A few weeks ago I jumped awake from a dream that I still think about every now and then. I was outside my workplace building in Westminster, walking to the bus stop, when a deep, Scottish voice came through on an impossibly loud tannoy. The voice only said one thing: "Run". And the next moment, my dream self and everyone else on Whitehall ran for their lives. None of us knew what had happened or where the voice came from, but it shook me. It was the opening scene of a disaster story, for sure. This dream, coupled with my feelings about the Grenfell tragedy, slowly began to transform into this story. I don't know how long it will be or where it will go, but I'm writing it anyway. As always, most of these posts will be first drafts. I'm literally writing as I feel inspired. not wanting the ideas to leave me, and making up the story as I go along. That's okay, right? First drafts are always the most fun!
They say that when the South Bank Lion is lapping the water, the city of London is in danger. That day, a line of Norwegian school children, yellow shorts and blue t-shirts, were leaning against the wall of Westminster Bridge when an ominous wind swept by their ankles. The weather had been characteristically poor for a British Summer, with most of June and July existing between bursts of torrential rain, and shafts of piercing, desperate sunshine. A crowd of Chinese tourists saw it first, a slowly nearing mound of brown river water, too high to be normal. It arose, erupted, as if a domed-creature, a giant submarine or blue whale, was about to break the surface. A flock of important men and women, all pin-striped suits and pale kitten heels, saw the watery hill growing larger in the Thames, and then ran wildly towards the Palace of Westminster. They said nothing, but their sudden dash gave everyone else cause for concern.
Unbeknownst to the average Londoner, an anonymous watch tower exists between the Palace of Westminster and Horse Guards Parade. Located on the top floor of one of the pale and imposing buildings, an unknown man waits in a control room for a command, every day. He has never been told what he's waiting for, but as soon as the grey door of the room burst inwards, shuddering in its brackets, and a uniformed officer strode towards him with frantic eyes, he knew that the moment he awaited had arrived. Back on the street, the tourists and natives darted away from the bridge, the choppy Thames moving forwards in quicker waves than before, spilling onto the pavement below, the lower walkways beneath the bridge, and engulfing cars, people and trees in seconds. The uniformed officer barked orders at the anonymous man, who peered through the viewing lens set into the wall of his watch tower. His mouth opened and closed foolishly. He turned to the officer in horror before typing pitiful commands into his CCTV screens, which were quickly flickering to static before going black, as each camera near the river was swallowed by the impossible wave. With sweaty palms and a dry mouth, he pressed the switch for his mic, and uttered with the last of his authority:
The streets halted, and everyone was quiet. It was a frightening thing, a disembodied voice, low and commanding, and yet struggling against unmistakable panic, cutting through the din of the Thursday morning rat race. Everyone froze, wondering if they would hear the command again, but when silence only remained, the fear settled upon them. There was the light pattering of quick feet slapping against the pavement, followed by heavier footing, and then the clip-clop of hooves, as soldiers on horseback tried to calm their steeds in Horse Guards Parade. And then they all ran. Every person, just moments before chattering on phones and ambling beside key chain stalls, had abandoned sense and decorum, and ran for their lives. They didn't know what they were running for, but the voice had made it clear that something terrible was about to happen.
The stampede crushed children under feet, and surviving runners were only dimly aware of the fresh blood that spattered their cheeks, pooled beneath the soles of their shoes. Those who ran towards Trafalgar Square were lucky, but the mass that opted for the bridge felt it first. A brown wave from the River Thames, taller than every building in the area, had swallowed the bridge and was crashing towards them with tempestuous ferocity. They were taken instantly. The wave did not stop until every bridge was consumed, and every tower fallen. The River spilled outwards, destroying London and all its worth, and continued to bloom until every corner of the city was affected. The outskirts of the city, those that petered into Kent and Surrey, received dregs of mottled arms and bundles of pale, eaten legs weeks after the wave hit. Across the city, the only buildings that withstood the terror was a collection of high rise flats, once dreary pinnacles of underclass estates housing the black, the immigrant, the failing and the benefit claimant, and now the final solace of the destroyed city.
There was one high rise that presented the peak of New Cross, the once silent witness to the homeless men and women sitting outside New Cross Gate station, and the gifted teenagers of Haberdasher Aske's College, and the stray bullets that killed dreadlocked women going to work, and the unaccounted arson attacks that killed black children. The high rise was home to prostitutes and drug dealers and teenagers running away from home, young parents and families and vulnerable people waiting to receive permanent housing, and had come to symbolise everything contradictory and good about the city.
After the flood, the high rise changed. Comprised of boxy, insignificant tower blocks and one large, towering structure culminating the lot, more prison than home, the Woodpecker Estate ascended in the city's consciousness. Stray refugees from across London, once hailing from gilded boroughs and still clad in the last of their heirlooms, flocked to Yellowbrick, to Aylesbury, to Loughborough, to Angell Town, to Pepys, to Evelyn, and to Woodpecker, for shelter. The streets had vanished now, and everyone travelled around the capital by boat and raft.
The new immigrants were sent to the lowest floors of the estates, the ones closest to the flood waters, and were made to do jobs and runnings for the natives at the top. Every estate across London was given a Leader, a person who had lived there for the longest, and knew the streets well enough, and was formidable and fearless. Woodpecker's Leader was Hudson, hooded and dark-skinned, with his mahogany sister Paris, and his mix-raced girlfriend Belle. Hudson ran several syndicates which gifted his family comfortable dwellings near the top of the estate, and all those who had been loyal to the area over the years, struggling for grades in Deptford Green School, trudging to the housing office on rainy days, only to be told they would be moved to Luton instead, getting into fights in Lewisham Market, or applying for jobs all day in Deptford Lounge library, enduring the torture of the Job Centre and the prolific stop-and-searches, with policemen sadly claiming "the problem with you, son, is that you'll always be a nigger" before bundling them into riot vans without a cause, those with young children, school dropouts, those studying and working against statistics that appeared to predict their life's trajectory, suddenly found themselves risen, above the mire, enjoying the last luxuries and comforts of their notoriously dichotomous London.
Beneath them, bundled in the lower flats, were the white people, the blondes, the ones with double-barrelled names and peerages and old money, now buried beneath water and stowed away across the Channel. They were sent out in boats, shotting and running and doing every odd job for Hudson and his crew, fighting among themselves for money and privileges of their own, all with the hope that one day, they would reclaim something, and move away from the Woodpecker Estate.
The order had changed in London, and the underclass was the new landed gentry.