The committee room was filling up with Labour MPs by the time she arrived, the crush of bodies making the room feel damp with sweat.
She scanned the room for clues as to why they’d been summoned here. Officials darted in and out, searching the crowd and making notes but not stopping for long enough to speak to anyone. Groups came together then broke apart, new huddles forming in a kind of dance. The room was filled with the hum of low conversation; rumours, questions, speculation. Facts?
It was as full as a controversial meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and almost as deafening. But no one was sitting on the long wooden benches: instead, they all shifted around the outer edges of the room, newcomers holding their breath to squeeze past colleagues.
She pushed through, muttering the occasional hello. People weren’t interested in her now; she was old news. She wanted to know who was here. It didn’t take her long to realise that there wasn’t a single Cabinet member and not many of her own rank. It was mainly backbenchers.
She had a moment of panic, then pushed it away. John had sent her here, and he knew – even if no one else did – that she hadn’t been relegated to the backbenches. Besides, after her reception in the chamber this morning, surely no one would expect…
She leaned against the wood panelled wall. Her palms were dry and her feet ached in her stiff new shoes. A vicarious birthday present from Yusuf.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up, tensing. It was someone from the Serjeant at Arms office, the team that administered the building.
He smiled. “Minister, would you like to take a seat? We could be here for a while.”
She opened her mouth to ask a question. But he was gone, weaving his way through the crush and tapping the occasional junior ministerial shoulder.
She looked at the benches. They were all but empty, with only a few elderly and one pregnant MP sitting down. Each of them sat alone, staring ahead in silence or jabbing at their phones for news.
She fished her own phone out of her bag, scrolling through Twitter. She was still trending, although the attention was starting to dip. But there was nothing to explain what was happening here, why they’d all been summoned. No one had leaked it, yet.
A group of men drifted towards her, pushed by the swelling crowd. She pretended to stare at her phone’s screen while she listened in to their conversation.
“Tony from The Times says there’s a terror threat. Nothing confirmed yet.”
“I’ve seen pictures of police vans at Waterloo.”
She looked towards the tall windows. People were crowding towards them, maybe hearing the same rumours. She fought her way through the wall of suits, ignoring people’s muttered complaints, until she emerged beside the window.
She pressed the palm of her hand against the window, the mullioned lead cold to the touch. Outside, the city looked much as it ever did. Tourist boats made their way up and down the Thames, windows glinting in the sunshine. On the opposite bank, runners and idle strollers wove around each other. And beyond that, in the direction of Waterloo station and her own flat, dark buildings rose up, the skyscrapers of the City looming behind them.
The crowd had tightened behind her; she couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to. People jabbed their elbows into each other and tripped over each other’s feet in an effort to stay upright.
A rumble came from outside and she felt the weight of the crowd as people leaned to see out. She threw out an arm to steady herself, her breathing short. Another rumble: this time the crowd stilled, staring out and across the river.
Beyond the water, beyond the tourists and the London Eye, smoke gushed up and over the rooftops, spreading and billowing as the wind caught it. She stared as it thickened and rose. Behind her was silence, the Parliamentary Labour Party collectively holding its breath.
The cloud cleared the rooftops and the breeze pulled it in their direction. The buildings surrounding Waterloo station disappeared from view, followed by County Hall and the pods of the London Eye.
She felt her chest hollow out.The London Eye!
She fell back into the crowd, clutching her throat.
What had Yusuf told her this morning? The Eye and then a pizza. Maybe you can join us later?
She stared at the oversized Ferris wheel. Tiny figures moved inside the highest pod, the one at the very apex of the wheel. She lost sight of it as the cloud rose to envelop it, pitching it and the other pods in a grey-brown haze.
She stared at it for a few moments, blinking. She span round and clawed her way through the crowd. “Get out of my way!” She didn’t care whose feet she trampled, felt no concern about bodies stumbling as she pushed them aside. She had to get out of here – get to her children.
She stumbled into the back of a bench, her knuckles grazing on the worn wood. She caught herself and managed to take a shaky breath, massaging her temples, willing the images out of her head. Images of Yusuf and the boys in that pod, staring into the dark cloud. Stay calm, she told herself. You’re no use to them like this. Samir clutching Yusuf’s hand despite his maturity and Hassan’s little fingers pulsing in his dad’s. So easy to lose their grip in the darkness and the panic…
She shook the images from her head, gasping. She fumbled her bag open and delved inside for her phone. Trembling, she brought up her favourites and jabbed at Yusuf’s name. It took two attempts to hit the right key.
She clutched the phone to her ear, eyes darting around the room. Even the elderly MPs had left their seats and were standing at the back of the throng, trying to see what was going on. Just Mary Boulding, eight months pregnant and barely mobile, sat alone in the centre of the room.
The phone was silent. She pulled it from her ear and looked at the display. No service. She screwed up her face and tried again. Her breaths were shortening, becoming little more than gasps.
A woman passed her, floral perfume wafting in her wake. Jennifer gagged.
She bent over, willing the nausea to subside.
When she’d regained control of her breathing and felt she could move again, she looked on the floor for her phone. There it lay, next to her foot, the white light on its side blinking.
She grabbed it. Yusuf?
No. It was an email from 10 Downing Street, an automated circular with details of tomorrow’s events. The wifi was still working, then.
She opened WhatsApp and barked out a quick note to Yusuf. Are you OK? Call or message me. I’m at work.She stared at the screen, waiting for a response. She considered for a moment then forwarded it to Samir. He never picked up her messages but it was worth a try.
She lowered herself onto a bench, throwing her head back and her gaze up to the ceiling. Overhead, the ornate carvings stared impassively down at her. This room – this building – had seen other days like this.
The crowd had shifted to one end of the room and was facing the raised platform at the front where committee chairs and witnesses or guest speakers normally sat. Once again she was faced with a wall of backs.
She approached it, puzzled. Then she heard a familiar voice.
“Good afternoon, everyone.”
She squeezed through the crush. I’m a Home Office minister, she thought. I need to be up there.
John coughed then took a long swig from a bottle someone passed up to him. His tie was askew and his shirt had damp patches under the arms.
He whistled out a breath and passed the water to an advisor. There was a sheet of paper in his hand but he didn’t look at it.
“Sorry to keep you in here, everyone.”
Murmurs surrounded her.
He looked around his audience, his eyes alighting on Jennifer. He allowed his gaze to rest on her face for a few beats too long, then looked away.
He looked towards the window. The muttering stopped. “There’s been an explosion,” he said. “In Waterloo tube station.”
Jennifer felt her legs go weak. She tried to pull her phone out of her pocket but couldn’t move her arms in the crush.
“We don’t know the details yet,” John said, taking another swig of water. “And we couldn’t tell you all of it if we did.”
Gasps ran through the crowd. John raised a hand to ask for quiet.
“That’s not all,” he said, his voice turning grave. He looked at Jennifer again, his eyes searching her face. “There’s been another one. Roughly the same time.” His eyes were drilling into Jennifer now. She shifted her weight, hearing a tut as her heel spiked someone’s shoe.
“Spaghetti Junction,” John managed to say. Jennifer stared back at him, her pulse throbbing behind her eyes.
Gravelly Hill Interchange.
In her Birmingham constituency.
John watched her as he spoke. It was as if they were the only people in the room. She gave him a single nod. Go on. Tell me more.
He didn’t break eye contact. “Before the explosion at Waterloo there was one at Spaghetti Junction. Not as big as the one here in London,” he nodded towards the window, “but it’s chaos.”
She closed her eyes. Around her people were talking in whispers, gasps and murmurs. She opened her eyes to see John looking away, deep in conversation with a man she didn’t recognise. One of his political advisors was at his back, trying to get him out of the room.
John reached behind, batting the hand away. He turned back to the crowd.
“You all need to stay here until we can give you clearance to leave.” He looked around at the gathered faces, the people who trusted him. “Everyone. The building’s in lockdown. ”