Congratulations to Rebecca for this wonderful, eloquent piece on London. The CityLife team and UEL are absolutely thrilled that she is the winner of this years inaugural CityLife Prize for Fiction by Young Writers.
There had been an accident on Fenchurch Street. A cyclist lay on her side on the tarmac, back arched, legs splayed out as if in mid run, blind eyes turned to the sky. The red bicycle lay just behind her, the two wheels like two malformed wings. She could be a bird in flight if not for the trickle of blood pooling around one ear. Now she was a bird pressed and preserved, a curiosity of Natural History. Arad, standing unnoticed on the street corner, had seen it all: the collision, the graceful flight through the air, the impact of flesh on tarmac. Traffic swirled around the cyclist like a cyclone. Police cars and ambulances with flashing lights and screeching sirens whirled past Arad as he stood watching.
London had claimed one for its own.
Now that she was dead he felt empty, like a deflated balloon. He shuffled a little closer, past the officials with their high vis jackets and loud, brusque voices. Nobody noticed him or tried to stop him. If he kept moving, nobody ever did. He cut an odd figure. Untrimmed beard burst out from beneath his tattered woolly hat, three coats added bulk where there was none. He was sure he wouldn’t recognise himself if he looked in the mirror. All the fat had drained off his cheeks and his eyes were sunken, like the bases of candles melted to wax. But nobody noticed him as he edged closer. Their eyes slid over him like they would any other piss stain on a subway wall.
He was a part of London too, the London behind the shiny, red gloss. The London of dark alleyways, broken bottles and tower blocks.
Something close to guilt curdled in his stomach. It wasn’t right, this woman being labelled up and packaged off like this. A few metres away, the paramedics were dispassionately unfolding a black body bag. They would zip her up and cart her off and nobody would blink, not in London where seconds were dearer than gold. But Arad had nothing but time. He tugged off his hat and held it awkwardly in front of him, fumbling with the unraveling tassel with chapped fingers and black nails. He would pay his respects, even if the rest of London had no time to spare. In the end, there would be nothing he could do but shuffle along with them, try to keep warm, but it didn’t sit right letting this woman pass on unnoticed. Though he reckoned she never bet on a homeless man being the one to mourn her death.
Homeless. The word sat oddly on his tongue, not quite fitting to the shape of his mouth. He did not think of himself as homeless, though the only home he had now was London, the whole expanse of it: suburb and city and river. In his mind, he was still himself – still Arad, an English teacher from Hounslow. Yet he had blinked and the world had seemed to shift around him. The walls had dropped away from his tiny rented apartment and London had swallowed him.
London had swallowed this woman too.
Men and women in dark suits rushed past, faces set into grim lines, steel eyes fixed firmly on the horizon. Many of them didn’t notice the woman lying on the floor, about to be shipped away. Many of them saw the high vis jackets and the ambulance and chose not to notice. Arad gave one final nod at the woman, murmured a quick prayer to Allah, and turned to shuffle on.
He almost crashed into a man charging past. Dressed in the same black suit, grey tie, shined shoes, he was the clone of everyone else on the street apart from Arad. Surprise sparked in his eyes as he momentarily registered what had got in his way, but then his eyes dulled, rolled away from Arad to the dead woman on the ground. The man, businessman or banker, balding with sagging chin and inflating belly, peered over at her. He frowned in mild distaste. There was nothing in his eyes, not pity, not even relief that it was her instead of him. Nothing except annoyance that his journey had been interrupted. The man shoved his way past, his briefcase smashing into Arad’s stomach and knocking the air out of him. Stunned, Arad watched the pale white head bobbing up and down, borne away by the flow of the street.
Arad stared after him. The rest of the world seemed to blur and distort, leaving just that man with his immaculately pressed suit and leather briefcase, marching on with his nose in the air so he didn’t have to see reality around him. He saw only a whitewashed world. Arad’s nostrils flared. His fists curled into claws, bitten black nails carved into the flesh of his palms. Arad hated him. He hated his single mindedness, his fat, his arrogant stride. He hated that imperious expression. He hated that man like he had never hated anyone before. That man, businessman or banker, strode around London as if he owned it but he didn’t know what the city really was. Arad had been a part of the streets for six months now, and he knew the truth. He started pacing after him, limbs charged with energy, empty stomach forgotten. London streamed past in a blur of grey, streaks of red – a cacophony of noise and chaos.
Behind the towering skyscrapers, through the thick coat of smog, the clouds were turning the shade of gangrene. Tendrils of black snaked their way up from the horizon and spread across the sky. The sickly, pulsing light made war paint of the black circles under his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. He elbowed his way into the evening crowd, eyes fixed on the man’s balding skull. He sucked in air, tasted smoke and sweat on his tongue. One shoe was losing its sole; it flapped aimlessly against the floor, but he ignored it and pressed on.
People slid out of his way. They did not notice him, they never did. They only noticed him when it was time for him to stop and pray and face east. Then he would be tapped on the shoulder by a policeman, or spat at, or kicked. But now their eyes followed the neon lights of London as if hypnotised. Never consciously recognizing him, they nevertheless parted seamlessly for his approach. Maybe it was his smell – six months of grime and decay – carving out his path, maybe it was his ragged coat. Maybe it was his eyes. The dull sheen had been replaced by a ferocious, glittering intensity.
Slightly ahead, the man ducked down into a tube station. Arad curved after him, slithering down into the underground with the other commuters, sliding unnoticed through the faulty ticket barriers. He passed by buskers strumming guitars and beggars with silver tins. Arad had tried to beg too before his tin got stolen in the night, too hungry to be proud. Nobody had given him anything. He knew why. He knew what they said about people like him. He would spend the money on drugs or alcohol, or maybe he didn’t need the money at all. Maybe he was secretly rich, just like them. Arad had said the same things to his English classes once. Now he glanced down at the beggars lining the white tiled tunnels. Their tattered hats and dented tins were empty too and their eyes followed him blankly, recognising him as one of their own.
When he looked up again, the man had disappeared. He slammed to a halt at the intersection, glancing frantically down the different tunnels, nose tilted to the air as if trying to catch the scent. Panic beat a thundering ostinato in his chest. But there was nothing, the balding white head had disappeared, lost in the relentless crowd. His whole body started to shake. There was too much adrenaline inside him, too much raw need. He had no weapons; with his hands and his hatred he had no use for them. He only needed that man, businessman or banker, with his starched shirt and ironed suit and flabby jowls. He needed to show him what London really was.
He glimpsed a flash of white down the left-hand passageway. He lunged forwards, the rapid ostinato still echoing through his skull, and charged onto the platform. There he was – Arad had him – waddling further down towards the tunnel’s gaping maw. Arad exhaled slowly. A dark shadow, he padded forwards, slinking after the squat, ugly figure. The ground beneath him was starting to shake; he felt the vibrations throbbing up his spine and tingling in his fingertips. A beating pulse echoed from the tunnel, getting louder and louder; light flickered and flashed, raking over the waiting crowd. Wind pummeled Arad’s skin, whipping his hair back from his forehead, and then the train emerged in a fanfare of screeching steel.
One carriage up from Arad, the man dutifully waited for the flood of disembarking passengers to drain away. But just before he ducked inside, he paused, one foot on the platform, the other inside the door. Arad, mirroring him, halted. The man turned slightly and nervous, bloodshot eyes – weasel eyes – roved across the platform. For a second, the man saw him. He saw his dark reflection, the shadow stalking him through subterranean rivers. His eyes widened. Then he turned and heaved himself up onto the train, and Arad did the same.
Arad watched his quarry’s shifting, swaying image through the carriage door as the train rattled through the darkness. Every few seconds, the man threw tentative glances over his shoulder. He was scared, thought Arad. For the first time in his fat rich life, he was scared. Arad’s lips jerked upwards, a spasm of glee that twisted half his face. For the first time since he’d lost his job, he was having an impact.
The man clambered off the train three stops later, and Arad followed, keeping a few steps behind. In perfect imitation, he clattered up the steps after him towards the open air, stepping over the sprawled legs of a passed out drunk at the top of the stairs. They resurfaced on the corner of a residential street, into an onslaught of ice cold rain. Tall, narrow houses with immaculate gravel pathways fringed the opposite side of the road; a fence of steel spears lined the other. The night had turned the shrubbery beyond to wilderness. Ahead of him, the man picked up his pace. Already the rain had plastered his remaining hair to his skull, soaking through his fine suit. The beat of it upon the earth worked in counterpoint with the pounding inside Arad’s own head.
The man threw a glance back at him and for a moment Arad glimpsed the fear on his face, but then he tucked his head down and ploughed on, working his legs even faster. Arad strode after him. He wasn’t tired. He barely felt the rain striking against his cheeks.
He was so close. He upped his pace, drew nearer, barely containing his excitement when the man noticed and scurried ahead again. He was so close – he only had to reach out and his fingers could grasp around the man’s collar, yank him backwards. But still he pushed on, relentless, driving the man forward. He would show him. He would. He extended his arm, and his fingertips brushed against a tweed clad shoulder.
The man twisted and darted to his right, into the road. Arad faltered, losing his balance and stumbling. The man was halfway over to the other side.
He heard it before he saw it. The roaring engine, howling of the horn, wail of tyres skidding against tarmac. Then the onslaught of crimson. The lone figure suddenly stricken paralysed before it.
It took Arad less than a second to realise the collision would be fatal. London was going to claim another for its own and Arad had delivered the man right into its hands. A sacred offering.
His eyes widened. The man, businessman or banker, husband or father, was going to die.
Arad ran forwards, arms outstretched, to save him.