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From my friend (and dance teacher) Sarah White….
Yesterday our country was a powder-keg. It probably still is today. But things have changed for me today, shifted, just a little.
I spent a lot of time in town yesterday, wandering, shopping, drinking coffee, chatting. I do that. I like that. Yesterday was very different to most days though. Every snippet of conversation that I overheard was coated in a note of fear.
‘What do we do if…’ said one shop assistant to her manager.
‘We haven’t been given guidelines from head office yet, but at the first sign, get out the back and get out…’
Two old ladies in the coffee shop.
‘I really wouldn’t have come in today if it wasn’t that I needed to get John his present. I don’t know how we’ll get out, you know, if it starts. My knees aren’t what they were…’
‘I know, I thought about that. I’m carrying a tin of beans in my bag and hoping I can get a good swing in first..!’ And yes, they laughed, but it wasn’t a genuine, happy sound.
I heard mothers worried about their children, I heard children saying to mothers, ‘They weren’t allowed to just break those shops were they, Mum, that’s not allowed…’ As they tried to make sense of something which didn’t and doesn’t make sense.
The police presence throughout the day was obvious and high profile. Community support officers chatting with people. Police wandering around, smiling. Thin smiles, accompanied by darting eyes, checking out that group of four lads, chatting outside the Carphone Warehouse.
By mid-afternoon I NEEDED to be away from town. The tension was heavy and thick. We hadn’t had any bother so far. Did that mean it was our turn now? It felt like it.
My son has just started his first part-time job in McD’s in town and it wasn’t until I got home that I realised he had a late shift, not an early one. He wouldn’t finish until 9pm. I felt a knot in my tummy and wasn’t quite sure what to do. So I monitored the news, facebook, twitter, every on-line information source I could think of so that I could make an informed decision. And at 5pm one of my daughter’s noticed a shift in the tone of her news-feed. There was lots of talk about town and things kicking off and my blood ran cold.
Putting on trainers, rather than the heels that I had been wearing all day, I made a contingency plan with my other children. If you hear anything, anything at all that you are not happy about, make this phone call and you’ll be picked up and out of here in minutes. Lock the doors. Do not go out under any circumstances. Stay together. Get an overnight bag ready. Yes… I know what I sound like. Yes… I hope it’s an over-reaction too. Yes… Of course I’ll be safe. And off I went. A mother determined that her child would get home safe. When did I start living in a war zone?
I saw nothing unusual on the way into town. I went and found him at work and he seemed, unusually, a little pleased to see me. ‘Everyone is talking about things kicking off,’ he said, ‘have you seen anything?’ I reassured him it was fine and told him I’d wait for him. Yes… I know it is 3 and a half hours. I’ll wander around here and wait for you. I’d seen enough on the news to know that if it did start, I wouldn’t get close to get him, I needed to be close to get him.
And so I sat in the sunshine in the square outside, watched and waited. It isn’t something I’ve ever done before, so I had no benchmark by which to work out if today was the same as any other day. Was it usual for groups of young teenagers to be hanging around chatting when the shops were closed? Why were there so many pairs of teenage boys wandering around? Was it usual for lads to come cycling into town wearing empty backpacks at that time of the evening? Is it football season, do they need to be wearing scarves on such a warm day? When 15 boys walk past you, all wearing the same bandanas around their necks, is that the latest fashion? I spotted quite a few children that I used to teach, but I didn’t make eye contact and chat, like I might have done before. Suddenly, all the children and young people that I saw were worrying me, making me nervous. There were dozens of police officers and community support officers, all in pairs, all wandering. Not aimlessly but not with a particular place to be either. And as time went by, so I became more and more uncomfortable.
Everyone was waiting for something. Over and over pairs of young lads arrived, looked around, hung around for a while and then wandered off again, only to return a while later and do the same again. Sheep everywhere looking for a flock. Newsfeeds everywhere in our town were suggesting that things had ‘kicked off’ and young people were turning up to see. I don’t think they were there to start anything necessarily, but would they have just watched or got drawn into it if anything had started? I couldn’t tell. I do know, I didn’t want to be there.
We got back safe, with no sign of any trouble and just the slight embarrassment that I had probably completely over-reacted.
Throughout the evening, I, like countless others, was glued to the news, the newsfeeds, the news sources on the net. Watching, waiting, wondering. Our local police superintendent made the best use of Twitter that I have seen so far. Every hour he updated in a way that felt useful, informative, and accurate. He confronted every rumour. He spoke candidly of every minor incident or potential for incident. When the newsfeed were full of ‘The retail park is burning, man!’, his update was, ‘Despite the rumour that the retail park is on fire, I can assure you that nothing is happening there’. He even went so far as to say, ‘The car that failed to stop when requested to by police has been dealt with. Two people arrested. No injuries.’
Nothing kicked off in our area last night. I went to bed in the early hours, not feeling safe in the way that I like to, but feeling reassured that all that could be done to maintain my safety, was being done.
And so today I won’t be monitoring the news channels and the newsfeeds. I won’t be obsessing over the invisible fear. I’ll check in occasionally and keep up-to-date, but I have more important things to do today than worry over what might happen. Today I have to make a positive difference. Because every small positive difference that I make today, will give me a big positive feeling. Every smile I find out there will let me know that we do still have the potential to be the civilised society I hope will prevail. I won’t let the feral behaviour shown by some over the last few days, spoil my day today. And my plan is to get out there and collect some smiles. So I feel better about me, about us and about today.
We all have a story from the last few days because it has affected us all, in one way or another, even if just our viewpoints. Some people’s lives have changed forever and my heart goes out to them all. There is a lot to be done to get over this and I don’t know how we do that, where we start, what I, personally can do to help. So while we figure that out, and before anything else happens, let’s just try to do something nice for someone today.
Let me know how many smiles you manage to collect… Let’s make a tiny, but positive difference.