Forty-seven years since the Games, the remains of Parliament lie forlornly across the river. The shattered windows stare uncomprehendingly at the great London Eye now lying half-submerged in the Thames like some giant discarded bicycle wheel. It’s dusk, and London lies sullen before me. I breathe the smell of wood-smoke and coal and try and remember tourists, congestion and hope.
Streets now empty except for maggots, scavengers and guides. Maggots prey on the unwary, scavengers sell to the desperate, and the guides, for a price, provide some safety from both. The guides’ torches form scurrying pools of orange light in the darkness while the hiss of rain turning to steam in the flames forms a sad lament. An atmosphere hazy with another London smog from a people forced to burn coal and wood in a country splintered into surviving fiefdoms. Only those areas guarded by private militias, the Green Zones, retain the pretense of civilization. The so-called government holding a cluster of buildings along the embankment, serviced from the river and fortified by the remains of the army. My army.
‘You sure you don’t need protection?’
‘No, Clarke, I’ll be fine,’ I say with a wry smile.
It’s a ritual. He asks; I decline. They’re loyal men. My men. I’m out of uniform and, if they’re asked, they haven’t seen me, and won’t see my return.
Walking across Westminster Bridge I head towards Trafalgar Square. There, close to the ransacked National Gallery is a rarity – an undamaged wall. A canvas perfect for a subversive message. If only the rain would relent. My head’s down, avoiding eye contact, watching the raindrops bounce off the street. In the sodden ground, reflected firelight and broken neon vie for supremacy; an echo of the lost vibrancy of London.
‘Where you goin’ brother?’
The voice from the hulk in front of me is flanked by heavy shadows. A glint of gold chain around his neck gives no clue to his faith. Just another maggot.
‘Moving through, is all.’
A knife appears, the blade catching fire in the night’s light as it’s pressed against my throat.
‘You gota pay man, you know, to pass – this my land.’
His breath stinks of ice-crack. The shadows either side have closed. I’ve been dreaming. They’re too close. I’m out of options. I look up, into his eyes, but he’s staring past my left shoulder.
The voice at my side is quiet, yet heavy with intimidation. The maggot in my face backs away with a feral smile of stained teeth.
‘Hey Joe, he with you? S’fine Joe, s’ok, just sashing bro, you know?’
The maggots slide back into the darkness as I turn towards my saviour. A shaven-headed black man, thick beard, coat-collar pulled high around a neck as wide as his shoulders. A face scarred by fights and misshapen ears flank half-closed eyes above a broken nose. He ignores me, watching the maggots leave. When he turns, it’s like a rottweiler judging its moment of attack.
‘You’re Grafton, ain’t ya?’ again that voice, heavy with restrained threat. It demands an answer.
‘I’ve been watchin’ you,’ he says, the inflection flat, eyes steady, appraising. ‘To me, you been doin’ good.’
‘Good? Yeah, right,’ I say, playing for time.
In my pocket, my fingers relax on the gun. Despite appearances, this is no maggot, no thug. I look closer and he matches my stare. Then I see it: in a face mashed by violence, his eyes are completely free of malice. But his smile is cold.
‘Doin’ good?’ I say, with a calm I don’t feel.
He nods and inclines his head towards the surrounding darkness.
‘Sure,’ he says, ‘I’ve seen you. Watched you. Those images, your art. It’s seen. It’s read. Yeah, you doin’ good.’
I dig out the forgotten spray can from my other pocket.
‘You like art? My art? Or what it’s saying?’
That heavy head tilts towards me, I resist the urge to take a step back.
‘Why? Maybe you think someone like me can’t?’
‘No, not that,’ I say, ‘look around you, who cares?’
As if he’d never seen the world, he looks.
‘I care,’ he says, that voice dark with commitment. ‘You know, when people stop creating, writing, painting or dreaming, it leaves me miserable; leaves in a forest of despair.’
‘You’re a poet?’ I ask, surprised by the sentiment.
‘No, just something remembered from the past. I’m part of this, and I want a future,’ he says, his massive fist sweeping the air as if sowing corn. ‘Things have to change; your guerrilla art adds another voice to those that are still listening and watching.’
Those heavy features gaze at me.
‘My name really is Joe, by the way.’
‘Grafton,’ I say, sensing the bond between us grow. We shake hands, an archaic motion, but strangely apt.
A scavenger sidles up and the world reality re-imposes itself.
‘You need body part? Healthy liver? No disease, guaranteed!’
Ferret-like eyes implore as hands writhe in supplication, Uriah Heap style.
‘No,’ I tell him, my disgust plain.
We turn our backs on the creature, and walk towards Piccadilly Circus and the empty plinth where Eros once watched over lovers and tourists. Undeterred, the scavenger darts past me and thrusts a note into the big man’s coat pocket before dodging away back into the night.
Joe moves those huge shoulders in discomfort. ‘I’m err, known, around here,’ he says. ‘I used to drink. Still do, too much, Allah forgive me. That animal, he knows I might need him one day.’
Taking out the note, he throws it away, but not before noting its contents.
‘You know, they still show art at the Tate Modern.’ I sugest with caution.
‘Yeah, only for those that can pass the scanners.’
‘I can get you in,’ I say, and wait, finding myself counting the seconds. But there’s no response. ‘If you want. If not, my mistake.’
He turns and gives me the hard look.
I take a breath: ‘Because I’m one of them.’
‘Yeah, I figured there was something strange about you, how you managed to do what you do. I guessed you have connections. Which faith?’
‘Crusaders,’ I shrug. ‘It’s required. There are others in the elite who feel the same as us, but are nervous.’
‘Nervous!’ He says, and laughs without humour. ‘I’ll bet they are. You should know I’m part of the Brotherhood, part of Jihad. That’s also required.’
‘Not a surprise.’ I tell him. The dice had been thrown.
The two of us stand there in the rain, looking into the dark streets where the fighting goes on unseen. The banditry, survival and religious war a daily part of life.
‘I’d like that.’
‘I’d like to see the art.’
‘In that case, let’s go.’
We walk in silence, the buildings around us stark as skulls, their windows empty sockets. Joe becomes nervous as we approach the fortified perimeter of Green Zone 4 and the Gallery. I could see him glance towards me. I stop.
‘Joe, listen, you saved my life back there. But there’s more to this than that. I need you to trust me.’
Joe studies me impassively, then says: ‘Tell me Grafton, did I really save your life?’
I hesitate. ‘Probably.’
‘Probably? Yeah, I knew it, you were armed, right?’
I shrug. ‘Sure, but there was no way I could’ve gotten my weapon out before that maggot cut me. I was good as dead.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I figured. Both counts. You’re one crazy mother. Warrior artist!’ Joe looks away into the distance, thinking. I know if the decision goes against me, he’ll snap my neck like a chicken.
‘K, man, what the hell, I’m goin’ to trust you,’ he says, and I exhale in relief. For the first time I see him really smile. ‘Let’s go see some art, man, and be inspired.’
I send a burst-communication access code to my men on the perimeter of GZ4 to allow us passage. As we walk through the night, the future seems less dark.
‘Right, Joe, it’s done. Let’s go get inspired. Change the world.’