And but so walking home through central London last night, I had figured I would be looking at at a total 28 Days Later scenario walking through the eerily deserted streets of the city, my footsteps echoing off of the centuries-old stone.
And then but of course, it was actually the case that hundreds of thousands of people were doing just what I was making their way home, or at least closer toward home, via pedal locomotion. With the Tube completely shut, several mainline rail stations closed, and central London bus service only falteringly starting back up, transport options were kind of limited. We all took to the streets, and our own legs. In a way, it was pleasing primitivization.
Not least because, hate to even say it, the weather turned really lovely. God smiled upon London's tragedy. But, much moreover, it was because of a strange, striking sense of community. There we were, all these migrating herds of Great Spotted Londoners, all on the hoof, all moving peacefully and largely silently, through the Royal Parks, down Piccadilly and Oxford Street, over the zebra crossings. And as I walked along with them, I felt more of a kinship with random people on the street than I ever had before. With each face I saw, I knew that the person wearing it knew exactly what had happened today. And I knew they were pretty much thinking about the same thing I was. London got a lot smaller, suddenly.
Really, that may be just about the only redeeming thing about awfulness such at yesterday's: the way people come together. I, and every other Londoner I know, spent most of yesterday frantically, but methodically, calling, e-mailing, and (mainly) texting everyone we knew who might conceivably have cause to be anywhere near central London. Making sure everyone we knew was safe. I heard from people I hadn't talked to for months. Old disagreements, driftings apart, all faded to insignificance. The only thing that mattered was that Ryan was safe, and Francesca was okay, and Elena had checked in, and Jacqui was ensconced at work, and Peter was way out in the Docklands. Etc.
Everyone I know is fine. I don't even know anyone (as far as I know) who knows anyone who got hurt. Touch wood.
The other thing I did, along with other expats I know, is manage the flood of overseas Are you okay? e-mails. Obviously, I tried to head off the tide by getting out a dispatch message before the U.S. East Coast woke up. But believe it or not! I have one or two friends and acquaintences who don't subscribe! And, of course, even those who knew I was okay wanted to chime in with their prayers and good wishes. I can tell you here as I told so many people personally that folks here definitely feel the love from overseas. And it means a lot. Heck, I stood up in my office, asked for everyone's attention (well, the 8 or 10 people who were still here at that point), and told them: "Um, my best friend wishes you to know that they are all thinking of us this morning in the U.S. Um, thank you." I was proud to do it.
Anyway, so when evening fell, I was facing a walk of about an hour to get home. But the other nice thing about my home and work locations is that I can almost walk from one to the other without leaving the central Royal Parks (St. James's Park, the Green Park, and Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens). This walk also took me by Buckingham Palace where, of course, the flag was already at half mast. Speaking of which, I picked up my own small Union Jack on Villiers St., which I proudly (defiantly?) stuck out of my shoulder bag. I may be wrong, but I felt it meant something more for me to display it since it isn't my national flag.
It was about halfway along the southern side of the Green Park that I decided maybe going home and being alone wasn't the winning strategy. So, despite not precisely knowing the precise status of our . . . whatever it is we seem to be conducting . . . I rang up Elena to meet for a drink. Happily, she happily agreed. So I veered north, toward Notting Hill, her neighborhood. I intended to precisely diagonally bifurcate Hyde Park but found the whole infrastructure for Live8 was still in place! That was days ago! Can't they tear down some tents and fences and stages? Ah well, I only had to detour a bit.
Elena and I met on the rooftop terrace of the Swan on Bayswater Road. I drank a lot, she drank a bit and ordered a veggie burger, which she made me eat half of. We enjoyed the last light of the evening, and shared our wild feelings from the day (as well as from the past few weeks). It was awfully, awfully nice to see a pretty, smiling, Slavicly mischievous, intelligence-lit, sympathetic face.
Of course we were actuely aware of how lucky we were to be enjoying a drink and a meal and a sunset while so many others were not, or were fighting for their lives in hospital, or missing limbs, or missing sons or daughters or parents or lovers or brothers or sisters. It seems always to be at such times that we feel the blessings of our own lives most keenly.
We descended to ground level, crossed the street, and strolled through Kensington Gardens, around the circular lake, ogling the swans, spectating those amazing deep-diving duck thingies, holding hands. I told her that, whatever else happened, we would remember for all our days the evening we got together after the London bombings. (She disagreed, but such is our relationship, and God knows she thinks for herself . . .)
Morning, and I got up at the usual time but with a less usual destination: Bousfield Primary School, which is my neighborhood's local hangout for unspeakably cool 5 - 10-year-olds. I was privileged to help out with an in-school community art project, which is part of the Earl's Court Festival. (It's co-sponsored by Response a local community centre where wildly sporadically and infrequently, and deeply inadequately I volunteer.)
So, basically, I spent the entire morning painting with a dozen of the coolest six-year-olds on the planet. Man, they were great. Just so lovely. And wildly talented. Basically, their job was to paint the word "festival" in various languages and scripts (bear in mind these are London kids their families hale from everywhere, and they're all amazing polyglots) across a long series of bunting/banner-type pieces of cloth. (That will be later hung up over the street fair part of the festival.) My job was to assist the artist-person who was running the gig, which mainly involved fastening smocks, pouring paint, handing out brushes and canvases, and basically keeping things moving along.
Trouble is, I'm complete rubbish at this job. I warned the artist person before we started. I told her straight out that when I've done this in the past (specifically, for last year's festival) I emphatically demonstrated my complete worthlessness for the role. (From the point of view of the artist trying to run the session, at any rate.) I get completely and defenselessly distracted by anyone who wants to talk to me to show me anything; I chitchat and want to learn about their lives and views rather than keeping things moving along; and, mainly, I give them whatever they want everything is allowed, nothing is forbidden, all things are facilitated. So, for instance, they were supposed to be painting only the word "Festival", in these pre-decided languages/scripts. But, naturally enough, wonderfully really, they all wanted to paint other things. Subversively, I supported that whole-heartedly encouraging them to follow their personal artistic visions wherever that led. They wanted colours that weren't in the allowed pallette. I got them to them on the sly. They wanted to finish what they were working on past the allowed time; I made it my business to see that they got to. Some of their work was absolutely brilliant.
And it was the greatest thing I've done all year. (Since I did the same thing last year.) There can be no question that hanging out painting with six-year-olds is the ultimate antidote to death and destruction.
Not that they didn't want to talk about what had happened. Quite the opposite. We spent the first ten minutes or so sharing observations about the attacks. I suppose the one thing I've learned about kids, in my admittedly very limited dealings with them, is that the very main thing about kids is that they're people. Small people. Largely inexperienced people. But people. They were going through the same thing today that I was. I was wildly privileged to go through it with them.
Riding the Tube to work at mid-day was surreal. At my local station, Gloucester Road, line maps had been marked up scratched out, really with magic marker. I don't think anyone's going to be getting a Circle Line train anytime real soon! But, after not too much of a wait, I got a District Line train, which got me where I needed to go. The carriage was completely quiet. Across from me, a woman and her daughter sat each noses stuck in their books. Beside them, a copy of the morning's Independent lay folded a scene of chaos and carnage filling the cover.
I sat in silence, not reading, just regarding the blue paint under my fingernails, in the wrinkles of my knuckles and one big blotch on my jeans where impish Jojo naughtily, and willfully, painted me. God bless her.