Tuesday, 11 September 2018

As if it never happened.

A friend of mine was telling me she joined Fitness First. Wow, I said, that was my favourite gym when I lived in London! Years ago, it was just a few minutes away from the office, and I used to sneak out at lunch break for a quick class. Maybe I should shake up my workout routine a little, get rid of my annoying Filipino personal trainer who keeps asking me if I fancy Brad Pitt, and join that gym for a change?

I got even more excited when she said it was in Villagio. So close, easy to get to…

Where exactly in Villagio is it then? I asked enthusiastically. She explained but then added that walking up and down those corridors made her feel a little uneasy. It is the same feeling, she said…as if you walking through that corridor. I didn’t need to ask what corridor. I was also here, in Doha, back in 2012. 

For me, the most painful image, the one that will forever be imprinted in my mind is a particular photo of a fireman carrying out a dead toddler in his arms. Those little feet in short socks. I remember feeling paralyzed by that image, and then telling myself that maybe? the child in the photo wasn’t dead. Maybe just unconscious. But deep inside, my mind already knew. She is dead, it replied, mercilessly. Of course, she was dead. 

And all the memories flooded right back in. All that horror, the smoke, the twitter feed going manic, awful, unimaginable gossip-which later turned out to be true; the dead children who looked like they were just asleep…the endless stories of all those poor families who were all friends of the friends of the friends…

We live in a very cold, cruel world and you have to somehow try and distance yourself emotionally from getting too affected by every tragedy you hear about or see online. There is too much nasty stuff going on every day in this world. So much that images get more and more graphic as the media tries to break through our compassion fatigue. I never know what might suddenly get through my own protective filter and affect me on some deep level. But the Villagio fire was- still is- one of those special tragedies that got to me. The tragedy I cried over. That, and Maddeleine Maccan

That night, I had a dream. I joined the Fitness First gym and was walking around the facilities. Big open spaces, lots of great equipment. And then, the gym instructor showed me the nursery part. Look she said, we also have an arrangement for you to leave your babies here, while you work out. She led me down a narrow corridor into small stuffy rooms with low ceilings, and there were children sleeping in plastic cots, the ones you can see in hospital baby units… all very young, all asleep. Some cots had two in them. I kept walking from room to room and there were children sleeping everywhere. I woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep again.
A friend of mine who lost a son to cancer, once explained to me that one of the hardest things for her was that people expected her to move on. Everyone is very sympathetic, she said, when it just happens. Everyone wants to help. People visit you, bring you food and flowers, people call you , cry with you. But then time passes and they move on and they expect that at some point- preferably soon, you will move on too. And become your old self, as if nothing happened.
But of course, you never do. 

And so life goes on, business as usual… and now, just over six years after that awful, unspeakable, criminal tragedy where 19 lives got lost… Most of us, of course, moved on. We walk around Villagio, eat and drink coffee, laugh and buy groceries and clothes, exercise on shiny new equipment. As if nothing ever happened.  It is something nobody really talks about anymore, a friend of mine said. The topic is unmentionable. There isn’t even a plaque in Villagio, to commemorate the lives lost. But, the reality is…A plaque or no plaque, something like that does not just go away.  And every now and then, a narrow corridor or a sleeping child in someone’s arms, or whatever that unexpected, unrelated image might be, will trigger the pain and the horror that we all stored safely away under many mental locks inside our busy minds.
It did happen.