Teeny-boppers and Terrorists – Unpicking the events of May 22nd 2017

I’m sitting here, writing, less than forty-eight hours later. I am accidentally writing this because on a personal level I needed a way to get everything out, and because inevitably people will have a morbid curiosity for what it was like to be there. So here I am, fulfilling both.

I will start by saying I wholeheartedly and unashamedly love pop music. I always have. Ever since I was young, I would avidly wait for the new ‘Now’ compilation and make mixes of my favourite songs. Even during my regrettable ‘goth’ phase, I would still get the latest compilation and carefully select what I deemed as the ‘rockier’ hits to listen to. I remember my first pop concert vividly – it was Steps, my absolute favourite group. My Mum had bought tickets as a surprise, and told us on the day that we were going to see Charlotte Church – we thought she was the ultimate uncool person because she sang opera. After about five minutes of my sister and I wailing and crying, she revealed who we were actually going to see. So I knew exactly what was going on in the minds of those delighted teens and pre-teens the night of the Ariana Grande concert: I had been them.

I myself had bought tickets last October, sneakily on my laptop in the back of a university tutorial. I moaned because she had no Scottish dates, but I knew the Manchester Arena well from when I was younger, and could fit in a visit home at the same time. My sister was due to come with me, but she lives abroad now and wasn’t able to get flights home for a decent price. I asked some friends if they would like the ticket, but in the end I drafted my Mum in. I found out that my younger cousins and auntie would be going as well, and I thought how exciting it would be for them, and how much they would love it. The day before the concert we were round at their house excitedly making plans about where we would eat beforehand. Importantly, we realised that the last train home would be a replacement bus – the arena is connected to Manchester Victoria train station – so we organised lifts instead as the bus would arrive home too late.

On the day, my mum got back from work and quickly changed into a glam frock at home. She came into my room where I was annoyed because I couldn’t get my eyebrows right. My Dad drove us into Manchester, and I played Ariana’s best tunes in the car. We giggled as I unveiled the crude meaning of the song ‘Side to Side’. These trivial things would later become so far away and unimportant.

We arrived and I deliberated what t-shirt to get at the merch stand (I love merch). My mum made me get a pink one as she said I wear too much black, and she wanted to buy it for me as a treat. I read later on that people had used the shirts they had bought as makeshift tourniquets. The desk was situated in the foyer area next to the box office, the very place where hours later a man would blow himself up and kill twenty-two people. It is also the place we would ordinarily pass through to the train station, had we not been getting a lift that night. The thought sends chills.

The concert was amazing; everything we wanted it to be. I stood up and danced, sang along, gazed in awe at the swish of her famous long ponytail. I clapped and cheered at the release of balloons into the audience. There was a segment of the concert where a video played on the big screens, with messages of empowerment flashing up. I thought how good it was that pop concerts perpetuate these messages and that the girls here could be inspired by that; it reminded me of how we had ‘Girl Power’ when I was young and how important that was for all of us. As the last song finished people started to leave, but I knew she would come on again as she hadn’t sung ‘Dangerous Woman’ yet. I was right – she reappeared in an amazing black PVC dress and belted out the ballad.

The lights came up and Michael Jackson’s ‘You Are Not Alone’ started playing as people began filing out. I’ll remember these moments for the rest of my life. We had just stood up to leave when the bang happened. We heard it; felt it shake beneath us. For a second I thought a speaker had blown. Everyone froze. I looked down to the floor seats and to the sound deck, where the sound engineers had crouched down in shock. Seconds after everyone screamed, and the crowd below me parted in two, running to each side of the arena to the exits. I didn’t know what had happened but I knew we should get out fast. We had been sitting on the upper tier of the arena, and luckily our nearest exit was very nearby. It was chaos. I had always thought an evacuation procedure would be in place for events like this, or an announcement would come over the tannoy, but people just frantically ran to the exit. I kept checking behind me that my Mum was still there, still not having a clue what was going on. We got outside and a loud popping noise shot into the air, and clearly everyone was thinking the same thing – gunshots? In hindsight this noise was probably a balloon popping, as the younger girls were still clinging onto them.

Outside, guys were trying to flog knock-off t-shirts, blissfully unaware of the carnage inside. We stopped running when we guessed we were far enough away from the arena. We were near some warehouses with some other straggling concert-goers. We phoned my Dad to tell him where to get us and tell him what had just happened, still with no idea about what had gone on. We checked in with our other family members who were there, and thankfully they were all in the car already. We then bumped into two girls looking for the way to the other train station. They told us they had seen dust falling and girls with open wounds to the arms and legs, and the dreadful realisation started to hit. The rest of that night was a confused influx of speculations. I had still been clinging on to the hope that all of this had been a precaution, and it actually was a bit of equipment that had blown. I sat glued to the TV screen for the rest of the night. It was in the early hours of the morning it transpired that it had been a suicide bomber. I felt sick and I couldn’t – still can’t – believe it. The deaths started to be announced along with the number of casualties. I couldn’t sleep.

Since then, I’ve been obsessively watching the news. I wanted to see the people who had lost their lives, those who wouldn’t be coming home. I felt like I had to: that I owed it to them, because we had sung together that night, we had shared that. I thought about how terrified the girls were in that arena, how their pop dreams had turned into nightmares. Today, I opened my backpack for the first time, and my stomach sank as I saw my pink Ariana t-shirt and our concert tickets. These should have been pleasant memories of a fun-filled night. Rather, we will all live with this forever.

The outpourings of support and defiance have been truly heartwarming. But I just feel heartbroken. That joy that was felt has been cruelly taken away; others lost their lives in an instant. I am constantly thinking about those still recovering from their injuries, nervously checking that the death toll hasn’t risen. It has been pretty bizarre seeing the news in the third person, and it’s just like I’m everyone else seeing it through everyone else’s eyes. I watched grainy iPhone camera footage on news networks: the scenes familiar but I felt disconnected. I guess it’s the shock. My Dad had been at the Hillsborough disaster, where ninety-six football fans died, and he spoke to me about the trauma I would feel. I know I will be fine. I just need time.

I don’t have the words to pay tribute to those we’ve lost, but I want to quote a Rupi Kaur poem:

i am sorry this world
could not keep you safe
may your journey home
be a soft and peaceful one

We must carry on defying. We must carry on taking joy from pop music and being united by it. We must not let this fit nicely into anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric. I must think everyday about those twenty-two, and every time I am out dancing to my favourite pop anthem, I will do it for them.

[Rachel Kerr – @_badgalrara_]


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