It's New Year's Eve, London, 1999. (Not technically the start of the new millennium, but I digress.)
I've just been home (Australia) for a visit, so I am flat stony broke and unable to join all my London friends who are going to Paris. Yes, I am in a tiny cottage on the edge of Tooting/Croydon, alone, on the night of the biggest communal party London will ever see. "Right," I say to myself, "you are NOT watching the fireworks on TV and then crying yourself to sleep. Get sexy and get out there!"
"Dressing sexy" is a relative term in December in London, especially if you are over 25 and don't drink and are therefore unable to pretend you're not freezing your tits off -- but I dutifully get out the cleavage shirt, slap some lippy on, add 3 layers for warmth and out I go.
I still don't understand the mental gymnastics that allowed me to blithely ignore the "violent claustrophobia in crowds" thing I have, but it kicked in as soon as I stepped into The City. Being a short-arse doesn't help, as I generally can't see where I am or where the trouble's brewing. Deep breath, decide to head for Big Ben and I'm away.
Some 45 minutes later, streaming sweat and muttering imprecations in staccato bursts of available air, I get onto Westminster Bridge. It's WAY less crowded than the river bank, but still three-deep humanity line the sides, so I stake out a spot in the middle, with half an hour to go. Yay, me! I meet a group of American tourists and they pretend to include me while I pretend I'm not bothered either way.
5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Big Ben chimes it in
***** HAPPY NEW YEAR!! *****
Barges lining the river explode into incredible synchronised fireworks displays -- for 17 minutes,
It's impossible to stand against this unified force - I stumble, catch myself, think a wry thought about mob dynamics and move with everyone else, stopping and starting as the groups surge and jostle and swell around the slower members of the herd and then finally stop. Under Big Ben. In the rain. With people shoving and pushing from behind until we have reached an impasse. No one can move forward, no one at the back is retreating. 150,000 people standing packed together as if we were on the Tube in peak hour.
Hands drawn to my chest, taking impromptu dance steps as the mass of people eddies and sways, I grimace apologetically at the person I jab with my elbow, turning until I am in a semi-sustainable position. Grit my teeth. Wait. Wait. Wait. More people at the back think we're playing and pile in, pushing us closer together.
We wait. And wait.
Angry voices are being raised: "what's going on?"
A child faints and is passed overhead, hand over hand, out of the crush.
A woman begins shrieking, "let me out! I have to get out!" By this time I have my eyes closed trying to be Zen, but I feel you, sister.
A scuffle in the near distance, then a man shouts, "move WHERE, ya fuckers?!?"
Jostling, pushing, sweaty, close, damp wool, rising panic... my knees buckle and I would fall but I can't. I'm going to throw up, I say to the sky. The woman who is face-to-face with me says, "oh, please don't", but I can't answer her. Someone passes a plastic bag overhead and the woman in front of me tips her head back as far as she can and I vomit. It's an odd angle, but I literally can't bend. I ask if anyone knows the time -- it's 12:50 am.
Only half an hour? It feels an eternity.
Time churns on. More people faint.
We wait. And wait. And wait.
A siren sounds from in front of us and an authoritative voice yells, "let the ambulance through!"
We stare at each other, baffled - do the police think we're standing here for fun? More shoving, pushing, shouting, but this time it's the police clearing a path by force.
Now I'm standing on people's feet, I'm staggering, everyone's trying not to lose their footing. Somehow, the ambulance inches in. I realise I've been crying for some time, the panic looking for an outlet. We lean, now, since only half the crowd still have their feet on the ground. I still don't know what the police were thinking that night.
Finally, FUCKING FINALLY, the crowd begins to move. The crush eases, and we're able to walk. It's 2:45am - we've been there for almost two and a half hours.
My legs like jelly, I lean against the ambulance for a moment before I can begin to move, with the vehicle on my right, towards some sort of open ground. I take about 5 steps before I am goosed from behind.
A really bad night for that, shithead. I turn with my fist clenched and I hit him, as hard as hours of pent-up aggression, fear and adrenaline (as well as all my not-inconsiderable weight) can manage.
Tosser goes down like a sack of spuds, back against the ambulance and he slides to the ground. I stand over him, shaking wildly, and scream at him wordlessly. Then I shuffle away.
Four hours later (walk, train, bus, other bus, other bus, walk) I get home.
I am never celebrating New Year's Eve again.
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