“Static,” F says, flinching her hand up away from the rail.
I tell her it’s probably because she’s so attractive. She chuckles at me, rather than with me, for a few seconds, her laughter condensing in the night air, and the queue moves forward.
She gives her best smile to the bouncer, full of flirtation, and he moves his brick-like arm aside.
We step into a pounding beat.
“Static again,” says F, twitching as we climb the stairs. “You’d think it was all across the city.”
“Probably just you, isn’t it?” I reply, gazing over the crowds of bouncing arms. A muscular young man is dragged forcibly past us and away out of sight.
“Do you mind if I head for the cloakrooms?” she asks my ear.
For a moment I can watch her leaving. Then, because in a club you always have to find something to do, I lean on the rail and watch the dancefloor. I rarely feel so alone as in places like this; a multitude of hands, dehumanised, moving to a rhythm I can barely hear.
My naked arm crackles. Static, I think, brushing pointlessly at it.
A beautiful woman falls through the crowd, still vomiting, and disappears.
Strange, I think, and watch.
People are beginning to fall out of rhythm; their moves falter, some begin to shout out of time. A black hole of dancefloor begins to open up. A gaggle of overweight, chanting men attempt to detach themselves from each other, but, like mountaineers, find themselves dragged further and further down. A crush of heads makes for the stairs; the entire floor tips, and the furthest back begin to slide comically into the morass.
The curious thing, I think, as F grabs me by the hand and drags me back down the stairs and towards the doors, is how the music never stops.
We burst out into the Marylbone night. F, gasping, asks,
“What was that? An earthquake?”
Her voice is still tinny; the choking music has numbed my hearing. Loud yells of pain and terror begin to sour the littered sky. And something else; a peculiar humming, unless it’s just my eardrums, is searching through the air, like an old train’s movement. Something like,
fio, fio, fio, fio, fio-
I turn to F, all pretty and dishevelled without her coat, and open my mouth. She’s staring right past me, and I look back. A group of men are running hard towards us up from Baker Street.
“Shit,” F says, and turns to run.
From above, the BT tower swings its precipice around like a baton and crushes them.
“Uh...” I reply. F is already dragging on my arm, and so I turn and run with her down the High Street. A lamp-post sways violently towards me but cracks itself on a nearby Transit van.
We turn, as one, to the cry. A hand is waving frantically, as if in tune to the flailing skyscraper, from behind iron railings. F scrambles up. Somehow, I follow, and fall into the silence of the park.
The noise is quieter here, though still audible;
fio, fio, fio-
The buildings rear angrily at our presence, but do not pass beyond the iron railings and rows of elms. F takes my hand; we move, quietly, through the crowds gathered across the lawns.
“What’s going on?” someone shouts. A young couple are weeping, by the summerhouse.
“Terrorists,” says somebody else. A young man yells,
“It’s the government!”
A rather younger one replies,
“No, idiot...the machines are taking over!”
Someone is laughing.
An old man is slouching across one of the benches. A stack of Big Issues sits to one side of him; a stolen supermarket trolley full of liquor bottles has been parked in front of him. He continues to laugh, toothlessly.
“Should’ve asked me,” he says. “None of you heard him, did you? All of you, sleepin’ safe at night...none of you heard London whisperin’.”
He stuffs one of the magazines into one of the whisky bottles. Liquor splurges.
“Sleeping on the subway...on the streets...oh, Jamie heard him all right. Whisperin’ away to himself, watchin’ you- he was glad how the governmen’ gave him all those cameras, all those bugs, because it helped him watch. A dark thing, London, lying beneath his own skin, waitin’.”
“Are you seriously suggesting-” someone begins. A helicopter flutters overhead. The BT tower launches itself up, foundations straining, and snatches it out of the air. The sentence remains unfinished.
Jamie coughs out his mirth. The younger man asks,
“What’re we gonna do?”
“And what’s that noise?”
Jamie glances around the group for a moment, and then takes up another bottle and proceeds to stuff it.
“Look,” the younger man says, when nobody else has replied. “We have to get out of here. If we can just make it out-”
“How far,” Jamie says, loudly, “do you think London stretches, these days? To Finchley? To the Green Belt? To the whole country?”
“All right,” says a portly businessman. “Listen to this-”
He holds his mobile phone aloft.
-the situation is under control. Make your way out into the streets: move slowly and the attackers will be sure to leave you alone. We repeat-
“No, no, no!” says Jamie. “First thing you always do in war? Take over the enemy’s communications! That’s London talking, tricking us- your damned phone may be global, but the radio masts are in London, aren’t they?”
The businessman blushes.
“You seem to know an awful lot about this,” he says. “It seems to me, sir, that you owe a lot to this city- it provides you with shelter, sustenance, all the things that human people wouldn’t...perhaps it’s recruited you to its side, eh?”
F prevents a fight from breaking out by saying loudly,
“I have another idea. This thing, this London...we can beat it.”
The fat businessman goes quiet. Even Jamie stops manufacturing his Molotov cocktails for a moment.
“What if,” she says, her beautiful face glowing with pride, “we found the old London? Surely that could beat this...this new London, this thing? Bring back the ancient city to fight the new one?”
“The old London died at the hands of the new one long ago,” someone says mournfully. “Butchered by tour buses and department stores...”
“How would we go about it, anyway?” someone else asks. “If we went to St Paul’s and asked God to return...”
“Nah,” a young woman says despondently. “St Paul’s was rebuilt, remember?”
“Tower of London,” F says. “Constantly rebuilt, never changing. If we could...summon the old city-”
Jamie stands. He’s filled three rucksacks with his homemade explosives.
“That’s all very well,” he says, “and if it works it’ll be fine. But I’m headed for the heart of this thing. If I can do it enough damage...”
“Heart?” the businessman asks, perplexed. “Where’s the heart?”
A murmur rises through the crowd.
“So we’ve got three choices,” says Jamie, “so pick your group, the lot of you. If you get into trouble, make for a park; you’ll be safe there.”
There is a moment of silence. And then someone says, as if working out a thought for the first time,
“But the city goes under the parks...”
The grass shakes for a moment and pipes and cables, frothing water and electricity, erupt all around. The portly businessman, seized, is dragged away and down. A tide of hands catches me.
For a moment I see F, standing on the other side of the chasm, waving at me.
And then I’m standing with Jamie on the other side of the park.
“Come on,” he says, and hands me one of the rucksacks.
We trudge for hours through empty streets. The skyscrapers billow above us like tentacles, apparently appeased. A sticky sort of heat builds; sweat begins to form and reform on my neck.
“Different sort of heat,” Jamie says quietly. “Heat builds in a funny way in cities. Watch out for the wind too- it can funnel it down the streets.”
“Do you think this is happening anywhere else?” I ask him. “I mean, what if London can communicate-”
“I don’t want to think about it,” he mumbles.
After a few moments, he says,
“I mean, if London can do this...then what about the smaller places? The towns, the villages? They’d be less powerful, sure, but there’d be less people to kill. I mean, have you noticed how the size of the settlement is in direct proportion to the number of people living there?”
I reply that I have.
“We should be at Oxford Circus by now,” he murmurs, scanning the road. “And yet this is only Bond Street. Wait here.”
He steps forward; sniffs the air.
The 11.45 Tube train rears up from Bond Street Station and swallows him whole.
I run, pounding like some strange primal rhythm, down the curving alleys, thinking of F, hoping that she’s somehow found the old London, lured it out to fight.
-fio, fio, fio, fio-
And then I emerge onto a wide, winding street, filled with department stores, and I know I’ve made it. A Lexus burns on the corner.
The sign reads,
I realise then that the city has got the better of us. We’ve never even been close to the centre. It’s lured me here, to the outskirts, far from the heart.
A futile, hopeless rage takes me. I unzip the rucksack and light the first Molotov from the flames of the Lexus. I hurl the bottle in through the windows of one department store, and then another into a bistro. Several bounce harmlessly off brick walls which were never there before. My last lands in the street, into a fire which was already there. And suddenly the rucksack is empty.
Cables burst from the sewer and buildings all around, veiling the sky.
Fields, I imagine desperately. Fields and trees and rolling hills.
But it’s false, and I know it, and the last thing I remember is cables.