The bombers. Still the dissonance rings in my ears like Anglican church bells in my neighbourhood full of Muslim immigrants. They were boys, sweet and dear and polite, and they got haircuts in my shop every three weeks for the full six months they spent across the street from the Cut ‘n Curl, living in a run-down apartment and developing their plan.
They seemed so innocent, telling me about hunting for jobs, or about the girls they were betrothed to back home. They treated me like a beloved auntie, though I was only a dozen or so years older than them; it was a respect thing. Thirty-two was a very dull year for me, when those high heels and bars and friends and men had indeed materialized but had been found to be (respectively) pinching, expensive, treacherous and unsatisfying. So the respectfulness the boys showed me was refreshing, and I got to indulge my nurturing side, long underutilised.
I didn’t wear a veil or anything (In a salon? That’d be kind of bad advertising) but I did behave, at least in front of my more orthodox clients, as if I were a dutiful and demure Arabic woman. I assumed the boys had been raised by dutiful and demure Arabic women: they were clean and punctual, and they told me I was as lovely as a Lamb of God and as holy as their homeland. They sat in for Barty, nearly four years gone from my life, and for the connection to the Arab world that I’d never really had. I’m quite sure they were the gentlest murderers I will ever meet.
The only other superlative I retain from that time is that I was the blindest, stupidest, most oblivious idiot who ever walked the face of the planet. When it all broke out, in all its ugly reality, I was forced to admit: I had to grow up. As it turns out, people might not always be telling the truth.
In retrospect, there were clues some bigger than others. They said they’d found work at a laundry, which explained the white lorry they brought home, but contradicted their copious free time. One time they needed help with some odd words wires, timers, spacing which they later used in a string of hardware stores, kitting out the attack. That ought to have rung my alarm bells, but I just didn’t… my insulated little world didn’t have the right kind of synaptic connections for that kind of link.
The last clue, the biggest, came into the Cut ‘n Curl one afternoon. A pastey white man, rather pear-shaped and stooped, came in and asked me for a trim though the last thing the man needed was shorter hair. In fact, he really could’ve done with a bit of volume, as his hair was as flat to his head as it was extreme mouse-brown. He wore a crisp white shirt under a sort of a sweater-bomber jacket that didn’t suit him at all he seemed to know that too, and looking back I can only guess it was a cheap attempt at disguise. You see, just a couple of days before the bombing, this fellow had gotten some incriminating information on my boys. He was trying to put a stop to it before it began.
The whole time while I was trying to nip away at that tight little helmet of hair, he was watching sideways out the window. Awkwardly, he asked if I had a lot of local business: “you know, young blokes and birds from ’round this street.” If I was naive and too trusting, this guy was crap at blending in and disguising his motives. I’ve never learned why he went into spying he seemed horrible at it. Being of Arab descent myself, I have some not unjustified suspicion towards some of my white compatriots in England, and specifically towards their enforcers, like this one. He honestly couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d had the letters C-O-P-P-E-R spelled out on the back of his ridiculous bomber coat in duct tape letters.
“No, none, really mostly the oldsters from the home come by, you know, get the blue put back in their â€˜do.â€ I laughed insincerely at my little joke, hoping the jerk would think I was shallow and horrible, and that he’d shut his yammer. His questions began to raise my hackles: he suspected my boys of something. I figured they’d been profiled, like the Yanks say just because they were Arabs, from some country swarthier than damp, mouldy Britain, this guy was assuming he knew my boys. I resolved to stonewall him.
We went back and forth, he with his weirdly worded, clumsy questions and me with my evasive, flighty responses, for several minutes. There was really nothing more I could do with his hair so I slipped off his apron and told him it’d be 18 quid for the trim. He didn’t stand. Here it comes, I thought – he’s going to bully me for information and I’m going to stand pat. No way I’ll give up my Muslim brothers, I thought. Never mind that I was the least Muslim woman in fifty square blocks, and that was including the hookers and the transvestites and the steely old lady at the Church of England rectory.
But the pinch didn’t come. He got up and left, leaving me the 2-pound tip. He asked if he could go out the back door to where he had parked. Just to be obstinate, I told him it didn’t work. Hey, I had to stand pat on something, right?
While he sat in that chair, fishing, I didn’t doubt those boys, not even remotely. I didn’t give a thought to the lorry, the free time, or the very specific and very odd translations. I pretended I didn’t know them. How on earth could I have imagined they could be doing something so sinister? But perfect, crystal clear hindsight â€“ it’ll get you every time.
Mr. Pastey came back the next day with a van and a flock of pale police-y looking friends, and they entered the building across the street. I’m generally pretty observant, or at least I’m so bored at the shop most of the time that I hang out looking out the window. But I hadn’t seen the boys leave that morning. And when Pastey came out again, about half an hour later, he and his team stood on the stoop glowing white and looking defeated. Had they rushed, which they did not do, they could have made it back to London in time. In time for three earthshattering blasts: a synchronized, diffuse, multi-method urban guerrilla assault. Crowded public sites, 47 deaths plus those of the attackers. Perpetrated by three young Arab men. My boys.