Saturday night. A normal, summer Saturday night. Even the trains were running properly for the first weekend in ages. The sun had been shining all day.
We very rarely go into the city on a Saturday night, no more than once a month I would guess. In fact, this Saturday night was exactly a month since the last time we went out for dinner in central London, for our anniversary.
We’d spent the day doing normal things, ParkRun, dog walk, grocery shopping, ironing, sitting in the garden.
At the restaurant, we talked to the barman about gin (he set up a mini tasting for us), we spoke to him about his odd accent (he was Danish but had spent a few years in Newcastle). We drank 2 cocktails each. My shoes hurt my feet. We laughed, chatted about our holiday and the unlikelihood of my balloon flight happening the next day (yet again).
We went to our table, the waitress was charming, we ordered our food, chatted with the sommelier. We sat next to each other on a banquette. I said to MrS that I’d rather have sat at the next table, but that was instantly forgotten when the couple next to us told their waitress they’d got engaged that day. Cue lots of congratulations and me taking pictures for them on their phones. We chatted a little with them but tried not to intrude.
At 10pm I asked for the bill and when MrS returned to the table we paid and left, thanking our fantastic waitress and wishing the young couple all the best. Our lives briefly touched each other’s.
At the reception desk the waitress said to us “we’ve just heard there’s been an incident, would you like to wait in the bar and have another drink, while we find out what it is?”
MrS left me at the desk while he went down the steps and spoke to a chap who was waiting outside. “It’s a stabbing” he reported back.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay sir? Please be careful”.
With promises that we would be, we left the restaurant.
"Just as I was looking around to see who they were, the gun shots went off."
It was unusually quiet round the market, given that it was only about 10:15pm, and very warm, there was no one milling around. As we walked down Winchester Walk and onto Cathedral Street, we crossed to the back of the market, passed by the front of Fish! to cut through to the steps to London Bridge. We overheard two guys talking and saying “look out, they’ve got some broken bottles or something”, and just as I was looking around to see who they were, the gun shots went off.
I’ve never heard gun shots in real life before. I didn’t for one minute doubt that’s what they were.
We’d already been walking pretty fast, but at that point, MrS grabbed my hand and shouted “run”. At the time we didn’t know it was the police, we only knew it could be any idiot with a gun, and he was only 300 feet away, max. Even as I started running I was thinking, “thank goodness I wore these shoes” because instead of my usual 4 inch heels I was wearing low heeled sandals. There was no time to remove them, we just ran.
We ran past some people running in the opposite direction, and I shouted “don’t go that way” and they seemed a bit perturbed by this but we didn’t stop to think about that. As we ran up Green Dragon Court alley, the paella guys said “don’t run” and I remember thinking “Don’t run?! Don’t fucking run??”
"I felt removed from myself"
I felt removed from myself, a feeling that only intensified as, when we reached the bottom of the steps up to London Bridge, we saw a badly wounded person (MrS says it was a woman) being attended to by either a police officer or paramedic and a member of the public.
Simultaneously I was horrified by the blood and thought “that poor person is dead” but was also thinking “be careful running up these steps, you will fall”.
At that point, we still had no idea what was going on at the top of those steps. As we exited on to the bridge we were confronted with a view of police vans and ambulances and that’s about all my brain could take in. It felt like I’d inadvertently run onto a film set.
At the top of the steps the police were shouting at people to “clear the area, run”.
Is anyone following us…?
My feet hurt…
I really, really need a wee. My pelvic floor is crap…
Are the trains still running…?
Can we stop running yet…?
In London Bridge station no one seemed to have any sense of urgency about them, it was as if all was normal. A young man on the escalator asked what had happened but I don’t remember what MrS told him, we just got to our usual platform and got the first train that arrived. If it wasn’t the last train they let through then it was certainly one of them.
MrS refused to sit down and stayed standing until the doors of the trains closed and we pulled away.
“What are you doing? Sit down”. I was trying to get to BBC news on my phone to see what on earth was happening. I only realised later that he was making sure no one suspicious was getting on the train behind us.
While we watched the early reports about the van on the bridge coming in on the BBC news feed, and as they described how the suspects had run amok with their weapons, we realised how close we had been to coming face to face with one of them.
MrS called his son from the train*. He was in Clapham and they had already seen the events unfolding. They abandoned their plans to come into town.
His phone rang when we were in the cab from Lewisham to home. It was the Hawksmoor calling to see if we were ok. They told him that we had been the last people allowed to leave the restaurant, after that they were on lock down. When we got home we both sat watching the events unfold on the TV. This had been a “sliding doors” moment for us, we knew. Two minutes later and we wouldn’t have been allowed out of the restaurant. Two minutes earlier we would have been in the path of the terrorists.
That morning I couldn’t stop watching the news. I was trying to work out where we fitted in the timeline. We hadn’t seen the hundreds of people running down Borough High Street, but then we hadn’t gone that way. Eventually there was no new news, and I switched it off.
It still felt all so unreal to me the next day. Like it had happened to someone else or I’d been watching it on tv. We are so over-exposed to realistic dramas and coverage of real life events these days. Rightly or wrongly, news is broadcast almost as soon as it is happening, we expect that now.
"This time he had to worry about me too"
MrS took it worse than me. I didn’t understand why to start with, him having lived here his entire adult life, experiencing the IRA atrocities in the 80s/90s and the more recent Islamist terror attacks of this century. This time it had been different, he said, this time there wasn’t just himself to worry about. This time he had to worry about me too.
He told me I shouldn’t wear heels when we went out in town again.
“Screw that” I said.
If we stop wearing heels, if we stop eating out, if we stop using public transport, if we stop shopping, if we stop visiting museums, if we stop going to work, where does the ‘stopping’ end?
There are barriers on London Bridge now, like there are on Westminster. Will we spend the rest of our life walking only where there are barriers? Of course not.
Because then they win. And when that happens, humanity is lost.
*we did call all our offspring, obviously, but none of them were in central London