Prelude to the French Way
It was Friday and I was meeting a friend in London. She was on a train coming from Hampshire on the train and I was running early. Oxford Circus was chaos. People were bulging out of the the shops, all trying to grab a Black Friday deal. I wondered into Uniqlo, wanting to purchase some long sleeve shirts as mine all had cat-chewed holes in them, and walked out again. The queue to pay was far too long. Instead, I found a nice little cafe one street down and just parallel to Oxford Street. An easy place for my friend to find me. I sat drinking a glass of wine and eating olives while reading a book and texted my friend to tell her where to find me on the manic Black Friday high street.
Hearing a shout from outside, I looked up from my book and saw a large crowd of people all running in one direction. The waiters stopped serving. In the frozen silence a waiter turned to another and hesitantly said, ‘Something’s happening out there.’ We couldn’t hear much through the thick glass front. Another wave of people then began to run in the opposite direction to the first crowd. A man broke off and ran into the cafe, swinging the door wide and shouted, ‘There’s a bomb!’
A stunned moment before someone asked, ‘Where?!’
‘I don’t know, but they say there’s a bomb. We need to get away from here’ And then he was gone, door swinging closed behind him. I wanted to get out. But where could I go. Was there, in fact a bomb? The unbelievable was happening. I had been caught up in a terrorist event in London. I couldn’t process the impossibility of it. I wanted to pay and get out, but all the waiters were trying to find out what was going on. Just then, a woman came into the shop, pale and scared, ‘Someone’s shooting in New Look. Everyone’s screaming and running away. I don’t know what to do!’ She remained in the cafe, hiding at the back, crying and talking to someone on her phone.
The whole front of the cafe was glass and would offer us little protection from a bomb or bullets. But the stairs leading down to the toilets and kitchen were half covered by the cement cafe floor and would offer me more protection. At least this was my reasoning at the time. I sat on the cement steps and called my friend, ‘Don’t come into London.’
‘I don’t know! But don’t come in. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared.’
‘Where are you?’
I’m still in the cafe near Oxford Circus.’
‘Well, I’m still only half-an-hour from Waterloo. I’ll wait there until I hear back from you. Stay safe and tell me what’s going on.’
Looking back up the stairs and into the restaurant, some people were on their phones and others continued to eat their meals, seemingly unconcerned. Were they unaware of what was happening? How could they be so calm? The waiters hung around, uncertain and searching on their phones for information. I phoned my brother in South Africa.
‘Hey, sis. What’s wrong?’
‘Something’s happening here. I’m in Oxford Circus and they say there’s terrorists. I don’t know what’s going on.’
‘Hold on!’ Alarm in his tone. ‘Crystal!’ I heard him call his wife, ‘Turn on the TV. Something’s happening in London. My sister’s there.’
‘Is she on the phone? Oh my God. Put her on load-speaker.’
‘Where are you? Are you safe?’
‘I’m in a cafe sitting on some stairs leading to the toilets. I don’t know what’s going on. Can you find out?’
By this time, another staff member had joined me and was on her phone. Her shift was over and she was too scared to leave, not knowing where the terrorists were.
My bother was looking on the news and on his phone, ‘There’s not a lot of information. Just something about someone with a gun and the police are there now.’
I looked out onto the street and saw that people had stopped running and were beginning to congregate in groups. I even saw some police walking around. I told my brother and said that I was going to try get away from the area. Things seemed to be under control and appeared calmer. I managed to pay and tentatively exited the cafe. My heart was hammering in my chest and my stomach ached. A tall man was standing nearby talking to others about what he had seen in the shop, New Look. I sidled closer to hear him better, ‘I was working on one of the floors. Suddenly someone fired a gun and everyone just started running. I didn’t know what was going on. Everyone was screaming and rushing out. So I just started running as well. Someone even crashed through the front glass. There was glass everywhere!’
I began to walk away, looking for a open tube station to get back to Kings Cross. I phoned my friend and told her I was ok and if she wanted, we could meet there. She agreed and I began to quickly leave the area. Police had blocked off streets and the tube was closed. I began walking in the direction everyone else was going. A policeman with a big gun stood in front of some police tape and pointed out the direction that we needed to go. Hundreds of people were making their way out of the area. Seeing him, I felt calmer. I still wasn’t sure of what was happening, but I knew that the police had things in hand. The gutters were strewn with discarded shopping and shoes.
One moment, we were all calmly walking away and the next, people were screaming in panic again. All those hundreds of people that had been directed away from the scene were running towards me at full sprint. ‘He’s got a knife! He’s stabbing people!‘ Oh my God. This horror was never going to end! Either I was going to be stabbed by a terrorist or I was going to be mowed down by hundreds of frightened people all corralled by the small street into a beast that was now swooping down on me. The sound of all those screaming people running at me spun me around and made me sprint full tilt away. I couldn’t even swing back into the cafe. I just wanted to get away. I glanced at the policeman who was shouting at us to slow down and I did because he told me to. I believed him because he was an authoritative and protective figure in all this chaos. That is, I believed him until he began to back away in fear and grabbed his gun. Then I felt real and fresh fear course through me and I ran.
People were sobbing and gasping all around me. Our feet all pounded the streets. I didn’t know where I was going. I was just running, feeling that at at any moment bullets would start flying in the direction of my exposed back. Who was this terrorist? Who was doing this? When would I be safe again? Why had I been there at that very moment? I don’t know how long or how far I ran. Time was strange. It blurred into one horrible moment of burning lungs, trying to not fall and of hearing other people cry and rasp in breath. My heart was bursting. I couldn’t even cry anymore. I just needed to get as far away from the danger as I could. Was I going to die today? I had never felt this before. It scored into me and hasn’t ever really left me. For this to be the moment that I was to die was far too unbelievable and something I fiercely rebelled against with every ounce of myself.
At some point I was stumbling, then walking. I called my brother again and told him that I was heading for a tube and what had happened. I told him that he probably should tell our parents before they heard about it from some other source. I got on the tube, feeling strange and out of phase with the normality of being on a carriage with other silent people. Most of them had not been affected by the events and remained innocent of the drama that made me sweat and shake opposite them.
Reaching Kings Cross, I sat on a bench, listening to helicopters and police sirens, and called my parents to reassure that I was safe. My friend soon joined me and we sat in a quiet restaurant far away from the terrible events that had just changed me irrevocably. The next day I found out that there had been no terrorists and I felt so relived. How blessed was I compared to others involved in other terror events! The fear had been real regardless of the truth behind the cause for the panic. A couple of men had had a fight on the tube platform and had sparked the scare. People had run out of the tube station and ignited a deep fear that we were targets of a terrorist attack. After all, we had repeatedly been told that an attack was imminent and that we needed to be vigilant. I and most people there that night never would have thought that there were no terrorists. It seemed such an obvious expectation.
Processing that night has taken me a long time. I hadn’t realised how much it had affected me until a year later I was having flashes of that night and crying for no reason. I would rage out when my take-away order arrived late. One night, I even broke my bin. I was just so angry that my Tikka Chicken was cold. I was cleaning sauce off the kitchen cabinets for days afterwards and feeling very foolish. I put on 15 kilograms and was not happy. Generally, I’m a pretty resilient and mentally robust person and this realisation that I was not actually ok startled me. I needed to do something about myself. One thing I knew I needed to do was grab life. I had been exposed to a very real sensation that I might die. I was not the invulnerable person I had been before that night. I needed to realise the dreams and plans I made and not hold back. I had been researching the Camino for years and not yet done it. Further research revealed that there were many routes. It was time to begin making adventures and learn more about myself and hopefully heal at the same time. First, I walked the Portuguese Way from Porto with my friend, Kim, Then I walked the French Camino. My American friend, Jennifer, joined me for the first two weeks. Both journeys profoundly changed me. The first showed me what needed to give. The second showed me how to heal.