Peace in a Time of Net Curtains
It was a warm, bright July morning and I was in a good mood. The previous day, London had won its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. There were celebrations throughout the city. My husband and I were overjoyed as the Olympic site would be within walking distance of our East End home. Exciting stuff!
I set off for work - boarding the Jubilee Line at Canning Town heading for Green Park. At the time, I was working for the Commonwealth Foundation, an international organisation providing an invaluable link - a safe space - between Commonwealth governments and civil society. It was committed to working towards a peaceful and equitable society. Located in Marlborough House on Pall Mall - the Foundation was a short walk from the station.
However, as the train approached Westminster, passengers were instructed to alight and leave the station ASAP due to ‘a problem with the power supply’. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary in this request - ‘problems’ on the underground were not uncommon. I continued my journey on foot.
I arrived at Marlborough House and headed directly to my office. As I walked down the corridor, I noticed windows had been left open overnight. The net curtains were pulled back and billowing in the breeze. Although the building was undeniably majestic, it could become unbearably hot and stuffy in the summer. Every office I passed was empty. I reached my office, turned on the computer and checked the phone for messages. There were over a dozen. As I was listening to apologies from staff encountering difficulties getting in, a colleague burst through.
“There’s been an explosion on the underground! Check your computer!’’
Three bombs had exploded in quick succession. News was sketchy. The underground was completely shut down. And then, the fourth bomb went off on a bus in Tavistock Square. It felt like we were under siege. The phone rang - another colleague.
“I’m sorry I’m late. My tube station’s closed. I’ll try to get a bus.”
“Don’t,” I said. “Turn back. There are bombs. The city centre is closed. It’s not safe.”
I fielded more calls from colleagues and instructed everyone to return home. My husband phoned to make sure I was okay. And then, silence. The phone system was overloaded. Unable to leave, I went through the building closing windows and making sure the net curtains were closed and weighted down. Better safe than sorry. I remembered this routine from decades before. Net curtains - it took me back.
When I first visited London, I noticed many old buildings had net curtains in the windows. I thought it odd. I associated net curtains with little old ladies - not public buildings. It was explained to me that the curtains provided protection for those inside. The sheers - thick, overly long and sagging at the bottom - were held in place by weights sewn into the hems. In the event of an explosion (World War II or IRA bombs), the nets would catch the flying glass from the shattering windows.
During my subsequent career in London, I worked in several buildings that had these sheers. I’d secured them on a number of occasions during IRA attacks. However, after the truce in Northern Ireland, there no longer seemed a need for net curtains.
On 7 July 2005, as I closed and adjusted the sheers to protect colleagues from possible imploding glass; as I felt my earlier optimism disappear; as my body tensed and a long-forgotten edginess returned - I realised that a precious thing had been lost - peace.
It’s startling how you don’t realise you are living in a time of peace - until that peace is broken.
By: Patricia Mahoney ().