Outside Green Zone One it’s dusk and London lies sullen before me. The electronic locks click into place with a sound like a camera's motor drive as I breathe in the smell of wood-smoke and coal and try and remember the tourists, congestion and hope.
Forty-seven years since the Games, the crumpled stump of Big Ben and the remains of Parliament sit forlornly across the river. The rotting buildings and shattered windows look down upon the once great London Eye now lying half-submerged and rusting across the Thames like some giant broken bicycle wheel.
‘You sure you don’t need some 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. But I’m out of uniform; if they’re asked, they haven’t seen me - and they won’t see my return.
Walking across the river on an improvised bridge still controlled by my nation, I enter into the gathering darkness and head for what remains of the old West End district. Yesterday I’d spotted a wall that was all but undamaged and which would make a perfect canvas. My head’s down while I move, avoiding eye contact and trying to evade trouble. It’s raining, the cracked black tarmac acts like a mirror and I try and admire the iridescent reflections from the fires and the few remaining flickering neon. It’s a memory of the old vibrancy of Trafalgar Square, now in oily decay.
‘Where you goin' brother?'
The voice from the hulk in front of me is flanked by heavy shadows. A glint of thick gold chain around his neck gives no clue to his faith.
‘Moving through, is all.'
A knife appears, the blade catching the fire of the night as it's pressed against my throat.
‘You gota pay man. This my land.'
His breath stinks of ice-crack. The shadows either side move closer. I've been dreaming. They're too close. Suddenly 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 low and heavy with intimidation. The maggot in my face backs away with a feral smile of stained teeth.
‘Hey Joe, he with you? Hey I did’n know! S'fine Joe, it’s ok man, just sashing, bro, you know?'
The maggots in my face slide back into the darkness and I turn to study the shaven-headed black dude that had appeared next to me. Thick beard, coat-collar pulled high around a neck almost as wide as his shoulders topped with a face scared from knife fights. He ignores my stare, watching the maggots leave. When he turns, it's like a rotweiler judging its moment of attack.
‘You're Grafton, ain't ya?' Again that voice heavy with restrained threat. It demands an answer.
‘I been watchin' you, Grafton,' he says, the inflection flat, eyes steady, appraising. ‘You been doin' good, man.'
‘Good? Yeah, right,' I say, playing for time. If he knows my tag name, he might know my battalion and who I really am. All I know is that from his appearance, he’s the enemy.
In my pocket, my fingers tighten around my gun. This is no simple maggot, no mere thug. He’s clearly a soldier. I look closer and he matches my stare. In a face mashed by violence, his eyes are somehow different. There seems no malice hiding there, just certainty. He smiles mirthlessly at me.
‘Sure,' he says, ‘I know you. I seen you, too. Watched you work. Those drawings, they say things. It's seen. It's read. Yeah, I’d say you been doin' good.'
I dig out a spray can from my other pocket.
That heavy head tilts towards me, I resist the urge to take a step back.
‘Yeah, why? Maybe you think someone like me can't appreciate what you saying?'
‘No, not that,' I say quickly. ‘Look around you, I didn’t think anyone really cares?'
The streets are empty except for the human maggots, scavengers and guides. The maggots prey on the unwary, the scavengers sell to the desperate and the guides, for a price, provide some safety from both. The guides' torches - made from tearing up the tarmac roads to use as fuel – are scurrying pools of orange fire in the darkness. The hiss of rain turning to steam in the flames forms a lament to a ruined world. The only vehicles left are military and rarely seen; the streets are hazy with the beginning of another London smog from a people forced once again to burn coal and wood. A country splintered back into medieval times of fighting fiefdoms.
‘I care,' he says. ‘When people stop dreaming, creating… well then, we’re all dead. You know what you and me are? We’re the last living leaves in a forest of despair.'
‘So you're a poet.'
‘As much as you’re an artist. 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 subversive guerrilla art adds another voice to those that are still listening and watching.'
Those heavy features gaze at me.
‘If you want to know, they call me Joe.'
We consider each other, adversaries for so long.
A human scavenger sidles up and reality re-asserts itself.
‘You need body parts? Healthy liver perhaps? No disease, Joe, guaranteed!'
Ferret-like eyes implore as hands writhe in supplication like a modern Uriah Heap.
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 us and thrusts a note into the big man's coat pocket before dodging away back into the night.
Joe shrugs: ‘I'm known around here,' he says un-apologetically. ‘I used to drink hard. Still do, Allah forgive me. That scavenger knows I might need him one day.'
Joe takes out the note and throws it away, but not before reading it first.
I make a decision.
‘You know, they still show some art at the old Tate Modern.'
Joe barks out a deep laugh.
‘Yeah, only for those that can pass the scanners.'
‘I can get you in,' I say quietly. ‘If you want.'
He stops and gives me the hard look.
‘You know how. I'm one of them.'
‘Yeah, I already had that figured. Which faith?'
‘Crusaders.' I shrug. ‘It's required. There are others in the elite who feel the same as we do, but they are nervous.'
‘Nervous!' Joe spat. ‘I'll bet they are. You should know I'm part of the Brotherhood, part of Jihad. That's also required.'
‘Yeah I had that figured.’ I shrugged again. We knew where we stood. The dice was thrown.
The two of us stood in the rain looking without seeing into the dark streets where the fighting continued between us. The banditry and religious war, was all now a part of normal life.
Eventually Joe spoke.
‘I'd like that.'
‘I'd like to see the art.'
‘Well, in that case, let's go.'
We walked in silence past dark and empty windows, a part of town abandoned to the rabble. It seemed to me that the darkness was spreading. Fewer and fewer areas were now serviced with power and light and private militias heavily guarded those that remained. The so-called government, my clan, held a cluster of buildings along the embankment, serviced from the river and fortified by the remains of the army. Joe became increasingly nervous as we approached the fortified perimeter of Green Zone Four wherein the Gallery was protected. I could see him glancing towards me. I stopped.
‘Joe, listen, you probably saved my life back there. But we both know there's more to this than that. I need you to trust me.'
Joe studied me impassively, then said: ‘Tell me, Grafton, did you really need me to save your life?'
I hesitated. ‘Probably not.'
‘Yeah, of course you’re armed, right?'
I shrugged. ‘Sure, but there was no way I could’ve gotten my weapon out before that maggot cut me. It would have been close.'
‘Yeah, that's what I figured. Both counts. You're one crazy mother. A warrior artist.' Joe paused looked away into the distance, thinking.
I knew if the decision went against me, he could and would snap my neck like a chicken. And what's more, I wouldn't even try to stop him.
‘K, man, what the hell, I'm goin' to trust you,' he said, and for the first time I saw him smile. ‘Let's go see some art - be inspired.'
I sent a micro-burst communication access code to my men on the perimeter of GZ4 to allow us passage and, as we walked through the night, the future seemed less dark. There was a bridge between our people that we had both crossed.
‘Right, Joe, it’s done. Let’s get inspired. Go change the world.'
‘Yeah, change the world man. Easy. No problem.'