As I'm drifting off to sleep Monday night, Mr SDS joins me having stayed up a little later, and tells me the breaking news he’s just read online. Details are still sketchy, but it’s bad.
Oh no. Your heart sinks, just sinks. The world is a flawed, fractured place, full of twisted, tortured souls. You shield yourself from it as much as you can, you try at least to be kind, caring, in everyday life. It’s not hard to be those things, not really - is it? To just get on with your own life and let others get on with theirs, peacefully? We're lucky here, imagine life elsewhere... but still. I slip back into a restless slumber, these thoughts swirling around, wondering what nightmare reality I’ll be reading about on Tuesday, things most of us will never be able to understand.
I’m due to go into central London in the morning too. “Don’t go”, Mr SDS pleads. “Don’t go if you don’t have to”. But I do have to. I’m very aware that I live much of my life – out here in the quiet countryside - inside a cosy bubble. There’s the irony: probably the biggest danger I face on a daily basis is that of an insidious, creeping paranoia about the world outside it. I must defy that paranoia as much as anything else, I must go because I want to go.
So I get on the train to London, and on the tube, mingle with travellers in crowded carriages; there are extra police around, there are serious faces, I don’t think that Manchester is far from anyone’s mind this morning. But there are smiley faces too - cities are gutsy places and they remind you: most people are alright, most people want the same basic, harmless things. In the city of strangers I’m one of them, not going to give in to fear.
I have such a good day, meeting with lovely friends I haven’t seen in years – catching up over tea and cake and paintings. I’d have missed all this had I let stupid paranoia win. It's over too soon, and I walk back to catch my train through the metropolis, lapping up its sharp contrast to my usual habitat, here where the sirens are my screaming swifts and starlings, and office blocks and cranes pierce the sky instead of oak and poplar.
“This train does stop at Colchester, doesn’t it?” My solitary daze is broken as the woman with two huge pieces of luggage, almost as big as her, asks me this. I've just boarded too. Yes, it’s the right train, so she sits across the aisle from me and continues to talk.
“I’ve been travelling all day...,” she says, “...come down from Manchester…”
Weird how one particular word, on one particular day, can carry so much weight and meaning and, right out of the blue, it unites us.
I’m drawn to her face, and in a split second of silence I’m reading her expression. I need to talk, it says. I need to talk about something. She has the air of someone who’s been awake all night, with a body tired but brain still buzzing. Her bright blue eyes are a little watery. Then she starts to tell me that she’s in the army, and she’d been called on duty in connection with the Manchester Arena incident.
As other people start to board the train, filling up the seats around me, I could just withdraw from the conversation with the woman across the aisle. But instead I find myself moving seats, to be with her. She needs to talk. She needs to talk about something.
And so I spend the next hour in unbroken conversation with a complete stranger, who’s been awake for 37 hours and who, in spite of having been stationed in Afghanistan and served as a medic, tells me how intensely affected she feels by the night’s events. By what she’d seen and heard, what she knew so far, what lies ahead too. I let her talk. My eyes are a little watery.
But we speak about other stuff too, and some stuff I never knew, because I’ve never chatted to someone who’s in the army, it’s a world away from mine - a world away from my cosy bubble. I’m so glad I stepped out of it today; I learned so much more than I ever bargained for.
There’s no punchline to this, no big revelation… I just want to express it. My train companion is going to stay in my mind for a very long while. She needed to talk, and I’m so glad I could listen.
Love and peace to Manchester.