The Facebook posts appear before the helicopters.
I am in bed at my student residence near London Bridge, listening to an overseas broadcast of the Milwaukee Brewers game and scrolling through my Facebook feed. Two classmates, out for drinks at Borough High Street, post a status saying they are safe. They do not, however, specify from what. Reluctantly, I turn the volume down to check the news. I find the BBC Bulletin: London Bridge: ‘Van Hits Pedestrian’ in ‘Major Incident.’ As I read, the broadcast distorts into static, filling my dorm with white noise.
I scramble for the phone to call my parents. No answer. Outside, sirens wail throughout the normally somber residential street. Helicopters circle low overhead, their thundering wings blocking coherent thought. At one point, I hear shrieking. Clutching a blanket, I inch toward my window, tilting one ear to the frame. The noise comes from stragglers at Dean Swift, toasting last call. Their laughter waltzes along the alley pathway. I am incredulous: why haven’t they left? Didn’t they know what was happening? I close my window to insulate the noise. The laughter is muted, but helicopters continue undaunted.
I come from Wisconsin, located in American flyover country. We do not get terrorist attacks. It is not something one normally considers when moving abroad. As a graduate student, I was only thinking about cost and Tube transportation. For £135 a week, I received a room fifteen minutes away from London Bridge. Make a right on Gainsford, left on Horselydown, and then Tooley Street to the station. One might also take the Queen’s Walk along the Thames if they wish to stroll among roving gangs of pigeons. That is, if one has time. London can either be a city of exploration or of practicality. When dealing with papers and seminar presentations, that choice is often made for you.
“Breaking news from London,” a reporter interrupts the broadcast. “A white van has struck pedestrians on London Bridge, injuring at least seven. Two men emerged from the vehicle and ran toward Borough Market, stabbing patrons having dinner at local restaurants.”
I message my friend Mona, one of the screaming fans at the game, in hopes to establish contact with someone across the Atlantic. I am relieved when she texts back, telling me to be safe while complaining about Matt Garza’s pitching efficiency. I call my parents again, forced to settle with leaving a voicemail.
“At this point, it is not known whether these suspects have been apprehended.”
It was different with Westminster. The attack was over before I could leave my methodology lecture. Its proximity manifested in closed Tube stations and vehicles clogging the looping, chaotic mess known as the Strand. It was different with Manchester, where proximity was the rising fare of National Rail Services tickets. Who has time for a concert anyway?
“More news on this story as it develops.”
Tonight, proximity is the orange streetlights outside my dorm, watching for dashing shadows down the street. They stand unblinking while anxiously waiting for dawn to break on Sunday morning.
Time Out informs me, along with the ten best breweries in East London, that Borough Market will reopen tomorrow morning. Mayor Sadiq Khan, who declared that London will not be cowed by terrorism, will honor victims in a private sigil. Traders will then ring the market bell and announce the start of business.
The day after the attack, I went with my friend Emilie to explore a farmer’s market at Elephant and Castle. She lived in Bankside, on the opposite end of Borough Market. She fell asleep before the attack occurred, but admitted, with some embarrassment, her annoyance at the ambulances keeping her awake. It was not until she saw messages from concerned friends that she recognized something happened. I had been among those messages, explaining that I would understand if she wanted to stay inside that day. With dissertations looming on the horizon, however, personal safety seemed a proportionate gamble in exchange for wandering.
“You know, I was in Paris during the attack at the Bataclan,” Emilie said, spinning a shelf with pewter necklaces. “It’s weird, but I feel more fearful here than I did in Paris.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
“Not sure. Maybe because I knew where I lived nowhere near the Bataclan? I think also because London has become our home as well. It feels more like a direct attack on us.”
We continued our conversation, walking amongst overripe fruit and scuffed loafers displayed on tablecloths. Children weaved through the market, chasing dogs and themselves between tents. Parents haggled over beef prices while determining how many seats were needed for family dinners. As we turned down the street, I realized Emile and I were the only ones discussing the attack. London appeared to have already rebounded after the actions of, as John Oliver would describe, monumental assholes.
Meanwhile, I have not returned to London Bridge. I walk across Tower Bridge instead, swerving around newly installed pedestrian barriers. From the vantage point of control cabins, I watch people walk across the bridge. I think of the Arizona salesman who bought London Bridge, believing he was getting a steal for Tower Bridge. His pained realization at receiving concrete slabs instead of metallic crests no doubt mirrors the tourists who ask ‘if this is London Bridge, what the hell is that over there?’ In this case, the morbid pilgrimage replaces the aesthetic. So when Time Out announced the re-opening, I knew I would be spending the day at the market.
Shame it took a terrorist attack to actually start exploring.
The next day, I venture up Tooley Street toward Borough Market. Tesco and Costa disappear in favor of the Hilton Hotel Plaza, where City Hall employees pour merlot at an outdoor cocktail lounge. People gripping Pret bags cut each other off at Hay’s Galleria. By the station, I duck behind construction barriers to avoided bloodied actors passing out pamphlets for ‘The London Bridge Experience.’ I have enough paper from the exhibit to form a small tree. With a breath, I walk toward the bridge itself.
I am greeted by bouquets of flowers in various stages of wilting. They stretch around Evan’s Cycles and along the base of the bridge. Dripping wax from scattered candles harden the flower petals. I bring myself closer, surveying letters and pictures scattered along the memorial. A skateboard lies against a bed of daisies, honoring a victim who sacrificed himself to charge at the attackers. Nearby, a letter signed by the London sect of Dawoodi Bohras states ‘terrorists ain’t no Muslims.’ The corner wall is covered with hundreds of post-it notes delivering messages of encouragement, ranging from ‘Stay strong England’ to ‘Fuck off ISIS.’ As I read, people gather around the memorial to take pictures. I straighten myself out, defensive in my posture. I am unsure why I feel invaded; I would have done the same thing if I was a tourist. Even now, I view myself as little more than an extended visitor in London. Not from lack of wanting, but from lack of connection. This city has an unfortunate gift for isolation. I leave the memorial and walk across the street to Borough.
Hissing steam guide me down the staircase along Southwark Cathedral to the market entrance, conducting a battle of the senses to the tune of pulled pork and grilled onions. Makeshift patios expand with people, swallowing me into the symphony of consumerism. When I am released, there is a Pimm’s sangria in my hand. I don’t even like Pimm’s. The sip of strawberry lemonade infused with cheap cabernet tastes like renewed energy in the sparkling sunlight.
Inside, the air bounces with the scent of blended smoothies, sliced Gruyere, and steaming prawn paella. At Chocolicious, a patron shoves caramel truffle samples into a greasy napkin. The asphalt gleams with spilled soy sauce, transforming my stomach into a primal entity. Was it possible to devour the contents of Borough Market in one sitting? The sterling burning in my pocket appears willing to make that bet.
Each kiosk at Borough presents patrons with the terrible freedom of choice. I skirt between competing lines of Thai, German, and Turkish cuisine, my id planning a three course meal of gastronomic ecstasy. With considerable discipline, I finally settle on one place that serves salt beef sandwiches on rye. My server is a younger British man, sifting through smoking meat with delicate ease. His fellow server cleans the grill and throws away completed order receipts, covered in stray sauerkraut. I watch mustard fall onto the rye bread, my stomach becoming hollow.
“So how’s business today?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s booming. It’s even picked up in the last hour, I think,” he answers, wrapping the finished sandwich in wax paper.
“It’s good seeing everyone so supportive.” I pause, then ask: “Were you there?”
“Fortunately not. I was already back in my apartment in Barking. You?”
“I live in student housing nearby, so I heard everything.”
“It’s a right mess, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely shocking. I’m more surprised by how many people went out after the attack.”
“Oh yeah, you won’t to see London reeling,” the server says. “We’re too stubborn.”
“I have a cousin from Shepard’s Bush who stayed on a Central Line train after it caught fire once,” the other server chimes in. “She’d rather catch fire than be late to work!”
“Not sure I blame her,” I quip. “Then again, I would have been too busy avoiding eye contact to notice.”
“Now there’s the proper London attitude,” the second server responds.
I am handed my sandwich as the servers turn their attentions to other customers. I return to the crowd, the words of the server rattling through my mind. Since when had I become a Londoner? I wore Brewers shirts and spoke with a Midwestern drawl, the quaint but perpetual timbre of a sinus headache. I would not be coming back home with a British accent, as many back home predicted. Nor would I be looking to stay. Despite this, their words managed to instill a sense of belonging, one I had not experienced during my nine-month stay. I tear into the sandwich, salt beef shreds falling on the floor. Mustard gathers at the corners of my mouth while I growl softly with each ravenous bite.
At the market overpass, an artist presents a portrait to passing patrons, asking them to sign the canvas. The painting, he explains, will be auctioned to raise money for victims’ hospital bills. The painting features a neon lightning bug enclosed in a heart, with Big Ben in the background. Across the canvas, the phrase “One Love” is written in different languages and colors.
“I would like to sign,” I tell the artist.
“Of course,” he says, giving me a marker. “Just sign your name and where you’re from.”
“I live in London Bridge. I mean, I moved here from the States, but I’ve lived here for the past year.”
The artist smiles.
“All the more reason for you to sign,” he says.
In August, my friend Alexa visits from Pittsburgh. London is one stop of several during her trip around Europe. We make plans to visit Prague once I complete my dissertation. Her visit marks the end of my time in London; once she leaves, I will start packing for the States. I am relieved to return home, but my enthusiasm is dampened with unknown melancholy.
I take Alexa to Cinq Patisserie in Hay’s Galleria, where we dine on scones and clotted cream. Ahead, a group of female tourists pose in front of a telephone booth. They giggle, making smooching faces while using a selfie stick to take a picture. A businessman wearing headphones purposely rolls his eyes while passing the photo shoot. You and me both.
“Authorities are still on the hunt for two attackers who drove into a crowd at Las Ramblas in Barcelona,” Alexa reads off her phone. “It is expected that a manhunt will be extended across Europe if the assailants are not found.”
“Splendid,” I sneer, spreading clotted cream.
“We sure picked the perfect time to go to Prague.”
“You mean you don’t like delays at passport control?”
“Funny. Seriously though, I’m almost nervous. It’s strange to think these attacks can happen anytime, anywhere. Nowhere is really safe.”
I stare outward toward the square. Across from us, a woman runs her fingers through leather purse straps, shrinking behind the kiosk to avoid the darting eyes of the clerk. Primary school children in neon vests trample to London Bridge station, herded by two chaperones bearing the loosest grip of control. The steampunk battleship at the center of the square shoots water from its cannons in every direction. Chaos here is a constant, much like London itself. The city thrives on chaos, allowing it to transcend catastrophe from bakery fires to blitzkrieg. While the world views ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ as Pinterest wisdom, here in London, it is the generational coda of quiet resilience. I may not bring home the accent, but I will bring back the pride of home.
“It’s a terrifying reality,” I finally say. “But our greatest revenge is to continue living anyway. Otherwise, how are we going to complain about how expensive pints are here?”
Alexa nods, saying nothing further. I sip my Earl Grey tea and continue watching the square, breathing in the comfort of routine.
During my last week in London, I participate in one final British tradition: The August Bank Holiday.
At London Bridge station, I clutch my iced latte from Café Nero and wait for platform information for my train to Brighton. A woman corrals her children to the empty seats around me, reminding them to apply sunscreen. The kids contemplate a trade involving Smarties and a Mars bar, their tense negotiations making the Iran nuclear deal seem pleasant. Smiling, I take out my book—Londoners, by Craig Taylor—to pass the time. With each page, I look up to the four overhead screens projecting various trips across the United Kingdom: Dover, Sevenoaks, Gatwick Airport. Schedules of departing trains blink away to more journeys as passengers race down the platform to buy last minute tickets.
Brighton could be next. A stabbing at the beach or the neighboring pier. A rogue driver forcing their way along the boardwalk. It would be the perfect time, with the town becoming vulnerable with people indulging in a dying summer. The weather forecast reports rain the rest of the week, making today the only sunny day for travel. With one strike, tragedy would rise with the salty air of the seaside.
Let those monumental assholes try.
“The Southern rail service to Brighton will be departing at 11:48 from platform fourteen,” echoes the announcer throughout the station.
Along with hundreds of fellow Londoners, I take for the train, guided by visions of the Atlantic gently washing into the shore.