Published by Edgar Million at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Edgar Million
The news said it was a plot by Al Qaida or Islamic State. Twitter and that shouty American bloke on YouTube said it was the Jews and the New World Order coming to enslave us. David Icke probably said it was lizard people, but I’m only guessing, just because that’s the sort of thing he says.
When people find out I was there, on that terrible day they ask me who or what I thought it was, certain my presence must have endowed me with some greater wisdom. Then when I can tell them no more than their Facebook they switch to suspicion. If I don’t know then I must have been a part of it. The inside man.
Mostly, I agree with their point of view.
I was there.
I should know what happened.
When I returned to my office the next day, I was met with a human fist of a crowd, jostling me, screaming at me, hungry with fascination for the terrible thing which had happened. I understood their hunger. If such a thing could have happened to us, then it could happen to anyone.
We are all so fragile.
They bayed at me as though they were wolves howling at the moon, as I rattled the heavy plate-glass doors. Of course, the doors were shut fast (I should have known really, after what happened, why would they be open?), so I had to plunge back into the crowd again, which was still pleading with me to know the truth.
I wish I knew what happened.
But I don’t.
You believe me, right? Even if you don’t believe me. It changes nothing.
I mean, I know what happened. I just don’t understand why it happened.
The day was a normal day.
Most days are, you know; normal, I mean, at least until the extraordinary happens to change it all.
I got into work early. I’ve always like an early start. Cup of tea, covered in a delicious greasy film and a bacon roll from the canteen wrapped in brown paper which looks like the stuff you would send a parcel in. Some days, if I’m trying to be healthy, I will substitute this with a granola covered honey yoghurt and a freshly squeezed juice, but on that morning I’d just been to the gym and had earnt my bacon roll.
My early morning routine. Sat at my desk, I’d spend around forty-five minutes on the news sites and maybe tick off a few emails before the day began proper.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d bust a gut the rest of the day, but that hour was mine. The slow boot up of my brain.
We sold insurance, but everyone knows now that right? For a while we there, we were the single most infamous insurance company in the world. But at that moment we were just an anonymous, granite grey eight storey block of glass and steel on the edge of Ilford town centre, selling life insurance to the lower risk individuals than Gwyneth Paltrow.
I was in the underwriting section, not needing to sully myself by actually selling false hope to the masses directly, but the day ahead was mapped out in detail.
That’s unfair. We sold pretty decent product, but it’s the English mindset, isn’t it? Did a good job? Self-deprecate yourself to within an inch of your life, so people know you’re not too big-headed. We were a decent midrange company who most people hadn’t heard of, even though, if you had life insurance, there was a good chance the policy was underwritten by us.
By around nine the ‘late shift’ started arriving and by ten it was the mums and dads straggling in from the school run. I wouldn’t mind so much, but they started after me and finished before mostly, but apparently they were full time.
Still, no need to be bitter. Not after what happened.
I’m not a man who entered the world of employment after finding my true love, my true vocation, but what can you do? You can sit at home all day watching Jeremy Kyle, like my cousin ‘Arrison, or even be in and out of the nick like my oldest friend Bodge, but where, or more importantly, what does that get you?
I’m all for the consumerist acquisition of nice things; a decent car, the newest most shiny phone, top end coffee maker and a car I don’t drive because I take the tube. Unless I’m there working my backside off, then I don’t get them. Sure, so far so shallow, but I was born to the old nine to five. Solid job. Occasional work romance, a nice little shared ownership flat down on Beakers Street. Who could want for anything more?
The office was normal too, I thought. The usual chessboard mix of personality types which made for a good ebb and flow. Not too many Alpha Queens, just enough Pawns, and plenty of the inbetweeners. Me, I was probably a knight back then (that’s a horsey for you non-chess playing types), prone to unexpected twists and turns; more useful than unskilled chess players realise.
These days I’m more of the Rook. Solid. Driven. Focused.
I liked to watch the pieces move.
Craig and Rocky stood nearby and had the same conversation they always do, I mean did, every day, about the cost of buying a property in those days, even in grotty old East London, and about what they’d have done differently if the could’ve seen the future.
‘I’d have moved up North if there were any jobs.’
‘I wish I’d bought a spare house back in the nineties. Better than a pension. My pension’s looking next to worthless. I’ll be working until I’m ninety at this rate.’
‘I don’t know how young people will ever afford to buy.’
‘I reckon my son and daughter will be at home forever.’
This was a daily conversation, a short Beckett play, and even with the many times they varied and re-enacted it, its core text is tattooed onto my memory.
Normal, normal, normal day.
I have thought so hard about what happened, searching these conversations, these interplays, with a forensic gaze, but I come up short every time.
‘Well, Mr Jones,’ the big Scottish man said, ‘why don’t you try to explain to me, in your own words, exactly what happened on this normal day.’
I remember my voice rising into a shrill screech. I could smell the man questioning me, he’d clearly been up all night, and there was a pungent odour of him in the room, stale sweat mixed with the faintly fruity odour of e-cigarettes.
‘You know what happened, you know,’ I said, ‘why do you need me to go through this?’
‘Sir, we need to understand what happened.’
If you’d asked me that morning how many people worked in my building I’d had taken a stab at, around four hundred. As it turned out, there were exactly six hundred and eighty-eight people who called Insurance International home, but at that point I didn’t know that.
Neither did anyone.
Well I suppose someone did. The head of HR maybe, or finance, but within days everyone knew, as the number of dead shot up from the starting estimate of thirty souls lost.
‘Reports are coming in of mass casualties outside an office block in East London. Currently thirty people are feared dead. Police have confirmed that there is no immediate evidence of terrorism, but they are not ruling it out.’
I read it all back later-on, on one of those minute-by-minute things on the Guardian site. The ones which used to be about football or other sporting events, but now get dragged out for every rolling news disaster or story, from bombings in Syria to the resignation of the Prime Minister. Continuous bite sized updates which mostly serve to illustrate how little they know at any given point in the tragic story arc.
I read, ‘fifty feared dead’.
The figure hovered around four hundred until three days later when the hospital released a firm, final tally. Of the dead.
Six hundred and eighty-eight. From a workforce of six hundred and eighty-nine.
Guess who was the lucky one who beat the math.
From my desk on the first floor I’d a clear view through the open plan office, then out across East London, back into the centre of the city and the ever-growing number of oddly shaped towers which keep sprouting up like big empty glass daffodils all over London.
I knew, I mean really knew, about ten or so of my colleagues on the floor, and maybe about a hundred, casually, throughout whole the building. There were some friends, one or two, like Casey up in finance, who I’d hang out with after work. You know how it is.
I wept with Casey’s wife at his funeral, unable to explain why I was still there; why he no longer was.
Later, I just missed him, my friend, missed watching sports down the pub, missed arguing with him about politics, the old lefty bastard.
Sometimes I still go to message him, some stupid or banal thing a politician said, then I remember. He’s not there. He’s not there.
So, it was an ordinary Wednesday morning.
I like to listen to headphones when I work, helps me to concentrate, but that day I was just letting the low thrum of machine noise and conversation cover me like a blanket.
Listening to that skinny guy from the Business Analysis team try to chat up Carmina Hassan from the Health and Safety unit. Every day he went through this routine, his wire frame body arched in an effort at apparent flirtatiousness, taking Carmina’s polite laughter as a sign he had a chance, before mooching off back to his hacker style nest in the corner to peek at her from between his monitors.
But harmless enough, probably. Anyway, who knows, he was persistent enough. She was single, I think. Maybe he did have a chance.
Honestly, who knows what straight women look for. They’re not really my thing, the female half of the species, and since I tend to like my men handsome and built like proverbial brick shit houses, I’m not much of a judge of ordinary blokes like Darren, but since so many women seem to settle for these oddly put together little chaps, maybe his doomed love had a chance.
At about half past eleven I returned from getting a coffee to see big boss Colin McCartney march into the centre of the office flanked by crowds of staff I half recognised from other floors, and I briefly wondered if we were about to be downsized, as he pointed to people individually, ‘come on,’ he called, ‘it’s time,’ then one by one my colleagues stood up and began to follow.
Colin McCartney was a big brash Mancunian who liked to tell people he started of working for Insurance International in the post-room, even though everyone knew his uncle owned the company. Still, he was an undeniable force, making men and women alike agitated in his presence, nervous for attention and rare praise.
‘He didn’t point at me,’ I said to the police officer who was looking as though he were having a hard time deciding between playing nice or nasty cop, so was instead settling for slightly bemused cop, until he decided what kind of bastard I was.
‘Maybe that’s why I survived? Maybe it was some kind of hypnotism or mind control?’
The policeman looked at me closely, looking like he might have decided to categorise me as a bastard of the ‘sneaky’ variety.
‘And what do you know about mind control sir?’
I didn’t know anything about mind control. I just knew they all got up and followed him, towards the stairwell at the end of the floor. Filtering, in what my friend PC Plod would have probably described, as an orderly fashion.
I was meant to be assessing a change to the regulations for a business in Bethnal Green, but abandoned on the floor, I just sat and stared around me for a while. Everyone just left. It was quite disconcerting.
Why hadn’t I been invited? Where had they gone?
I walked over to the stairwell and pushed open the heavy green fire doors. If I listened hard, I could still hear the clamour of shoes on the concrete treads far above. Then, the silence.
I stood toying with the idea of following them (why should I be left out? What are they meeting about?) when I saw the first one go. There, in the periphery of my vision I saw them go, then tried to balance it out in my mind.
Not real, I thought.
Maybe a coat or a sweater blowing in the wind.
Because it was just one at first, but one was enough to draw me back out into my floor for a closer look.
Did I really see that? I wondered, edging towards the window, a nervous chemical pool of tension flooding my stomach.
Before I reached the window the next one went. I knew for certain this time.
Time did that slow-mo thing, which I read somewhere is a result of difficult memories being written onto the amygdala, to be returned in every quiet moment, in every nightmare filled sleep. It’s the difference between an engraving and a photograph. The photo takes a second to create, but is flimsy, transient. The engraving takes half an hour, but it’s there forever. Permanent. Fixed.
Time slowed enough to see his face as he went past.
Colin McCartney, CEO of Insurance International plummeting, body stiff and rotating like a diver who’d just launched himself into an Olympic style dive from the high board. I followed his motion down to the ground, crunching into the floor with a sound which I heard even through the heavy plate glass. Or did I just imagine I heard it?
I howled through the cold glass at him, screamed no and banged on the window.
‘No, stop no!’
His body lay awkward and misshapen, close to the other body, the coat, someone I didn’t recognise from this strange perspective, but who I would later discover was the sour faced receptionist whose name I still can’t remember. Like so many things, I feel like I should know this, but I don’t.
I feel like I should know all their names, but I didn’t then and don’t now. The Sun did a four page pull out with photos of every survivor and I didn’t recognise even half of them. It’s silly to feel guilty about this, but what else is there for me?
An old lady stood nearby on the pavement below, looking at them, frozen with an open-mouthed look of horror on her face. An English old-lady version of the scream.
For a moment, she noticed me, pressed against the glass and we shared a moment of misery, but then her eyes scanned the building above me and she stepped back, a short stumble at first, then twisted and ran a distance away from the building dragging one of those old lady trolleys behind her, bumping clumsily along the uneven paving, before spinning off in a cat-like crouch unbecoming of an old lady (God, I actually thought that at the time – why’s that old lady crouching like an extra from Monty Python?).
Then it came.
What’s that line from The Passion?
Apres moi le deluge? Yeah, I know Louis the whatever said it first, or Madame De Pompiedeau, but I remember it from that Jeanette Winterson book.
The next one fell.
Except they didn’t fall.
That’s what they told me afterwards. That’s what the witnesses who were interviewed said.
They jumped. They stepped. They weren’t thrown, they didn’t stumble, they just lined up on masse along the edge of the roof and launched themselves off together in orderly rows.
It was a brief, sad waterfall of humanity. The window was dark with it for about thirty seconds, suits, shirts, skirts, standard office attire, interspersed with semi recognisable faces, calm in their descent.
I didn’t see Casey fall.
I saw Carmina. I saw Maggie from Comms, and Daniel from HR, who I had a little thing with way-back-when. I saw the calm expressionless faces of friends, then they were gone.
You’d think that some of the latter ones might have been saved by falling onto the bodies of their colleagues, a gruesome thought, but gruesome thoughts are born in such moments. It turns out eight storeys is really bloody high. That and the fact they all seemed to be aiming for bare concrete, like skydivers finding a mark.
So, all dead.
Six hundred and eighty-eight.
‘I went upstairs,’ I told Scottish Plod, ‘found the still open door leading onto a tarmac roof I’d never visited before, but there was no one there. I walked over to where they jumped from. I couldn’t look over the edge, or I couldn’t walk towards it, so I just knelt down and crawled sticking my nose over the metal frame on the side, seeing the bloody mass of humanity on the pavement below.’
Ambulances and police had begun arriving, looking like toys far below, and I battled to try and make sense of it. How could this happen?
I went to several funerals, but stopped attending the receptions because people kept getting drunk then blaming me. Either that or I’d encounter small cliques which stared at me with small beetle eyes, suspicious and red rimmed.
‘How dare you be here?’ Their eyes asked me.
How dare you?
Three days after it happened I got a call from the firm.
‘Mr George?’ an American voice asked.
‘We’re from head office and we’d like to meet you.’
The voice paused. Considering options.
‘Well, it doesn’t have to be in the office.’
‘I’d rather it were,’ I told the voice, ‘I need to, come back in. To try to understand.’
Like that was even possible.
When I arrived in reception a security guard I didn’t recognise walked to the door and stared at me wearing an expression of deep mistrust, but he let me pass, presumably on the instructions of the yank, Jay who I’d spoken to the other day.
As I waited in the cool silence of the empty building I wondered for the second time in three days if I were about to lose my job.
Seemed a reasonable assumption.
Suspected murderer that I was, going back to an office empty of humanity. We were done.
It made sense. We couldn’t carry on after this. I knew I couldn’t take those suspicious looks.
They would give me my last pay packet and some sort of a payoff then I could move on.
Good night and God bless.
That was two years ago.
The dirty, suspicious looks never entirely disappeared, but those uncomfortable situations became less common. Every once in a while, I’d go into one of the local pubs and find some semi familiar face glowering at me over a pint, and one night two men attacked me and my then boyfriend as we left to go home.
‘What did you do?’ they’d asked, pressing me against the wall. ‘How did you do it’
They’d picked the wrong people to beat up. I handle myself adequately, and Paul was in training to be a cage fighter, but we were relatively gentle with them. Because I understood their confusion; understood their need for an answer where there was none.
Some people would come up to me in a crowded street and tell me they forgave me, or that they didn’t believe I’d done anything, but I’ve felt like a curious creature ever since. Like the last dodo on the island of Mauritius. Even I wonder sometimes; did I do something? We all hate our co-workers somedays, right? Did I do some magic hoodoo voodoo in my dreams which wiped them all out?
As you probably know Insurance International stayed open, and if you know that, then you know I stayed working there. A minor celebrity thanks to the anything-goes inclusivity of modern media.
But fame wasn’t really wasn’t for me, so I went home to the company.
That might seem strange, in fact I know from the article ‘The Ghoul Returns’ that some people found it so, but where was I to go? Instead of sacking me, the firm said they were intending to keep the branch open.
‘But how can it stay open?’ I asked, ‘no one’s left. Not even the cleaners. I can’t be in here on my own.’
I looked around the cavernous office space taking in the man opposite, Jay Jones, slouching across a small leather sofa in a ten-grand suit.
‘We need to rebuild the brand. Even if we were closing you’re the only one with the vaguest idea how things worked around here. We’d still need you. You can help us get things in order.’
So, perversely, I got a promotion that day, along with a massive stress related pay-out for my silence and the promise not to sue them later.
I think that might be part of the reason people still give me those looks now, as though I somehow engineered the mass suicide of all my colleagues for a mortgage free life and an extra thirty grand a year.
Even my new colleagues tend to be a bit cool with me. Like I have some magic power which could turn them into human lemmings if only I say the forbidden word.
I seem to attract the wrong type of man these days as well. Still a bit of a Muscle Mary magnet, but now different types seem to seek me out, because of that normal day, because they perceive a darkness in me which really isn’t there, or at least wasn’t before my colleagues all did that thing.
It’s funny, funny strange rather than funny ha ha, but things at Insurance International did more-or-less return to normal. Petty jealousies and flirtations. Business politics and manoeuvring. Complaints about the cost of property in London. Bacon rolls and greasy tea at my desk as I reviewed my emails ahead of the late shift getting in.
Life carried on. For me. But no one else.
Life carried on.
This morning when I entered the building and sat at my desk I experienced a dark sense of deja vu. Another ordinary day, I found myself thinking, a vague sense of panic building. There was a guy who looked almost like that Darren Leonard guy, flirting with a pretty blond from HR, and the office had the same quiet vibe it had had all those year ago.
I shook my head, then bit my lip. Remembering that day.
I keep the memory of that morning in a thick wooden box marked ‘don’t open’ but I can’t help it some days. Sometimes the lid is open before I even realise.
That day smells of hospitals and sounds like police sirens. Today sounds like dread and silence and I don’t like it.
I might tell Jay, my now boss, I need a sick day, so I rise and lean against my desk, gripping it as though I’m the hulk, preparing to launch it across the room, then gaze around for him.
I’m on the seventh floor these days, management, which happened in part to get me away from the workspace downstairs, although it didn’t make much of a difference. The floor is a slightly better-decorated echo of the room downstairs.
I haven’t seen Jay all morning, so I begin dialling him, until I hear his Philip Glass ringtone in the distance, going unanswered as he enters the floor.
I call to him as he approaches, and experience a lurch of fear in my stomach as I become aware he is flanked by a crowd and ordering more to join them as he moves forwards.
‘Now, now, now,’ he says as people mutely join him on an upward march.
But not to me.
I move and follow anyway, creeping along the edges of the gathering crowd.
‘Hey,’ I ask Barry from Comms, dreading the answer, ‘what are we all doing? ’
He stops for a moment and pushes a drunk, stubby finger onto my lips to silence me.
‘But Barry, we need…’
I’m muffled by the finger again.
His pupils are almost non-existent, but he mumbles something which sounds like, ‘it’s time to go.’
Is this place cursed?
I follow the crowd into the stairwell and find myself caught in a river rolling uphill and out onto a roof which you’d expect to be kept locked these days, to find my colleagues lined up like twenty rows of chess pieces. Just waiting for what, the signal to jump?
I know how this goes.
I’ve been here before on that other normal day.
I can’t take this again, I think, watching Jay take his position at the front, ready to plunge.
‘Jay,’ I say to him as I weave through the crowd of people, ‘why are you doing this?’
He speaks but his voice sounds far away, drugged.
‘It’s – it’s – time – to – go.’
I look back at the mass of people, apparently awaiting a sign or an order, then I recall the looks I got from the locals last time around. After this new travesty takes place; God, I’ll be like Ceausescu, found hanging from a lamppost.
So, I decide.
This time I act.
I look into Jay Jones blank eyes, then run as hard and fast as I can past him, taking a long jump into nothing, stomach in my mouth as I hurtle through the air, the phrase ‘apres moi le deluge’ bubbling into my mind as I go.
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Thanks for the use of the cover illustrations to Radacina and GDJ under a CC License:
On a normal day, a bizarre tragic thing happened. The world cried out for answers, but the one man who might have had them had none to give. “The news said it was a plot by Al Qaida or Islamic State. Twitter and that shouty American bloke on YouTube said it was the Jews and the New World Order coming to enslave us. David Icke probably said it was lizard people, but I'm only guessing, just because that's the sort of thing he says. When people find out I was there, on that terrible day they ask me who or what I thought it was, certain my presence must have endowed me with some greater wisdom. Then when I can tell them no more than their Facebook they switch to suspicion. If I don't know then I must have been a part of it. The inside man.”