"London Calling" © Kathleen Jennings 2017
Ingrid swayed on the ledge of the tower blocks roof with her back to the drop, her arms outstretched and her eyes shut. The concrete crackled under her boots. Vertigo tickled the pit of her stomach and she sensed the ground, patient and hungry far below.
The overwhelming compulsion to jump jellied her legs. For an instant she imagined herself spinning downwards end over end, her toes and fingertips tingling, terrified and ecstatic, plummeting towards that final concrete kiss.
But Ingrid wasn’t here to jump. This was where she came to talk to the city. She’d called it fifteen minutes ago. It should have been here already.
The wind ruffled her hair, immersing her in the petroleum smell of heating oil from the storeroom opposite. She squinted. The graffiti her older sister Georgie had written there years ago was still visible. “Ingrid & George. A flock of two. Me and you,” it said in a scrawl of black felt tip.
She grimaced and looked up at the sky, trying to draw that damp grey down into her head to smother the memories. Georgie’s absence lay like a stone in her belly. It was exhausting.
“Good evening, Ingrid Cold,” said the city in her ear, with a voice that was the sound of telephone wires singing in the wind.
“You can get down now if you like,” it said. “I’m here.”
“Christ, you took long enough,” she said, her lips wet and smeared with snot. She must have been crying.
The city sighed.
Ingrid turned to face the drop, her vertigo receding at the city’s voice. It always made her feel better. She took in the metallic sweep of the Thames washing against the flood barrier to the east. West: the sclerotic wheel of the Eye and the ugly summit of Centre Point. From the top of the flats you could see all the way from Southend to Heathrow on a clear day.
“Do you still want to go ahead with this?” said the city.
“Once I start the change,” it said, “you can’t go back, you know that?”
She gulped cold air.
“I want this,” she replied.
“As long as you’re sure,” it said. The city sounded hesitant for the first time since it had slipped into her head, six months after Georgie had gone.
During those first few months Ingrid couldn’t sleep. She’d lie on her back and listen to the sound of the flats at night. She listened to the pings and gurgles and lurches of the blood that boiled through the central heating system.
She would listen to the music of the late-night traffic; the kids throwing stones at each other in the playground below and the pitter-pat, spit-spat lightning rattle of the last trains on the Docklands Light Railway until she was lulled to sleep.
And then one morning she’d woken to the city’s voice. She didn’t mind that no one else could hear it.
“Just to be completely clear,” said the city, “there’s no way back.”
“I know. When will it start?” she said.
“We can start tomorrow, if you like,” the city said.
A pigeon with a puffed-up chest emerged from behind the storeroom, cooing. It swaggered over to Ingrid, cocked its head, and eyed her.
“What about a pigeon?” said the city.
“I hate pigeons. Why would I want to be a pigeon?” she said.
“They can fly,” said the city.
“I don’t want to fly,” said Ingrid.
“Don’t knock it till you try it, Ingrid Cold,” said the city. “It might be just what you need.”
“… and they’re grey. Why would anyone want to be grey?” she said.
The city sighed again.
A plane droned overhead like an aluminium bee.
“Do you need to say goodbye to anyone, Ingrid Cold?” the city asked.
Ingrid’s jaw set and she hopped down from the ledge and splinters of broken glass crunched underfoot. She crouched and retied the laces of her Doc Martens.
“Just get on with it,” she said.
“Okay. Tomorrow then.”
Ingrid stood up. “One more question.”
“Of course,” said the city.
“Why did you choose me?”
The plane touched the horizon, trailing a chalky line that split the sky in two.
“Lots of reasons,” said the city, “but mostly it was because you were the only one listening.”
The next day Ingrid bunked off work and caught the Tube west to Cannon Street. It was all there, just as the city had described. There was the shopfront with the small iron grille and within it the small slab of limestone. Next to that was a bronze plaque that read:
“This is a fragment of the original piece of limestone once fixed in the ground now fronting Cannon Street Station. In 1798 it was incorporated into the wall of the Church of St. Swithun London Stone until demolished in 1962.”
Ingrid threw down the blanket that she’d brought with her and knelt on it. She unslung her rucksack and opened it, removing a red thermos of instant coffee and a half-eaten sausage roll and placed them next to her. The nape of her neck itched. She glanced either side. There were no police about.
A couple of suited passersby threw coins at her, mistaking her for a homeless person. She scooped up the money and reached into the rucksack to pull out a paperweight.
Georgie had brought it for her as a present during their last family holiday in Alicante. It was a chunk of onyx, cut and polished so that it was slick and glossy. She ran her fingers over it.
This is what she would be like when the city did what they’d agreed. It was an exchange of sorts, her warmth for its impenetrability. It would live, while she would become as hard and unfeeling as that piece of limestone.
Taking a deep breath, she smashed the paperweight into one of the small panes laid into the grille. Splinters of glass scattered around her feet and across the pavement. She slipped her wrist through the gap and pressed her fingertips to the stone.
“Excuse me, miss,” said a young male voice behind her.
Ingrid ignored it. The stone felt damp under her fingers.
“Miss,” came the voice again, “what do you think you’re doing?”
She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around to see a boy, not much older than she was, in a shop uniform. He was mostly teeth and ginger hair.
“Get lost,” she said, shrugging him away while keeping her hand pressed to the stone.
Something ought to be happening.
“You can’t be touching that, miss,” said the ginger kid. “Leave it or I’ll get my manager and she’ll call the police.”
“Go on then,” said Ingrid.
“I’m serious,” said the boy.
“So am I,” said Ingrid.
She pressed the palm of her hand flat against the stone. There was a sickly feeling in the pit of her stomach and her finger-tips tingled.
Suddenly the pavement bucked beneath her and behind her the air came alive with the sound of glass shattering and the staccato whoops of car alarms. She couldn’t move without releasing the stone, so she sensed rather than saw what was going on. There were people running back and forth with mouths like Os and taxis sliding across the road like shiny black beetles.
At first she thought the pandemonium was the police arriving to cart her away. It wasn’t until she caught sight of the ginger boy running away and squealing that she realised that something else was happening and that the police would never be arriving.
“Sorry, Ingrid Cold,” whispered the city in her ear, “I haven’t walked before. I think I might not be very good at it.”
“You could have told me this was what was going to happen,” she said.
“Look,” it said.
Like a picture on a badly tuned TV, Ingrid saw in her mind’s eye enormous, scaled feet emerge from the concrete around Camden, Wandsworth, Hackney, and nearby Tower Hamlets. As the city stood and walked, roads snapped like liquorice, and paving stones fell and shattered.
A great albino dinosaur, the city wobbled across the concrete yoke of the M25, trailing umbilical water pipes and strings of electricity pylons that danced behind it like jumping jacks.
“How do you like my legs?” it said.
“This is going to go to downhill very quickly,” she said. “People will go mental.”
“The problem with you, Ingrid Cold, is that you have no faith in humanity.”
“What about all the people?” she said.
“A few cases of minor bruising and a concussed insurance salesman on Marylebone High Street. Not bad at all if I say so myself. I think I timed it all just right.”
“Get you,” said Ingrid.
“Get me indeed,” said the city, taking another lurching step.
A sudden pain snatched Ingrid back to herself. The jagged glass on the grille had bitten into her wrist. Before she could stop herself, she thought of Georgie and the striations of self-hurt that her sister had hidden beneath her clothes. A plastic comb, the edge of a ruler or a paper clip was all it took; she was an ingenious girl.
After the funeral, Ingrid’s guilt had swallowed her up. She had even tried cutting herself too, just to see if it made it easier. It had taken her an hour to do it, hovering over her arm with a broken safety razor, but it had hurt like hell and then she’d had to spend an hour cleaning blood from the carpet. She’d felt like such a coward.
Ingrid examined where her wrist had been cut now. She licked the wound and instead of the usual salt-metal taste there was something earthy, almost mouldy about it.
“Why did you do all of this?” she said to the city.
“Don’t laugh,” it replied, “but I think it’s because I’ve always wanted to see the sea.”
Ingrid remained in place all day, with one hand or another pressed against the stone. It was awkward and painful and she desperately needed the loo, but she was determined to keep her end of the bargain.
In the evening, the city stopped walking.
“You can let go now,” it said, and showed her what it had seen and heard that day. There were flocks of satellite aerials that had taken to the sky, swirling around the city in murmurations that ruined the mobile reception of those beneath. It showed her how, atop his lonely column in Trafalgar Square, Lord Nelson had stretched, flicked a “V” sign in the general direction of France, and broken wind luxuriously.
The city showed Ingrid crowds of people clambering down its stationary legs like frightened children fleeing down the outside of a helter-skelter. What struck her though was how they were outnumbered by the throng desperate to climb up the legs to get into the city.
Rather than being terrified by London’s awakening, these people were desperate to be part of it. There were people with all their possessions on their backs, families ferrying yurts, bearded men toting mountaineering equipment, white-haired pensioners lugging tents, women in burkhas, and men in yarmulkes.
One man scaled the city’s legs with a rucksack, a collapsible bicycle and a large kite emblazoned with a hawk attached to his back. He wore a deerstalker hat and a broad smile. He was singing “La Marseillaise” at full volume.
It got dark. Ingrid zipped up her hoody and pulled it over her head as London cold nipped at her ears. She tried to sleep, but every time she closed her eyes all she could see was the image of that smiling man clambering upwards with his life on his back.
A flock of metalwork griffins skimmed low over the street and dropped a plastic container of chips into her lap. She devoured them and gulped down the last of her coffee. She realised then that she hadn’t brought anything to sleep on.
“Your turn now,” whispered the city in her ear.
“I’m not sure I want this anymore,” said Ingrid. She ran her hands over a chunk of concrete. She was shivering.
“Too late,” the city said.
A lonely fighter jet crackled overhead.
“But maybe you don’t have to be like me.”
Ingrid dozed awkwardly. She was woken, freezing in the grey half-light, by an itching sensation from the cut on her wrist. She gasped. A cluster of tiny blue feathers had sprouted from the wound. She touched them with her fingertips, but the flesh beneath was still sore. Pulling her thin blanket up around her neck, she nodded off.
Ingrid dreamed of Georgie. They were sitting next to each other, their backs pressed against the brick wall of the school’s sports hall.
Georgie was still in the throes of her Kabuki Punk phase and her hair was piled up on her head, a glossy black nesting place for miniature dolls, Christmas tree lights, and toy insects. Georgie’s face was powdered a dazzling white with lips that were painted an arterial red.
She was tall and awkward and had always walked with the stooped gait of a young woman who knows that she attracts attention. Even so, she had been outgoing. Confident. Ingrid had always been jealous, in awe even, of her older sister.
Perhaps it was no surprise then, that other girls in her year had singled Georgie out for special attention too. There were notes left in her bag, posts on her wall, direct messages, and even a Tumblr. The latter composed of a collection of pictures of her with the words “whore,” “ugly,” or “slut” capitalised across them in Helvetica 56 point.
“When did you know?” said Georgie. She passed her sister the red ember of the cigarette.
“Know what?” said Ingrid, taking a drag.
“That I was hurting myself,” said Georgie.
“Last July,” Ingrid said. “We were up on the roof. It was sweltering, but you wouldn’t take off your long-sleeved top. You didn’t wear a single tee shirt all summer.”
Georgie parked the cigarette between her lips and used a finger to hook the edge of her sleeve over her shoulder, exposing a red bracelet of weals at the top of her arms. She reached down to the hem of her long skirt and hauled it over her knickers.
The tops of Georgie’s thighs were etched with long, angry scabs, some of them were a sickly yellow colour.
“Look,” said Georgie, “you know you want to look. Everyone wants to look, really. To see what an enormous fuckup I am.”
Ingrid smiled weakly. She reached out to touch Georgie, who moved away.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you,” Georgie said, flicking ash. “I’ll be hauled out of school. Social services will make me a special case.”
“Alright,” whispered Ingrid.
“You know what the worst thing is?” said Georgie.
Ingrid shook her head.
“I’d started doing this before that lot even began picking on me.” Georgie stood up and passed the cigarette back.
“Please don’t go,” said Ingrid.
Georgie rolled her eyes. “You couldn’t have done anything, you know.”
She leaned forward and kissed her little sister on the wrist. And then she was gone.
Ingrid stood on the ledge of the tower block’s roof. The city had completed its journey and her new eyes watched the seaweed tumble in the surf that licked around the city’s ragged brick edges. Kites swirled and dipped in the broken-eyed canyons of Canary Wharf. She could hear the bass throb of the sound systems and street parties that had set up shop in what used to be the Square Mile.
She had been hiding indoors for days, but had had enough of that now. She wanted to see where the city had come to rest.
The sea air washed over her. She was naked, every part of her covered in feathers the colour of forget-me-nots. Ingrid looked down at what used to be her left hand. The fingers, such as they were, had fused together near the knuckles while her index finger had extended into the edge of a wing.
The wind tickled her plumage in a way that was almost unbearable. She tried scratching it with her other, more human hand, but it was no help. In any case, it was only a matter of time until that hand, too, forgot what remained of her fingers and became a blue swathe of feathers.
“I always knew you were special, Ingrid Cold. You’re beautiful too,” said the city.
“I always was,” she replied, but the sounds that came out of her mouth were not human words at all.
A flock of starlings swirled overhead and all at once she was overcome by an urge to be part of it.
Jump said the voice in her head and this time Ingrid did. She wanted to scream as she dropped like a stone, but the wind stole her breath. Then she unfurled her wings and the sky yanked her towards its bosom. She laughed.
Ingrid flew. Slowly at first and unsure of herself, swooping low over the ground and then soaring upwards. She followed the birds, joining them as they broke through the bank of cloud that covered the city like a shroud. They were unfazed by her arrival. This long blue thing, covered in feathers, no longer human, but not quite a bird either.
“We’re a flock of two. Me and you,” Ingrid whispered to herself, smiling as the long-lost sun warmed her face.