It’s a furnace-hot day in August, the sky a blank cloudless blue, and I’m sweltering in a dusty side street in east London. The thermometer has hit forty at noon for the fifth day in a row. Everyone who doesn’t have to be outside isn’t. Anyone selling air conditioning units is doing so at an obscene markup.
Here on the road crew, we’re making do with oversized bottles of water and strips of white cloth wrapped keffiyeh-like around our foreheads. Sweat runs down our bare backs in fat, snaking drops. We have mandated rest breaks every thirty minutes, crowding together into a narrow side alley, where there’s a pittance of shade. I don’t smoke, but Marek and Geoffrey do. The stink of their Amber Leaf roll-ups sticks to the red brickwork of the alley and fills my mouth when I sip my water.
“Can’t take much more of this,” says Geoffrey, with a glance aside at the paving machine rolling sedately along in the street. His grubby high-vis jacket is knotted around his broad waist. Geoffrey is a heavyset Ghanaian, maybe forty-five, a hardened veteran of London’s zero-hour economy. He’s worked garbage routes and homeless shelters, swept streets and evicted deadbeats. This is our third week laying tarmac together. “I’m cooking in my skin, I swear.”
“Forecast says it’ll rain tomorrow,” Marek says. He’s a Pole in his mid-thirties, tall and rangy with his thinning hair buzzed down to stubble. He only joined the crew last week, but I imagine he’s been in the game at least as long as I have. “Thunderstorms all over the southeast.”
“Forecast knows eff-all. It said that last week and the week before. Haven’t had rain since July.”
“It always rains in the end.” Marek takes a long, savoury drag on his cigarette. His reflective yellow work trousers are stained with black smears of tarmac.
“Every bloody summer it’s the same,” Geoffrey goes on, exhaling a coiling drift of smoke. He’s a champion grumbler, is Geoffrey, even for a Londoner. “Sooner be driving a lorry. Bringing in those food parcels and all, that’s making a difference, you know? More than paving some street in the arse end.”
I bristle quietly at that. I grew up in Tower Hamlets. My childhood terrace is a fifteen-minute walk from here, though my folks moved up to Hertfordshire years ago. “Get in with a haulage agency, then. If you can find one that doesn’t run them driverless.”
“Aww, bloody robots,” Geoffrey says disgustedly. “What idiot trusts a robot lorry over a human being? That’s what I wanna know.”
“Your government does,” Marek replies. His grey eyes are studying Geoffrey with a sort of detached, idle contempt. There’s a hint of a smirk in the set of his lips.
Geoffrey huffs again. He’s a patriotic chap, and this isn’t the first time Marek’s ribbed him for it. Scratching his jowly cheek and blowing smoke, he goes back to that safest and most British of subjects, the weather. “Never used to be like this. They joke about it now, but when I was a kid, British summer meant rain.”
“What kind of summer is that? At least we get sunshine,” I say. Geoffrey’s roll-up is making my eyes water a bit.
“It’ll rain,” Marek says insistently. He flicks ash against the wall of the alley, then drops the stub and stamps it out in a slow, deliberate way.
Our fourth man, Jack, has been taking his break in a shaded doorway further down the road, so he could phone his wife. Now he wanders over to join us. He’s the biggest of us, an East Ham lad easily as tall as Marek, broad and solid as a draft horse. He’s got a black crew cut and a neat beard which looks oddly delicate on his big sunburned face. His bare chest is dappled with sweat.
“Everything alright?” Geoffrey asks him.
“Yeah. Jenny’s back on shift,” Jack rumbles. “She just wanted to know if I can pick her up from the hospital tonight.” Jack’s that rarest of creatures in the zero-hour world, a car owner. God knows how he affords it. The solar power’s cheap, but not that cheap.
“Ah, I was gonna say, let’s get a pint after,” Geoffrey says ruefully.
“Next time, mate.”
Geoffrey turns entreatingly to me and Marek. “How about you boys? Bethnal Green tonight?”
“Can’t do tonight. Maybe Friday,” I say, hoping my reluctance isn’t too obvious. Marek shrugs.
“Lads, you’re on,” comes the call from the street. It’s Gallagher, the foreman, a short stocky fellow who affects a pair of aviator shades. Around him, the other men of the crew – Robbie, Tariq and Jase – are looking at us impatiently. The paver is idling behind them, at the head of a black strip of new tarmac.
We curse, suck down some more water and trot out into the blazing sun. I shield my eyes from the glare and adjust the sweat-soaked knot of my keffiyeh. The other half of the crew takes our place in the alley. We always stagger our breaks; four men work, four men rest. Minimum downtime.
Geoffrey seamlessly resumes his complaining as we get to it. “Bloody ridiculous, making us work on a day like this. They had laws against it, before the reds.”
“The laws were gone before that,” Marek says matter-of-factly, clambering up the steel flank of the paving machine, his half-drunk water bottle under his arm. The paver is a tall boxy thing as wide as a tank. It sits heavily on tarmac-stained caterpillar tracks. The driver’s cab is under a green plastic awning, a bucket seat set in front of a slanted control panel.
“Working hours laws. Safety equipment laws. Holiday pay, all of that,” Geoffrey continues, as if he hasn’t heard Marek. He zigzags slowly from pavement to pavement, checking the yellow guide markers studding the stripped away road ahead of the paver. The sunlight glints off his bare, sweat-filmed skin. “Ought to bring them back. And pensions! Remember those?”
“You and your good old days,” Jack says evenly, testing switches on the automated steamroller that sits by the worn kerb a short distance behind the paver. He’s the baby of the crew, not yet thirty by the look of him.
Up in the cab, Marek taps unhurriedly at the controls. The electric engine hums back to life. The cloying smell of hot tarmac fills my nostrils. My job today is to follow close behind the paver, checking the quality and flow rate, making sure it’s an even lay-down. There’re sensors in the cab that are supposed to do that job for us, but none of us trusts them for toffee. The paver’s the cheapest model on the market.
“No-one’s making you work here, Geoff,” I say. “You can get subbed, switch onto another crew any day.”
“Yeah, and starve,” he replies with a sour laugh. “That substitution thing is a scam. I change contracts, you watch, every agency’s gonna shitlist me. My kids need a jobless dad like they need the Free City of London.”
That gets a scornful chuckle from Jack as he sets the roller into ponderous motion. Marek says nothing. After a moment, the paver begins to move too, inching forward on its tracks. A black sludge of quick-setting tarmac oozes down from underneath its steel skirt. I keep to one side, away from the fumes, as I walk along with it.
It’s an emergency job, this one; resurfacing wouldn’t normally be done in this kind of heat. But road maintenance was one of many things that fell by the wayside in the years leading up to the war. The streets of London have decayed into a tire-shredding mess of cracks and potholes, and now the heatwave is liquefying the old tarmac. Which isn’t much good when the reconstruction lorries are already backed up all the way to Dover. Drone delivery is all very well for Pizza Hut and painkillers, but London needs fresh produce and precast concrete, fMRI machines and IED-resistant bulldozers.
So His Majesty’s Government has contracted the lowest of low bidders to fill the holes and lay down heat-resistant blacktop all across the east of the city. Said low bidder is our paymaster, via a dizzying chain of temp agencies and AI payroll companies. We get interviewed by video link, receive work instructions by text, check our payslips on the agency app. None of us particularly care whose logo is printed on our high-vis jackets, as long as the money clears into our accounts at week’s end. In the zero-hour game, you can have a new employer every day. You learn not to waste your breath with questions.
Last week we planed away the ruined old road surface, stripping out chunks of tarmac and cement to be trucked off, adjusting the ironwork and chewing away stubborn bits of roadbed with powered drills that made our bones rattle. Now it’s time to cover it over. This new tarmac sets quick and firm even in forty-degree heat. It also has its binder and granular foundation all mixed in, so it can be put down in one thick layer, with the roller following behind to press it down. With any luck, we can have this street done by lunchtime. The sooner we hit our target, the sooner I can go looking for a new contract.
We move on up the road under Gallagher’s watchful eye. The raw, stripped-away surface gradually disappears under an aromatic carpet of fresh tarmac. It gleams blue-black in the relentless sun. Another break comes around, and we switch places with the other men. We grab more water bottles from the cooler in Gallagher’s van. Marek and Geoffrey roll up their tobacco. The sun stares down balefully as it climbs towards midday.
We don’t see a single pedestrian all morning. That’s no great surprise. Most of east London flooded out into the countryside when the bombing started. Despite the resettlement schemes, a lot of them are still there. You can go for streets and streets, seeing nothing but hastily boarded-up windows, overgrown lawns, rusting metal gates chained shut over dusty front doors. Slashes of graffiti on soot-darkened walls saying FREE STATE FOREVER or FUCK THE UK.
“How does it look, Ollie?” Marek calls when we reach the end of the road, twisting around in his seat to look down at me. Jack’s pacing the roller up a few yards behind. Geoffrey’s chatting to Gallagher at the junction ahead, scouting out the next street on the schedule. The other three men are smoking in the alley.
Keeping my head carefully out of the rising grey-white fumes, I study the new blacktop, its granulated surface like the skin of some great bituminous elephant. “Yeah, good lay. Nice and even.” I turn to Jack, trudging beside his rolling charge. “Will we need a second go-over back there?”
Jack squints at me, shading his eyes. “Nah. I checked the cooler bits. Looks solid. Should be ready for painting by tomorrow.”
“Cool.” Painting the lines is another crew’s job anyway. I watch the paver and roller meet, almost bumper to bumper. Marek descends lightly from his perch, the soles of his boots slapping onto the pavement. Geoffrey and Gallagher saunter over to us.
Gallagher has his company tablet clutched protectively in one hairy, sweating hand. He looks past me and Jack at the empty road. “All done?”
“You could dance a jig on it,” Jack replies, with what sounds like actual pride.
“Do another roll over it after lunch, just to be sure,” Gallagher says. If Jack is disappointed, he doesn’t show it. Perhaps sensing that he was too brusque, Gallagher adjusts his aviators on his nose and adds, “Looks good, though. I’ll put in a word to the agency. You boys work fast.”
“Oh, cheers,” Geoffrey says with a toothy smile. Me and Jack mumble our thanks.
Gallagher waves the others over for lunch. “Be back by one,” he calls after us as we wander to the van. “Agency just messaged me. We’ve got to speed it up. We’re making a start on Morgan Street before day’s end.”
“No worries,” Geoffrey calls back, then mutters to me, “Hope the agency’s paying for the bloody bomb squad, then. Bet the reds left IEDs all over this place.”
“Doubt it. There was hardly any fighting in Tower Hamlets.” Though the thought does make me slightly queasy. Inner London was riddled with tripwires and roadside bombs in the aftermath of the war, and the early cleanup crews took heavy casualties. Not long after returning to the city, when I was still navigating breadlines and sleeping in a jam-packed gymnasium, I saw the aftermath of a claymore in the rubble of Piccadilly Circus. There were bloody sheets laid over the scattered pieces of the poor fellow.
I shake away the image. It’s not likely out here. Not in my old home borough. The deserted streets I used to walk to school along, the blind windows behind nailed-up plywood, weeds growing tall and wild in the cracks between paving slabs. Too empty to bomb.
I take my lunch break alone, as always. I never like to eat with the other men, no matter how well we get on. The same conversations get chewed over every time, the same gripes and grumbles aired, a monotony of discontent. Normally I just go a little way down the road, but today I feel like exploring. Curiosity twinned with nostalgia. I get my wallet from the van’s glove compartment and tail off through the backstreets, keeping to the shadows as best I can.
At Mile End, the Tube station is shuttered and cordoned off with a fence of wooden sawhorses. A big sun-faded red sign hung over the entrance reads ALL UNDERGROUND SERVICES SUSPENDED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. I sometimes miss the Tube, though it was hell to ride in the summer heat. I wander down the wide emptiness of Mile End Road with my water bottle in hand. The road here has already been done by another crew. Its fresh black surface stretches off into the distance, ready for aid lorries from the generous continent.
There’s an air-conditioned newsagent under the old Green Bridge, newly reopened, alone in a row of shuttered retail units. A rare flicker of commerce in this end of the city. I grab myself a murderously overpriced ham sandwich and a can of Coke, lingering by the open fridge for a minute soaking up the precious cold air. Then it’s up the road to the swathe of dead yellow grass and shrivelled trees that used to be the nature park.
I alternate swigging the water and the Coke as I sit in the shadiest spot I can find and wolf down that tasteless sandwich. The ground is rock-hard and shreds of grass stick to the sweaty fabric of my trousers. There’s nobody else about, though I briefly glimpse a scrawny stray dog sniffing around in the shadows at the edge of the park. London’s full of strays these days.
When the sandwich is finished, I move on through the park, going from shadow to shadow, kicking up dust and stalks of long-dead grass. I spent so much time here as a kid. There’s a spot somewhere around here where we used to lay down jumpers as makeshift goals for five-a-side football. There’s another where, aged ten, I guided my brand new quadcopter irretrievably into a birch tree. I’m retracing the steps of teenage me, twenty-something me, a crowd of ghostly younger selves.
The heat presses in all around me like a thick muggy curtain. My hair itches under the cloth of my keffiyeh. My chest is shiny with sweat. I traipse down the low hill to the narrow concrete towpath that runs along Regent’s Canal, Coke can in one hand, water bottle sloshing in the other. A mild heat-headache is pulsing behind my eyes.
The canal’s been abandoned a year and a half now, its stagnant water carpeted over with algae from bank to bank. The houseboats are all gone, hastily moved downstream or chopped up for scrap, save for a few foundering derelicts which have a wet stink of rot about them. Islands of rubbish poke up here and there, sunken shopping trolleys and bundles of black trash bags, even the rusted wreck of a motorbike. Crickets thrum in the drought-yellowed bushes. The waterbirds are a memory.
A few hundred yards upstream, there’s a curving steel footbridge spanning the water, its shadow a dark lattice on the green field of algae below. I used to skip stones from it – Christ, twenty years ago, now. Its paint has almost all peeled off and it shudders as I walk onto it. Halfway across, the sun pounding down on me, I lean against the hot railing and squint into the distance. London’s skyline is hazy behind an ochre curtain of heatwave dust.
Canary Wharf glints dully to the south. I hear finance is starting to come back to the city in drips and drops, long-empty skyscrapers and co-working offices filling up once more with analysts and fund managers. There’s some government initiative behind it. Juicy tax incentives and the world’s slackest rules on executive pay. Billboards declaring that London is open for business. Capitalism is resuming after a brief interruption; apologies for the inconvenience, ladies and gents.
Far off to the west, visible over the train line in the gap between two housing blocks, the Shard is a blackened claw against the blue sky. It looks like a titan took great ragged bites out of it. I picture monstrous teeth gnashing through glass and steel, splintering and twisting girders like fishbones. The glassy façade is charred all the way from its midpoint up to what’s left of the spire.
Renzo Piano’s masterpiece burned for days, lighting up the city like a flickering red torch, the Great Fire gone vertical. I’d made it to Essex by then, and I was looking for my sister in the refugee camps outside Chelmsford, searching through tents filled with haggard women and dirty, wailing children. In the evenings I could see the inky plume of smoke on the horizon, rising and rising against the setting sun.
Everyone expected it to fall, to come surging down in a black death-cloud like those old towers in New York. But they built it strong; the RAF gutted it without breaking its spine. It just burned until there was nothing flammable left. Long stretches of London Bridge are still black with the fallen ash. Some poor zero-hour sods will have to scrub it off someday, just like they’re unblocking the bombed-out Tube tunnels and carting away the wreckage in Borough Market. Maybe I’ll be on that crew myself.
There’re no hard numbers on how many were inside the tower when the bombs hit, how many hipsters-turned-radicals with faded Che Guevara T-shirts and 3D-printed guns. How many women and children, families they’d brought along for the ride. Maybe a thousand, maybe two thousand. They say nobody above the thirtieth floor made it out alive. A Viking funeral for the Free City of London.
I finish the flat and blood-warm Coke, burp reflexively and toss the can into the canal. It breaks through the film of algae with a plop and bobs accusingly in the dead water. Then I take a long breath, trying to taste the hot Mile End air, to see if it still smells like home.
There isn’t anything familiar. Just dust and rot and dead vegetation, the stagnant reek of the canal. Sweat beads on my forehead and soaks the backs of my legs. A descending jet crawls overhead, a scratch of silver in the empty blue. I turn away from that distant black ruin, grimacing at the heat, and wander back across the bridge.
I rejoin the crew at five past one. Gallagher raises an eyebrow behind his shades but doesn’t say anything. Jack gets to re-rolling the street, with me and Geoffrey inspecting his work from the dusty pavement. The others are doing a battery of secondary checks and getting the paver ready to move to the next target. I sip from a fresh water bottle, trying to chase away that headache. It isn’t budging.
“You’re from round here, aren’t you, Ollie?” Jack asks as he watches the churning progress of the roller’s massive front wheel. He taps the set tarmac behind the roller with the toe of his boot. A few pale wisps of steam are still rising from the shiny black granules.
“Yep. Born and bred.” I’m not really in a chatty mood. The walk up the canal has left a faint sting of melancholy in my chest. It was a mistake to go wandering around there, especially in this weather. The heat makes everything feel hazy and washed out, but also strangely tense, like tinder-dry grass waiting to catch fire.
“Nice to be home, is it?” Geoffrey says. His cheery tone grates. I’d sooner he was grumbling again.
I try not to let my irritation show. “It’s weird with nobody around. I hope the place fills up again soon.”
“Don’t you worry, mate, everyone’s coming back now the reds are gone. Down my way in Peckham, they can’t let out the flats fast enough, I tell you.”
“Yeah, it’s getting busy again in Stratford. Jenny says the hospitals are hiring big time,” Jack puts in. He kicks a crumpled plastic bottle, litter from lunchtime, out of the way of the roller before it can be squashed into the pristine blacktop. “Would you move here again, when everyone’s back?”
“Not everyone’s coming back,” I tell him. “And I don’t know. Doesn’t seem like there’d be much point. My mum and dad are out of the city now. My sister’s gone to Canada.”
“So find yourself a girl!” Geoffrey laughs, slapping me on the back hard enough to almost make me stumble.
There have been a few girls, actually. When I came back to London, I was surprised how easily it happened. Quick, furtive encounters with fellow contractors and transients – lunch break quickies, necking outside twenty-four-hour bars. Even the odd one-night stand, on the rare occasions that I got a room of my own at an agency hostel. As far as I can tell, everyone’s doing it now. The squeezed, privacyless proximity of hostels and camps has brought a kind of sexual reawakening to London’s displaced, a compressed form of the old hook-up culture. I wonder if anyone’s made a dating app for refugees.
“Girls don’t want to settle down with a zero-hour guy,” I say lamely. That’s true enough, in my experience, though us zero-hour guys probably outnumber London’s permanent workers ten-to-one.
“Ah, nonsense. Your Jenny doesn’t complain, does she, Jack?” Geoffrey grins. His beer belly wobbles as he walks.
Jack’s lips twitch in amusement. “Not to my face. Bet she gives the other nurses an earful.”
“My Paulette, she never complains,” Geoffrey boasts. “Never a word. Not like some women, I tell you. She never complained before the war, and she doesn’t complain now. You get yourself a woman like that, Ollie, that’ll sort you right out.”
“It’s on my to-do list,” I tell him. The roller grinds onwards beside us.
When Gallagher’s satisfied with the new surface, we escort the machines to the next street, where another ragged strip of planed-away roadbed awaits us. We find new patches of shadow to take our breaks in. We slap on sun cream and drain our water bottles, refill them, drain them again. Fresh tarmac is laid and rolled down. Its sweet stink sticks to our clothes and our bare skin.
In the late afternoon, Geoffrey and Marek get into a low-key argument about Britain’s tentative reconnection with Europe. I’m surprised to learn Marek is an old-guard Brexiteer. Geoffrey’s eager for the continent to help us rebuild; Marek holds that they should stay out of our business.
“Only fair, we helped them out in World War Two,” Geoffrey’s saying. “Now they can get us back on our feet. Bloody smart of the prime minister, getting Europe on side.”
“They’re not here to help us. They’re bringing all the corporations back. We’re their cheap labour,” Marek says as he works the paver’s controls. He doesn’t even look at Geoffrey as he talks. His accent is slight, but I’ve noticed it gets stronger when he’s angry.
“So? Corporations mean money and jobs. They’re rebuilding everything. We’re never gonna be short of work, us lot.”
Marek shakes his head sullenly. “Zero-hours forever.”
“Bloody hell, lighten up, will you? Anything’s better than the reds.” Geoffrey frowns up at Marek, then turns sidelong to give me a meaningful look. I shrug at him, tarmac fumes wafting up beside me. It isn’t a topic that especially interests me. The conversation peters out as the sunshine hammers down on us.
It’s well past six, and we’ve managed to pave another street and a half, when Gallagher finally calls a halt. It’s still hot enough that most of us are shirtless. Technically we’re supposed to clock off at five, but none of us are going to turn down another hour’s pay. Still, I’m glad to be heading home. The hours drag in these forlornly empty streets. Even the scorched and rubble-strewn city centre feels less dead than this place.
“Remember, lads, eight-thirty sharp for tomorrow. Don’t make me hand you out any late penalties,” Gallagher tells us dutifully as we secure the machines and get our things together. The sun, sinking now but still high and fierce, sparkles off the tinted lenses of his aviators. Our shadows lengthen across the new blacktop. Reeking of sweat and tarmac, we bid each other tired, sweary goodbyes and scatter into the evening.
The big driverless coach is waiting for me outside the Tube station, gathering contractors from across the borough. There’s a proper zero-hour menagerie onboard when I tap in, mostly still in their work gear. Bricklayers, cleaners, security guards, nurses, even a few very out-of-place-looking suits from some data farm or legal advisory. I can see them wrinkle their noses at me. I give them an apologetic shrug; not much I can do about the smell.
The coach glides off through sunset streets almost void of traffic. The evening breeze kicks up tiny eddies of heatwave dust and sends scraps of litter scraping across the road. My fellow contractors mutter and yawn around me, tapping at phones or snoring in fitful sleep. I lean back tiredly in the fake-leather seat and rest my eyes. My heat-headache has stayed with me all day, though I’ve drunk enough water to drown a horse. It’s depressing how much I’m looking forward to my bunk.
In the morning, the coach is slow, so I’m three minutes late to work. Gallagher, to his credit, doesn’t make good on his threat of a penalty. “Just make sure it’s the last time,” he tells me, in a conspiratorial tone that suggests he’s done me a great favour. My phone says the temperature in the open is thirty-six degrees. I slept nearly ten hours last night, but I already feel wiped out. The empty terraces of Tower Hamlets stretch away on every side, walling us in.
We stow our personal effects in the van and get our water bottles. The mood is palpably tenser than yesterday. There’s a thickness in the air that goes beyond the heat. Tempers are fraying more readily; every irritation seems somehow magnified. Shortly after we clock on, normally unflappable Jack curses out Tariq for treading on his toes. Gallagher gives Jase a dressing-down for something trivial. Marek is even more stony-faced than usual, barely saying a word. I think, again, of the dry dead grass beside the canal, waiting for a careless spark.
Once again, Geoffrey’s grousing about the heat. While checking the markers, he glares up at the sun with his hand shielding his eyes in a resentful salute. “This is a joke, this is. Can’t the Chinese hurry up with that bloody geo-thing?”
“Geoengineering,” I say. It’s big news right now. The People’s Republic is planning to pump planeloads of reflective aerosol into the atmosphere, hoping to turn back the clock on the haywire climate. Good luck to them. Maybe they can refloat all those drowned Pacific islands while they’re at it.
“Yeah, that,” Geoffrey replies distractedly. “Should’ve done it years ago, you ask me.”
“Nobody knows if it’ll even work,” I say. “Might just make it worse.”
Geoffrey grins ruefully and shrugs. “Well. Got to try, right?” He wipes his brow under his keffiyeh with the back of one heavy hand, which comes away gleaming with sweat. He’s panting as he walks around, looking for all the world like a big, jowly dog.
Wispy tarmac fumes coil and curlicue in the air. Raw grey roadbed gives way to beautiful blue-black. When lunchtime comes around, I eat with the other men for once. The memory of the canal is bitter. I have no desire to wander today.
We’re having a water break in the shade, letting the other men check our lay-down, when Geoffrey brings up the Shard. What little conversation there was before that was morbid enough, but we skirted around the subject of the war. Typical of Geoff to break the taboo.
“They should just knock it down and be done with it. Hate seeing it all burned like that,” he says darkly, puffing on another Amber Leaf roll-up. “My little girl Ruth, Paulette said she cried when they went past it the other day.”
“Why’d the reds even go up there?” Jack says. The white cotton of his keffiyeh is grey with sweat and grime, the knot coming loose. “Stupid place to hide. Nowhere to run.”
“They figured the RAF wouldn’t bomb it. They still wanted to negotiate,” I say, glugging down a mouthful of water that’s hardly cooler than the stifling air. “They reckoned it was a safe place to retreat.” That’s hearsay, of course. I’ve heard a hundred other theories. Nobody will ever know what the Free City holdouts were really thinking.
Jack gives a harsh, humourless snort of laughter. “Guess they reckoned wrong.” Marek, who’s leaning against a wall and smoking with a distant look on his face, suddenly glares at him. I frown in surprise. Marek’s never had a problem with Jack before.
“Brought it on themselves, you ask me. Bloody commies.” Geoffrey hawks and spits on the pavement.
“They weren’t all communists,” Marek says bluntly. It’s the first thing he’s said in hours. “Some of them were just kids. The country was falling apart, they wanted a better life.”
“Better life?” Geoffrey looks hard at Marek. His lip curls up in a sneer. “They wrecked this city. Greatest city in the world, London was. Now it’s a shithole.”
“It was already a shithole. You remember it. No healthcare, no tourists, the jobs all gone. Free City wanted it to change.”
“Free City screwed up, then,” Jack mutters.
Geoffrey crushes the embers of his cigarette under his boot heel without taking his eyes off Marek. “Those wankers changed it alright. Go look at Oxford Street, all those bomb craters. Or Trafalgar Square. Blew Nelson right off his column, they did.”
“That wasn’t them. That was your air force.” Marek’s jaw tightens contemptuously.
“Because the commies turned the square into an army camp!” Geoffrey retorts. “I went past when they were gearing up, it was like Area bloody Fifty-One, all guards and razor wire and shit. My Paulette used to work round there, and they sent her home at gunpoint! What did they think was gonna happen?”
“It was their country. They were defending it.” Marek eyes Geoffrey with utter disdain. He tosses the stub of his cigarette out onto the new blacktop.
“Their country? What are you, a Free City fanboy?” Geoffrey’s face is twisted with anger. “Or were you one of them? Dropped your gun and ran, did you?” His voice is loud enough that Gallagher hears, turning his head sharply to look at us.
“Hey, easy, Geoff,” I say hastily, raising a conciliatory hand. My headache is a dull throb beneath my temple.
Geoffrey shakes his head, his scowl deepening. “No, Ollie, I’ve had enough of his shit! Always taking their side. Were you a red, Marek? That why you love the Free City so much?”
“No more than you love your precious government,” Marek says. His voice is icy with hatred. “And your zero-hours and agencies and never knowing if you’ll have enough to live on next week.”
“Better than burning it all down, like your lot did! Fucking commies killed all those people, all those kids!” Geoffrey’s shouting for real now.
“Lads, Christ’s sake, knock it off,” Jack warns, with a concerned glance aside at me. My heart is pounding, my irritation deepening into real unease. I can see Tariq and Jase looking over at us with raised eyebrows. Gallagher is starting to walk angrily towards us.
Marek ignores Jack. “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about,” he growls at Geoffrey. His big, work-roughened hands clench slowly into fists. He’s got an easy five inches on the older man, his arms and shoulders leanly muscled.
“Oh, like what? Like the war you started, you fucking red?” Geoffrey spits. He takes a step towards Marek. Say what you will about him, he’s not a fearful man.
That’s when Marek punches him, a hard thump to the gut that deflates Geoffrey with a long spitting wheeze. Jack goes for Marek with a surprised yell. Marek’s next punch gets him square in the face. I – idiot that I am – shoulder in and try to pull them apart. Gallagher breaks into a run, shouting, “What are you idiots doing?”
It takes Gallagher and two of the other crewmen working together to separate Jack and Marek, by which time Marek’s got a livid black eye and blood is trickling in twin streams from Jack’s nostrils. I get some wicked bruises on my chest and shoulders for my heroics. Geoffrey is still wheezing as we help him up off the ground. He’s a heavy bloke, and slippery with sweat, so it’s no small task.
“You’re off the crew,” Gallagher shouts at Marek, who stands there silent and sneering, his eye swelling shut. “Get out of my sight. Your contract’s terminated.”
“Fuck that. Call the bloody law,” Geoffrey coughs. “He attacked me, he did. You saw it.”
“I’m not getting the cops involved. They’ll make us stop work. We’ll all get penalties,” Gallagher says firmly. “Jack, you’re bloody lucky I’m not dropping you too. Get the first aid kit out of the van and patch yourself up. You three can sit this shift out.” He indicates me, Geoffrey and Jack. Then he turns back to Marek. “Are you still fucking here? Go. If I see you again, I will call the police on you.”
“You out of your mind? He punched me!” Geoffrey protests.
“Shut up, Geoff,” Gallagher says flatly.
There’s a long moment when we all stand there in a loose circle, the sun scorching our backs, Marek motionless in the middle. He looks at Gallagher with undisguised hatred, then at Geoffrey. He glances at me with something strange in the grey of his good eye, a mixture of pity and contempt. Then he spits on the ground and sets off down the street, shouldering casually past Tariq. He doesn’t look back. We watch him out of sight.
“You have to get the cops. He assaulted me,” Geoffrey is saying, one hand on his injured belly, but Gallagher won’t hear a word of it. I know it’s an ungodly struggle to get the cops to come out for anything short of a murder. Besides, Marek is now facing a much worse sentence than a few months in the lockup. He’ll be on the shitlist, a malignant black spot next to his name, dead to every agency. If he ever works again, it won’t be in London.
The rest of the crew slowly drifts back to their posts. The paver and roller continue their unerring path onwards. We’re left to lick our wounds in the shade. Jack stalks over to the van to clean up his dripping nose. I prod my bruises experimentally, wincing – nothing broken, but they hurt like hell.
Geoffrey simmers with impotent fury. “Fucking red,” he mutters, again and again, a fresh roll-up smoking in his hand. “Knew it. Knew he was a red.”
“He’s gone, mate. Just forget the bastard,” Jack says, pinching the bridge of his cotton-wadded nose. Blood has dribbled into his beard and fallen in long drops onto his broad chest. He keeps glancing down the road, the way Marek went. He looks more pensive than angry.
“Should get the cops and have him banged up. No, have him shot! Like the rest of his red mates.” Geoffrey’s eyes still bulge with anger. His jowls are quivering. I see in his brown old-dog eyes something more than rage. There’s a hurt, fragile pride, the pride of a working man who has seen his world slowly fall apart around him.
I lean against a signpost in the narrow rectangle of shade. My bruises ache, my mouth is desert-dry. I realise my hands are shaking slightly. “Geoff, leave it. We won’t see him again.”
A man short, our progress is slowed, but we finish the street just about on time. As if by silent agreement, none of us mentions Marek’s name. Not that day, or the next, when we lay down our last lot of tarmac. The heatwave slackens a bit, but it’s still scorching. The forecast rainstorms never materialise. A new guy from a different agency takes Marek’s place for the final stretch. His name is Tomas. He and I exchange maybe five words before the contract ends and we part ways forever.
But I’m not quite done with the crew. On the weekend, with the stink of tarmac finally showered off me, and with nothing better to do, I decide to take Geoffrey up on that pint. We drop Jack a text too. He joins us at a little hole-in-the-wall in Bethnal Green, a wood-panelled place with faulty air con and a small selection of very pricey imported beers. Posters for karaoke nights that never happened are still tacked up in the windows from before the war. The pub’s surprisingly crowded. The football plays on an old flatscreen TV up on the wall. The bartenders are two diminutive girls who look young enough to be my daughters.
We manage to get a little table in a corner, sitting down on chipped wooden stools with pints that are half-foam, comfortably scruffy in our baggy T-shirts and ripped, faded jeans. We clink our glasses together and take a long first sip. God, if there’s something better than cold beer in a heatwave, you just name it.
“Bloody glad to be done with it,” Geoffrey sighs, resting his elbows heavily on the table. “If I never smell tarmac again, it’ll be too soon.”
“Amen,” Jack mutters. His nose is still bandaged, though it doesn’t look broken. His deep voice sounds a little congested. “I was getting proper sick of Gallagher.”
“He wasn’t so bad,” I reason.
“Wasn’t so good, either.”
“Cheer up, Jack, mate. We’re home free now,” Geoffrey proclaims. “No more Gallagher, no more resurfacing, no more bloody reds. Unbelievable, that there’s still scum like Marek out there.”
“There’s probably loads of them,” I say, though I’m wary of setting Geoffrey off on a rant. “It was only the hardliners who died up the Shard.”
“Government’s gonna have to root them out then. Even if it takes years.” Geoffrey’s got that brittle, prideful look in his eyes again. “You ask me, any bugger wants to drag London out of the UK doesn’t deserve to be called a citizen.”
“Who’d want to be a British citizen these days?” I joke. At least, it’s meant to be a joke. The guys don’t laugh.
“Makes you think, doesn’t it,” Jack says after a moment. He scratches his trim black beard with one big, ragged-nailed finger. “They really thought they could break away.”
“Makes me think they were all bloody loonies,” Geoffrey huffs. Sweat is darkening the fabric of his T-shirt in broad patches.
“Yeah. Madness. But still…” Jack pauses and takes a long, contemplative drink of his pint. “All that stuff they were promising, the free schools and hospitals, no more zero-hours. It sounded good, you know? Maybe if they’d stuck to that…” He trails off, shrugging his mountainous shoulders.
“That was all propaganda, mate,” Geoffrey tells him. “They never meant it. Wouldn’t have worked even if they did.”
“Yeah. They talked a big game,” I say, knocking back some more beer, remembering the blur of those first mad days after independence. The rallies and marches, the wild promises from the ragtag new city council. The shortages, the riots, the power and water going out borough by borough. The escalating threats from the exiled government in Manchester. And then, when the negotiations failed, the F-35s roaring overhead, the dull thunder of bombs growing closer and closer. Just another utopian dream that died badly.
Jack is looking sombre. “Jenny got so excited about it. She was always talking about those free schools. Thought we’d finally be able to save up to have a kid.”
“It’s for the best, Jack, really. You couldn’t raise a kid in a red city,” Geoffrey says, not unkindly. “They had no money, and no plan.”
Jack stares into his lager. “Neither do we, right?”
There’s a brief silence as we work on our pints, quickly growing uncomfortable. I’m about to break it when Geoffrey does it for me. “Where d’you think you’ll be next week, then?” he asks, with slightly forced jollity.
Jack wipes foam from his upper lip. “Don’t know. Thought I might go for a hospital maintenance job. See if I can get placed at the same one as Jenny.”
“Me, I want to get on a catering crew. If there’s no haulage going, that is,” Geoffrey says. “I’m done working outdoors in this heat. A worker’s caf with air con, serving up for the reconstruction boys, now that I could do.”
“The hospitals have cafeterias. You could end up serving me,” Jack says.
“Maybe, maybe.” Geoffrey grins that toothy grin of his. “I reckon we’ll run into each other on contract, one way or another. It’s not such a big city, is it?”
I think about that, realising – to my quiet surprise – that I genuinely wouldn’t mind working with Geoffrey and Jack again. Friends are another thing that’s hard to come by these days. Even a curmudgeonly old bastard like Geoff is better than nothing.
Jack glances at me. “What about you, Ollie? Any big plans?”
I savour the end of my pint. It’s good smooth stuff, as it bloody well should be at that price. “Anything but roadwork.”
Jack raises his glass with a tired smile. “Here’s to that.”
“Cheers!” Geoffrey says heartily. The last of his lager sloshes around inside his glass as he lifts it from its beer-sodden coaster.
I look at them both, at their big, earnest faces. I think about Marek, who might have been a Free City radical who dropped his gun when the army rolled in, or maybe just a man who put his hope in a dream that failed. I wonder how many more there are like him, locked into dead-end contracts, silently mourning their defeat.
And I think about where I grew up, the ghost town that is Mile End. I think about the dead grass in the park and the algae growing in Regent’s Canal. I think about the day I fled the bombs, running for the last train out of Liverpool Street, shoving through crowds that turned ugly and frantic in their terror. I think about that ride across the dusty Essex countryside, the carriage so full I could hardly breathe, the western sky black with smoke behind us. I think about finding my sister in the camps outside Chelmsford, that tremendous wave of relief and joy, holding her skinny body close as she cried into my shoulder. I think about the Shard on fire and the ash falling on London Bridge.
“Cheers,” I say. Our pints clink together. Bayern Munich scores on the TV. The air con unit hums weakly as it tries to keep the heat of the night at bay. Outside, the city swelters in its sleep.
I set down my empty glass and get up from the table. “Alright. My round.”
Joseph Anton lives in London, where he works as a paralegal in the housing sector. He is a voracious reader and has been writing as a hobby for years, dabbling in both literary and speculative fiction. This story is his first ever submission for publication. It is heavily based on his experiences of modern London, and the tensions and uncertainties that are constantly bubbling away beneath the city’s skin.