It’s my first day back, and I’m sitting in a London cafe. Downstairs is empty, and the lights gloomy. For a good few minutes, I stare ahead at the pale blue walls, wondering if it was all a nightmare. But it wasn’t. It was all real. The gunshots. The baying screams. Families running for their lives. Shop assistants rushing people under the shutters.
I was there, you see. In the main square of Plaça de Catalunya, just meters from La Rambla- the scene of a crime that saw a van plow down 15 innocent civilians. But no amount of words will do justice to what took place on the day of my arrival. It won’t bring back the lives of the 15 taken, and It sure as hell won’t stop more attacks happening in the not-too-distant future. But I will endeavor to give you an idea of what it was like because I feel that writing about it might be the only way I can truly make sense of it all.
When stuff like that unfolds, you can be forgiven for thinking you’re in a movie. The adrenaline kicks in and everything appears blurry. Even the screaming sounds that should become amplified seem muffled because all you want to do is survive. And if you’re with someone, you hold them tightly, because the thought of anything happening to them makes you sick. In many ways, you worry more about the lives of your loved ones than you do your own.
Without meaning to put a sentimental gloss on an event that was anything but, my holiday (if you want to call it that) started with romance in mind. I had booked a three-night stay in a nearby hotel in Raval to see my girlfriend. She had recently moved back to her home city after three years living in London. I was apprehensive because I hadn’t seen her in 6 weeks, but that was soon replaced by genuine excitement when landing. The sea breeze made my nostrils dance, and the sun’s rays stroked my back as though they were happy to have another sun-starved tourist in their city. Even the quasi-palm trees that lined the streets made me smile like a goofy child on the verge of a candy overdose.
So far, so good….. I was finally there, in a place recently voted the best coastal city in the world. And after unloading my suitcase and slapping on the factor 50 sunscreen, all that was left was to meet her in the main square. Naturally, I got lost. Anyone who knows me knows maps are not my friends. So what should have been a 10-minute walk up one road turned into a confused Brit wandering down unfamiliar side streets with a phone telling him to turn right in 200m then left on the street with 28 letters.
Eventually, (it might have even been an hour) a miracle occurred and I got to the Fnac shopping center where she arranged to meet. A minute later I saw her. She looked stunning. The kind of stunning that makes every head turn. Her skin glowed a glorious gold, making her round eyes an even stronger green. She hugged me tightly. My hat fell off, and we laughed. Then smiled like idiots. It was good to have her back.
She recommended we went to La Rambla. It was seconds away. But. Her phone needed fixing. She also wanted an MP4 player so we crossed the busy square and sat down with a sales assistant in what must have been the Spanish equivalent of the Carphone Warehouse. He spoke for a good few minutes and seemed to be annoyed at what she was asking until he stopped talking altogether. His eyes fixated at the window. And then that’s when I heard a ghastly scream.
Soon, the shop was flooded with people. There was one girl. She was screaming. Crying. Pointing. We went to the back of the store and the shutters locked us in. 15 minutes into my trip and I feared the worst. I asked what was going on and when the shutters opened only minutes later, he said a car was speeding through the square. Weird, I thought. People even laughed, and everything was restored.
Order. Calm. People needed things. Tourists wanted to see things. And we were no different.
So we left.
But 2 minutes later, we were running for our lives.
It was too late to go back into the store. The shutters were fully closed. The streets empty. Everyone was running in one direction, and for a good few minutes, it was just myself, my girlfriend and an old man asking us how to operate Facebook Live on his phone. Bravely, he moved forward in the then-empty road and began recording. We followed him. Then hid beneath the water fountains and recorded some of it ourselves before joining everyone on the path to the right of the main shopping center.
Looking around, with more people for company, everyone appeared to either shake their heads or record the drama on their phones. A few even approached officers clad in bulletproof vests for answers but were told to keep running. So we did. For a good hour. Maybe more. Another shop even let us in, but when you’re surrounded by such hysteria, you can’t decipher whether staying in one place is actually a good idea, and for us, at least, we preferred to run. In fact, it wasn’t until a helicopter circled the scene and news flooded through on our phones that we truly caught wind of the attack’s severity.
It was an hour later, and for some reason, a bar near the center was open. We sat down and ordered beer. My phone had died so I couldn’t contact my family. Instead, I drank my beer and rubbed my girlfriend’s back as she looked blankly ahead. We barely even talked. I guess we didn’t have to. Simply being in each other’s company was enough.
I guess it wasn’t until we left the bar and circled the rest of the city, passing the various news crews and correspondents that we thoroughly talked about it. “Mad” was a word that both left our mouths. “Mad.”
Ending the day, we convinced a taxi driver to take us to the beach after a somber dinner in a near-empty kebab house. It was deserted barring the odd couple. So we walked along the warm sand with our bare feet and speculated who on earth would do something so heinous.
Shortly after we got a taxi back to the hotel. With my feet bleeding, I flicked my shoes off and got under the covers, not bothering to shower. And then we held each other close, saying little, but thinking everything.
And for the next two days, we did the same.