21. London, Without

“Olympics, they say.”

Angus looked up when he heard the voice. It was a sound that wasn’t just his own footfalls in this eerily unpopulated London. It was a sound that had motivation and purpose behind it, it was a signal that there was someone else here. The words did not just speak to him, they spoke of a human being.

At first, the sound seemed to resonate off many places, so the sandy-haired not-quite-intellectual turned around a few times, looking up and around. Buildings loomed overhead, all of them, and the clouds seemed so far away. It was clear, at least to Angus, that this wasn’t really London. London had small, tight buildings, cafes and coffee shops, dotted in amongst the towers. There were open fronts, not blank faces. It was not just Not London, it was more of what London’s most distant critics feared London to be. It was what London was, to the readers of the Daily Express, except there weren’t any black muslim immigrants knifing people in the streets.

“Is that so?”

The second voice was a man’s voice, lower, and Angus moved down the street – strangely linear, now – towards it, calling out. “Hello?” No response forthcoming, until he rounded a corner. The street was still just as blank, though at the end, he could see it opening up to the Olympic Stadium – which was nonsense, he’d not crossed the Thames and – well, maybe he had. Nonetheless, that the road map of this London didn’t work out was probably the least of his monochrome concerns.

“It is so.” The woman’s voice again, and above. Angus looked up, seeing up on a balcony, two figures, dressed oddly alike. Both in monochrome – obviously – a pair of thin, harsh-faced people, a man and a woman, wearing what could probably have passed as normal afternoon dress in London, in 1930. Understated almost to a fault, they seemed to be discussing the important matter of the flag they were folding between them – the enormous fabric still in five shades of grey.

“It seems a little odd to me. There’s very little olympic about it. I remember more burnt offerings and hominids around Olympia.” She said, her tone crisp and clear and almost painfully British.

“It’s a symbol, you see.” He responded, tone a little tired.

“A symbol?”

“Yes, a representation of things that are not, but are, in the head.”

“How odd.”

“How odd?”

“How odd.”

“Well, they’ll not need these things here.”

“No, not at all, I suppose.”

“You suppose?”

“I suppose.”

“Hm.” She paused, looking away from Angus and her counterpart, shrugging as if to an audience. “So I suppose.”

Angus shook his head, stuffing his hands into his pockets, moving past the pair. This place was not normal London, these people were not Londoners, and the Olympics had been a while ago. A few discarded pieces of old tat that hadn’t been thrown out properly were no more meaningful a symbol than anything else. And whatever they’d been talking about had been… it had been like a glass wall. For some reason, trying to interrupt them seemed pointless, and not just because of his own inassailable Britishness, embarassed at the idea of intruding in someone else’s conversation. Shouldering forwards against a wind that wasn’t there, Angus walked on, picking up his pace. The… the diner, that was it. He needed to get to the diner, back where he’d left his paperwork in his rush to get out.

The street seemed to take forever, but when he stepped out of it, the grass under his foot crinkled with a sound like glass bells chiming. The moment of his arrival brought with it a sudden thought, a thought that prompted an uncomfortable turn, and a look back at the street to a series of buildings with no balconies. Wait, where did those people go?

“It’s quite garish.” came the woman’s voice.

“GAH!” Angus leapt five feet to one side, the wrong side, as it happened. A sand path through the grass lay under his feet, but out on the grass, the couple were again. This time, Angus turned to look out at them, walking to the edge of the crunching path, and avoiding the grass. When he drew nearer to it, it seemed to glow with maleovlence, the way a knife did, tilted in the hand of a psychopath.

“Rhubarb, apparently.” said the man.

“I fail to see what that has to do with the aesthetics.”

“Rhubarb was used.” he reaffirmed.

“I rather think that you are making that up.”

They stood, under the shade of their parasol, looking up at the dome of the 2012 Olympic Stadium. Angus looked at them, while they looked at the building. Occasionally, the parasol twirled with a deliberate slowness, tick, tick, tick. Angus finally mustered up the courage to call out.

“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey, are you there? Can you hear me?” he asked, clearing his throat, “Um, I don’t mean to, I mean, excuse me? I – I just, I saw-” and so he went on. Was it a minute of stammering and awkwardness? Two? Five? Ten? It was two turns if the parasol, at least, with a pause between. Whatever it was, though, Angus spoke to people who did not seem to see him. They did not seem to notice him. And when he drew his breath to start again, Angus realised just how stupid it was. They weren’t real. None of this was real. It was all just some sort of… created experience. It was something made for him to move through, clearly. Looking down at the path, then at the grass, he couldn’t see it any clearer.

Turning away from the pair, Angus pulled his collar up, and started to jog towards the stadium.

Angus had not gone to the Olympics when they’d been on. Money he didn’t need to spend to watch sports he didn’t care about being won by people he’d never heard of. He could spare himself the loss of funds and just enjoy the thought of being good at cycling and rowing and dressage, as if that was something that should somehow matter to him. When there was a physics wing of the Olympics, maybe then he’d pretend to care, but not anyway, because pff. He didn’t imagine, though, arriving at the stadium would have been nearly so slow, last time, walking in through an entrance, carefully making his way through a ticket stall that was unattended, jumping a small stall, and entering not the stadium seating area, but the vast and open green of the grounds.

This time, Angus came upon them as he walked across the ground in the center of the stadium. The yawning mouth of the opposite exit – a vomitorium, he remembered smugly, – spread before him, making the journey through this olympic stadium far easier than simply moving around it. It stopped being a roadblock and had become something he could pass easily. Nothing to know, nothing to care about, just focusing on the path ahead of him.

It would have been easier to focus, though, if not for the pair again.

“These?” she asked, strolling along the track area, juggling small steel balls in her hands.

“Shotputs.” He said, walking along behind her, catching each as she threw it up into the air, in an arc towards him.

“And these?” She asked, passing by spears punched into the ground, picking one up easily and spinning with it like a dancer with a baton.

“Javelins.” he said, tilting side to side as each javelin whizzed past him.

“And these?” She asked, stopping in her backwards walk, looking at him with her head cocked to the side.

“My thoracic bones.” he said, awkwardly, his voice audibly distorted by the spear punched clean into his chest, a long smear of grey blood down his front. That had been enough to stop Angus in his tracks, turning to look, ready to… to… to do something. Run towards them. First aid, that was what Angus should do. Did he remember much first aid? Or maybe he’d do more harm than good. Maybe this wasn’t normal. Maybe … maybe Angus should just stand still, and watch, like a lemon. That’s what Angus thought. It’s what Angus always thought. It’s what Angus did.

“Quite.” She said, stepping up to him, her ruffled skirt swirling as she put her elbows against his shoulder and navel, gripping the javelin in both hands and tugging.

“Quite?” he asked, his tone slightly dubious as to this explanation for why she’d stabbed him in the chest.

“Quite.” She reiterated, as his chest gave up its grip on the javelin, which came shooting out, and pinwheeled backwards, spinning away, past Angus, leaving a long, smooth line in the sandy path next to him.

Angus watched in what he was sure should have been horror, but somehow wasn’t. The man’s chest was closing up, healing over, becoming whole again, but the stain was remaining, as if o keep some element of horror to the whole experience. Even now, he wasn’t sure what to call them. Despite being so far away, he could hear them as clearly as if they were walking right next to him.

Angus shook his head and steeled himself, turning to the gateway. This city, this vast, empty, grey London was not where he needed to be. There had to be something to change the atmosphere, something to make it different. It was hard to remember, but not impossible – something about paperwork. About a need to work, about the restaurant and… and… blame. Something had to make this place make some sense. Something…

Angus realised he had been shaking his head for easily two minutes, standing still. No. That’s not how it was done. Putting one foot before the other, he started to walk.

A moment later, Angus started to run.

There was nothing here. There wasn’t sound or noise or colour, there was just this vast, grey, brooding London. There weren’t other people, there wasn’t even colour in his boots or in his hands. If a lack of sensation was the problem, then he’d make do with the one thing he could give himself – tiredness, exhaustion. And so he ran, he ran as best he could towards things that looked familiar, though so much did in the grey and bleached nowhere.

Angus rounded another corner, trying to blot out the noise, because he knew it was coming. Hearing those voices…

“What is that scent?”

“Burning grease, apparently.”

“Apparently?”

“Apparently.”

“It’s quite excruciating. Hardly fitting for a party.”

“A party?”

“Why, of course a party. It’s my birthday, after all.”

“Surely that makes it my birthday, too.”

“That remains to be proven.”

“Why burning grease, though?”

“I don’t know. I for one would complain to the waitress.”

“The waitress?”

“The waitress.” She reaffirmed, nodding once more.

Wait.

Angus skidded to a stop.

Scent.

Turning on his heel, Angus looked around, and started heading backwards, back towards the voices again.

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