A playlist of pop-songs for our dystopian future selves.
“The words never listen
And teachers, oh they never learn
My warmth from the candle
Though I feel too cold to burn”.
– Say Hello 2 Heaven, Temple of the Dog
The rain came down, formed through the cracks in the ozone. It carried the scent to the stretched concrete streets below.
The water crept down off of roof tops, over broken gutter edges and gargoyles and between the gaps in the rusted iron frames of the buildings.
He sat in the top floor of a burnt out tower block on the edge of the ninth district; the place where most things had gone (or been sent) to be forgotten. Now only the rain remained, and seemed to want to wash away whatever was left.
The water cascaded in small vertical streams like vines along the last remnants of wallpaper. Over time it had begun creating small channels for itself in the cracks of the concrete. The cloud rolled above, there was no light in the sky. If the season’s had still meant anything it would have been the height of summer – a dog’s day – and yet there was nothing but ashen cloud and permeating damp.
“Every dog must have one” he thought to himself.
He turned his back on the city and the large ragged hole where once perhaps there had been a window. Descending down through the building, he following the path of the rain back to the ground floor, and to the only work he had left; that which he continued to create for himself.
It had been a long time since he was able to sound a note from anything with strings, once the cold and water had entered his bones, the pain that figured the tips of his hands had become too nagging. Unable to accompany himself, he had all but ceased to play his pipes or sing.
Canvas was too fragile, too eager to take to damp and mould and besides that paint was far too rare. Although he could mix his own, it was a time consuming process, rarely resulting in shades or pigments he cared for.
Instead he turned to what came readily to hand; stone and concrete that lay barren all over the city. He was still able to hold a chisel and hammer and although he had no experience, he set about learning the only way he had ever known how – by simply doing.
After a period of trial and error, he began to see features in the strikes that he made.
As time passed the blocks he dragged in from across emptied highways began to reveal likeness’. Though odd and angular, the faces contained a comforting familiarity. While the rain continued to fall, their steadfast expressions, would soften sometimes in the changing light. Their cold eyes, reflecting for just a moment, their features mimicking no-one in particular.
In the evenings the dogs came to feed and shelter. Sometimes ascending up over the first few floors where the staircases still reached, attracted perhaps by the noise or the scent of the man.
In order to climb further himself, he had needed to devise a series of pulleys, ropes and ladders. With doing so he eventually found himself on the top floors, staring out onto the rest of the city, under the blanket of ember coloured cloud.
The upper floors offered him some sense of security, while the dogs hounded the basement and lower floors, dragging in whatever they’d been able to find in the streets, not often staying more than a day or a night, moving on to hunt elsewhere.
He would sit still, crow like above and observe, hidden in the shadow and the dripping water, waiting the see what would be dragged in.
He would scavenge the debris for anything that might be useful, rat or squirrel pelts. Sometimes something bigger if the pack had enough dogs. Lighters, matches, photos, or penknives stashed in cargo pockets, even bones occasionally abandoned that could be boiled down to make a weak broth.
Eventually he began to recognise some of the packs and the scent of their wet hides. Two or three dogs began to return and remain in the building longer than before. They seemed to enjoy the sound and activity he created in the floors above.
As weeks, and months passed he began to travel further out in order to collect stone and concrete, when he did he began to realise that these dogs would accompany him. Hidden around broken building corners, the echo of dark black and brown coats passed just out of sight behind fallen crash barriers and rubble. He would hear their paws passing through puddles in the empty underpasses behind him.
During one such walk, after he had become accustomed to their shadows on his day trips there was a bang that echoed through the broken courtyards around them. Following it, a sharp short whimper. The edge of a tail or paw caught the corner of a trash can, the metal can had toppled over noisily and revealed the dog slunk behind it. Immediately the animal froze and locked eyes with the man.
For a long moment, as the ringing metal of the trash can gave way to the sound of the rain falling into the inches of filthy water that surrounded them, they both held their breath.
The dog crouched with it’s paws spread too wide in the mud, it’s ears down, caught off guard.
The man righted himself from the hunched position he had unknowingly adopted. His body language relaxed. The animal cocked it’s head a little, and then shook the rain from it’s black muzzle, before doing the same with it’s back legs, showering greyish drops from the ends of it’s tail.
As easily as that, they seemed to come to an agreement and suddenly were no longer passive companions.
The dogs continued to roam the city with him, by now proving much less skittish or shy. Together they seemed to come by food more easily, able to sniff it out, even in the damp and mud, and able to access places where paws could not. With the help of the dogs he was also able to drag back greater pieces of stone from around the city’s ruins, as he began to have to travel further to get material suitable for sculpting.
Between them they filled the lower floors of the tower with faces hewn from the ruins around them. The heads and shoulders of friends, allies and aliens. Faces that the man had passed on the street once, and thought of never again. Until years, decades later, he found himself chipping their likeness from the reclaimed rock in front of him.
Time rolled by, the wanderer’s hair grew long around his shoulders and began to grey, while the the muzzles of his companions began to do the same.
Though his skill had increased, his sight and hands had slowed. Regardless he worked in the rare sunlight when it would break and by dim candles when the dark was most consuming. He chipped away at the sculptures piece by piece, inch by inch and the stone dropped to the floor blanketing the mud and dirt around him.
One night a band of strays wandered into the outskirts of the city, for the first time in a long time, on two feet not four, with boots like the man’s. A small group who had survived a long time on wit and wariness.
They entered the worn shell of the building in district nine, drawn in cautiously like moths by the flicker of the distant candles.
As they came beneath the shelter of the upper floors, they found themselves surrounded by ghosts. More faces than they had seen in years. More than some of them had ever seen. They gazed around a crowd of stone expressions, eyes and emotions, all reflecting in the last light of flickering candles.
As they passed amongst the faces, row after row some of them reached up to touch the stone cheeks and lips, and as they did they found that the tears came quickly, warm and honest and brutal as any truth.
They looked upon he faces of all those they had ever loved, or hated and they wept, and as they did their tears mixed with the rain and the mud.
Upstairs the found an old man, he did not move as the sound of their boots approached him. His chest did not rise or lower as he lay in a nest of blankets and dried pelts
A chisel and a hammer were laid out on a rag at his right hand.
The following morning the strays, went on their way to reclaim what they could of the city, years would pass and eventually, as well as homes they were able to to build families, and plant gardens to feed themselves. As children became old enough, on fine days they would walk them to the old building in district nine, and they would show them the faces of those who had come before them. They would picnic in the grass that now grew up around the statues, and they would share stories of how life had been and how it might be yet.
Packs of dogs still roamed the building and the grounds around it. On nights where the clouds would roll over, and the rain would fall, the dogs would bring pieces of stone and cracked concrete. Dragging broken brick and mortar with their muzzles, and they would pile them in the basement of the building like offerings on an alter, as the rain came down through the iron and cement.
“I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby cry”
– River, Joni Mitchell.
It was the coldest winter on record. People always seem to state that like it’s a fact, when in reality it tends to be more like speculative hearsay, repeated just often enough to reach a kind of critical mass consensus.
Usually this happens just after the outside temperature drops to freezing point. Somehow the idea that they’ve never been this cold before seems to makes people feel warmer. It reinforces the idea that they’re still able to surprise themselves, as if now, simply by still being here they’ve achieved something – and in a way that’s true.
But true or not it seems to provide those that really need it a few extra degrees when they need it most.
Over the last decade or so as things had changed more rapidly, Christmas became like the last reliable vestige of the good old days. There were always the nay-sayers, which was fine as long as they didn’t get in the way of everyone else observing the holiday.
Of course by then, a traditional Christmas had become shorthand for everybody opting to use up the entirety of his or her yearly holiday credits for the same predictable week of the year. Simultaneously providing a dependable boast to the flagging economy.
The Government’s official line was that it was simply “good for the moral of the country”. Unofficially of course it was seen as a jab at any idealist communists who still had the nerve to remain in the west and a way of preserving a certain order of priorities.
The holiday wasn’t mandatory – that would of seemed oppressive – but not celebrating certainly seemed suspicious, anti-social, and against the interest of crown and king. In short, Christmas had become a civic duty.
And that’s how it was, all over the country families celebrated, indoor at the correct registered address, with no more than a maximum of nine people at any one time. No later than the hour of twenty-three thirty and within the guideline decibel limit.
That was exactly what each of the office workers of Parliament View office block were looking forward to that evening. The computer monitors flickered gently with the last of the year’s correspondence and reports that although now read “End of Year” would inevitably end up reading ‘Year Start” in a few short days.
“Jeanie, what are you looking at?”
The outline of a petit, neatly attired female figure stood silhouetted in the large frame of glass windows which faced directly over the river Thames.
As she turned to answer the voice that had called her name Jeanie realised, she had been standing gazing out at the view of the river for a good ten minutes. She also realised that her lightly freckled cheeks had become slightly warm, perhaps as a result of the glass of mulled wine she held cupped in both hands.
“Sorry Alice just taking in the view” she smiled back at her colleague. The woman frowned back at her initially, but her expression warmed to match Jeanie’s friendly features and honest hazel eyes which smiled back at her.
Nobody was particularly anxious, it wasn’t like there was an important deadline to miss . It had been another long year and it was long past time to go home for Christmas – nobody was even pretending otherwise by this point.
But Jeanie had been distracted by a distant red dot she noticed outside on the river, as she had stood by the photo-copier.
“Something caught your interest?” One of the other girls perked up. A bob-cut and pair of small rimmed glasses poked from behind a computer monitor across the room.
Jeanie turned back toward the window “…I’m not totally sure, but I think it’s a man. He’s just walking, or sort of dancing or something. But he’s doing it in the middle of the Thames”
At that the girl with the bob-cut got up and joined Jeanie at the window. They stood for a minute, watching the dot progress between boats and buoys that sat ideally in the cold of the icy river.
“Bloody heck you’re right. He’s just skating up and down, It must be frozen solid!”
“It can’t be. The whole river? It couldn’t…”
“He must be insane, what if he goes under?”
They locked eyes with each other grinning. Then simultaneously they turned back towards the office desks and shouted: “Angie! Grab our mulled wines and COME LOOK AT THIS!”
At that the whole office seemed to join them at the window with mulled wine, and the last of the mince pies. Watching the figure drift, and softly pirouette along the top of the river from the east where it seemed to have come moving away towards Westminster.
In the reflective florescent glow of the office window, a commotion of speculation and chatter took over.
“Wow! How fantastic! He’s walking on the river.”
“It looks like some kind of miracle!…
“Jesus H. Christ! what the hell is that?”
“Huh?” Burroughs started up from the whiskey bottle he had pursed to his lips. Him and his companion Smith were sat beneath one of the arches of what had been the entrance to old Westminster Underground station, before it had been closed down for security purposes.
The government had concluded it was too much of an unnecessary risk to have the tube trains running beneath Parliament after the final year of rioting when a hacker group finally shut down the city surveillance and things had really become messy. So now a large chunk of the lines west of Embankment lay unused. Apparently the government found it less of a security concern for the tunnels to become used as homes for hundreds of the same people who had once been rioting on the streets above them.
“Smith, I’ve told you before stop freaking out every time a pigeon gets fried on that electric fence. They get cold too. They feel the heat from the generators and they get too close, no ruddy conspiracy theory about it.” Started Burroughs, rolling his eyes in the direction of the huge electric fence that ran around The parliament buildings.
“I’m not talking about the sodding pigeons, LOOK! Some lunatic is walking down the middle of the river.” Smith cut his friend off.
“I told you drinking that de-icing shit was a bad idea you old fart” Burroughs replied without looking up from his book. He had heard enough of his friend’s ravings over the years they’d now known each other, and Christmas Eve or not he wasn’t feeling any more hospitable about the idea of listening to more of them.
But as he sat up from the corner where he had piled himself amongst the blankets in order to stay warm, he looked past the small fire they sat on either side of, to where his friend was pointing. He was surprised to see a small figure in a red jumper that seemed to be heading toward them.
“Well, I’ll be damned what the hell is that chap up to?”
“I don’t believe it, the whole river froze – the whole bloody Thames!”
“And he’s just waltzing straight down it as casual as anything” Smith grinned, as he looked on
“Well good for him, I hope he’s having fun, if I was ten years younger and wasn’t already half frozen solid myself I’d be going down there to join him.”
“Cheers to that” His companion raised up his thermal flask in approval.
Parliament was nearly empty, the big suits had all long left for their various homes outside of the city before Christmas and New Year.
Thomas Thyme had secretly begun to suspect it was just him and his assistant Rosemary left in the whole of Westminster. Them and the security guards.
He had been left to administer a ghost staff over the holiday. Doing little else than forwarding Emails, watching auto replies fill up their own inboxes and make sure nothing worth mentioning happened until well into next year.
For that reason the news of the man on the Thames gave Thomas an immediate sense of discomfort the pit of his stomach.
“Christ he’s not wearing a bloody Guy Fawkes mask is he?” Thyme was panicking already. He rubbed the back of his neck, pulling loosely at the front of his shirt collar.
“No sir he’s not” replied Rosemary showing him some of the security images that had been sent through to her, on the little palm top computer she carried.
“Thank God, that’s the last thing I need on Christmas Eve… and we’ve checked with Channel 404? It’s not just them making another magic special or something?”
“No sir security have checked all the issued permits, there’s nothing at all scheduled.”
“Right, erm… good then…” Thyme wasn’t sure how his PA seemed to be responding to all this so, accurately.
She was a tall slim woman, who over time Thomas had learned owned a wardrobe off office clothing which ranged in colour across every known shade of grey or navy blue. For the festive season Rosemary had seen fit to adorn the lapel of her cardigan with a sprig of holly leaf. The red berries of which seemed to even further contrast her rather pointed features and pale complexion.
He was glad to have somebody to answer questions, he just found it a little peculiar quite how good Rosemary was at it. After all this wasn’t exactly meant to be their area.
“So how do you intend to respond sir?” Rosemary looked at him expectantly, as if just because she seemed to know what to say in this situation he should.
“Respond?” He sounded confused looking at her as he slumped into a seat behind a desk piled with paperwork and folders which bulged under rubber bands. “What do you mean respond?”
“Well security will be expecting orders they wouldn’t have sent me this intelligence information if they didn’t see the situation as a threat” Rosemary now adopted a look and tone unsettlingly similar to that of somebody who felt they knew better than everybody else in the room, which when you’re the only other person is always a little awkward.
“And how am I expected to respond? It’s just some idiot out for a Christmas stroll as far as we know” Thomas spoke to her but continued staring at the paper-strewn desktop, resting his forehead on the palm of his hand.
“With all due respect sir, that is simply your unqualified opinion. Intelligence suggests there is an unidentified suspect approaching parliament via unauthorised means. Which is to be treated as a potential threat to national security
Given this evenings date and the open of nature of the attack, it would also suggest the suspect may be trying to convey a political message with his or her actions. Marking this as an occasion with wider implications not only for the UK but also any country who shares this holiday and the religious beliefs associated with it”
Thomas raised his head up from the desk, not quite sure if the stream of information that he had just heard had come out of the mouth of his usually dower assistance. Rosemary’s new adopted an air of certitude in what felt already like a bizarre situation made him feel more than a little uncomfortable. But with it also came the realisation that if he was going to get through, whatever situation he found himself landed in: he was going to have to listen to her.
He slid back into his chair and glanced out the window toward the river, and mumbled; “Soddit”
A large crowd had started forming along the riverfront. As Jeanie and the rest of the office had begun messaging friends and uploading pictures online from their vantage point in Parliament View Offices, they saw more and more groups of people arriving along both sides of the river.
As time wound on less and less work was being done in the office, as conversations had spread about what the mystery river figure was actually doing.
Those who had already taken their registered lunch break that afternoon, didn’t have a clearance pass to leave the building until after seventeen hundred. A few people who had skipped lunch, or found passes by one means or another also found excuses to quickly slip out to see for themselves. Predictably they hadn’t come back with anything satisfactory of course, just more rumours and conspiracies from the street.
Word ran from the typical to the fantastical. It was a patient who had slipped out of the New Bedlam Hospital and somehow made their way to the river. Some people thought it must be some kind of vigilante, or perhaps an art student trying to make a point about the environment. Jeanie heard a couple of the courier guys who came into the building talking about “That magician bloke, Geronimo or whatever it was” who had done something similar for telly. “…way back in the naughties.”
“It’s some new show off Houdini, or Derren Brown wana-be”
Then there were the mumblings about angels and the arrival of a new Christmas-jumper-clad-messiah.
“Funny looking angel” Jeanie thought to herself as she peered from the glass of the office window again. She had been making regular trips back and forth to the photo copier after the office administration and security had finally come on the building PA and asked the office staff to return to their seats and continue working until the end of the shift. Jeanie glanced at the little digital clock on the display of the photo copier it blinked sixteen twenty four and the minutes seemed to pass more slowly.
“What do you mean we can’t get anybody on the phone?” “The minister of defence?” “The SAS? Can’t we send a courier to the Prime minister – he lives around the corner!?”
Thomas Tyhme was rubbing the back of his neck again. He had now opened the top button of his shirt collar, and his tie sat at an askew angle. It seemed the further the day progressed the more surreal it also became.
“Sir with all due respect the Prime Minister and his cabinet hasn’t actually residing at Downing Street since that animal rights group managed to break in several years back, and threatened to start making fou-grai from hostages”
“So they just MOVED the head of government because of a bunch of vegan nutters?! Why the hell didn’t I know that?” He stared back at her in wonder.
“It isn’t public knowledge sir, they prefer the public to go on thinking the PM lives there, it makes him seem more in-touch and accessible” She offered.
“WELL HE’S NOT BLOODY ACCESSIBLE IS HE?! THAT’S THE PROBLEM! And anyway, how the hell do you know this stuff?!” Thomas’ face was beginning to go red.
“It’s simply a matter of spending time amongst the right people, you learn things you can use” Rosemary replied cryptically.
Thomas took a deep breath, stood up, walked around the desk, and made an attempt at fixing his tie.
“So where the hell is everybody?” He said, trying to sound calm.
“It’s standard protocol for government officials to take annual holiday leave at this time. That is why the running of things is left to administrators such as yourself.” Rosemary informed him factually.
More and more of the words that came out of her mouth seemed to be delivered by a robot as apposed to a human.
“This can’t be happening. I’m an office administrator; I’m meant to be tidying up an expense account on excel somewhere. Not dealing with military tactics while my secretary recounts national security secrets to me like it’s the most obvious thing on earth…”
She cut across him: “Sir you’re the person left in the senior position of authority and as such have responsibility to issue orders”.
“I was meant to send a few Emails, make sure the coffee machines didn’t boil over, turn off the goddamn lights when everybody leaves – not order a missile strike in central London!”
He paused, weighing up the absurdity of the situation he found himself in and trying to resolve his position in it.
“Right, well if nobody else is going to do anything it – seems like we’re just going to have to get on with things.
So before we do could somebody please at least get me a cup of tea?.”
At one minute past five o’clock the dam broke. Figuratively at least, considering that this is a story heavily involving a river. No dams were damaged or broken, not literally.
But Jeanie was there at the front of the queue holding her security pass, hovering above the reader on the doorframe, and as the small red digital clock changed to read seventeen-zero-one she dropped the card against the reader. There was a familiar digital beep and the magnetic door latch released.
Jeanie put her full weight into the door and pushed, stepping outside she looked excitedly toward the riverbank. Another split second passed before she realised that those who had been standing quietly behind her in the building waiting for the doors to open and their shifts to end were running. Sprinting towards the waterfront. She leapt down from the pavement and glancing across the empty traffic lanes as she began to run with them. She reached the wall of the river barrier she leaned over to look straight down at the drop onto the glassy ice below. And then she could see it, she could see the lines and lines of people all the same as her who had been waiting to finish their working year, and find out who this mystery figure on the Thames was and what they wanted.
She looked east and west along the river and she saw the crowds of people along the length of it, The colour of Christmas scarves and hats, rows of woollen mittens perched along the river barrier wall.
The breath of each person hung in the freezing bright evening air – every person trying to glance the small red figure who was still half hiking, half dancing along the length of the river.
“Look at this lot” Burroughs and Smith were still sat in the stone-arch of the ex-tube station at Westminster watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the hatted and scarved crowds slowly gather throughout the evening and then the rush as the offices closed for the year and people flooded out lining the river.
A few others from the tunnels had now joined them, even the rats seemed to have crept further forward as if to get a view, or perhaps just stirred by the noise and vibration of the huge footfall overhead.
As the two friends gazed out at the scene from their hidden front row seats, Smith noticed the activity that seemed to be buzzing around the parliament building on the opposite side of the bridge.
There was even more black uniformed security than usual, and they all seemed to be in a hurry.
He glanced over at the electrified security fences that ran along the waterfront of the old building, and saw the row of pigeons, which had formed a line across the top of them.
“What are they up to over there? he gestured to Burroughs who was sat across from him still sipping from his thermos flask.
They’ve turned off the security fences”
“What do you mean?” Burroughs replied.
“Look the pigeons aren’t getting shocked anymore, they’ve turned off the security fences at the front on the river bank. Why would they do that?” Smith sat looking curious.
“Who knows, but lets go see if we can’t find out” Burroughs chimed, eager to satisfy his friends new curiosity, and his own.
The two men shuffled back through the underground corridors of the old tube station, half way down one passage they slowed to a stop. “Right, this one” Burroughs voice echoed down the dim tilled tunnel as he kneeled down by an old iron grating in the wall.
“Ready?” His colleague squatted down beside him.
“One, two, three” they counted in unison and on three pulled at the old grating. It came away smoothly from it’s place in the wall.
“After you sir” they both gestured jokingly at the hole in the wall where the grating had been. Then laughing pushed one another through.
They crept along the small maintenance passage for a few moments, and after several turns reached a point where through a smaller metal grating they had a clear view of the front of the houses of Parliament.
“I knew they were up to something, what the hell is it they’re rigging up?” Smith said quietly.
“It’s some kind of tripod, like the ones we used to mount the camera’s when we did the documentary” murmured Burroughs. “That’s no bloody camera they’ve got there though”
The two men watched as two security guards carried out a heavy looking metal cylinder and began mounting it to the tripod.
“Christ they’re going to try and blow that poor git up”
Smith realised at the same time Burroughs did
“It’s gonna be a hell of a fire work show”.
“No, we can’t let them, that poor sod is somebody’s something. Someone’s brother, or sister, or father, or son, or something… They haven’t even done anything!”
“I know Burroughs, I know, but what the hell are we going to do?”
“We’ve got to get down there and warn them”
“We don’t even know if the ice is going to hold us”
Smith was eyeing the river uncertainly.
“The whole thing is frozen solid”.
“You’re not a geologist you don’t know that”.
Burroughs rolled his eyes at his friend.
“I know it’s been holding that fool all day while they pranced about on it, why wouldn’t it hold us?
And anyway, when are we going to get the chance to stop a missile strike again?!”
Before Burroughs had a chance to say anything else Smith was already moving back down the tunnel.
“Well come on then, I’m not going to stop a missile strike on Christmas Eve by myself mate” his voice echoed again between the narrow walls.
As they exited the old tube station, and began descending the stone steps toward the edge of the river. Some of the others who had been watching from the underground followed them down. They paused as they reached where the frozen water crept up onto the final step.
They could see in the ice where the steps continued down for a few feet as the frozen water became murkier. Burroughs and Smith stood on the edge looking at each other for a moment, before nodding in unison, They pushed and dragged one another out onto the ice, slipping and skidding.
As they finally steadied themselves they stopped and stood silently for a moment, taking in the view from the middle of the Thames as they looked up from the shadow of Westminster Bridge. The water was rock solid beneath their feet.
“Right, enough messing about, time to save the day.” Smith grinned giving Burroughs a shove in the direction of Westminster.
“Excuse me, no missiles today please – it’s Christmas” He shot back laughing over his shoulder as they both began skating in the direction of the figure in the red jumper up ahead.
On the south bank of the river Jeanie’s keen eye had spotted something unusual for the second time that day. As well as the figure in the red jumper she had watched from the office window earlier that afternoon, she could now see two other figures that seemed to be heading to join the first as they moved toward Westminster.
“There’s more of them!” Jeanie yelled out in excitement. Some of the others from her office who were also in the crowd turned and looked at her puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Out on the ice” Jeanie replied, “look there’s two other people going out to join the first one”
“She’s right look” Angela from the office still clutched her final glass of mulled wine close to her.
“Lets go too” Jeanie smiled at her colleague, not entirely sure what made her say it, but then following it up with a chipper “It’ll be fun”.
“Oh we couldn’t” Angela replied quickly. “I mean we don’t know if it’s safe, what if the ice breaks?”
“They’ve been skating out there all day and they’re fine” Jeanie had apparently suddenly decided she was feeling adventurous. “There are other people are out there now too – it’ll be fun” There was a brightness in Jeanie’s face that somehow Angela had never noticed in the years they’d worked together.
She reminded her of herself when she was younger, a little more bold and ambitious before years of administrative work had made her resigned to how things were.
“Oh why not” Angela’s face lit up as she said it. With that Jeanie grabbed her hand and they both started pushing their way through the crowd toward the nearest set of stairs leading to one of the old Thames docks.
“Excuse us!” “Pardon me.” “Terribly sorry!” They edged their way through to the gates at the top of a set of stairs stairs and trying the metal handle, realised it was of course locked. Jeanie’s face looked defeated, but Angela caught her eye with a look like mischief “Give me a boost”.
Angela dropped herself softly down on the opposite side of the gate with what Jeanie thought was an impressive degree of gracefulness. “Gymnastic classes” Angela said noticing the surprise on Jeanie’s face. As she said it she pulled a hairpin from her hair, twisted it, and inserted it into the lock on the inside of the gate where she now stood. The gate latch popped open and the surprised look returned to Jeanie’s face. “Don’t ask” was all Angela said this time smiling as the two girls clasped hands again and began carefully climbing down the steps toward the river.
“We’re sure there’s no way anybody is going to get hurt in this?” Thomas Thyme’s tone had become more resolved but his face had become pale as minutes had begun to tick by.
“The security team has assured me the chance of any civilian causalities is less than five percent” Rosemary replied in what seemed to have become her now customary best impression of a Darlek.
“Five percent?! Surely that’s a bit high for something like this? I mean can’t we just have a couple of coppers go out and pick this person up? Surely that would be easier no?”
“The security team have deemed that this is the only course of action which guarantees absolute results without any chance of causality on either side”
“Chance of casualties on either side?” He repeated, wondering at the use of war-time linguistics. “I mean of course it’s absolute we’re talking about blowing them into next Christmas for God sake”.
Rosemary stood looking at him. He swore her eyes had not always been this dead when she used to bring him coffee and chocolate biscuits with his morning schedules.
“Right. Well lets just get it over with” He walked toward the large arched windows that looked out onto the river and stood leaning on the frame.
Just below he could see the black clad security team on the balconies below, bustling around one another setting up what seemed to Thomas like oversized television cameras.
And then he saw it, or rather – them.
For a split second he thought perhaps this was it, this was the ‘us’ Rosemary or whatever killer-cyborg that seemed to have replaced her today had spoken of.
He could still see the single red jumper that seemed to be moving closer toward the parliament buildings. But now there were two other grey figures gaining behind the first one.
Behind those again there seemed to be another pair holding hands and then the rest them.
Dozens, then hundreds, then what must have been thousands of people began swelling out onto the frozen Thames. A wave of wooly hats and long coats, bounced and cascaded down down the stairs, gates and docks out onto the river.
Thomas watched from the parliament building window in dread as the crowd continued descending onto the ice.
To terrified and nauseated to keep watching. He stepped away from the window and buried his head on the desk again waiting. Waiting for a sign that they were coming for him.
The masses were finally storming the castle. Westminster would be burnt to the ground and it would be his fault. This is what the name Thomas L. Thyme would be remembered for: failure to act and inability to hold the fort for one Christmas Eve. He felt sick.
There was a load dull thud and Thomas’s heart pounded up into his mouth. He leapt up from the his seat and as he did he accidentally sent the contents of the desk flying, filling the room with a snowstorm of bureaucratic paper work.
Shaking, he looked around. “What was that?!”
Rosemary began hastily typing something into her palm computer again. “I’m not sure Mr. Thyme, I’m requesting an update from the security team now, I’d recommend staying away from the windows…” she trailed off.
The windows. He glanced up at them, none of them were broken, but he saw water and ice glistening on one.
He moved beside it and then pushed it open.
As he burst our laughing Rosemary stopped typing and looked at him.
“Snowballs… snowballs!” He yelled laughing out of the open window. As he did, the wind blew in through the huge windows lifting the paper work from the floor again and making it seem like him and Rosemary where inside some kind of bizarre legislation filled snow globe.
“They’re having a snowball fight. They’re not trying to over throw the government or burn the place down!” Thyme nearly burst as he said it.
“But sir, this could be a diversion for their accomplice”
“Oh bloody hell Rosemary, do shut up. Military terminology doesn’t suit you” He was surprised at himself when he said it, but for the first time he could remember that day he seemed certain of himself again.
“We need to assess the strategies with the security team” Rosemary began rapidly typing into the palm computer again.
“The security team, oh bugger…” Thomas mumbled to himself, turned back to the window to see where the black uniformed guards had just about finished mounting the launchers below.
“Surely they’re not still going to fire, we need to tell them to stop… They’re not going ahead with it are they?!”
“The status bar still says preparing to engage sir” as she said it the small black device Rosemary clutched in her hand emitted a beeping noise.
“What was that?”
Rosemary’s expression went blank and white, she silently held up the computer so Thomas could see. The little display had turned red and was now flashing a message saying “Preparing to Launch”.
“Oh God… tell them to stop”. Thomas made to grab for the device, as he did Rosemary’s hand slipped from it and with a small cracking noise it disappeared into the drifts of paperwork that covered the floor.
For a beat their met eyes, and then Rosemary watched in disbelief as Thomas spun around, and leapt toward the window. Undoing the latch he pulled it all the way open, grabbed the curtain and swung himself outside.
Immediately following that there was a loud warbling noise, followed by a few seconds of nothing much, and then a large crashing sound. All of which was followed instantaneously by the tones of an apologetic English man.
“Terribly sorry didn’t mean to drop in quite so suddenly, but I’m afraid we need to call the whole thing off.”
Having arrived on the balcony half in the style of Eroll Flynn and half as only an English politician could, Thomas had been caught like an over sized baby by one of the members of the security guards who had seen him come reeling from the office floor window above.
Hopping to his feet Thomas began waving about his identity pass, gesturing very confidently to the rest of the bedazzled looking security officers.
Gradually they all stopped what they were doing and turned to look at him.
“Yes, well I’m glad we’ve been able to clear this up at the last minute, sorry for the trouble and all that. Bit of confusion, won’t need the missile strike today after all. So if you could just clear things away, put it all back as it was, that would be much obliged chaps…”
The security team stood staring at him, they didn’t look aggressive as he suddenly realised he was afraid they might be. They just looked surprised.
“Well good job fellows, glad to know you’re still keeping on top of your response times, but as I say if we could get on with clearing things away?… Ok? Good. Great, good?… everything good?” Finally he asked, taking a deep breath and steadying himself on the stone balcony banister.
“Very good sir, no problem at all. It’s just we’re a little confused. We haven’t actually spoken to any of you chaps in years” Replied one of the security team.
“You chaps?” Thomas quizzed.
“Well, the suits sir, you politicians. We usually just receive orders digitally nowadays and carry on about things.” The guard looked a little awkward like he was worried he hadn’t gotten his point across. “So what we’re trying to say is it’s nice to see you.” He stopped before taping on at the end; “Merry Christmas…” making it sound more like a question than a statement.
“Merry Christmas” Thomas responded chipperly trying to boost the guards confidence.
“This is all very well gentlemen but what are we supposed to do about this rioting?” Rosemary had arrived on the Balcony.
Thomas turned to look toward where she was gazing. The crowds seemed to have already begun spreading thinner. He guessed most people just wanted to go home and enjoy the rest of Christmas Eve with their families, now they had had some fun.
Other than some jovial yelling and the cross fire of occasional snowballs they certainly didn’t seem to be posing any kind of threat to national security.
“…and we still need to locate the suspect who initiated all this” Rosemary insisted.
Thomas turned back to look at the security guard who had caught him and the others.
“I don’t think we do Rosemary, in fact I think we’ve bothered these nice chaps quite enough today as it is. I’d imagine they’re about as ready for Christmas dinner as I am.
There’s no need to go chasing through a crowd of thousands looking for some lonesome soul in a red jumper.”
“No harm done. Crisis averted. Christmas saved.”
He said suddenly looking rather pleased with the himself and the whole situation.
“You boys are quite OK tidying things up?” He enquired of the security team.
“Yes sir” several of them replied at once.
“Terrific” He said “Then If you’ll excuse me I’ve got a spread sheet that needs tidying up before I go home, and I’m long over due a strong cup of tea”
“Then what am I meant to do?” Rosemary glared at him, now looking a little lost.
He smiled back at her “Take the rest of the evening off Rosemary, go home and enjoy Christmas – thank you for your help.”
About a week into the New Year, once some of the officials had returned to the Westminster and the rest of the country was, back to work and more of less back to normal, the signs went up:
“Skating on the Thames
[for use as a public through way, or for recreation]
is strictly forbidden
Thomas Thyme spent the rest of the holidays at home after the whole affair with the crowds skating on the Thames he had closed up the offices, finalised whatever he could, drank quite a lot of tea and turned off all of the lights.
On New Year’s eve, possibly against his better judgement (he couldn’t decide) he returned to the Thames bank to watch the fire works.
As the clocks had approached midnight and the fire works began to reach a crescendo he was grabbed by a strikingly pretty girl who kissed him as the lights sparkled and boomed above. She was wearing a red jumper.
He made a resolution right then. It began with quitting his job and ending what had once looked a potentially very bright career in political administration.
He realised his heart just simply wasn’t in politics, he wanted to do something where he could help make people happy. Perhaps he’d go into medicine or counselling, or perhaps he might move out to the country where his parents were and open a little teashop. He hadn’t decided, but as Big Ben began to chime midnight he knew he wouldn’t forget that year, and he wouldn’t be the only one.
That year went down in the history books, alongside Christmas 1914. People talked about it for years afterward like it was a fairytale. They told their children about it. About what an adventure it was, the sense of wonder and feeling of togetherness everyone had shared.
Many felt as if it was the first time Christmas had really meant something to them. Hell, for some people it was arguably the first time since the whole thing had began [whenever that was. Those who were still concerned with it didn’t seem to be able to hold consensus on that anymore either.]
Every year after seemed to be the coldest on record, well I say seemed to be, for once it wasn’t just speculation and selective memory – It actually was true.
The planet was simply getting colder – that was a fact.
But people held onto that feeling of what it had been like to be out on the ice that Christmas eve.
Regardless if it was those at home by the fire, or those struggling to stay warm in the old tube tunnels. It made people feel part of something much bigger; it gave them a sense of real warmth. Something better than simply trying not to freeze to death as the nights keep getting darker and colder.
“You’re a writer?” she said, as she looked up toward the desk where his typewriter sat.
“Well you don’t seem certain about it, either of you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well you said you ‘suppose’, you’re a writer.”
“Yes, but you said either of us? Me and who else?”
“The typewriter darling. It doesn’t seem sure about the whole thing either, there’s not even a ribbon in it.”
“There’s not?… Oh…I suppose…I had to step out just before you arrived.”
“Well, where to?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Well you’re a writer, and I’m in no rush to get anywhere, I only live downstairs after all. So tell me a story…”
“I hardly even know you. I don’t know if I want to.”
“Hardly seems relevant, it’s your job after all, nobody is supposed to want to do their job are they?”
“Well you don’t even seem sure you are one, so stop worrying so much and tell me a story.”
“I’m not a storyteller, I’m a writer. There’s a difference.”
“I don’t see that there is. Well what is it then?”
“I write! I don’t just make things up, and tell people stories.”
“It’s all the same in my book.”
“You seem more the storyteller type.”
“Suppose I am.”
She lit a cigarette and they both watched the blue smoke slowly spiral towards the ceiling. Arching just beneath the chandelier, it doubled over on itself and descended again.
The birds had started to chirp outside the sun was nearly fully up.
“Where do you think we’ll be in fifty years time?” She began again.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, what do you think the world will be like, what do you think you’ll be doing?”
“In fifty years? We’ll I’d better at least be published by then. Written something of real worth y’know?”
“I don’t suppose they’ll even need typewriters by then.”
“Well surely somebody will have dreamt up something else, you know a machine that just listens to you speak and does the typing for you.”
“It isn’t. It seems perfectly plausible. I mean think of it, it’s not so long ago people would have laughed at you if you’d told them we were driving around in motor cars, and writing on machines instead of with a pen.”
“I still write with a pen sometimes.”
“So people will still want to write with typewriters.”
“I suppose, there’s always a few who cling onto things. Usually it’s either just because they’re scared to move on, or they feel they’ve got a statement to make by not doing what’s expected of them.”
“Either way we’ll still need typewriters.”
“Perhaps, maybe it’s you they’ll replace then.”
“Well you know they’ll probably invent a robot or something that’s better at it than you are. Won’t need a typewriter or you either, it’ll just dash off stories like a printing press, somebody will bind them up and put them straight onto a shelf in the bookstore.”
“What a load of rubbish! I’ve never heard anything that’s so absurd. How could a machine ever write anything? Let alone something anybody would want to pay to read.
They have no emotion, no passion, no romance. They don’t even have a soul!”
“I suppose. You certainly had plenty of all that up until now. Perhaps you should put more of it into your writing and less of it into intercepting girls as they come out of the powder room”.
“Intercepted? That seems a strong way of putting it.You didn’t seem to mind so much at the time”
“I didn’t. I still don’t.
I’m merely making an observation, you could have been here writing instead. If your typewriter had had a ribbon of course.”
“Well it just so happens that’s exactly why I was there.”
“To pick up a typewriter ribbon?”
“Yes.” It was the most certain he’d sounded of anything all evening.
“You were picking up a typewriter ribbon at 11 o’clock at night in a club on the lower east side?”
“That’s just what I was trying to tell you.”
“Before, when you asked me to tell you a story.”
“Well go on then.”
“It hardly seems worth it now, you aren’t going to believe me no matter what I say. You’re convinced I was only in that place with the intention of ‘intercepting’ you.”
“Or who ever came through the powder room door before me.”
“I was there to meet Ronnie.”
“I thought you were there to get a typewriter ribbon?”
“I was, Ronnie works in the club office, he said he might be able to lend me one if I swung by, there’s nowhere else open at that hour to get one.”
“And it couldn’t wait until morning?”
“You have to write when the mood strikes you.”
“So I’ve heard. You couldn’t use a pen like a normal person?”
“No, not this time. And there I was as you exited the powder room, and I had it exactly what I needed.”
“A typewriter ribbon?”
“No a story”
With that she pulled out the last of her cigarettes, slipped her legs from under the sheets onto the floor, and began to get dressed.
“Well it’s been lovely, I really would love to read your story when you finish it. But I expect my cat is missing me — he gets awfully fussy when I stay out, he’ll want fed” She said as she pulled on the last of the black dress she’d been wearing when they met.
“Let me know how it turns out.”
“I will” he said, looking confused as she slid open the window, sat on the sill and swung both her legs onto the metal landing outside.
“We really live in the same building?”
“Right upstairs darling, I told you. Why would I lie about a thing like that?”
“I don’t know.”
As she closed the window behind her and vanished up the fire-escape, he glanced at his wristwatch on the dresser beside him.
It was eight-thirty on Tuesday morning. He didn’t have anywhere else to be but he didn’t feel like going back to bed. After adjusting the pillows behind him and falling back onto them to consider his options he concluded he’d get up and make himself some coffee.
Perhaps he would head back down to the lower east side and see if Ronnie had clocked off yet. Maybe he’d gotten talking to a few more interesting girls as they made the trip from the powder room door across the floor of the nightclub.
Few of them ever had much of a story, or at least nothing original, and even fewer turned out to live in the same building.
It was those little details that made things interesting… the kind of things he couldn’t think of the word for, though it felt right on the tip of his tongue.
…”Anna!” He remembered her name.
As he climbed out of bed pulling on his underwear from the floor, he made toward the door for the kitchen. But suddenly found himself sat at the little desk where the typewriter sat.
He slid open the bottom drawer, pushed aside a few pencils and note pads and pulled out a small box.
He took the ribbon from it’s packaging, untied it, inserted it into the machine and began to type.
He didn’t stop until late into the evening. It was the little things that made the stories interesting, the anomalies.