Voices (London Competition)
The ghost of London floats through my dreams, drawing me along crowded streets, through lazy parks and past crystal towers glittering behind the gauze of memory. Sometimes, in the silence of waking, I debate with myself, and sometimes I convince me that the towers still glitter and the streets rush with human footsteps, and human voices call children in the park. The air sags with the scent of traffic and explosions of sound thrust from doorways and vehicles, kidnapping your senses for a fraction of your life before tossing you, with a grin, to the next assailant. Food smells, accents jabber, and the skins of a hundred other human beings pass you in the space of a few unnoticed breaths.
Sometimes I get up and go to the window and look at what is outside, to settle the argument once and for all. I and me have to accept. There is no London any more.
It was not my childhood home, but my Dad used to drive me and my mum down to visit relatives in Battersea. Our drive took us past Congress House, with its statue of a winged figure reaching out to a fallen man; my Dad told me it was called ‘The Spirit of Trade Unionism’. I had no idea what that meant. We drove along Fleet Street, and I stared in puzzled wonder at the Daily Express building, a tower seemingly all of black glass. And I was fascinated by the passing ranks of smartly dressed young women, then in knee length skirts and sharply pointed high heels, their hair smoothly lacquered into place. They all worked in offices, I knew, and at midday they took their Luncheon Vouchers and briskly strode to exchange them at a sandwich shop or possibly a Lyons Corner House where, my mother explained, they could get a hot lunch or even a proper evening meal, with enough vouchers. She had been one of those women, once. I stared at them with rounded eyes and could think of nothing better than to follow in their stilettoed footsteps.
Which I did, and though the high heels were thicker and the hair no longer lacquered, I still got Luncheon Vouchers. I would wait for my lover by the steps of Eros, and one day was told that that the statued archer was not Eros at all, but his brother Anteros, the god of fulfilled, philanthropic love, the best of human qualities. I didn’t care much. I wanted only to hold my lover’s hand and walk through the bustle of Leicester Square, down to Victoria Embankment, where we would watch the river as we strolled and paused by Cleopatra’s Needle, an obelisk named after a queen it preceded by a thousand years. Our walk took us to Boadicea’s chariot, though I later learned she was not Boadicea but Boudicca, and she almost certainly didn’t have scythes on her wheels. I didn’t care about that either, or that the mother of parliaments was housed in a Victorian folly rather than the medieval palace it pretended to be. It didn’t matter that nothing was quite what it seemed. These were human constructions, human beings made them and distorted them or transplanted them to places they were never meant to be. Human beings gazed at them and reached out to them, or frowned, puzzled by what the fuss was about. Human beings did that.
My lover and I left London but our children, sadly, returned.
I managed to phone my daughter in Wandsworth. ‘Come up here, all of you. At least send the kids up.’
‘Jerry’s worried what will happen if we leave the house unattended. And we don’t want to send the kids away. It’ll be all right, Mum. Jerry says they’re hardly likely to do anything to London. That wouldn’t make any sense. But if it starts looking really dodgy, we’ll come up.’
I had a similar conversation with my son in Ealing.
‘I could come down,’ I said to both of them. And both of them hesitated a fraction of a second long enough for me to understand it wasn’t what they wanted.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘let me know.’ I felt angry when I put the phone down. They couldn’t bear to be separated from their children. Didn’t they understand how I felt being separated from mine?
Two days later the Cull was methodical and fully televised, so it wouldn’t be necessary to waste time and resources repeating it elsewhere. I remember screaming wordlessly at the television, and phoning them both, over and over again, shrieking at them to pick up, clinging on to the phone as if that way I could cling on to them.
‘No,’ I said desperately, to silence.
Even now I imagine, sometimes, that they got out. And so I hold on, just in case. If they eventually make it up here, I will be waiting, with sheets that are reasonably clean and what tinned food I have managed to store. I will wait until the day I die.
London is inhabited again now, in a different way.
Everywhere in the country has the towers, the ones that don’t glitter, merely watch. They are blank and seamless, hard even to put a colour to; they soak up the light around them and do not give it back. They are what I see when I look out of my window at night, to settle my dispute with myself. I assume they are all over the globe, but I have no way of knowing. Our magic, fantastic, explosively human television boxes now only give us what we must see to rid ourselves of hope.
The silent pictures show us that parts of London, like everywhere else, have been destroyed to accommodate the towers. The destruction, like the Cull, has been methodical and directed, and not purely functional. I wonder if they relish the pulverising of buildings as much as the melting of human flesh; the slaughter in London was too complete for simple discouragement. At the end of the Embankment, a jagged skeleton of Victorian folly offers its claws to the sky, and numbed bridges present their stumps to the dull, blackened water. Boadicea’s chariot lies on its side across the empty road. Cleopatra’s Needle still stands; perhaps its monolithic nature appeals to them. There have been no detailed pictures of places like Wandsworth or Ealing, but the soundless aerial views show gap-toothed urban landscapes, incisor towers ground into earth that gives no resistance. They have left Anteros on his fountain, his arrow aimless, his love with nowhere to go.
But London is inhabited. We can feel it from hundreds of miles away. Somewhere in what remains, they live. We don’t speak to our neighbours much these days - we have all seen blank spaces left by those who talked too much - but sometimes a rumour travels along an unused road, as rumours will. There is a scent, it says, an odour, not identifiable, barely discernible, but caught when the wind is in a certain direction. There is a sound, a whisper, almost formless, barely heard, that slides into the human ear and freezes movement and thought with a blank terror. As our voices grow fainter and more hesitant, and fade into dim remembrance, maybe theirs will be the only sound that we will hear, as the silence spreads from London.