“Above all rivers they river hath renown,
Whose beryl streames, pleasant and preclare,
Under thy lusty walles runneth down;
Where many a swan doth swim with winges fair,
Where many a barge doth sail, and row with oar,
Where many a ship doth rest with top-royal.
O town of townes, patron and not compare,
London, thou art the flower of Cities all.”
–William Dunbar, c. 1500
I lived in London for four months in 1994 during my sophomore year of college. It was the very best time of my life, hands down, and I have never stopped longing for that city. Eleven years have passed, and still I get sentimental over the smell of diesel fumes or the taste of bread baked well. I have long considered London my spiritual home, the place where my true soul was born. Ask me why, and I can’t give you an intelligent sounding answer. Most likely I’ll just stand there and turn all starry-eyed, staring off in the distance, trying to assign words to the way it felt just to walk from my flat to the tube station on the corner every morning. So why do I love London? As some old torch song goes, “I don’t know why, I just do.”
I glimpsed the headlines about today’s bombing in much the same way you might look right past the person you’re meeting at the theater: I looked directly at it, but it didn’t register. During my time in London IRA bomb threats and store front explosions were not unheard of, and I guess I glossed over the news with the same attitude I had early on the morning of 9/11–it’s probably nothing. I spent all day in my Charlotte class, fretting over an assignment that took enormous amounts of time and concentration. Just before I left I checked my email, and there was a message from my best friend, P., who shared those glorious months abroad with me and who understands firsthand the significance London holds in my life. Assuming I’d heard the news (and had fully grasped its import), she said she was glad it had not worked out for me to spend part of the summer in London after all, a possibility I’d been plotting and pondering for most of the spring. I immediately clicked from my email to the news, and had I been standing I might have collapsed. Oh my God, I may or may not have said out loud. Steve is in London.
I have known Steve since my freshman year of college; he was my College Writing professor August through December. I knew immediately that he was someone I wanted to know for a long time. All these years later we are still friends, more like family, and if friendship operated on a contract basis I would be renewing mine. Steve is still someone I want to know for a long time. His family is like family to me, his wife one of my closest friends, his daughters like surrogate children. Just this past Tuesday I videotaped the girls’ swim meet, and before I left I made sure he knew how jealous I was of his upcoming trip to London where he would be presenting at a conference. He left on Wednesday morning.
I was in London when Steve’s oldest daughter was born eleven Aprils ago. Back then technology was such that we had to schedule a time to use one of two computers sanctioned by the university for checking email. There was no Internet to speak of. We would go in pairs once a week and spend our entire allotted hour reading and rapidly responding to our telnet messages. It was awesome. On April 10 I got an email from Steve announcing the arrival of his first child. She had been born on the 9th, on the very same day my mother, sister, aunt, and grandmother, who were visiting for spring break, accompanied me to Hard Rock Cafe for dinner. While we were there I purchased a tiny HRC t-shirt for the baby who, unbeknownst to me, had been born just hours before I saw that little shirt hanging in the window of the restaurant that faced Piccadilly Circus.
Five years later Steve and his family, now two daughters strong, left the day after Christmas to spend an entire semester in London with students who would have the same life-changing experience I’d once had. I drove to the airport to see them off and stood with my face pressed against the glass until the plane was a speck in the blue winter sky. It was a simpler time, a time when it was okay to accompany your family to the platform and hug them one last time before they vanished into the gangway. I still remember how sad and heavy I felt as they disappeared one by one, the youngest, then three, lagging behind to deliver one last dramatic wave with her tiny pink carry-on in tow. I went to visit them that spring, and one of the most vivid memories I have of that trip is the very first day, just after I arrived outside their flat. I pressed the buzzer to announce my arrival, and they didn’t even answer, they just ran down the three flights of stairs to greet me. I’m not sure what felt more like home–being back in London, or being with Steve and his family.
So it’s understandable that my hands were shaking and my knees were practically nonexistent and my heart was in my throat when I read–really read–the news this afternoon. I gathered enough composure to call a mutual friend and blurt, “You need to call L. right now. Steve is in London.” She said, simply, “Okay,” and disconnected. Somehow I couldn’t bear to make that call myself. If I am ever a tribal woman in another life my name will be Shit of the Chicken. If I’m truly honest with myself, though, I’ll admit that my psyche is fragile this week and I just could not conceptualize more bad news. I am not yet over last Thursday’s bombshell–the death of my friend and co-worker–and really, I’m not over the crises from the Thursday before that. I was in need of a buffer, a conduit to keep me from overloading my circuits and blowing all my fuses.
My phone rang in the elevator. If you’ve ever tried to use a cell phone in an elevator you know what happened as I ding-dinged down the elevator shaft of Charlotte’s Mint Museum of Craft and Design: “I——–Steve——-plane——–tube——–flat——–chaos——–.” WHAT? WAIT! I screamed, just as the elevator landed and the doors slid open to reveal a sizeable crowd of people. “I was on an elevator!” I muttered as I slinked through the crowd. “Say all of that again.”
I haven’t actually turned on the television this evening, but surfing the web has told me all I need to know. Many of the places damaged today were places I frequented when I lived in London, and seeing them broken and torn gives me a feeling similar to the one I experienced when the people who bought my grandparents’ house cut down the blue spruce and willow trees that served as a backdrop for the scenery of my childhood. The new King’s Cross Station was being constructed in 1994; when I returned in 2000 I saw it in all its completed glory. Scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Glenn Close’s The 101 Dalmations were filmed there. I rode the tube to the Russell Square stop on the Piccadilly line at least three days a week; the building where our classes were held was right around the corner from the Russell Hotel, and I liked to sit in the square and read on those rare occasions when I was early for class. I never felt awkward or out of place among those people, always felt at ease in the shoulder to shoulder crowds moving in unison down Edgware Road.
The call went like this: “I talked to L. She has heard from Steve, and he is okay. He said he thinks it all happened before his plane ever touched the ground. He said the tube was closed so he had to walk to his flat, where he plans to stay until the chaos has settled.” As I fought to regain feeling in my limbs and negotiated with my heart for a slower pulse, I resisted the urge to start spitting curses at the likes of Tony Blair and George Bush for inviting this kind of tragedy, for I’m convinced that they do, they invite it right in and then pound their fists in outrage and start shouting words like “retribution” and “justice” and “somebody will pay.” Somebody will pay? Yeah, and it’s us. I am still resisting, or trying to, anyway, because in a world that is truly (sorry, Mom) fucked up, I have my family, and my extended family, and my friends, and for one more miraculous day we are all intact.
(That’s my oldest sister in the picture. She was 8 at the time.)