Prayers for Grenfell Tower, one year on
On Grenfell Tower fire’s first anniversary, author Julie Parsons remembers the dead
I’d seen it many times on TV, on newspaper front pages, on the internet. I thought it wouldn’t surprise me. But it did. Its starkness was breathtaking. The charred blackness that had once been its smooth facade. Photograph: Julie Parsons
The scaffolding has gone up on Grenfell Tower. A giant white sheet has covered its 24 floors. You could call it a shroud or in the words of Matthew, chapter 23, a whited sepulchre.
It wasn’t like that when I saw it on a gloomy day last July. Then it was a huge blackened cube sticking up above the houses, trees and office blocks of west London. As the train rounded the bend heading for Latimer Road station it swung into view. I’d seen it many times on TV, on newspaper front pages, on the internet. I thought it wouldn’t surprise me. But it did. Its starkness was breathtaking. The charred blackness that had once been its smooth facade. Gaping holes where once had been windows with curtains and blinds and window sills, where pots of geraniums had flourished in the London sunshine, and people had made collections of books, and ornaments and children’s toys. The things we all shove on the window sill and then forget.
But there was none of that any longer. Grenfell Tower is all about absence, all about loss, all about the missing. The missing: their presence drifts from the destroyed building. All you can think about, all you can imagine, all you want to resolve. The missing: whose mortal remains are now inextricably part of the fabric of that structure. I had felt like this once before when I went to Beslan in the Caucasus after the horrific school siege in 2004. Nearly 400 died in that place. Half of them were children. I had walked through the shattered school gym in which the hostages had been kept and where most had died. I was reminded constantly: the DNA of the dead is in the dust and rubble. It coats your shoes and smears your clothes. You take it into your lungs on your breath.
Now I stood on this London street and looked around. It was a fine Sunday in July. It seemed so ordinary. Then a red bus lumbered by, its bright colour in stark contrast to the blackness which loomed above. And there were other signs that all was not well. Photos and notes, swathed in plastic covering, were pinned to lamp posts and draped over railings. Handwritten messages: RIP Grenfell Tower love Sharon and Mark, Justice for All. May the angel look after you. You are with Allah now. Pots of flowers, white chrysanthemums and bouquets of exotic Lilium Regale, their powerful scent perfuming the air. Piles of teddy bears and cuddly dogs and cats. Happy faces smiling out at me. Faces from the past.
A bell began to ring. I crossed the road. The notice board said The Parish of St Clement Notting Dale and St James. The door to the small red brick church was open. I went in. A bright interior. Chairs in rows. The congregation was taking its place. There was a sense of expectation. As the organ began to play everyone fell silent. We waited. The clergy entered. A young woman, a clerical collar at her throat, short hair and sandals. She was followed by two young men. They were all wearing white vestments trimmed with green. Behind them two boys similarly dressed. “Oh praise ye the Lord” we sang. The words of the liturgy were powerful and moving. Prayers were said for the dead of Grenfell. Around me heads bowed, tears flowed. We asked for understanding. We asked for reconciliation. We asked for justice.
The congregation was mostly black. Young mothers and children. The older people were white. The sermon was given by one of the young men. I could hear in his voice the traces of Northern Ireland. No stranger I thought to the task of trying to explain the inexplicable, to provide comfort where there is none, and hope where now there is just despair. I stood in line for communion. Bread and wine, a rite unchanged since the night in the upper room when Jesus shared with the disciples. Sun shone through the stained glass windows. We offered each other the sign of peace. I was a stranger. But the hands which clasped mine were warm and welcoming.
I walked towards the station and climbed the stairs to the platform. The tower faced me. Its presence seemed a challenge. Forget me not, it said. No matter how hard you pray. No matter how much you look for resolution I am still here. And in years to come when they have taken me down, replaced me with something new and shiny, what happened that night in June 2017 will still exist. As long as there are people who suffered I will still be here. And those who died within my walls will still be remembered.
Julie Parsons is an author