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london_fogNight security jobs are unmitigated shitness. You sit – alone in a little room in a huge building, all alone, and stare at flat-screen monitors upon which nothing happens for hours and hours and hours.

A smart phone and a solitary television with the sound turned off the only respite from black and white pictures of an empty building. Twitter and scrolling headlines across the bottom of twenty-four hour news a welcome distraction from mind-numbing monotony.

These people online and the newsreaders become your next-door neighbours after the world’s gone to sleep.

It’s easy to imagine you’re all alone up here, tucked away in your little room. Once it hits three in the morning even London goes quiet. There’s nobody out there on the streets. The ones who are still awake are street sweepers or tucked away in the clubs and pubs far away from the business districts.

This is the time it’s hardest to stay awake, eyes drooping. Your body knows its not supposed to be awake and everything is at its lowest ebb. If it weren’t for the unceasing news and internet chatter – bless you time-zones – it would be easy to think you were the only person in the world.

Even that blurs into one though. An endless parade of far off disasters that lose their impact. What’s one more atrocity or war when they happen every day? Sometimes something makes you prick up your ears though, or your eyes. Maybe you hear something about a place or a person you give a damn about. Not some ambassador from a failed or failing state, but a celebrity or something you have a personal connection to.

That doesn’t happen often though. Most of the time you sit and stare, drinking cup after cup of coffee, fiddling with your phone, staring at the screens and wishing you were home in bed.

Sometimes something weird happens though. It has tonight. So I’m writing it down and printing it out. Even if I am on camera, even if I’m going mad. I just need to have a record.

I handle the night security for London’s latest, greatest, newest skyscraper. The Prism. Eighty floors of empty glass and steel. It’s still being fitted out so there’s nobody there at all, save the workers during the day. Everything works, there’s just no offices yet and the bathrooms are all bare bones.

It was a bit past three and I was nodding half asleep over the monitors, not paying too much attention to them. The air conditioning in the building was on but it felt a bit close and humid despite that. If you don’t have it on the buildings get weird, internal micro-climates, some of the big ones even form ‘clouds’ in the atrium. They didn’t want that here, so the moment the building was sealed, on went the air conditioning.

It wasn’t like I could open a window, but I had a desk fan. That helped a bit, fresh air blowing across my face. It woke me up a little, a start and jump like when your chin hits your chest when you’ve fallen asleep sitting up.

That’s when I noticed a scrolling headline across the bottom of the television, for some reason it caught my eye amongst everything else.

“London threatened with thickest fog since 1952.”

Meteorology wasn’t a big news item and its not like fog was unusual, even today, but I hadn’t seen even a hint of it on my way to work. The main news item was some update about some economic conference, nothing of interest to me. There’s a little camera watching me all the time, quis custodiet ipsos custodes indeed, but I decided I’d risk it and go for a look out of the window.

I had to cup my hands against the window to see through the light glare, but it was true. There was a thick fog running down the Thames against the current like a cheap smoke machine and starting to flow over the sides into the streets. Why they thought it was so bad I don’t know, it was thick, but nothing worse than I’d ever seen before, so I just went back to my desk.

In the five or ten minutes I’d been away from the monitors nothing much seemed to have changed, but there was a picture of London Bridge in the box-out. I tried to turn the sound on, but I realised it didn’t have any speakers. I’d never tried to turn the sound on before so I’d had no idea.

I was too cheap to get mobile broadband, so streaming the news to my phone wasn’t going to work out. Not with a flaky 3G connection in the bowels of a giant Faraday cage. I was stuck with the scrolling text, I couldn’t even turn on the subtitles, I had no idea where the remote control was.

I switched to the internet on my phone, even though it loaded at a crawl I could get a couple of pages up. There was only a small update and a few pictures from the unlucky sods up as late as I was. It looked like it was spreading rapidly, even just in the short time I’d been away from the window. That or it was much thicker elsewhere, downriver from me.

The page didn’t tell you much, just that the met office were mystified as to the cause, it was the wrong weather, there was no pollution to account for it, though it had a sickly stink apparently, and they were trying to work it out and asking for more pictures from people around the city. It was local news really. There was some early speculation that it was down to algae or something else, but nobody really had a clue. This late at night the news and the met office – and everything else – was running on the ‘B’ teams.

Twitter wasn’t that much help either. Only people outside my time-zone were awake aside from a few people out late clubbing and they were wasted. I sent them a couple of feelers. Something was making me feel really uncomfortable about the whole thing though I couldn’t really put my finger on it.

I didn’t want to get up from the desk again, that would mean a reprimand if it got noticed. I started flicking through the cameras trying to get a view of outside through the glass, but the only one that worked was a view of the entrance and I couldn’t make out much from there, just a few wisps of mist.

Back to Twitter, there was a tag now #FogDoom – typical nonsense like #snowpocalypse and all the rest. It wasn’t that busy yet but one thing stood out in the slowly scrolling messages.

Woolwich Witch : Got off Skype with my BF. Bunch of sirens and lights on the road and river.

That seemed strange so I thumbed out a quick message back.

Night Wotcha: What’s going on there? Stuck in central London and can’t get the news.

I flicked through the cameras again while I waited, trying to see anything else, even a speck of outside through the window. Still nothing, but the mist was thicker out the door, even through the camera.

Woolwich Witch: No idea, but the river’s high. I can barely see outside. The noise stopped though. Don’t see the lights.

Night Wotcha: Can you get a better view anywhere? Sounds freaky! 🙂

Woolwich Witch: Yeah, I’ll step out and have a look. See if there’s anyone around.

Police aren’t unusual, but a whole lot of them charging through the night down there? Close to the Thames Barrier? That seemed weird. Was it a terrorist attack? Gas or something? It didn’t make much sense to me but it would explain the police. If the river was coming up that could be bad for the city as a whole. Grandad had used to run one of the river taxis. I thought high tide would hit sometime after four in the morning. There was a while yet before that happened.

It was no good, I had to go for another look.

This time the river seemed higher, even from all the way up in the building. It was hard to tell of course, the fog was even thicker now and it was flowing up over the banks and spilling into the streets beyond. It was weird looking, moving in all directions at once, almost like it was alive, questing for a path between the soulless, empty, lifeless buildings.

The BBC news scroller was now talking about a flood warning now, but being not very specific as to why. My desk phone went off with an automated warning, but I didn’t really have to worry here. It was all automated and the building should be well able to resist any sort of flooding. All I’d have to do would be to wait it out until low tide – a matter of hours.

The Woolwich Witch hadn’t gotten back to me again, but I didn’t know her and she didn’t owe me any sort of explanation.

I started thumbing through the hashtag and its all weird nonsense. Drunk and stoned people talking nonsense. More pictures but a lot of them were weird looking. Artefacts and stray pixels, like when it rains hard or a pigeon decides to have a nap on your Sky dish. Some of them were half uploaded, like the image had been cut off halfway through my download, but it wasn’t me.

After the mangled images there were no more posts by that person. Any of them.

I don’t scare easily and I try not to get panicked over nothing but I was scared now. The signal quality on my phone was dropping every ten minutes or so, bar by bar, ‘3G’ to ‘H’ to ‘E’ and even that kept dropping out. The last few tweets I saw on the tag before the data connection completely cut out were even weirder, people who’d gone out to check out the fog and going missing. People not able to get the police.

The TV was all about the fog now. The presenter, someone you wouldn’t see unless you kept my hours, was clearly out of his depth, trying to cope with it. They were calling it a chemical spill, telling people to stay inside because of the fumes, even if it flooded.

Even the TV signal was breaking up now. Weather can do that, but fog was too low on the ground to disrupt any signals. Maybe I was imagining it, but there was a sickly scent, even behind sealed glass and storeys into the sky.

I took the lift down to the great void of a lobby, so empty. Here the smell seemed, paradoxically, less bad. It didn’t make sense to me. Beyond the doors I couldn’t see a bloody thing, it was all thick fog faintly yellow in the dim night lighting.

I about jumped out of my skin when there was a loud bang against the doors. There was a shape there, banging against the glass. The knock loud, but whatever screaming sound was out there dimmed by the thick glass so it sounded distant.

As I got my breath back from the fright I stepped towards the door, and then jogged, fumbling for my keys. Even pressed against the glass I could barely make out who it was, but it was a man. Maybe a policeman, I thought I saw a cap. Just in the seconds it took me to get to the door the banging got quieter and quieter though the shadow looked just as manic and violent as ever.

As I got there it was abruptly silent, a shape in the mist that could have been a man or just dappled shadow, blown away. I fumbled the keys and yanked the door open, shouting out into the fog but there was no answer and the stink made me gag on the words even as I tried to give them voice.

It was hard to breathe, to think, so I got back inside and shut and locked the door again. Back up the lift to my little nest, the only place I might feel safe. The lift seemed slow and the lights kept flickering all the way up, coming on again as I got back. Everything still seemed to be working but the TV was black now, on every channel I could get and the phone was useless.

From the window everything was dark now. I couldn’t even see street lights now. The light from the building made it nearly impossible to see beyond the glass and the moon was dim, a sliver behind grey cloud. I couldn’t see anything.

The smell was getting stronger. I was sensitive to it now, noticing it – or imagining it – behind every smell in the building. New paint, plastic, epoxy, all of it seemed to carry a hint of that stinking fog in it that made me queasy.

It was the air conditioning. It was sucking in the air from outside and the fog with it. It was seeming to rise, shorter buildings disappearing beneath it, the fog seeming higher around the taller buildings as if it were trying to climb them.

I don’t know the first thing about air conditioning. I went as high as I could in the building and cut cables, jammed pipes and stuffed ducts with whatever I could find. Tarp, sacks of cement, plastic, silicon gel from the builders. I think I sealed the building and its only me here. I’m not going to suffocate.

There’s a little computer in my nook. Turns out the tower’s running on generator power now, so I turned off all the lights I didn’t need, and the pumps. Sat and wrote this. I don’t know what’s going on but I’ll save it. I’ve print it out. I’ve put texts to everyone I know into my phone so they’ll send when the signal comes back. I don’t know what else to do but sit and wait.

I’ll go and seal the air conditioning better I suppose, but if there’s nobody out there, what’s the point?

I’m alone.

***

fog-448188Mr Morgan is still missing and has not been seen since the night he caused millions of pounds worth of damage to the Prism Tower, setting back the opening of the tower for at least two months, flooding two basement levels and all but destroying the air conditioning system.

These writings, apparently left by Mr Morgan – though there’s no way to prove that – seem to suggest an impaired state of mind which may have insurance implications. With Mr Morgan missing it is likely that a settlement can be garnered from his estate, though it is unlikely to make much of a dent in the costs.

Without finding Mr Morgan it is hard to know how to proceed further, though it’s clear from his confession that he caused the criminal damage. Given the long term importance of the account I believe the claim is genuine and that we should pay out.

Sincerely,

H Arnold,

Claims Department
Xebi Insurance Co.

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One of my sexy stories is featured in this anthology.

A phone app, a chance encounter and a ‘kiss chase’ through the streets.

You can get it

HERE

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This is a long-winded and overwrought appeal for you to back Red Phone Box. There’s not long left and we’re SO close to the stretch goal.

London seems like a stuck up, grand old lady. She has her grand old buildings and Victorian lanes, the stuffy clubs and the seats of government an justice. Get a few gins down her though and she turns into what our American cousins call a ‘cougar’.

She’s a magical place, without the need for metaphor and stories. She changes people, literally. A cab driver who learns ‘the knowledge’ makes permanent changes to the physical structure of his brain, the same sort of thing that happens with habitual meditation. This is probably why you can’t change a cabby’s mind about anything else.

Fire and bombs, boom and bust, redevelopment, gentrification and the usurpation of purpose by the street make her a patchwork quilt of styles and times and the people reflect that. Past an future, near and far brought together by immigrants and punks, historians and cockneys, new media wankers tickling their MacBooks and old crime geezers sinking pints and comparing scars.

The Underground is another dimension, time and space distorted by the tunnels in the dark. Swarming with clans of tube-mice and echoing with the tunes of buskers, both well heeled and down at heel. The colour-coded map is a sigil, a mystic mark that despite bearing little or no resemblance to the tracks above ground will get you where you need to go.

A day there gives you stories for a lifetime.

The black monk, dressed in white, reading about UFOs.

The mad old bastard shouting warnings of a ‘Jerry’ bombing that hasn’t happened in sixty years.

The stinking tramp who gives you hugs, words of wisdom and headlice all at once.

The cab driver who, before he gives you directions, drops a lit cigarette, kicks it into the air and catches it in his mouth.

The singing street sweeper at 3:30am whom nobody tells to shut the fuck up.

London’s magic is in bringing things together. Ideas, people, cuisines, cultures, words,  architecture, rich and poor, right and left, near and far, old and new.

No wonder that a simple, iconic Red Phone Box from old London Town could bring so many different people and ideas together – and make it work.

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