Deborah Orr: At times like this, everyone is self-centered

Once she is with her babies, she feels, everything will be better. The selfish truth is that she's right
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The Independent Online

The first I heard was when my neighbour Althea dropped by, at about half nine. "There's been a big explosion at Liverpool Street," she said, so we rushed to switch on BBC News 24. What the broadcasters told us was soothing and plausible. A power surge had caused electrical faults at various points on the underground, notably Edgware Road and Aldgate East, and some stations were being closed. There were a few minor injuries.

Some pissed off looking commuters were questioned as they were evacuated from Stratford station, their comments innocuous and innocent of trauma. We accepted what we'd been told, eager, desperate, to believe that the terrorist attack that we'd become used to dreading, hardly noticing the dread any more at the back of our minds, was not coming today.

Reassured but not totally convinced, I headed for the gym, where the instructor, Nick, was already alert to the fact that something was up. We watched Sky News with an MTV soundtrack, providing our own running commentary as I pounded and pumped away. At first, we barely questioned that we were watching an unfolding accident. Certainly, that was the message the police were putting out over the airwaves.

Gradually, though, that scenario stopped making sense. If it were true, people would be coming on the telly, telling us not to panic, saying that everything was fine. They weren't, so everything wasn't fine. Sky News was so hard up for information that they were appealing for eyewitnesses to send in e-mails. Then, as the television continued to show pictures of London streets peopled only by emergency vehicles, a couple of captions began flashing up. One said that a double decker bus had crashed, with some casualties. The other said there had been an explosion on a bus.

Suddenly there were too many biffs and bangs and knocks for this to be coincidental. A rail union and a rail business broke ranks and started hinting to the media that something was amiss. It was announced that "MPs were meeting" to decide what was to be done. Charles Clarke came on, and spoke of "terrible casualties". I couldn't understand why my legs felt so shaky when I hadn't been exercising that hard.

In the clubroom, usually deserted and silent except for the sound of music videos from the telly, a knot of people sat watching the news. The first eyewitness was being interviewed. He was at a hospital being treated for wounds in his back, caused by glass catapulted through the air by an explosion in a train carriage. He said that before he'd got out, he'd seen many bodies.

By this time it was 11am, so I continued with my usual routine, and started walking towards my three-year-old's nursery school, to pick him up. As I left the gym, I looked back at the screen - Stockwell, the local Tube station.

The arterial road was unusually free of traffic, and people were striding along purposefully, quickly, looking straight ahead, making no eye contact, but somehow at the same time communicating a pent-up approachability. All were clutching mobile phones that weren't working, either holding them to their ears of grasping them in their fists. I was doing the same. All the buses were coming along empty, neon-bright signs on their fronts saying "NOT IN SERVICE", heading for the Stockwell bus garage. As the sound of one siren faded, the sound of another started up. It was just like the start of all the low-budget doomsday movies you've ever seen.

As mothers gathered outside the school gates, it was clear people were at various stages of understanding what was going on. Some arrived oblivious, their friends filling them in with urgent whispers. Some recounted their attempts to make contact with the loved ones who would have been in the area at the time. Others were miles ahead, wondering whether to take their kids out of the main school now and have them safe at home, speculating about further attacks, discussing whether the timing was simply about the G8 or whether there had been some sort of amazingly rapid response to the success of the Olympic bid.

Tash, head of the PTA, fretted about her daughter at secondary school in Tooting. Would the school bus be running today? She certainly wouldn't be driving a bus today. "You do what you have to do at a time like this," I said to her. "And all you have to do is cancel the school fair."

Suddenly, we were all laughing, because we all had jobs to do that we could do without at Saturday's fête. Then we fell silent again, shocked at our own black-humoured resilience, our lack of respect for the dead, the dying and the grieving, our desperation already to get on with things.

My son wants to take the bus home, but I tell him the buses are going back to the depot early today because there's been an accident in London.

"In my London?" he asks.

"Not in your London, but right in the centre of town. It's nothing for you to worry about."

"A big accident?"

"Yes."

"Can we go and see it."

"No. It's not nice to look at accidents. Sometimes they hurt people."

Walking home, my son's hand in mine, I register a whey-faced neighbour walking towards me, asking me if I had just got my son from school.I realise she thinks I just turned up and hoiked him out. She's on her way over to Kensington to do the same, and thought she's spotted a kindred spirit. Once she is with her babies, she feels, everything will be better. The selfish, self-preserving truth is that this is indeed the case.

Acting normal, I take my son to the park on the way home. But feeling far from normal, I pop into the Portuguese café to get an espresso to stop me feeling faint. On the television, in Portuguese, it says that Tony Blair is expected to make a statement at any moment. He appears on the screen, talking of course in English, but with an interpreter talking over his voice with a second or two of delay. I hear snatches of his words, the usual stuff we've become so grotesquely familiar with. Then - I can hardly believe it - he starts on about how particularly cynical it was to have attacked Britain just as eight men were sitting in a room trying to solve all these problems.

What delusions. To imagine that the manipulations of a bunch of men desperate above all else to hang on to their power is the solution to all this horror, rather than the perennial cause of it. People like me, with their quotidian accounts of their morning at the periphery of someone else's nightmare, may well be laughably self-centred. But to be under the impression that he's helping anything by launching wars alongside a man who denies that climate change might be a threat to the planet is surely a world-historical benchmark for narcissistic hypocrisy.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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