere minutes it took to get to the next stop, felt utterly minuscule after the suspended moment of silence Cat had just spent stuck on the tube. Yet here she and the other people in the car were, being made to get off the train. It’s service suspended for some mumbled and unheard reason. The dollish girl had asked the Mom if she heard what went wrong; the Mom’s reply was as inaudible to Cat as the conductor that had spoken prior. The same tension that had made her ponder the worst possible scenarios, that made her fear as soon as the tube car had stopped, now made her want to go up to the two women, to ask them about what had happened. Yet as Cat made her way to go talk to them, her mouth felt as clamped shut as it had been on the tube. But this time it felt different. Rather than a fear to engage, she felt the burgeoning feeling of shame.
Cat had bought into the narrative fully that one must embrace love in instances after terror. That you must live every moment, your fear tossed to the wind. Stopping one’s existence and being frozen by the threat of these small choices and their looming consequences, was bandied about on TV as the most unfashionable thought of the week. Cowardly. Unpatriotic even.
Cat was not living according to that narrative. She was so riddled with this fear and conspiratorial thinking that she was going to talk to a stranger to try and sooth the burning ache of needing to know. To settle these increasingly irritable fires that she had laid the timber for herself.
It seemed past Cat might not just exist in the past after all.
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No. She would not ask, Cat thought as she walked past the Mom and the girl, and onto the crowded tube platform below. She was going to live in step with the lies she had told herself that very morning, follow them until they resembled some truth.
She would not let fear rule her world. She had a plan to eat perogies. She was going to live alone in London for almost three months. She was going to coexist with the world, one step and one hour at a time. Come what may, be they moments of cold and senseless terror, or simply falling on her face in the street, Cat was going to push on with her day. No need to know exactly what could be, or was, only what laid before her, in the freedom to exist in her moment.