I turn on the news and hear the words ‘Russell Square’ something about an attack. The newscaster states that at this time, police are still uncertain whether it is terrorism or mental health related. I was there, I was right there. I picture the place. I remember it as it was, just hours before: mid-afternoon on a stifling day in the capital.
I’m trying to squeeze in an impromptu visit to the British Museum, I’d dilly-dallied at King’s Cross before getting on the Piccadilly line, to go just the one stop to Russell Square Station. Emerging from the underground, I’m immediately greeted by stallholders selling all manner of novelty items and tourist gifts, some emblazoned with a union flag, a beefeater or Tower Bridge or the words ‘London’ in bright busy letters. A map indicates my best route is to walk through the park area nestled between the criss-cross of unfamiliar roads. As I step into Russell Square, my world changes and I am greeted by the sight of people relaxing, couples lying together on the grass, bronzing their bare legs in the early afternoon sun. Young men in sharp business suits sit in a line, on a bench hurriedly eating expensive looking sandwiches, whilst still pawing at tablets and phone screens. To my right a young family are playing catch with something that looks like a cross between a ball and a Frisbee. The bright yellow toy flies through the air, then a hand reaches up expertly plucking it from the sky. An elderly couple wearing coats, wrapped up against the distant memory of the shivering cold, hunch together eating ice creams in silence, savouring each mouthful of cool refreshment. I gaze upon a puddle of water in the middle of the square where a fountain splashes invitingly. I smile as a chocolate brown pug creeps on his belly into the centre, where the slack water jets spray over him. He rolls over and lays there, his tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth. His dark eyes widen as he plays up to the gathering crowd all taking snaps, instantly sharing the adorable scene with their online friends. On the other side of the fountain a small child is giggling uncontrollably, and wanders towards the pup. A commanding voice calls the dog over but right now, this star-crossed canine is quite content where he is. Having caused a commotion he is now busy lapping up all the attention, rolling this way and that, posing for all his adoring fans. I leave the dog beached in the centre of the fountain, and look across to the other side of this green oasis of calm, in the centre of the city. Two brightly dressed young women approach. They offer me samples of a rather unappetising bright green drink. I can have two free bottles of the health-giving soupy liquid, in return for answering a really short survey. I decline knowing my time is short. Congratulating myself on making good my escape, I catch sight of a man glugging down the drink in earnest, he is exclaiming something about the taste to his partner, I note he has traces of dark green around his lips. I look up, all around me buildings of stone and concrete bake in the hot sun. Two punks with close-cropped dark hair and thick black eyeliner, wearing slogan-printed vests meet on the corner and embrace each other. A family of tourists dragging their wheeled suitcases, just as I have been, scurry past, I wonder what images have been captured on the serious looking camera that bounces from the leader’s neck: I hope they are enjoying their visit, that it is living up to expectation. A youth sits dozing in the grass next to a dark-skinned man, they are both supping on cans I assume to be beer, inspecting their dishevelled and tatted appearance, I muse upon who is enabling who. Stepping into the road on the other side I see a blue London taxi. A blue one, I thought they were all supposed to be black? Getting through security at the museum seems to be taking an age and I abandon my plans for a quick wander around the Ancient Egypt exhibition and turn back the way I came. Back to Russell Square. I pass a very young looking concierge, buttoned up in a pristine uniform – far too hot on a day like today – standing to attention at the entrance to The Montague Hotel. The blossom of bright red all along the front, cries out to me of the perfect English garden. I imagine, in my dotage, dressed in fine clothes, walking up the steps and going inside to take afternoon tea with a group of my dearest friends. Once more on the path crossing the diagonal through the trees and grass, the green gift bearers have gone, so has the playful pug. Instead a large gull cools its webbed feet in the pool of water, slowly edging forward, ever closer to getting a soaking. I dodge past another young family, my heavy suitcase turning over on one wheel then righting itself again, to once more join the pounding of pavements. A few hours later Russell Square will become the scene for another headline grabbing attack. Russell Square I was there.