When people first talked about the events of the fifth of May it was with hushed voices and bowed heads. An unusually respectful four days passed before the jokes started to fly around the internet. And fly so fast it was possible to believe, by tracking the number of posts and calculating the amount of time it takes to craft a witty comment in one hundred and forty characters, that the first online comment had actually been made before The Blast had taken place.
By then, the witnesses, now called survivors by the more salacious newspapers, had recounted their stories so many times that the single cause had morphed into multiple events. Each story had the teller at the heart, irrespective of their actual distance from The Blast site. There were only two common threads to each woven tale: The Blast itself and The Couple On The Bench.
The day had started like many others; grey, overcast, with seventy percent chance of rain later. There had, in fact, been no rain. Rather, it had proven to be a perfect late spring day; notable only for its unseasonal perfection.
The sun shone, hot but not too hot. Office workers piled out of their strip-lit, air-conditioned buildings at lunchtime to enjoy the heat on their bodies, the sun warming pallid backs through dark suits. Tourists, wearing vivid rucksacks and bright smiles, milled about the square, ticking off yet another site in their guidebooks.
The Couple On The Bench were seemingly oblivious to the life teeming about them, so absorbed were they in gazing at each other. They rarely touched, save a gentle tucking of a golden lock of hair behind an elfin ear by a finger that looked like Michelangelo might have carved it.
Many of the survivors said they remembered The Couple On The Bench, sat in front of the statue (of Sir Charles James Napier, or the bloke with the beard as many called him. Some had genuinely glanced The Couple’s way and had been struck by his or her beauty, dependent on their sexual preference or self-esteem. Others simply came to believe they had indeed seen The Couple after the stories of them had become so inextricably entwined with their own; retelling become recollection, become remembrance.
They were blonde and beautiful, of that everyone was in agreement. Beyond these two facts, descriptions fragmented. Some had her dressed in a blue, floaty dress, with white flowers, the kind you saw on models running through cornfields in fashion magazines. Others had her in a long tunic top, over black leggings, a look that can only be carried off by the truly confident. Sometimes she was dressed from head to foot in white. Or red. He was dressed either in a smart suit, clearly tailored, clearly expensive, or in a pair of casual trousers with a pale shirt, untucked. Alternatively, he appeared in frayed jeans and a white T-shirt, looking like something out of a Hollister Co commercial. It took the police psychologist to notice that the witnesses were, in every incident bar one, describing The Couple wearing the clothes that they themselves longed to wear. ‘Classic projection,’ she had announced, and went off to write a highly-regarded paper on the subject of ‘Individual Projection and Mass Hysteria in cases of Urban Tragedies.’
But they had been blonde and beautiful, of that everyone had agreed. A tramp had stared at The Couple for a full seventeen minutes, because they were sitting on his bench. His statement proved, somewhat ironically, to be one of the most reliable, although it was ignored by the police psychologist, because it provided an unwanted blip in her statistics curve.
‘Like angels, they were,’ the tramp had said, a topic with which he was more than familiar, given that when he wasn’t sat on his bench he would take refuge in the National Gallery to marvel at the painting of Tobias and the Angel, a source of joy in his otherwise bleak existence.
The Couple On The Bench were there for three hours, a detail revealed when someone would later think to consult the CCTV cameras. The grainy black and white footage could not confirm the colour of their clothing, but she was, in fact, wearing a floaty dress, the kind you saw on models running through cornfields in fashion magazines. And he was, indeed, dressed like someone in a Hollister commercial. The Couple gazed, lost in the other’s eyes, from precisely12.12 till 15.15. The time of The Blast. Or at least it was assumed that they had still been looking at each other at the time of The Blast. The footage did not reveal the final moments.
In the three hours and three minutes, she reached out to touch his leg twice, first at 13.43 and then at 14.36. He reached out only once, at 15.01, to tuck a lock of her golden hair behind an elfin ear before returning his near-perfect hand to his side. At 15.13 they started to lean towards each other. Closer. Ever closer. Those examining the footage found themselves leaning forwards and holding their breath in a mixture of anticipation and arousal. Taking into account the angle of their faces and the velocity of their approach, the meeting of the lips would have, according to the trajectory analyst, occurred at 15.15.
However, at 15.14, an unromantic pigeon roosted on the camera and peered into the lens, robbing the viewers of both evidence as to the cause of The Blast and their personal voyeuristic satisfaction. If only, forensics had said, they could see the explosion pattern they would have been able to deduct the nature of The Blast. Instead, all they had to go on was the meter-wide crater left at the site. No shards of metal, no chemical residues. But the pattern of the scorched earth and the perfect hemispherical hole lead to the accepted conclusion that The Blast was caused by an improvised explosive device, Semtex being the preferred choice for the modern terrorist, placed directly beneath the bench upon which The Couple had been sitting.
The blast smashed all the windows in the square and blew the head off Sir Charles James Napier’s statue, which was later found in the fountain ten metres away, causing a total of £3.2 million worth of damage, a quarter of the money spent by tabloids and gossip sites on hunting down survivor stories. The shockwaves could be felt as far as Holborn. The flare of violet light travelled much further and could be seen as far as Richmond.
It caused a flutter of panic in the city and the City. Yet another bomb, which would most likely mean delays on the underground, they had better call home and say they would be late for dinner. Taxi firm Addison Lee responded by increasing their prices by twelve percent.
The majority of the concern was felt by those further away. Within five minutes, Reddit was flooded with theories: terrorists’ attacks; nuclear experiments gone wrong; and even, thanks to one user called HentaiHero, evidence of the first wave of a interdimensional invasion.
Of The Couple, there was no sign. Not a scrap of floaty dress or a single blonde lock. The only thing found in the very centre of the blast site was an ambiguous lump of plastic. Forensic experts cited it as the trigger mechanism of the device. A passing cleaner was almost certain she recognised it as the detachable forearm of a Lego Knight Minifig, number 973p47co1 from 1979. Her opinion was dismissed, despite her stressing that she new the piece well, having swallowed in on her seventh birthday.
The Couple must have been suicide bombers, some decided with much conviction and smug nodding. Various radical organisations came forward to claim The Blast as theirs, although none could provide much evidence or motive for why that place or that time.
There were only three reported deaths – the Couple, presumably, as well as an American tourist with angina, whose death from heart failure spurred international interest for almost a dozen news cycles – and barely twenty injuries. Not enough to rank it as a great tragedy by the standards of the time. It didn’t even warrant its date being remembered, despite the fifth of May creating the perfect mnemonic of 5/5, both in the UK and USA.
A new statue was, however, commissioned to take the place of Sir Napier. There was much debate as to what should go on the site, although it was agreed that it would not be a new statue of an anti-Muslim warmonger, as Napier was considered, given the delicate situation with the Islamic communities. Finally, a blind, Iranian sculptor was chosen much to the chagrin of the tabloid newspapers. His piece – two buckled rail tracks, winding in and out of each other – became the source of thousands of ‘But Is It Art’ conversation for decades to come.
Life went on. Wars broke out. Celebrities rose and fell. In time The Blast would become another of London’s mysteries, kept alive by conspiracy theorists and those of a nervous disposition. It slipped into the collective consciousness of the city, another story to bring up at dinner parties when the topic of the Brits’ bouncebackability came up.
Six years later, on an unseasonably warm day in Paris, two blonde lovers sat down on a bench and stared into each other’s eyes.
Image: Bench by David Lally