SHOPPING is not exactly my idea of fun. But last Friday, known as Black Friday because of the bargains shops were offering bargain hunters, I ventured out to Oxford Street, with only one item in my list — a pair of nude ankle strap sandals in size 5-5 ½ from Primark, for a friend’s daughter. The price was slashed to half the original price and I got them without much hassle.
The crowd at Primark near Marble Arch was not any bigger than usual and making payment at the counter took me just about 10 minutes in the queue, during which I was approached by a friend who had just arrived from Malaysia, her shopping basket almost full.
Indeed there were many Malay-sian shoppers yesterday — some with strollers carrying children fast asleep and certainly with overflowing shopping baskets.
Having done my shopping, I just stood around watching how people shop. Most were armed with their handphones, on video calls via WhatsApp with friends or family members in countries as far as Iran and China — showing the items in the store. How amusing!
Leaving Primark, I crossed over to Marks & Spencers and greeted some friendly-looking Malaysians choosing their winter jackets. People were in a generous and happy mood.
I kept looking at my watch as it was nearly maghrib and was debating whether to pray in the small prayer room on the fourth floor of Selfridges or make my way to Malaysia Hall, where my daughter and grandson were waiting.
I decided on Malaysia Hall and even abandoned the idea of going to Uniqlo to get a jacket. Perhaps that was the best decision considering what was to happen around that area half an hour after I left.
After my prayers at the surau, I went to the canteen and the place was abuzz with incoming news and on social media about what was unfolding in Oxford Street. There were lots of speculations of gunshots, explosions and even a knifeman in the vicinity.
Our modus operandi in cases like this — and there had been a few lately in London— was to locate every member of the family; while I was with my second daughter and grandson, my husband was in a bookshop in Tottenham Court Road near Oxford Circus. Our daughter in-law could not leave her workplace because of the uncertainty of what was happening and also hundreds of people had rushed in into the premises of her workplace for their own safety. Our son and another daughter were in their office, and each of us promised to stay put until things settled down for a bit and we knew what was going on.
In the Malaysia Hall Canteen, there were people who got back from Oxford Street on foot as buses were not stopping or taking any passengers; Oxford Circus and Bond Street stations were closed. And people were abandoning any plans of shopping although some shops were reopening their doors after six in the evening.
I contacted the friend I met in the queue in Primark. Apparently, she and her two friends were outside Primark.
“People were rushing towards us, shouting ‘Run, Run, Run!’ Shopping bags were flying everywhere and they were knocking everything down as they fled for their safety; children in strollers, old people in wheelchairs, everything that was in their way,” she messaged.
They managed to cross over to Wallis and made their way to Marble Arch station and later walked back.
Another Malaysian family — a young couple with their 3-year-old son — were briefly separated in Primark. The wife, who is pregnant, had gone back to the store to look for something while the husband stayed at the entrance with their son, who was asleep in a stroller.
It was the same story: people were rushing into the store — running from what, no one could tell. The couple had just arrived on their first visit to London and their first day of shopping.
Amir, the husband, was obviously concerned for his pregnant wife as she was in the flow of people fleeing for safety. The son was fast asleep, thankfully oblivious to what was happening around him — the shouts, the screams and the crying of people desperate to leave the area.
They were reacting to news they got from their phones, or from seeing other people run. Also, the presence of the police with their weapons and helicopters hovering above meant something sinister was happening.
Most people had understandably thought it was a terrorist attack. That was certainly the first thing that came to mind and the response by the Meteropolitan Police and the security was understandably to deal with terrorism.
The streets that a few days ago were filled with merriments with a mood of celebration and goodwill, starting with the switching on of Christmas street lights and then the Hamley’s Toy Parade, were now a scene of utter chaos as people fled aimlessly, driven by one thing — fear. No one actually knew what had happened.
“There are gunshots, run!” — that seemed to be the message.
A student I spoke to, who
was waiting for a friend in Oxford Circus, said she saw a group of people standing in a circle.
She thought it was a street performance. Fathers with their
toddlers on their shoulders joined in to see what was going on until something like gunshots were heard. People then started running in different directions, some taking refuge in shops that were kind enough to take them in before closing down the shutters.
In what could be described as a near stampede situation, it was a miracle that there were no deaths. Sixteen people were injured, most people fled home without their shopping.
What a nightmare.