Last Monday, I went to a theatre in Oldham to watch a play my friend had written in response to Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. The talk in the Q&A afterwards was of politics, of society, welfare, education and identity. How little has changed since Dickens’ time; what a sorry state we’re in. Yet the talk in the bar and in the car on the way home was of excitement, creativity, opportunity, plans for the future: how lucky we all are, to be here, in this city, right now.
It was a hot night and Manchester was shimmering and shining as we drove back home. We were buzzing: six joyful, raucous women in a people-carrier, laughing and singing along to The Smiths. We dropped off a friend who lived right by the Manchester Arena and, as we passed it, we talked of the Ariana Grande concert that would be coming to an end right about now. ‘My daughter loves her,’ one of us said, ‘if I’d known it was on, I’d have taken her.’
We each came home to our families and my heart sank to see that my son had sneaked illicitly into my bed with all his teddy bears, unbeknownst to his sitter. I never sleep well when he’s there. He snores. I checked my phone, as you do – as we all did – before going to sleep. I read the breaking news with confusion at first and then horror as I came to understand that there had been a deliberate and violent attack on the people at the concert, many of them children. I stayed up all night, following the news on my phone as it unfolded and holding my little boy as he slept.
I decided not to write that night, but my poem Spoon wouldn’t leave me alone until I got it down. I’m not sure that it properly captures the way my irritation at finding my son in my bed dissolved into gratitude or how that gratitude sprang from the deepest empathy, but I had to write it.
And then I haven’t been able to write another word all week. I’ve broken my own promise to write and publish every day and I hope this post can stand for my silent days.
I did almost write. I almost wrote about the way I felt when I saw a police car outside my son’s school the following morning, or how my head of department asked us all to come away from our screens to gather in the kitchen and just be together for a while. How disconcerting it was and comforting in equal measure to see the armed police patrolling outside my work. I almost wrote about the conversation I had with the mothers – women of all faiths and none – of the children in my son’s class in the sunny park the following day, as our children climbed trees and ran ragged, oblivious.
These were my small, personal stories and I wasn’t sure what their place was in relation to the huge tragedy that was affecting so many so closely and the big story that was being followed by the whole world. And yet. And yet…
Although I haven’t been writing this week, I have been watching and I have been listening and what the people of Manchester have been doing is telling stories. Hundreds and thousands of small stories of grief and love, of darkness and light. Stories to build a bridge across communities. To find meaning. Stories to comfort each other. To show solidarity. To light in a candle in the dark. To say: we are here. We are together. Stories to remind ourselves and each other who we are. To tell the world who we are.
And I feel lucky to be here, in this city, right now. Even in hard times.
I’ll be back on tomorrow with my project to write and share small stories and poems every day throughout 2017, more convinced than ever that I should. That it matters.
I’m raising money for Shelter. You can donate here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/drivinginthedark