Heads down, hoods up, we battled our way over Westminster Bridge as we dodged wind, rain and other pedestrians on our way to an annual tradition; a bacon sandwich breakfast at Pickles café in Old Queen Street. The Thames frothed, seethed and spat below us and any form of communication between us was lost in the squall as our words were ripped away and scattered in the air.
A quick stop at the Tesco Express for sandwiches for the others allowed me to shelter in the covered walkway outside whilst I waited for them. A group of young adults loitered by the balustrade and blocked the route for the rushing commuters coming out of Westminster tube station who had to jostle their way through. The small mob seemed nervous and agitated as they chatted, glancing over to the Gothic edifice of the Palace of Westminster which must feature highly amongst the most well-known buildings in the world. “Ready?” one of the girls says. “Let’s go get the witch,” another shouted.
As we passed the National Crime Agency, a man standing outside was talking into his mobile phone without lowering his voice: “I’ve deleted all your files online,” he said, continuing “so you won’t exist now.”
The greasy spoon was heaving with workers desperate for a quick bite to eat before their busy days commenced. Coffee and baps ordered, we had to ask three gentlemen seated at the long table by the window if we could take the empty seats that would mean they had to get up to let us squeeze in. One chap, who had to get up and down several times as we settled ourselves, remarked: “It’s worse than sitting next to an incontinent woman on an EasyJet flight to Malaga.” Little did he know who he was talking to as we three, not incontinent, women pounced on his comment and told him that we had often taken the EasyJet flight to Malaga as we happened to live in Southern Iberia. “Me too,” he laughed. He lived in one of villages known as Las Alpujarras that cling to the southern flanks of the Sierra Nevada on the way to Granada.
Breakfast over; we joined the throng of over 1,000 delegates at Central Westminster Hall for the NADFAS Annual Directory Day as they made their way up the magnificent winding staircase and into the marble columned Great Hall. We sat under the ornately decorated domed ceiling in front of the imposing and magnificent pipe organ. The room was buzzing but quietened down as new lecturers took to the stage to give one minute presentations of their illustrated talks to the programme secretaries and chairman of over 320 international societies, there to choose people to fill the slots on their upcoming programmes.
The speakers performed, tempted and teased the audience, all trying their best to impress so that they wouldn’t be slighted when no one came up to book them after the session was over. Some brought accessories to illustrate their topic; amongst those sported being a Native American headdress and a deerstalker; and some spoke in rhyme or sang in a bass-baritone voice. International Chairman June Robinson had the power of the button that enabled her to cut someone off if they overran their allotted time, a device which had to be deployed several times. Some of us stayed in the Hall during the lunch break to book lecturers and some went to the pub nearby, The Westminster, where we sat at a table with different contingents of tourists; the first couple from France, the next from Spain. We left hurriedly to get back to the ADM before 2.30 pm, when the second swathe of presenters would start. It was only a short while in to the proceedings that June Robinson announced that one of the lecturers due to appear would not be there. It was sad news to learn that a respected author and art historian had passed away on Sunday 19th March, a date that I found out later was also his birthday. The next announcement ensured that a murmur of anxiety spread quickly through the room. There had been an incident outside the Houses of Parliament and a policeman had been stabbed. We had been locked in for our own safety. Mobiles were retrieved from bags and pockets and the news Googled to reveal that there was far more carnage outside than we had been told, with up to 40 people injured having been mown down by a car on Westminster Bridge. The business at hand continued as normal but it was a weird emotion for some of us who were thinking ‘there but for the grace go we…’
Once the last speaker had taken their turn we were allowed to leave and headed out into the streets of Westminster, not knowing what we would find. It was strangely eerie, with little traffic but the resonances of sirens and helicopters echoing around us. We could see the emergency services surrounding the scene. Many of the roads had been blocked off and as we walked through the back streets to the Tate Britain, unmarked police cars with sirens screaming and lights flashing would speed past us.
Walking through the Hockney exhibition was akin to a religious experience with people wandering around silently, meditating on the works that moved our spirits. Later I learned that David Hockney is to design a stained glass window in Westminster Abbey to celebrate the Queen’s reign. A strangely apt fact.
There was no other option but to take a circuitous route back to our hotel situated at the far end of Westminster Bridge. As we emerged over the other side of Lambeth Bridge, a woman wheeling her bike challenged a police officer stopping pedestrians from accessing the bridge. “Why can’t I go over,” she screamed. “They are allowed to come from the other way and I want to get home.” Maybe she didn’t know what had gone on, though hard to imagine with the Armageddon going on around us, but she showed her frustration through the use of some choice expletives aimed at the officer. A passer-by attempted to calm her down and was met with further obscenities. “It’s not worth it,” I said, knowing that it could escalate into a nasty incident. “I just wanted to help,” the chap said as he turned away.
TV crews lined the Albert Embankment as they focused their cameras on reporters, their backs to the Houses of Parliament the other side of the Thames. Further along, groups of people stood outside St. Thomas’ Hospital. “The hospital is closed,” someone shouted. We saw spokesmen, maybe doctors, talking to reporters in sombre tones. The hospital being just yards from Westminster Bridge, it made sense that those caught up in the atrocity could well have been taken there.
More throngs of media had settled outside the front of our hotel, the perfect place to film the scene of carnage. As we emerged from the lift on the fifth floor we were drawn to the large picture window that gave us an unrivalled view of the devastation committed by a murderous terrorist earlier in the day. It was as if time had stood still, with buses and cars abandoned and what looked like body bags on the pavement.
In our room we made a cup of tea and sat on our beds watching Sky News, knowing that the lives of hundreds had been affected by the disaster just yards away. The whole day and the tragic events surrounding it had been a surreal mixture of normality and disbelief.
Later that evening we left the hotel, still ring-fenced by the media, to make our way to Russell Square for a meal with the other European societies. There were no taxis as the roads were still blocked, so we walked to Waterloo in the hope of finding a ride there, but that too was deserted as all the taxis must have already been purloined by commuters looking to find a way home. Sighting some buses through an archway, we ventured towards them and thought we may be able to find a vacant one on the surrounding roads that seemed to be free flowing. As we crossed a zebra crossing by the iMax, two of us having nearly reached the other side, I spied a bus with the words Russell Square emblazoned on the front. I stopped, attempted to shout to the other two but because of a severe cold I had no voice, and pointed at the bus as it came towards me, only to see the face of the driver in his cab mouthing at me to ‘get out of the way’. Luckily, the other two turned and we ran back over the crossing to the bus stop, by which time he was already on his way, but after a frantic few knocks on the door of the moving bus, the bus driver stopped and let the three out of breath, giggling maniacs in. A moment of lightheartedness at the end of a March Wednesday in London.