Alex Martin is haunted by a man he once saw in Manchester.
The man who was dragging himself through the city centre streets. The man carrying a blue rucksack so heavy that it bent him forward slightly. The man who, almost an hour after Alex saw him, would kill 22 innocent people in the foyer of the Manchester Arena.
For Alex, it had been one of the happiest days he’d had for some time. Reunited, at last, with two old school friends. They had been to the National Football Museum and took selfies at Old Trafford.
They had joked, just as Alex was setting off home, that they were glad not to be attending the ‘stupid’ Ariana Grande concert at the arena that night.
On every long drive, Alex listens to his Spotify playlist religiously. Oasis. Kasabian. Guns N’ Roses. On his way back from Manchester that night, though, his mood was more upbeat. He chose Capital FM.
He doesn’t know where he was or when it was that news of an explosion at the Manchester Arena boomed through his car speakers.
He had been rushing to get back home to King’s Lynn in time to see his girlfriend before she started her night shift at the hospital. But the world slowed down. The newsreader stumbled through his words. It slowed further and further. Even further still. Ground to a halt. Dead.
So overwhelmed by the news, Alex was unaware that his BMW had slipped into a different lane on the motorway. Thankfully, there was little traffic. He regained his bearings and pulled onto the hard shoulder.
Recounting the ‘sketchy’ memories of the drive home, Alex snaps back into the present. What goes through his mind three-and-half years later?
“These silly little questions always race through my head,” Alex says. “It’s not even the big questions like ‘Could I have stopped the attack?’ or ‘How could I not have been suspicious of such a heavy looking bag?’ or anything like that.
“I constantly ask myself how he would have reacted if I asked him for the time, or whether he’d been to the same takeaway I visited half an hour before I saw him.
“It’s weird how the mind works, isn’t it? It’s like I can’t get him out of my head, but at the same time I’m blocking out all the thoughts and questions that actually matter.”
That night, as he hit the road once again, Alex heard reports that people were driving to the arena to provide free transport for people who were stranded. He decided not to go back, a selfish decision that still haunts him. He can’t justify it, nor can he forgive himself for that ‘moment of madness’.
He had vowed, as he sat on the hard shoulder, that he would never return to Manchester. It was selfish, he knew that. Eighteen months later, though, he broke the promise he had made himself.
“I went back there to see Oleksandr Usyk fight Tony Bellew in November 2018,” Alex recalls. His eyes go cold as he stumbles through his sentence. He stares at the floor.
It’s as if he has been recalling events with a sense of detachment until this point. His mind has now engaged completely with what he remembers, and his change in demeanour is chilling.
“I went with my mate. He invited me,” Alex says. “I’d been desperate to go to a big boxing event with him and he surprised me with a pair of tickets. I couldn’t let him down after all the hype I’d given it. We’re both big Usyk fans, too. I felt like I had no choice but to go.
“He didn’t know I’d seen the bomber – I don’t like saying his name – that night,” he says with a heavy gulp. “I was quite subdued in the hotel beforehand about the place I knew I was about to step foot in.
“My mate thought I was being off with him, which made me feel guilty and ramped up the anxiety even more. I just couldn’t tell him. Blokes will be blokes, and all that.”
Queuing to get into the arena for a ‘bloody brilliant’ night of boxing, Alex became subdued once more when he saw the row of large metal scanners at the front of the line. There was more security here than at any event he’d been to before, and he knew the exact reason why. Everyone did.
“I made a right fool of myself through security, they asked me to empty my pockets and I just blanked them,” he says. “Not on purpose. I just couldn’t help but think of what they’d have found if they looked through Sa- … the bomber’s rucksack.” He had almost said his name.
“I almost stopped myself halfway up the arena steps on my way in,” Alex says. “It was only the crowds flooding in behind me that pushed me forward through the doors.
“I didn’t say a word until I’d taken my seat and the first fight on the undercard was over. I settled into it, then. I felt alright. A couple of times I saw such vivid scenes of screaming girls running for the exits, I thought they were really there. But then one of the boxers would land a massive right hook and I’d forget all about it.
“How the hell could I have felt ‘alright’ while I was sat in that building?” he asks of himself. “What is wrong with me?”
Alex looks up from the floor and clears his throat. He has a confession, he says. Ariana Grande’s ‘One More Time’ now takes pride of place on his Spotify playlist.
No matter what reminders he has of seeing Salman Abedi that night, it is something that lives with him and will do for some time. He has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, another detail he feels guilty for. “I wasn’t even there, for f**k’s sake,” he snaps. He is angry with himself.
Alex Martin is haunted by the man he sees in King’s Lynn.
The man who drags himself through the town. The man carrying a blue rucksack so heavy that it bends him forward slightly. The man who, almost three-and-a-half years after Alex saw him, refuses to leave him alone.
(Word count: 1048)
Copyright free image of Manchester at night from Pexels.com. I chose this over any photos Alex had taken because it best fits the mood of the interview.
Image taken by Alex at the boxing event he attended at Manchester Arena in November 2018.
Permission from Alex to use the photograph above.
Audience: Most suitable for a relevant local news outlet such as Lynn News or Manchester Evening News.