Close to our hearts, yet so far away

By Carroll du Chateau

For 18 hours, from 8pm Thursday until noon yesterday, hundreds of people struggled to contact each other across the 19,000km between New Zealand and London.

While we New Zealanders watched fragmented television images of blown-up buses and wounded people staggering out of the familiar Underground stations circling the heart of London, we called and texted to make sure our loved ones were safe.

When the phone links jammed we turned to email and posted messages on websites in a frantic search for answers. And then, unbelievably, under the sheer volume of messages, the websites crashed too.

Television and familiarity have made London seem so close. After Sydney and Melbourne, this is our city of choice. The High Commission estimates about 250,000 New Zealanders are in London or her outskirts. How many of us have scuttled down those steps at Edgware Rd or bought a coffee at Pret a Manger on the way to the Tube?

But now, the tyranny of distance that we live with in this far corner of the world became much grimmer - and much harder to deal with.

Most of the time it was parents, stuck helpless and vulnerable in Birkenhead, Seatoun or Matamata, trying to reach their children in London. But there were others too. Wives, husbands and lovers desperate to contact partners on business trips.

Friends, aunts, grandparents.

For me, it was the thought that my daughter, 8 months pregnant, was possibly caught like a rat in a trap in the bowels of London. Since 9/11 we'd talked about the inevitability of a terrorist attack on the Underground. For the first few months she'd walked or taken buses.

As the first reports of an explosion came through on the car radio, unwanted snapshots from the last time I was in London flashed through my mind. Gleaming tracks disappearing into grimy, dark tunnels; the gingery sewer rats; the out-of-order lifts and crowded stairs; the sparks coming off the electrified rails.

Even if she did survive the blasts, how could anyone get out without being electrocuted or suffocated?

Then the interminable wait on the phone, willing her to pick up. And the relief when she finally did. Yes, she was fine. Restless and uncomfortable, she'd gone to work early, before it all began. Then, when the chaos started, her own horror thinking her husband was on the Liverpool Street train - and her relief when he called to say he'd ridden his bike instead.

By lunchtime yesterday it was clear that despite the mayhem, deaths were mercifully few.

The Herald's "London Bombing Message Board" moved from frantic "Where are you?" messages and descriptions of the terror, to lists of people telling their loved ones they were okay and compliments for the stoic, dependable nature of the British - even a couple of jokes.

The phone lines were open, the websites operating. London was back in business, and for us, on the other side of the world, back in focus.

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