Goodbye, South Bank

When I first started working for FP, in 2003, I was overwhelmed by the fact that the office was on the South Bank, right by Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern. I’d been In London for less than three years, at that point, and it was all still new to me – and wonderfully exciting.

In the intervening time, the South Bank has become as much home as anywhere else. There’s always something happening, from Christmas Markets to sand-pits in the summer, from the skate park to the London Eye, from mud-larking at low tide to the Waterloo Book Market and the tourist-crowds at the end of Westminster Bridge… it’s a wonderful place to work.

In 2004, I broke my shoulder, and (because I was pregnant) I had to sit at home, absolutely still, with my arm in strapping for six WEEKS (honestly, isolation doesn’t seem to bad), and the first thing I did, when the strapping came off, was walk down the South bank from Blackfriars to Victoria – an expression of pure freedom.  

And two years ago, when the hideous heat-wave finally ended, I was beside the OXO tower as the first rain came hissing out the sky. Everyone cheered and ran for cover, except me and one other person, standing with our arms upraised and getting happily drenched.

It’s a place of so many good memories – layers and layers of times and people and conversations. There had been occasions when, in a more whimsical mood, I’ve wondered what it will look like in a hundred years from now, or a thousand, when the people are all gone…

And yesterday, that question was answered. Walking the emptiness was magical, strange. I heard the bells of St. Paul’s roll out across the water, and could almost imagine the Martian War Machine stamping upriver and bringing down the bridges – if it hadn’t stopped for a bit, to enjoy the sun and the quiet. 

There have been many jokes across Social Media about what we all thought the End of the World would look like, and what is really happening. And if this really is the Apocalypse, then it’s truly full of beauty.

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Nothing To Me

Caught, he could only stare.

She was gazing skywards, the volleys of colour reflected in her eyes, her lips parted with the wonder of the moment.  His face was flushed, he could feel the bolts of pleasure that sheeted through her body – feel them as if they were his own.  It took a moment for him to ask himself the question: why was she here?

His breath caught fire in his throat.

A lifetime, an instant for him to remember her face – oh, mercy of God, every plane and line.  She should have changed so much; she looked just the same.  He could not tear his eyes from her; not for the ballet of fireworks over the heads of the crowd, not for the full moon of the clock face over the water.  He was a fly, as helpless as if he had never been free.

 Even as he watched, a new blossom of light made her bite her lower lip with tension. Aching, he breathed the thrill in with her.  Look at me, he willed her to do it.  Look at me!

She turned.  His heart hammered once, and stopped. Long-past flashes of pain and longing – ridiculous! – shook him like a fool.

But she was only looking at the great fractal-flowers of light that leapt further up and down the river; her eyes had traveled across him as though he was nothing.

He swallowed hard, remembered to exhale.

Beside her, a tall figure laid a hand on her shoulder and she glanced back, smiling at the touch.  The look they exchanged made him inspect his boots; when he looked back, they were both gazing again at the sky.

She’d looked at him like that, once.  ‘You’re special’– he remembered the thrill it had caused.

So many years of wanting. And one mad summer—

Oh, Christ!

“Saul?” The gentle touch on his arm made him start as if guilty.  “Who’s that?”The intensity of his focus was broken, people and lights and noise suddenly confused him. Human sweat and human ecstasy. Fireworks shattering under their own joy.  Somewhere, voices sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’, tuneless and ten minutes too late.  Closer by, he caught the faint, heavy scent of marijuana.

He blinked at Lynne’s mild expression.  Sensations swum, bewildering.  He heard himself say, “Who’s who?”

“The girl.”  Lynne loved him, unconditionally; she trusted him.  Her touch was his anchor.  The swirl of sensation started to lessen.  “Someone from work?”

He looked back, a reflex he could not avoid, but the shifting sea of people had blocked his line of sight.  A gang of lads shoved past him, wishing him a Happy New Year; teenage girls shouted defiantly at the night air.

Then they were gone.

And she was gone.

Bitter disappointment wrestled with a wash of shaking relief.  He rubbed a hand over his face as if awakening; perhaps some thing were just better left—

There!

Oh, dear God.

The undulation of the crowd had released her; she was suddenly closer to him. He could see the line of studs in her ear, the hairs stuck to the lapel of her charcoal coat.  He hair was longer and fuller, her face smoother, her garments masculine, shapeless and layered against the cold.  With her were two – no three – companions, all male, all with faces turned raptly skywards.  As he saw her, she exchanged a brief glance with one of them, grinned, and pointed at something further into the crowd.

He stood on his toes to look, but she was too far up the bank and he could not see.

As the surge of fireworks died, her eyes continued across the sea of people. He resisted an insane urge to call out to her, or maybe it was to run, and run, and run, and never look back.

Oh, God, it was destined, it was inevitable.

Her gaze crossed his.

And the great clock stood still.

A single, crystallised moment that held him frozen.

He hammered at them, railing silently, God, why me?  Why now, why again?  The need still surged in his chest.  Like blows of a fist, images hit him; after five years, that moment when she’d kissed him for the first time.  They had dated all that summer, watching movies, walking the beach, racing like kids down the pier.  Lying on his bed in his parents’ house, trying to keep his teenage fumblings quiet…

The memory kicked and screamed to be reburied.  The purity of the crystal shattered.  A new blemish of radiance swelled against the orange sky, and her eyes glittered with its light.

Banishing the image, he shook himself, and tried to gain control of his thoughts.

She was moving.

The fireworks haloed her as she skidded sideways down the bank towards him, her hair loose in the riverside wind.  Her face softened into a smile, and he saw that she would greet him with warmth, and open arms.

How many times had he pictured this moment?

She jumped from the small wall down onto the pavement.

“Hello, Saul!”  She sounded genuinely pleased; before she could stop her, strong arms encircled him and her body was held against his.  Her hair smelled faintly smoky.  For a moment, his hands writhed in the air as if he did not dare touch her, then he gripped her shoulders and pushed her firmly away.

Holding her still, he looked down into her face.

Wordless.

“Saul…”

Her eyes were blue. Sea blue.  Sky blue.  Frost blue. They were not as he remembered.  There were lines around them, now;  tally-markers of the twelve years since he had seen her.

“Saul..?”

He realised that he was still holding her shoulders.  Flustered, he recoiled.  A heavy, leather-jacketed woman barged between them, jumped on to the wall, and was gone up the bank towards the river.

He had pictured this moment so many times – how they would meet, what she would look like. What he would say.

How he would make her sorry.

“Hello,” he said.

The last firework flared, sparkled, and died.

A cold, foul breath was exhaled from the tunnel-mouth, and Saul pulled his jacket tighter.  The platform was crowded with laughing, singing people, all of them high on themselves. They clamored with joy, and their hopes sparkled in the stale air.

A pretty, velvet-clad young woman staggered against him, giggling an apology.  He shrank from her; her pupils were as black as nightfall and as deep – it was like looking into the eyes of a fiend.  The smell of her body, cheap scent and perspiration, turned his stomach.

In the midst of the celebration that shouted all around him, he was alone.

Lynne still held his arm, smiling contentedly at the people.  Her gloved hand was an unwelcome restriction, preventing him from embracing his desolation.  He wanted to be—

“Happy New Year! Happy New Year!”  An older gentleman in a suit grabbed Lynne’s hand and shook it, fiercely, then went to do the same to him.  “Have faith!  A better world is coming!”  There was a small, fish-shaped pin on the lapel of his jacket, shining with the force of his belief.  Saul silenced the man’s enthusiasm with a curt refusal.  He turned away, breaking Lynne’s hold.

She looked up at him, hurt, her eyes wide with self-reproach, but her love and concern only served to isolate him further.  He wrapped his arms about himself and watched, unseeing, across the track.

A bitter, lonely taste had tainted the great, new confidence of the twenty-first century. In the damp chill of the Underground, he was remembering other things.  The holiday they’d taken together – a first real taste of their own independence.  They’d danced down the paved and sunlit streets, stood open-mouthed in the museums…

His mind coiled about its emptiness, chewing its own tail.  How was he supposed to have armoured himself?  How was he supposed to have known?  When their holiday had ended, she had wept with the loss of it and his heart had melted like wax in a flame.  He hadn’t known that she had already betrayed him.

Taken his wax heart and closed her grip around it, letting it squeeze though her fingers—

“Saul?”

Lynne touched his hand, pulling his attention away from the devastation that his remembrances had left.

The tunnel-mouth was beginning to rumble like a great beast’s hunger, and a sigh was whispering through the crowd.  In thrall, the people began to move towards the platform’s edge.  Great, curved posters urged them to view, to buy, to visit, to behold.

The people were passive, aimless.  They meant nothing.

A red spark of hatred shot through the grey.

In the tunnel, white eyes were getting larger.  Something roared, and the rails rattled.

The moment of his comprehension had been branded into his forehead, so hot that she should have witnessed it, and shrunk from him in shame.

The tube train rumbled and crashed, its lights dazzling.  It was deafening in its anger, and in fallible in its advance.

Had she chalked it as another victory?  Laughed at his naïveté?

As the train screeched to an impatient pause, the crowd surged forwards, gleefully pushing and shoving.  Somewhere, Saul lost Lynne’s soft hand on his coat-sleeve.  He was carried forwards by the blind desire of the beast’s minions, shoved into its power without his consent.  A voice called his name, “Saul!  Saul!”  but it was drowned out by the cold, mechanical voice that told him to mind the gap.

There had been no guilt in her face, no shame, no apology.  No awareness whatsoever of the anguish he had suffered for her.  Without warning, he was furious, betrayed.  Years! He had loved her for years!  The greatest moment of his life had been the moment they had embraced after that first date; the most terrible, the moment he had seen the letter upon her desk.

The door behind him hissed shut.

The memory of that surprise made his hands clench into knots.  His jaw locked against the thousand vicious, wounding things that he needed to say to her.

Make her sorry.

The train lurched into motion.  He was aware of a hand, banging on the window; a figure, racing panicked along the platform.  Somewhere in his mind, he registered that it was trying to help him, but he turned away from it to stare blankly outwards.

The world around him clattered and shook.  The wind sounded hollow in his ears, but he could not feel it.  The floor jerked; he staggered.  Why could he not feel the wind?  The suited gentleman beside him caught his elbow and stood him up with a grin.

She must have taken the wind away.

Taken it from him, taken it from him, taken it from him, taken it fromhim, taken it fromhim…

Her bedroom, barely big enough for the tiny, hard bed and the desk beside it.  Her notice board, covered in the fantasy pictures she loved so much.  Her bookshelves, literature, history, philosophy.

One letter, lain open like a wound. 

I cannot stop reading.  The comprehension of her betrayal is a moment of anguish to me, but my understanding only grows greater.  It is an infection.  It grows past one lie, past another, past too many to count.  I cannot stop reading.  It grows into anger, and fear, and hatred, and humiliation, and fury, and disgust. I cannot stop reading.

Beneath his skin, tension and adrenaline rose to a choking crescendo; he was only dimly aware that he was standing, packed into a hot sardine-tin of people, all of them vibrating to the motion of the train.  He wanted to scream, to strike out, to release this massive uprising of resentment and dismay.  He could feel the heat swelling in his face, the muscles bunch in his jaw.  He could not breathe.

Dear God, how many have there been?  One?  Two? More?  Were you as passionate with them all?  The letter burns into my fingers, into my eyes.  I am blinded, but I cannot stop reading.  I am being torn apart.

“…you all right, mate?”

Reality was his hand on the upright rail.  Hard. Cold.  His knuckles has turned bloodless white, his fingernails had left tiny, stinging gashes in the palm of his hand.  He blinked at them dazedly for a moment.

The pain gave him focus, and he drove the darkness back.

“Been in the boozer too long, that’s your trouble, eh?  Eh?”  A bearded, middle-aged man in a grubby denim jacket slapped Saul’s shoulder.  He reeked of liquor.  “What’s your stop, mate?”

“What?”  His voice sounded hoarse, and faint.

“I said, ‘Where you going?’”

Confused, he could not assimilate the thought.  “’Where am I going?’”  He looked at his hands, chapped with the cold and scarred by his absurd career.  These battered hands had once lain upon smooth, pale skin.

That same smooth pale skin which had yielded to the filth of so many others.  Has she been as responsive?  As abandoned?  As sincere?

He cringed, curling up against the onslaught of shame.  How had he ever trusted her?

‘Going’.

In his soul, pain and hatred fused.  These scarred hands were strong, capable.  He had the key he needed, he knew where he was going, now.

His focus was sharpened.  He was whetted, eager.

Yes!

He raised his chin to answer his Samaritan.  “Back,” he said.  “I’ve got to go back.”  Something prompted him to say, “Thank you.”

The Samaritan blinked.

I can stop reading.  I have been given my answer.  My mind is clear.

The great clock moved faster.

         Fighting free from endless, sunless tunnels, Saul raced up the steps, pushing through the crowd’s flow like a man demented.  People swore as he knocked into them, cursed him as he fought madly ahead against the onward-swelling tide.

         Around him, the revelry still cavorted through the night-time streets; neon jewellery and glittering sparklers pricked at the corners of his vision.  He saw their optimism, but their seductiveness could not touch him.  There was one though, burning a hole in his mind – he must find her.

         So it could all be as he’d imagined it.

         He surged ahead, fighting for progress, oblivious of the people who barred his way. His certainty was absolute;  there was no question of her absence.

         Again, he heard her voice say, “Saul..?”

         He hard his reply, just ‘Hello’, as if he could not bring himself to say more.

         She had asked him questions, a barrage of questions.  “How are you?” “What do you do, now?”  “Where are you living?”  “Going to introduce me?” His responses had been automated, he was fine, an electronics engineer, living in Sussex, mostly, this was his fiancée.  The conversation had been so mundane, so predictable – it had been too surreal for him to understand.

He goaded himself, ‘Coward!’ 

         Twelve years, he had dreamed of her guilt; imagined how she could not forget, how she would lay awake at night.  So many times, he had fantasised about how he would meet her, and return that moment of horror.

         But – she had asked him questions!

         By God, he would show her that pain and betrayal.  And she would fold beneath its weight, and she would reach to him to love her.

         Oh, yes.  And he would turn away.

         His breathing was harder, now.  His body was trembling with anticipation.  He pushed through the flowing crowd faster, now almost running. Someone behind him fell, voices shouted indignantly, but he had a blazing purpose that was driving him relentlessly onwards.

         He must reach the river.

         There! As he turned a corner, there was the great clock, silent sentinel, watching him.  It stood stark, silhouetted against the clouds, but its ghostly face had lost all authority.  With his blood thundering in his ears, Saul raced to the end of the street.

         His lungs strained to control their impatient breathing.

         “Hey, you!  You’re late!” A bubble of laughter carried a dozen kids out of his way.  Snarling, he almost challenged them, but his anger was for greater things, yes, greater things.

         Trembling, he paused and stared up the bank.  The crowds by the river had thinned to a sporadic carpet of trampled grass and litter.  A few stragglers still loitered, but she was not among them.

         In rising panic, he scanned backwards and forwards, all around him.  Adrenaline made him feel sick.  When he still did not see her, he ran up the bank, skidding on the hard-packed mud.

         The river was mirror-black, whispering emptiness.  Arced over it, the sky glowed low and orange.  The mass had dwindled to small clusters, still high from the spectacle they had seen.  As Saul turned to watch across them, a trio of motorcycles raged up the road in a blare of engine noise.

         There – on the wall.

         Drowned in brightness for a moment by passing headlights, a quartet of figures that by the road.  She had her back to him, but he knew her hair, glimmering in the street-lamps; he knew the breadth of her shoulders.  As he saw her, she blew a long, reluctant tail of blue smoke into the night.

         A spark of disbelief died under absolute vindication – he had never doubted. Slowly, deliberately, his eyes not leaving where she sat, he began to move along the top of the bank.

         A predator.

         Now, his heart was pounding steadily, his blood beat hard in his temples.  His focus was sharpening to an exquisite, steel point; he was aware of where she sat, of her companions, but the night, the sky, the river -–they were all fading.  They were nothing to him.

         Only she mattered.

         She was talking, smoke escaping from between her lips in wisps and tatters. One hand gestured as she grinned, the other rested upon the thigh of the man beside her.  Saul remembered the thrill of her touch; that hollow, empty thrill. For an instant, he felt a peculiar empathy with the nameless man in the long leather coat – did he know what she was? What she would do to him, remorseless?

         She blew out the last trickle of smoke, took another drag.  He came closer, edging quietly down the bank.  His breathing was shallow and tight, his vision was narrowing to incredible intensity.  There was wind, rushing in his ears.

         He was shaking.

         His scarred hand found what it was looking for, deep in the pocket of his anorak. It was a gift.  A rare gift, for his first love.

         He gripped it like the last piece of his sanity.

         “…seen him in years.”  As he came closer, he caught the end of what she had been saying.  He froze, tension coiling about fear.  She shrugged, dismissing everything that he had ever been.  “I’d forgotten all about him.”

         A sharp convulsion stabbed through his soul.  That was it?  ‘Forgotten’? That was the truth, that was all she had for him?  It was the final cut; the crippling slash that tore out his heart and trampled it in the mud at his feet.

         He was nothing to her.

         He did not need his heart, it only bought him pain.  Stifling the fearful, animal snarl that rose in his throat, he exploded into a run, headlong down the bank.  His needs, his desires, his anguish, his life, had all been building to this moment – this was the very zenith of his existence, the instant where he was everything he could ever be.

         The clock watched him; it slowed the world for him.  It gave him the vehemence and clarity upon which to build his own new Millennium.

         Now.

         One of the men was turning.  In serene slow motion, the figure began to stand, began to cry aloud.  But he was not fast enough, not strong enough. Driven by passion to wild to control, controlled by resolve too commanding for passion, Saul closed his fingers into a fist.

         She started to react.  For a split-second, he saw her face in profile, saw the horror that open her mouth.

         He punched.

         Her nose splintered; he punched again, fast, grunting with the effort it took.  She swore, tried to stand; he felt her muscles spasm as he punched her a third time.  She began to slide from the wall, and the pain in her eyes sent shivers right through his body.

         Oh God, how muchhe had wanted this!

         For one instant, one sliver of a moment, it was as he had always dreamed it would be. His fingers hurt, but they was alive with hunger.  She was down, helpless, and her eyes flashed suffering like the last of the night’s fireworks.

         Make her sorry.

         Sea blue.  Haze blue.

         Pain blue.

         His hand was wet with red and sliding warmth. 

         Sudden pain exploded in the side of his skull.  Without warning, his legs were shaking and he was reeling sideways.  His focus had left him; the great clock had let him go.  He tried to catch his footing, failed, and crashed sideways into the wall.  A second heavy-fisted blow caught him temple and made him raise his hands to shield his head.

         Through the clangour, he groped for understanding.  What..?

         A heavy boot slammed his jaw sideways, shattered his collarbone, crunched through ribs. He curled up, hurting, uncomprehending; he could not move away from the white heat of the pain.  Spikes of agony shot though his head.

         He heard vicious swearing, angry voices.

         “Jesus fuck!  Is she all right?”

         He could no longer tell where the blows were falling.  It was just a sea, a blue-eyed sea.  White fireworks were exploding throughout his body; they were flowers against the clouded sky, bringing with them rushes of tension and release.  He really had shared them with her.  Slowly, he realised that the voices did not matter, they could not hurt him any more. 

         Dimly, he was aware of shouting, the indignant wail of a siren.  Dimly, he was aware that the vengeful, furious kicking had stopped.  Voices quarrelled loudly over his head.  He was awash with pain, the siren’s scream was all in his mind.  There was a woolen coat covering him.

         He tried to open his eyes.  He saw the mighty face of the clock, the vast stillness of the sky.  Nearly, there were heavy steps, the crackle of a powerful radio, but the sky was absolute and endless, and the clock face made no judgments.

         And there were tears streaking down the sides of his face.

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