I woke with a jolt at 5:30am, unrested and irritable, the sun blazing through the open skylight of my already stifling loft bedroom.
After trying and failing for two more agitated hours, I gave up on the idea of getting any more sleep. Sitting up I reached for my phone and – though it is a hated early morning habit – opened Twitter.
The first post, from a local reporter, caught my tired eyes: ‘Chaos in the city centre’, accompanied by a series of photos of one of the busiest rush hour jam spots in Nottingham cordoned off by police tapes, deserted.
The tweet was concerning enough. The replies – mentioning suspected terror attacks, the city in lockdown, several people killed – turned me cold.
The most alarming detail of all: that numerous separate incidents had been declared, in the city centre, at a site a mile to the north, another just over a mile to the west in Radford, and a fourth, in the Hyson Green area.
(I had blamed my sudden awakening on the intense heat of the morning. But at some point during the nerve-blurred day that followed another thought occurred to me; one that will forever remain an unsettling detail. This fourth site is 300 metres from my flat. The suspect was finally arrested there by a troop of armed police. At 5:30am.)
I sent a few texts to people who might know more, and paced blearily around my flat. Is this as serious as the comments suggested? Should I go out there? I only live 15 minutes’ walk from the site in the photo I’d seen.
In morning auto-pilot now I dragged on some clothes, switched on Radio 4, and made a strong coffee.
That was when I heard it from the other room, a single broken phrase on the radio: ‘Major incident in Nottingham…’ The news was national. The decision was made.
I grabbed my camera, stepped out into the dazzling sun, and headed out to find a changed city.
Pacing breathlessly towards the site I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket; messages relaying what was being said on the national news; a confusing mass of second-hand accounts and half-guessed connections: ‘Terror attack??’; ‘This is horrible’; ‘Several people dead’. That phrase again, ‘Major incident’.
From that point the horror grew with each passing hour.
Strange disjointed memories from those first nervous minutes and hours resurface, and remain.
Standing at the major police cordon on Milton Street, gazing north towards two large clusters of police vehicles and ambulances behind the tape. As I waited there for news I received a ‘Hope you’re okay?’ message from someone out of town.
I remember the cheery ping-ping-ping of the loudspeaker at the blocked off tram stop, followed by a recorded message announcing total service cancellations to an empty platform.
Then I overheard a woman introducing herself timorously to a police officer with the words ‘I saw it all’. Afterwards that lady, Lynn Haggitt, described the sickening scene to me: two people smashed into by a van driven, she thought, deliberately at them, and at pace. This was not on the news yet.
Dashing between the various blue-taped sites, camera in hand, at one point I turned a corner at the Theatre Royal building and walked straight into a group of armed police officers spilling out of a vehicle, readying their weapons before aghast passers-by.
Everywhere you went that day faces gave away what mouths could not say. The granite expressions of the police officers occupying the pavements, crossings and junctions of perhaps a quarter of the city told a harrowing story, even if the men and women themselves were mute and inscrutable.
By mid-afternoon we would find out what they all knew.
Three people had been killed and three more seriously injured, all, apparently, by one man.
The rampage had begun at 4am. Two students had been attacked in the Radford area as they walked home from a night out, by a man wielding a knife. Grace O’Malley-Kumar and Barnaby Webber, both 19, were killed minutes from their door.
Soon after, two miles away, a man on his way to work as a caretaker at a local primary school was stabbed and killed. Ian Coates was four months from retirement.
The alleged killer left the body of Ian Coates in the street, stealing his van, which then became a weapon.
It is not yet clear which route the killer then took but he was bent on the city centre, where he allegedly drove into three people with such ferocious force that one man was thrown into the air by the van, breaking his hip and ribs, and landing on his head. As I write Wayne Birkett remains in hospital, unable to recognise his own family.
Ninety minutes of mayhem. Finally brought to an end at 5:30am, when a man was surrounded by armed police on a grim street in Hyson Green, dragged from the stolen van, tasered, and arrested. Valdo Amissão Mendes Calocane – alias Adam Mendes – was charged with three counts of murder and three of attempted murder three days later.
Those unnerving interim days blurred into a moment. A single moment of contrasts and dualities: day and night, agony and empathy, action and reaction.
Dark crimes had been carried out under a cloudless sky of bright summer light. Cold-blooded murders committed in the rising early morning heat.
For Ian Coates the dawn signalled the start of another day’s hard graft, along a lengthening trail behind. For Grace and Barney, seeing out the last of the night, it meant home, to bed, the uncharted path of life all but ahead.
In the hours and days that followed, the monstrous acts of an individual were met by the equal and opposite counterweights of dignity and humanity expressed by an entire city.
Nottingham did its public best to console the personal anguish of the grieving families.
On Wednesday afternoon a vigil was held on a high and quiet hill on the campus of the University of Nottingham. The distraught families of Grace and Barnaby had travelled to Nottingham, to speak to their lost children’s memories.
Thousands came out. And under another perfect sky, abject suffering met pure empathy.
The vigil of mourners covered the brow of the hill and the slopes rising and falling on either side, forming a close collective embrace around the grief-stricken families on the terrace within.
With ineffable courage the fathers spoke, in agonised, broken clutches of words, to a crowd that at times seemed to convulse in pained response.
From my place far back from the terrace the sounds from the speakers would sometimes fade in the wind, so that at times only fragments of speech could be heard.
“Support is available to students and colleagues who have been affected by this tragedy”
“Why Grace? Why Barney? Why now? Why, why, why?”
“They both had ambitions, potential, dreams.”
“She loved you all.”
There were long periods of total silence, broken only by the faint ping of a tram sliding by in the sunlit distance, or a gentle breeze sighing through the beech trees and evergreen shrubs scattered over the hill.
From out of the mass a young woman, her face a deep red, emerged, gasping, led by the hands of two sobbing friends to a quiet spot away from the group.
It was a moment of sheer dignity and pure love. No rage, no hatred, no talk of vengeance – no words, to my memory, about the killer at all.
The vigil at the university was broadcast live on all the major news channels. Even so, I had an unsettled feeling of being an imposter on a moment primarily, fittingly, for a grieving student community.
The vigil the following evening in the Old Market Square was for the whole city.
Travelling even a short distance, even over the most familiar tracks, can put me in a pensive state.
Standing there on the tram to the square on that Thursday afternoon, a blur of splintered memories and unsettling details ran through my mind.
It had been a dizzying three days. The heat had barely relented, night and day, and through some deep need to bear witness I had taken in, seen, felt more than could be processed in real time.
As the tram ground on I relived in my mind the walk to the site where Grace and Barney had been killed just hours earlier. That sucking feeling of drawing closer to a site of violence. On Friday both of their distraught families found the courage to stand on the very spot themselves.
I thought back to myself standing at the police cordon on Bentick Road, watching white boiler suit-clad forensic officers peering under the chassis of the van; Ian Coates’ stolen van.
I recalled another tram journey, to the university campus on the Wednesday afternoon, and the young woman, a student, weeping on the shoulder of a friend. Her crying was the only sound in an otherwise silent carriage.
I remembered watching Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome preparing to be interviewed live on the national news, on the afternoon of the attacks. All of the city’s MPs had rushed back from Westminster earlier in the day, and by late afternoon they were sharing their reactions with the world.
It wasn’t what Nadia said on air that struck me, dignified and moving though she was. It was the thousand-yard stare I noticed in her eye for a few seconds before the camera went live. An encompassing look, trance-like, of stunned realisation; ‘Has this really happened?’
While the families of Ian, Grace and Barney were in the throes of unimaginable grief, all these things were happening around them, around a shocked city. Pained outbursts of sadness and empathy they would never see or hear, from people they will never meet.
I also recalled feelings. And being surprised to find myself getting more angry as the heat and hurt of Tuesday built up.
Most maddening were the few who seemed blithely comfortable in their insensitivity to it all.
It was all that I and most people could think and talk about. The city felt heavy in its sadness. So how dare those people over there be smiling and laughing? What could possibly be funny?
It took real self-control not to cause an embarrassing scene in my favourite pub later that evening.
The day was nearly over. The names Grace O’Malley-Kumar and Barnaby Webber – but not yet Ian Coates – and the terrible manner of their deaths were now known. I was emotionally and physically drained, and the tranquil, familiar yard of the Lincolnshire Poacher was calling.
Except it was not tranquil. Because there in the middle of the yard a group of four people, a smug couple of couples not much older than Barney and Grace, were having a great time.
As night fell over a sorrowful city, here was a group on buzzing form, braying with laughter at crude jokes, cheering a great ‘thrift store’ find one of the lads had made in town – after much searching.
This day. This dreadful day. There were people scouring thrift stores for hot finds. And now they were having a party. They were playing music, loudly on their own speakers, dancing in their seats.
I’m not someone who goes over to strangers ranting my disapproval. But it was tempting.
It was impossible in those aftermath days not to see and assimilate every little thing through the lens of what had happened.
Every screeching siren made people stop and stare. Waiting for the tram to take me to the university campus on Wednesday afternoon I counted three ambulances racing up Derby Road in the same direction, a few minutes apart. Of course it wasn’t related, but the mind draws nervous patterns.
And I’m sure that people were more friendly, thoughtful and demonstratively caring to strangers for days after. I wasn’t the only person to notice it.
All of this and more blurred through my tired mind on the tram ride to the Old Market Square.
Criss-crossing the same city streets I’d hurried across so many times that day, a kaleidoscope of golden afternoon sunlight flickering and shimmering through the moving carriage, I could feel the emotions welling up to my eyes again.
It was the words of the head teacher at Ian Coates’ school, from the platform in the square, that first broke through. His affectionate descriptions of Ian excitedly building castles in reading corner, to make book time more fun, and constructing the school’s Christmas display each year, brought it all back to the human sadness of the moment.
The Old Market Square is never quiet. But at times there was total silence between the thousands gathered, broken only by the faint sound of a tram slowly sliding past, or a gentle breeze sighing through the surrounding buildings and streets.
The thoughts and tributes from those who knew the victims were powerful. The words from their grieving families were overpowering.
Like most people, when I hear about a tragedy of this horror, my thoughts race to the families.
To picture what agony they must be experiencing in their privacy is hard. But to see them standing there, wounds rent open, racked souls bearing all to thousands of unknown sympathisers, is another thing altogether.
Several times as the brave, grieving families spoke I turned to face back over the square, to see what they were seeing. Thousands of faces bearing the empathy and sorrow of a city. People they will never meet, men and women, openly crying there in the Old Market Square.
The horror of the Nottingham attacks was followed by an equal and opposite wave of love and empathy from the city its victims called home. Darkness yielded to light. Personal anguish met public mourning, in dignity and in peace.
And I hope those stricken families know that this city is going to feel like a different place for a long time. In many ways it will be different forever. There will be memorials and anniversaries, many fitting tributes that will last centuries.
But more important than that, I hope the grieving families know that Nottingham feels their loss with deep sadness and lasting pain.
As I write the stone steps of the council house are still invisible for the mass of flowers and well-wishing messages that have been left there. People still stand at the steps and cry. I have spent a long time there, reading those beautiful, honest notes, listening to friends and strangers talk about the tragedy. And I have overheard one expression in particular, caught in glimpses of conversations: “It’s just so sad, so sad.”
Ian Coates will live on in the memories of the generations of children he gave a chance to, and the adults they became. Kids will sit by the book corner castles lovingly built by his hands, and parents and teachers will never see those Christmas displays without thinking of their former caretaker.
Generations of Nottingham students not yet born will know the names Barney Webber and Grace O’Malley Kumar. They will stand sadly at their memorials, perhaps on a high and quiet hilltop on the university campus, where the gentle breeze sighs through the shrubs and trees on a warm summer’s day.
The inner hell of the grieving is made more stark by harsh contrast with an outer world cheerily carrying on as normal. Stop all the clocks, because for them nothing now can come to any good.
Nothing will ever take away the pain those families have endured. But I hope that in some indefinable way, some day, it will provide some relief to remember that a sorrowful city stopped for them that evening in the Old Market Square.
We did stop all the clocks. We stood in sombre silence; we cried in our own private spaces.
And if it is possible for such pain to come to any good let it be in knowing that their grief and anguish were met with the counterweights of love and empathy; rage gave way to dignity and peace; and those days of darkness and light will never, ever be forgotten.