7/7 – 10 years on and the creation of a story
Haarlem, 7 July 2015
It is 10 years ago since that fatal Thursday morning of the 7th of July of 2005 in London when one of four Islamic suicide bombers blew himself up in the Piccadilly Line metro, some 100 feet deep underground between Kings Cross and Russell Square station, throwing me and about a thousand others into a silent darkness, clinging to life.
Last year I was invited by a Dutch publisher of graphic novels with an itchy name who showed an interest in my survival story. The interest was based on a selection of work I showed, one of them a 72-paged little book called In Transition about my 7/7 experience, completed in 2008 when I was still living in London. Back then I had completed this draft version just next to my work as a designer in the hope to finalise it later. It was part of a larger intended project called Neshuma, a series exploring the mysteries of life and the soul based on my unordinary family, experiences and observations through pictures and words. In style, the initial 7/7 story lacked some consistency with an unrefined mix of pencil, pen & ink and computer techniques, but nevertheless urgent in its intention: an exploration of the forces at play when faced with an unexpected and imminent death.
An initial attempt to raise attention for my work by submitting print-on-demand copies to a couple of publishers was unsuccessful as most publishers don’t accept unsolicited work and the draft lands up on an unread pile collecting cobwebs. Life, work, a financial and a personal crisis, and a move back to Holland followed, nearly crushing my dream of once being published.
It was a morning like most others. Like many people I was a bit late that morning getting up and going to work because the night before the celebrations were being held for London being selected as the host for the Olympics in 2012, still 7 innocent years away. That evening after work I went for some drinks with my colleagues in Richmond where I had started working only about a month earlier.
After the alarm went off I was still snoozing for at least half an hour. My reoccurring flying dream was slowly fading away and I went into my routine of shower and breakfast with Alice, my reason for moving to London half a year before. She was actually preparing for her weekend trip to Berlin to do one of these typical British hen-dos for her soon-to-be sister-in-law. She would take the train up north to Luton Airport as my direction was south-westbound towards Richmond, a journey of over an hour from Holloway/Islington. Just like any other day we kissed each other goodbye and I went on my way walking towards the nearest Tube station at Caledonian Road.
As a newcomer from little Holland, these inner London journeys are like an adventure. So many people, so many impressions, the rhythm, the energy. But as I arrived at the station the gate in front of it was closed with a little note on it attached saying that the station is closed due to maintenance or something. This is before iPhones and travel apps but I knew enough of my journey to go for the alternative: taking the bus to the next station. Any bus will do and soon enough a double-decker arrived towards Kings Cross Station. Busy as it was I stayed right at the front of the lower deck next to the driver, taking in the view of the commuting Londoners. Knowing I would be really too late now, I sort of submitted into the situation, letting myself be guided by the flow of the traffic.
Arrived at the chaotic twin stations of Kings Cross and Saint Pancras I passed the first steps down where I got a copy of the free Metro newspaper and quickly made my way further down the large escalator towards the damp metro platforms. My line is the Piccadilly Line, the dark blue line with the funny name, towards Heathrow airport via Earl’s Court where I have to make a transfer. But first I enter the platform.
Man, it is busy. I go all the way to the front side of the platform in the hope to get a place in the metro train, but have to let 2 ones pass as they are way too busy, like sweaty sardines in a tin can. Without too much logic I make a decision to go all the way to the other end of the platform, to get into the back end of a train, hoping that that part would be slightly less busy. Not knowing that that decision actually would save my life I walk along the platform, passing unknowingly some guy with a bulging rucksack and a nervous streak. We all manage to get on board of the next train and just like that it leaves the platform and pounds into the dark enclosed tunnel.
There are several ways of telling a ‘true’ story. A story could be told ‘realistically’ – as it happened; a minute by minute account of events. A true story could also be told trough the imagination, by using impressions, interpretations or even wildly made up things, merely triggered by an event.
All are valid I suppose. I don’t think any method is ‘better’ than the other. All I know is something happened in that tunnel that extends reality; at least something where the usual companions of writing, visual art and music utterly fail. The closest I thought in conveying this life-altering experience is to use a medium I was mostly familiar with and experienced in, namely pictures and words – an art form seriously underrated in the English-speaking word, so much so it can’t even get a proper name with insufficient descriptions like ‘comics’ (too kiddy) or ‘graphic novels’ (too pretentious and confusing).
That’s how I made the graphic novel that I completed in 2008, and that’s how I got invited to make the story for a ‘real’ publisher more recently (which hasn’t materialized yet after many rounds of discussions alterations and bouts of doubt).
Truth be told, even I have grown to have my doubts about the medium. As I have doubts about pretty much everything. But anyway. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what medium to choose to “tell a story”; it will come out by itself in the end. I just use a bit of everything. So there it is. This is how it goes.
Just having left Kings Cross Station I make some observations in the overly crowded Piccadilly Line. Any average commuting ride in London will tell you- no matter how many sweaty armpits – how greatly diverse and energetic, how alive it is. It is too crowded to read my metro, which I keep under my arm, and too interesting to not just look around in this city of all cities.
As I am surrounded by the world, something that resembles a sound, a hollowed out bang, resonates through the tunnel into our carriage for about 8 seconds or so, immediately numbing down the chatting, the speed of the train and ultimately the lights.
For an infinite moment there is darkness and silence.
All my systems fail to operate, yet I am fully conscious. At first, my mind starts going in overdrive, but before I can materialise a thought the emergency lights go on. My fellow passengers re-emerge in a different light and it is as if they are characters in a play with the stage curtains having gone closed and open again and now they have different masks on. Masks of confusion, fear and still, silence. The train has now fully come to a standstill. Slowly but surely, the compartment starts filling with smoke.
Some disaster films come close, but this movie now playing in front of me is pretty bad.
“Jesus Christ Oh Jesus!” a big black woman starts yelling next to me while she goes down on her knees.
“Jesus Oh Lord Christ” another person yells after her and within a second a palpable layer of panic is added onto the blurry smoke in the compartment.
“Help me please God help me!” someone cries in vain.
“Open the door!! Can anyone open the fucking door?!” some guy yells from somewhat up the front of the compartment. I am something like 5-10 metres away from the very end of the train and can see some other guy desperately trying to open the back door, in vain.
The Tube is called the Tube for a reason; smashing in windows are pointless as all that it does is unveiling the wall. But at least it will give air, so another guy is trying to smash in a window with the back of his shoe but only hurts himself in the process.
“I don’t want to die!” a voice yells in the now thick layer of dark smoke that has ascended at head-height. I can’t breathe. Some instinct tells me to bend my knees and go and sit on the ground. As I go down, I realise I am not the only one. Strangely, there seems to be a place of hope at foot’s level under the blanket of smoke. I can see other people sitting, laying down, over each other, some talking – but not for long as the smoke gets heavier, and heavier, and heavier. “This is it,” I think, “just like my grandfather’s parents; being killed with a bunch of screaming strangers in an enclosed space without oxygen…
“This is it” and I close my eyes —
There probably isn’t any person, let alone a publisher that I can easily make understand what happened next.
Alice, my girlfriend who is on her way to Berlin via Luton, shows up, somewhere in between my vision, my mind, my soul. I want to talk to her, but my words fail to reach her. Her image tells me something, without words, that she doesn’t want me to go away. Next, I see her drifting away from me, floating in a black void, all alone, looking scared, surrounded by nothing. Ultimately, she disappears. The thought of her being gone, not me, makes me yell out: “Noooo!!”
Now it is at this very moment, this infinitely undefinable moment that something intervenes. A voice without sound tells me that it will be all right.
I open my eyes and it seemed the smoke had stabilised at the foot level. I can breathe. Barely, but just. A real voice sounds through the carriage: “A note has being passed on from the front of the train saying help is on its way, they forced the doors open and are releasing the passengers!!”
The actors instantly change theirs masks and yell a group cheer “Yaaay!!”
Still sitting, the smoke slowly fades and I can see the people closest to me, one guy with a bottle of water holding on to his blackened face. It is then that I notice my throat feels cork dry and I ask him for a sip. With a smile he gives me his bottle and I take the most thankful sip I can imagine.
Words are being exchanged. The sound of scuffling indicates some movement, and with the same instinct I rise up again. It is unbelievable how in England the art form of queuing is perfected as everybody neatly gets in order to slowly leave the compartment.
Walking from compartment to compartment the drama becomes more and more apparent, until after some 4 compartments or so a Transport for London employee, with his orange vest and plastic yellow helmet like a saviour of the underground guides everyone step by step outside the train, in sort of a curved path next to the rails. Helped onto the ground by another angel in orange I mingle with the crowd along the rails.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see what can only be some sort of a place of impact, and the smell of burnt flesh mixed with melted iron prompts me to look the other way, and I continue on my path.
I can hear people talking, and I can see one guy taking pictures. I realise I had my little phone all the time in my trouser pocket, but know I wouldn’t have been able to use it anyway as there is no reception underground. Next to me I see a middle aged woman with a deeply traumatised expression on her face, and some tears washing away some of the soot on her face. I share a silence with her.
This march of the living dead through the tunnel lasts for about forever, until, well, what else can I say, light at the end of it emerges. It’s true.
It turns out to be Kings Cross again, with more angels on the elevated platform, handing me the friendliest “You awright mate” in the history of greetings. I exchange some mumblings and go towards the escalators. They don’t work and I stand still for a moment at the foot of it, admiring the sunlight coming from above.
I am alive.
Upstairs on street level is another world. The bright light. The noise of people yelling, ambulances and helicopters. Water! Pallets of water! I take one and drink it in one gulp. People seem to ask me things. I want to talk to Alice. My phone! I flip it open. Battery out!!
More people ask me stuff but all I want is to be back home and use a phone, and I start walking. From Kings Cross back to Holloway is about half an hour walk and before I know I am already half way. More helicopters and sirens in the sky. I am on pure adrenaline, and as I walk along some shop I see my own reflection. My face is completely black, and I continue walking, running now and then, coughing some really weird black stuff out. I can still smell the burnt flesh and metal. I feel the need to cry but run even faster now.
“I am home!” I yell entering the house, hoping any of the other tenants are there, but silence. I throw off my covered-in-black-bag and jacket, and walk towards the house phone, turning on the TV on my way. It shows the very place where I just came from, and for the first time news comes in from the other three explosions, excluding faults and coincidences.
Alice’s phone gives a non-connecting sound. I walk towards the bathroom and now see even clearer how dark and bruised I look. I try and wash my face and spit out an endless stream of soot.
This time the phone gives a connecting sound…
The book deal didn’t go ahead, but I got to live.
Neshuma: In Transition – My graphic novel at Amazon from 2008
Surviving 7/7 – review by Paul Gravett
© 2015 David Enker – All allwork