I’m in a taxi, alone, at midnight. I’m wearing a sundress and new freckles are popping up on my arms where the morning’s sunburn is starting to fade. I’m reading out the news to my taxi driver, a Somali man who fled the civil war there as a teenager. Every few seconds, a blue siren light flashes through the window, leaving the suntan I was so proud of a few hours ago looking moon-white, ghostly.
“They’re in Borough Market now,” I say. We are less than one mile away, stuck in Aldgate East. We try to turn up the radio, but we can't hear anything over the noise, so I read when there’s a break. “People have died.”
He shakes his head. “Crazy, crazy, crazy.”
“I’m scared,” I say.
“Me, too,” he replies, after a silence.
Earlier that night, I was at a party for my friend Steve’s birthday. I gave him a notebook. He’s a war buff and I found it at Greenwich Market. It said “Lest We Forget” and, according to the seller, was produced on the second anniversary of World War One, to commemorate the soldiers. It seems so silly now, because people did forget. They forget all the time. London, Manchester, Germany, Somalia. It all morphs together into a panicked, bloody blur. Someone on Twitter says “Keep Calm And Carry On” and it seems like too tall an order.
When he finally drops me to my door, I make him promise to head straight home. He says he will. I sit up in bed, text my parents and tell them I’m safe. I lie in bed and wait for my boyfriend to come home, calling him every 10 minutes to check he’s made it through each station OK. When he’s home, I curl up as small as I can get. This is the second terrorist attack in 12 days and comes right after I’ve received some upsetting news about a loved one.
“It just feels like it’s all gearing up to something,” I say, my heart thudding. “Some big nightmare.”
Bravery is about trying your best, even though you know what perils lie ahead of you
The next morning, I’m up at seven, baking bread and cleaning. I bake when I’m upset and I’ve been doing it a lot lately. He finds me in the kitchen and tells me to put my jeans on. “We are going for a walk,” Gavin says. And we do. We pass a duck pond. We go second-hand book shopping. I find a book that I had previously thought to be unavailable in the UK; he finds a rare volume of books on British history. I look at everyone on this busy, south London street, wondering if something is about to happen. Should we walk closer to the walls, stay away from the edge of the footpath? I notice that he is walking on the side closest to the road and that he would absorb most of the damage if a car were to mount the footpath. Do we always walk like this or am I just noticing it now?
I keep checking the news and then, when the news stops updating, Twitter – LONDON IS NOT AFRAID, everyone says. YOU WON’T BREAK US, says another. I’m afraid, I think. I’m fucking terrified.
We have the kind of easy lunch that is mostly just a combination of simple salads but tastes incredible. I gaze out the window and watch a little girl, cheerfully eating a sausage roll.
“I’m going to order us some wine,” Gavin says, suddenly.
“To drink wine right now,” he says, sagely, “would be the opposite of terrorism. I think it behooves us, as Londoners, to perform whatever the opposite of terrorism is.”
For the first time that day, we forget last night. We start laughing, first at the wine, then at ourselves, then at everything.
They say it a lot, about terrorism, that to change your behaviour or to feel fear is to let the attackers win. I was behaving like a terrorist’s dream, then – making myself tiny, gluing myself to the walls, planning my response to a war that hadn’t happened, and may never happen. I told myself that I was being realistic and responsible by checking the news every two minutes, but all I was doing feeding into an endless feedback loop of my own fear.
It strikes me, then, how strange the phrase “Keep Calm And Carry On” is and how I’ve never really liked it. It sounds so lobotomised – keep calm, feel nothing, remain placed, don’t question your feelings too deeply, push it all down, keep moving, keep working, stay on the assembly line. But bravery isn't supposed to be about the absence of feeling. Bravery is supposed to be about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Bravery is about trying your best, even though you know what perils lie ahead of you. Bravery is about sticking to your beliefs, even when they’re pushed into submission by terror. Bravery is about remaining joyful and compassionate and generous, when absolutely everything is telling you not to be. If you can’t achieve bravery every day, then the best you can do is to try your best. And have a wine.
There we go, then – a replacement for Keep Calm And Carry On. Try Your Best; Have A Wine.