In Which You Find Some Words

11 July 2005

It is ten-'til-ten on a London Thursday morning. You are walking through Victoria Station towards the Underground with the rest of your family. "I thought you said we'd be out of rush hour!" your dad teases, and you laugh over your shoulder, "Hey, I make no guarantees." But as you near the crush of people for the tube stop, you see that the ones in the front aren't moving. You see the black iron gates pulled shut -- which happened earlier in the week at the stop for Herrod's, so no problem, you walked down the block to a different entrance. This time you see the black-and-white checkered helmets. Something is different. Word comes back through the crowd that two trains have collided, with no one seriously injured, but the tube is closed for now.

Your grandmother is no longer made of all original parts, so you don't want to walk the few miles up to the museums if you can help it. You walk up the road towards the museums a bit to the bus station and buy bus passes. You buy one-way tickets, blithely assuring your mother that they couldn't possibly have the tube closed for as long as all day. "They know how to handle this sort of thing," you say. "They've had practice."

But when the right bus pulls up, the driver is talking on his radio. People get off. He switches the sign to "Not in Service" and drives off. All the buses do. A man on the street tells you there have been explosions on the tube and on a bus, or at least that's what he heard. You don't know what to believe: rumors on the street, you never know. People will assume the worst. You decide to keep walking: you'll catch a cab, or if worse comes to worst you can walk all the way to the museums. When you get to Sloane Square, the tube is still closed. This starts to look more serious. The taxi queue is twenty deep, with more people milling around considering the proposition. Your grandparents insist that they can handle the rest of the walk, that if they get too tired we can all stop and rest. So you keep going, along with dozens or hundreds of Londoners on their way to work, filling the side roads and queueing for the phone booths.

You have a lovely, laughing family lunch in the cafeteria at the Victoria and Albert Museum -- it's much better than you could have reasonably expected a museum cafeteria to be -- and you have set out your plan for highlights: you will see the British heritage galleries and the cast galleries before heading over to the Science Museum for the Babbage Engine and the Natural History Museum for the dinosaur halls, the big ol' mammal hall, and general gawking. But as you leave the museum cafeteria, a museum staff member says, "You need to go this way, please." "Oh, we're not part of this tour group," your mom tells him. "Nonetheless," he says, "all guests must go to the Raphael Cartoon Gallery." So you follow the trickle of people as it becomes a stream, through the fashion and the Indian statuary, and soon you are with all the other guests at the V&A in a gallery full of Raphaels. It is astonishing in every direction: in the art and in the people. You find places for your grandparents to sit on the steps, as you had not yet picked up portable museum stools for them. You and other family members point out to each other that it may be awhile, yes, it may be awhile. You open your journal and start writing what has happened so far. People's voices stay calm: not frightened, not annoyed. Just waiting.

Eventually they open the gift shop for you to wander into, and then some of the other galleries. You see things you didn't expect to see: pewter and ironworking, the fashions of Queen Maud of Norway. The breadth of the place astonishes you. You are off-balance for the rest of the day. Everything strikes you as a marvel -- as it is, of course.

You try to go next door to the Science Museum, but they've closed it. The Museum of Natural History is open, with the dinosaurs. And the architecture; the dinosaurs wouldn't be half the comfort they are without the architecture. You take your grandfather to Baden-Powell House, where they are suitably impressed with his seventy years' involvement with Boy Scouts in one form or another. You all walk home, stopping for an ice cream at a gelateria on the way. (It says gelateria, but what they serve you is something between gelato and ice cream.) The headlines on the evening papers say, "Explosions in London. Many killed." You take a deep breath and keep walking. Everyone keeps walking. There's nothing else to do.

You get back to the hotel. Your parents handle a call from your great-aunt, who starts the calling tree back home. As you turn around to go out and get supper, they are locking the hotel down. They strongly recommend that no one leave. You eat in the hotel restaurant. The food is impeccable. You go up to your room and get on the exorbitantly priced broadband service. You e-mail everyone and post where you can: you are safe, you are fine, everyone in your family is fine, they should please not worry. Within the few minutes you're on, you start to hear responses: your usually-undemonstrative godfather in Northern California, your old high school friend in Nebraska, your writer-buddy in Seattle. Even the people who had already heard that you were all right seem relieved to see your actual pixels on their screens. You and your father make sick jokes about the family's demise. You and your father always have this coping mechanism, although to be perfectly honest you also sometimes make sick jokes when there's nothing to be coped with in the first place.

You watch the BBC. Everyone is using calm and reasonable voices except the interviewed families of the victims. You watch a grandfather talk about his granddaughter, how he took care of her when she was small, what a lovely girl she was. The past tense sits poorly with him, and he can't say any more. You turn off the TV. The news will still be there in the morning.

Friday morning. The hotel is open to the outside world again. Breakfast is subdued. The little middle-aged Asian-British woman who has been serving you breakfast every morning walks around in a trance, and someone told your grandparents that her sister died in the bombings. You try not to stare after her smudged eyes and her set expression. You wish there was something you could say.

You get on the tube just as you'd planned the day before. It is quiet. Not empty, but emptier than you've ever seen it before, even that time a decade ago when you and your best friend caught the last train back to the hotel. You take the tube down to Kew Gardens and bask in quiet, green, preservation of life. It is exactly the right thing to do.

Saturday morning, the breakfast zombie of the previous day is transformed: her sister has been found alive in one of the hospitals. Missing a leg, but alive. You know that not everyone is so fortunate, but it is good, so good, that this woman is. The little things matter, the single lives, all of them.

Your family agrees they would go back in a heartbeat. Of course they would. No question. There is no safe place in the world. There are just places where people do the best they can and get on with things, and this has been one of them.

(Pictures and more conventional narrative to follow.)

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