Saturday, 26 Sep 2020

Three years on from the Parsons Green attack, I'm ready to stop being scared

Three years ago today, on 15 September 2017, a bomb partially exploded on my tube. 

I was standing in the last carriage, and can vividly remember hearing screams from the mass of commuters who had been waiting to board the train; if I close my eyes, I can clearly see the wall of people moving backwards as one. 

My instant thought was ‘I’m going to die’ and I remember repeating ‘Oh my God, oh my God’ out loud as I ran out of the tube and down the track, back towards Putney, with a handful of other commuters.

This was the Parsons Green terror attack: a homemade device left on a District Line train in an inconspicuous LIDL bag, which failed to fully detonate but nonetheless exploded in a flash of flame. 

When I exited the station later I saw ambulances, and people being treated for burns. I saw a little boy crying, saying what sounded like, ‘I want my brother’. And it was then that the tears started freely flowing.

I was shocked and scared, and felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that there were people being treated for injuries everywhere around me while I was unharmed. I was almost sickeningly grateful that I had been caught up in something like that and was somehow, miraculously, unhurt.

The past three years have been difficult, to say the least. I have become afraid of the world, with my fear spreading to crowded places: stations, large shops, concerts – anything with a mass of people. I feel sick at the thought of being at a densely populated event.

My world gradually became smaller and smaller, and I’ve grown to avoid anywhere that could be a potential ‘target’. The night before I flew to France with my family two years ago, I was in tears, sobbing that I couldn’t go. 

But lockdown – and most recently, self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms – has changed that. 

Nearly a year after the attack, I ended up moving back in with my parents for six months after recognising that my anxiety was too bad to continue living in London.

When I finally moved back to the city after six months I was a lot better – but I am still scared. 

I refuse to travel in anything but the first or last carriage of any tube – but if I can find a way to get to where I need to go without taking it, I will. I once heard a group of teenagers screaming with hilarity whilst I was (begrudgingly) on the tube at Westminster Station; as soon as I heard them, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. 

My heart started pounding until I could feel it reverberating throughout my body. My hands didn’t stop shaking for several minutes afterwards. 

Announcements on public transport that begin with, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to say…’, or ‘There’s been a problem’ convince me we’re about to be told we’re all going to die, and I have to take in huge gulps of air to slow my heart rate and stop my brain from frantically spiralling.

I find myself smoothing my hair at these moments – maybe to stop my hands from shaking, I’m not sure.

So when I began having (very mild) symptoms of Covid-19, there was a tiny part of me that felt relieved. At last, I’d have control of my surroundings for days at a time. 

Instead, not being able to go outside, or to be in the same room as other people, has made me realise – in a way that nothing else has – that I don’t want to be afraid any more. 

Losing my freedom, even just for a handful of days, has helped me to remember just how wonderful the world actually is. 

I never thought at any point in the last three years that I’d say this, but I miss crowds: the sense of community and solidarity that comes from being part of a group. I miss people. I miss feeling like I’m a part of something bigger. It’s taken six days of solo isolation to help me realise that I want to feel part of the world again – or, at least, the new world that we all now inhabit. 

So far, my self-isolation has been relatively bearable. I haven’t been very ill at all, compared to many others, and I love where I live, both of which make me very lucky. 

But being on my own, with barely any contact with the outside world, has made me crave even the things that scare me. Sitting with my own company has made me feel lonely and despondent and has brought an important lesson home to me.

After three years of judging everything by the level of danger involved, I can’t forget the risk but I’m starting to see anew the beauty, the compassion, the vibrancy and the joy that make up this wonderful city. And I want to feel part of it. 

Last night I leant out of my living room window, taking huge lungfuls of fresh air and looking down onto the street below. Coincidentally, it’s the very same street where I stood three years ago, tear-stained and in shock, as I waited to meet my ex-boyfriend who had offered to drive me home. I didn’t live here at that time so more than ever, I feel like I’ve come full circle.

As I looked down at the quiet beneath me, with the busy high street just visible at the end, I felt excited – albeit slightly fearful – to get back into the world. 

It’s not something I thought I’d ever feel again.

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