Chapter 26: West End Girls
from the 1986 album “Please” by the Pet Shop Boys
posted at 20:20, 7 June 2019
Too many shadows, whispering voices
Faces on posters, too many choices
If, when, why, what? How much have you got?
Welcome to Earth.
Why, I hear you cry, am I not on Earth myself, already? This phrase seems wrong. There is some devilry afoot, you feel, as you shift around, trying to feel your way through this new world. Relax: almost nothing has changed in this world. The Sun continues to shine, the world cities are all still there, and Shakespeare is still the writer of Hamlet. Apart from a few tweaks, everything is as it should be.
I see that you are not convinced. Very well, let us go for a walk in the city of London, still a beating heart of the Western world, still where every inquisitive soul seems to gravitate. We can start anywhere we like, but let us begin at where all roads begin: Charing Cross. It feels like any other July day in London — the weather is hot and stuffy, and the Sun is beating down on the cobblestones. But the clouds are stealing over the horizon, and more than one passer-by is looking worriedly at the skies and feeling for her umbrella. (We are here only as visitors, nobody will blame us if we open ours.)
But for now, the Sun still shines, and we are at leisure to walk about and observe life. Here at the restaurants of the mainline station, for instance, we can observe the people getting from the Sevenoaks train, scattering east and west: some of them run towards the tube station, others toward the identical grey buildings that line the Strand or Trafalgar Square. But this is rush hour, and so many of them are walking so quickly. We might try to follow a few of them, but they get lost in the crowd within seconds. The woman in the yellow dress blends into the mass of people streaming towards the Bakerloo, the old man with the walking stick blends into Victoria Embankment Gardens. So let us follow the frazzled young man, clad in a suit that is quite unbecoming in the weather, as he strides towards the exit gates on the southern side — a swing of the guard’s hand, and he is through to the Embankment in a flash.
Have you noticed what is wrong yet? Perhaps not — perhaps we see nothing wrong in a man going about his daily routine. The brevity of the exchange between the two men — “thanks, Manuel,” “no worries, Thomas,” — does not seem out of place. But there is something about the man in the suit — Thomas, his name is — that seems off. Perhaps it is the way that he stares resolutely ahead, perhaps it is the way that he seems to walk briskly down the riverside. Still, something within you tells us that he can give us some clues about this familiar yet unfamiliar world. Shadowing his steps, we shall see what he sees: a man talking excitedly to a pet, a woman walking up from a pier on the Thames. All exciting facets of London life. We sneak a look at Thomas’ face — a flash of envy, a smear of despondency. Then he walks on. Within minutes, the Houses of Parliament come into view: the seat of government. Ah, perhaps he works for one of the members of Parliament? Sure enough, he walks into one of the side entrances in the building opposite. We attempt to follow him. A hand blocks us from entering. Alas, we are not members of the government, and our omniscience cannot penetrate this most secretive of institutions. But the door remains open — let us loiter, let us listen in on this conversation.
The security officer at the front beckons to our man. Thomas reaches into his pocket: there is a start from him. He starts patting his other pockets, checks his briefcase, the exasperation on his face visible. Finally he sighs. “I’m sorry, my pass is in the office…” He checks his watch. “Do you mind looking after these things for a minute? Won’t take more than that, I promise…”
He steps to one side, putting down his bag on the grimy floor. He clenches his fists and closes his eyes. And then the air shimmers around him, his face turns pale. Our faces pressed to the glass, we look at him with concern. Perhaps he is unwell, perhaps he’s about to throw up? But it’s not just his face becoming white: his hair, his clothes, everything is shimmering and blending into the background. Within ten seconds he has vanished into thin air, the next staff member walks through.
A gasp of astonishment — one that only comes from you. The people around us barely look up as Thomas disappears into the ether. Perhaps he was a trick of the mind, perhaps he slipped inside when we weren’t noticing. But no: his briefcase stands against the wall, abandoned by its owner. But we have no time to investigate — the air shimmers again, twists and metamorphoses into a definite outline, and here is Thomas again, brushing himself off, carrying a badge. Something about him has changed: perhaps it is the slightly crumpled suit jacket, or it is the look of revulsion on his face, the way he holds the badge slightly away from him, as if it forced him to unwillingly do something. But these are all just guesswork — only available from the fleeting glimpse we have of Thomas, before he disappears inside Portcullis House.
Why so amazed, dear reader? Surely you have noticed these events as we walked down the Thames? Now events on the Embankment take on a different meaning — the man talking to his dog, the woman who seems to have emerged out of nowhere from the river. Surely you understand that Thomas’ superpower is nothing special — is hardly anything for a world city, where people of every kind gather under the shadow of the Shard? All the same, you say, this will take some getting used to. As we look around us, your gait is unsteady, as if the world has just tilted to one side slightly. The statues around us are moving, the air somehow smelling of cinnamon — all of these cannot seem like a coincidence now. There is something manmade behind all this. You bat away the slight feeling of distrust or unease within you: the world is also much more colourful, with all these people around. Besides, there is much to discover.
Let us abandon Thomas, then, and venture outside into the daylight. Perhaps we feel a droplet on our cheeks as we venture out of the awnings. Of course: we are in London, a city where rain is taken for granted, a place where umbrellas earn you a strange look. But we are only visiting, and we are new to the city. So let us hoist up our raingear and walk, ignoring all the aside glances that Londoners might give us. Let us cross Westminster Bridge, admire the beauty of the Houses of Parliament just as Big Ben strikes again. We turn left and head down to the riverbank. The Thames flows by sluggishly, the murky waters. Now that we know more about this world, we see more of — we see a woman flying across the river, ignoring all the bridges at her convenience. Near the Assembly Hall, a man snaps his fingers, and the building he’s looking at remodels itself. Then as always, London is a great melting pot of people.
We pass Hungerford, Waterloo, Blackfriars, each a different architectural style, each with its own eclectic mix of people with powers we’ve never thought possible. The rain gets heavier, pours down in sheets, yet nobody beside you thinks to open an umbrella. They have all become accustomed to it, bearing the wrath of God on their shoulders. Finally, we reach Millennium Bridge. The downpour is heavier than we have expected: now people are sheltering in doorways, hiding under the steel boardwalks. This is proving too much for us too: we run towards an old-looking building, which proudly emblazons its name on its outside wall: SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE. We look interestedly at the day’s showings: it’s still early in the day, and yet people are queueing up already, eager to see this reconstruction of Shakespeare’s very own playhouse, or to grab a place for the evening’s performance of “Othello”. Milling amongst the crowds, we see assistants shepherding tourists indoors, grimacing in discomfort as they are jostled by people speaking in fifty different languages. We follow them into the open-air theatre, where wooden balconies surround an open stage, and grimace at the thought of spending three hours in the rain, watching some godforsaken comedy with pretentious, overblown dialogue. The tourists evidently feel the same: a few of them are grumbling, muttering about inadequate raincoats and the like. One of the staff looks around frantically. Her gaze sweeps the balcony, and alights on a young woman — she looks no more than twenty — climbing the stairs.
“Oi, Morgan! Do your thing, help us out over here!”
Our gaze shifts from the woman below to Morgan. What superpowers can she have? Surely it’s not some control she has over the theatre itself? We watch as she rolls her eyes, looks daggers at her coworker, and waves her hand.
A loud roar comes from the heavens, one so loud that everyone looks up, a shock running through the crowd. But this isn’t thunder: we’re not cowering from the loud rumble that’s peeling from the skies. This sound more like a crowd applauding a spectacular goal, like a forest of birds singing all at the same moment. And then the rain, quite simply, stops falling from the heavens.
You watch as the raindrops shudder, slowed by a force that seems to reach from below, forcing them to stop in midair. The glassy streaks of the rain, falling in buckets and buckets, become much more visible, much more distinct. Then the rain coalesces, gathers, forms itself into droplets of so many different sizes. They hang there, perfect globes of crystal dazzling you with the light they reflect, dancing and quivering in the air. You take a step forward, and the rain smashes against your clothes, soaking them like dewdrops on a morning walk, disappearing into the fabric.
You cast a look at Morgan: she has one hand in the air, as if she is singlehandedly holding the raindrops in place. Your mouth drops open: so this is her superpower — holding down the rain, and it takes. Then you look at the crowd beside you: they walk on, caring little for how the rain has practically stopped, unaware that all around them is a sight of unimaginable beauty. Even the coworker has moved on, shepherding the latest group deep within the bowels of the playhouse.
The theatre is desolate. We are the only people here with Morgan, who even now remains poised, her hand raised into the air, halting the rain. We break into applause: this is surely one of the greatest things we have seen, in a morning that has already been full of surprises. But alas — she only rolls her eyes, lowers her hand, and before long the rain is thundering down again. As we wipe the water from our eyes, you are just in time to see her disappearing down a staircase.
“Bloody useless power,” you hear her say.
Thought I’d start us off with something evocative. I know that you told me to ease off on the self-pity, I hope I had it under control in this one.
God, the Pet Shop Boys are amazing. How have I missed out on them till now…
(Writer’s note: all stories, except the one in two weeks’ time, will be published on Tuesday from now on. Gives me a chance to actually enjoy the weekend.)