Last Thursday morning in London, my wife Lisa and I left our three children to hail a taxi near the apartment we had rented. Eli, who is 20, had offered to take our twins Annie and Lucy to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum as a treat for their twelfth birthday. All three were excited about seeing the statues of everyone from the Queen to Johnny Depp.
Glad to have a few hours to ourselves, Lisa and I wandered into a store and asked the clerk about a different store that used to be in the same location.
“It’s moved to central London,” he said, “but of course you wouldn’t want to go there today.”
“Because of the bombing.”
He saw our blank stares.
“There have been bombs in central London. You’d better have a look at the news.”
We raced outside, but the kids were already gone. What should we do? We had just sent our children into central London. Central London had been bombed or was being bombed. We didn’t know where the bombs had been. We didn’t know whether there would be more of them, or what might be the targets.
“We’ll go to Madame Tussaud’s and find them.” Easier said than done. There were suddenly no taxis anywhere. I went into a shop and tried to call a taxi on the phone. First the phone line didn’t work. When it did, the phone rang endlessly without an answer.
Lisa and I stood on either side of Kensington High Street, looking in both directions for a taxi, for a long half hour. Every few minutes, Lisa called to me and asked again what we should do. I kept saying that we had to find a taxi because I couldn’t think of anything else. When a taxi finally appeared, we told the driver why we were so frantic and asked him to take us to Madame Tussaud’s.
“I won’t be able to go directly. Some of the roads are closed because of the bombing.” After a few blocks, he heard on the radio that the Euston Road, where the Wax Museum is located, was closed. “I’ll get you there if I can,” he said, “but I doubt that your children will get anywhere close.”
After a few more blocks, we changed the plan and told the driver to go to the apartment, so I could leave a note in case the kids went there as well. Then we would try to get to Madame Tussaud’s.
Lisa waited in the taxi as I went inside to dash off a note, telling Eli and the girls not to go out again if they did come back. Then I tried to call the hotel where we had arranged to meet later in the day to leave another message for them. I was on hold when I heard Eli’s voice yelling. A few seconds later, Lisa came in with the girls. They had turned back when their taxi was stopped by a police roadblock, and the driver told them about the bombs. All three had stayed calm in the taxi. The girls didn’t start to sob until they saw their mother. Eli said afterwards that she had never hugged him so hard.
On Saturday, two days after the bombing, London seemed almost normal. The theaters were only closed for one night. The major museums, closed on Friday, were open. Students lounged on the grass in front of the Natural History Museum. In spite of early reports that the Underground would be closed for up to a week, most lines were back in service on Friday. (Not the one where there were still at least twenty bodies trapped in a deep tunnel, of course.) By Friday afternoon, the red double-decker buses were full of people, and so were the streets and stores.
To us, all the responses were echoes of Sept. 11. “They will not change our way of life,” said the queen. Prime Minister Blair promised to hunt down the perpetrators. The kindly Indian grocer next door, proud of his very affluent and very mixed Kensington neighborhood (“This is Stratford Village. We are all happy here.”) said that whoever set the bomb wasn’t really a person. “Don’t they have a mother or father? These people should be tortured.”
His was the only voice we heard calling for revenge, however. One MP with a working-class accent, interviewed on television, said that he hesitated about taking the bus to the House of Commons “because I thought I might get blown up. But then I thought, ‘sod it, I’m not going to stay off the bus because of a bunch of nutters.’” People we talked to, taxi drivers and shop keepers, sounded a similar note.
The newspapers were filled with stories of the victims (including a few of London’s nearly one million Muslims) and the heroic rescuers. One headline simply screamed “Bastards!” but there were also more measured responses. A letter in the Guardian asked “What’s the difference between taking bombs into the bowels of the earth to blow up innocent people and dropping them from the skies for exactly the same reason?” An article in the Times called for the preservation of civil liberties.
Somehow, none of the words seemed adequate. The formulas of grief and indignation did not measure up to the carnage or the desperate ideology that produced it.
In the wake of our scare Thursday morning, we were too nervous over the weekend to go to the theater (Wednesday night, before the bombing, we thrilled to the jaunty optimism of Mary Poppins) or the museums. We stayed out of central London, and away from anything that seemed like a tempting target. We did go into Harrod’s in search of souvenirs—it was even more insanely jammed than usual, not just with tourists but with Muslim women covered head to toe in black—but Annie clutched my hand nervously until we were back on the sidewalk outside. We exchanged our own formulas with the cheerful taxi drivers (“They won’t beat us”) and with the Indian grocer, who gave us our vegetables for free on Friday as a gesture of cross-cultural solidarity.
Saturday night, after a long afternoon walk in beautiful, comforting Kensington Gardens, past the swans and the Peter Pan statue and the inter-racial soccer games, I had a dream that replaced the present, incomprehensible violence with a more familiar version, borrowed from old moves of World War II. I dreamed that someone—it seemed to be the Japanese—was bombing my city from the air. I wanted to tell the children to stay away from the windows, and I watched in amazement as planes evaded the anti-aircraft fire and buildings silently crumbled.
Annie was frightened again at Heathrow on Monday morning, and still frightened on the plane, occasionally sobbing, because we were going through New York. Only after we took off from Kennedy and headed west did she start to smile again.