This had been a happy home once. You could see it in the scatter of light patches on the walls where photographs of a large and loving family had hung. In the placement of the his-and-hers armchairs, positioned close enough that they could reach out and hold hands as they watched television. They’d done that for over forty years. A whole lifetime together passed in relative contentment. But all Ella could remember were the final weeks of acrimony, the fights she’d witnessed, unwillingly and uncomfortably. Him wanting to take the money and run. Her insisting they stay until the bitter end, even if it ruined them, looking to Ella for support because she was the authority they had all been deferring to for months. Despite her youth and the fact that they hardly knew her. There she’d sat, at the small melamine table underneath the broad, condensated window that overlooked the Thames, a not-so-neutral observer as they tore chunks out of each other. She’d decided to play the peacekeeper, because by that point damage limitation was the best she could offer the couple. Now they were gone, off to a new flat in a town by the sea. Rundown and dreary. Family nearby but their friends left behind. Ella hoped they were settling in.
They were a nice couple. They deserved better. In the end, they left quickly. One of them had slipped a card under the door of the second-floor flat where Ella was technically squatting. A postcard of the shiniest new landmarks, the Shard, the London Eye, the Millennium Bridge. What the city was becoming and what they were being pushed out for. ‘Thank you for trying to help us.’ That was all it said. Such a brief message it felt almost sarcastic, but Ella knew they weren’t those kind of people. Just taciturn, a generation who held their emotions close.
She respected that. Wished sometimes that she was tougher. Times like now. She forced herself to stand and walk over to the window, clung on to the sill to keep herself upright. As always her gaze was drawn to the new tower, less than thirty metres away, standing so high and so close that she felt it might topple, its splayed lines made even more precarious-looking by the severity of the balconies, each one coming to an accusatory point. But that building would not topple. It would remain long after this one was gone. Soon the second tower would start to rise, but for now the acre of cleared land was just rubble and dust, pierced by huge splinters of steel reinforcement, bent like pipe cleaners. Nothing left of the flats, which were still occupied before Christmas. The site looked like a war zone, ripped apart and churned up.
The only thing missing, its dead. Ella shoved the window open and let the night breeze chill the flushed skin across her cheeks. The Thames was a dark slash, smeared with lights from the parade of new developments to east and west, the reflections so long in places that they almost reached the opposite bank, linking the old money of the north to this new money south. She closed her eyes, hearing the sounds of the party she’d left behind dropping from the roof, traffic noise thrumming reassuringly and then a sudden, ill-natured shout going up from the Embankment path below. When a siren blared she opened her eyes again, saw the strobing blue of a police car speeding across Vauxhall Bridge, heading this way. She slammed the window shut and turned her back on the city. The party noise kept coming, muffled, through the ceiling. A hundred guests. Her friends and supporters, all drinking and talking and laughing. Her Kickstarter project was fully funded.
The book would happen, the voices of London’s lost would be heard. Cheering and toasts, smiling faces and Prosecco in paper cups. She’d made a speech she couldn’t now remember, even though she’d spent hours writing and rewriting it, polishing and memorising, knowing it would be quoted across every social-media platform, picked apart and attacked. Now she didn’t care what she’d said. Ella looked away from the man’s dead body. Dead, she thought, but didn’t know, because she couldn’t bring herself to touch his skin again. She could feel the places where he’d touched her. Knew they would be bruises tomorrow, perfect impressions of his fingerprints. Overhead the music was getting louder and soon someone would realise she was gone and come looking for her. It was her night.
She couldn’t just disappear. Not for this long. But there were dozens of empty flats she could be in and, in the distant, still logical part of her brain, she knew that the odds were in her favour for a while longer. This door locked, at least. Hadn’t been kicked in like so many others. Every few minutes her phone vibrated in her pocket, like a series of aftershocks, as another notification came through. A gentle fist tapped at the door. ‘It’s me.’ No more than a whisper. Ella crossed the room shakily, feeling like each footstep was an impossibility until she made it, like the whole building was tilting and skewed around her.
She pressed her eye to the spyhole, needing to be sure the person she heard was the one she was expecting, and with a sigh of relief that relieved almost nothing, she fumbled back the security chain and hauled Molly in, closing the door quickly behind her. Molly looked worse for wear, bottle-black hair mussed around her face, kohl sweaty and smudged into the deep creases under her eyes. Was it a mistake to call her? Was she in any fit state to help? Ella watched with trepidation as Molly walked over to the man, footsteps heavy in her biker boots, no hesitation in her stride. This wasn’t the first person she’d encountered laid out in a room he had no place being, Ella thought. Except this would usually be an accidental overdose or a kicking from a debt collector gone too far. There was an explanation on Ella’s tongue, but she swallowed it. Gulped it down hard, her throat dry and closing up again as the anxiety reasserted itself. ‘Who is he?’ Molly asked, in a toneless voice which suggested that no answer could possibly faze her. ‘I don’t know,’ Ella said, the last word barely audible as she felt the fear curl a fist around her windpipe. She stumbled across the room, catching hold of the arm of a chair in time to stop herself falling.
Molly was with her in a moment, easing her down. Dry, strong palms on her cheeks, eyes boring into her own, reassuring in their intensity. ‘Just breathe,’ she said, in her forty-a-day voice. ‘You’re going to be fine, sweetheart. It’s not real, it’s just fear. It can’t kill you.’ The room blurred. Ella put her head between her knees, while Molly stroked her shoulders, talking her down the way she had so many times before. She didn’t listen to the words, only the rhythm and pitch of them, until her breathing calmed again and the pattern on the sun-faded carpet between her feet resolved into sharper lines. ‘It was an accident,’ she said finally, forcing herself to look at him.
Ella Then – 6th March – evening ‘Ella, hi.’ The man stuck his hand out for her to shake and when he didn’t get an immediate response took it as an invitation to drag her into a hug. ‘It’s so good to see you again.’ She stiffened as his arm went around her shoulder, and patted him on the ribs. He was six inches taller than her, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, smelling of a long day’s work not fully covered by a potent spritz of body spray. He caught on at last and dropped his arm, stared at her with a horrified expression. ‘Shit, you don’t remember me, do you?’ His face crumpled and he looked towards the small group of people he’d just peeled away from, as if they would vouch for him, but they were deep in conversation around the trestle table where the Prosecco was being poured. Ella didn’t recognise them either. Backers, she guessed, definitely not residents, not members of any of the local action groups either. Bloggers or press, maybe; she’d sent dozens of invites out to people she barely knew, hoping to stoke up some more buzz, spread the word.
‘Manchester. ’ His hand turned in the air, encouraging her to finish the sentence. ‘Of course, yeah,’ she said, smiling a duchess smile. ‘Lovely to see you again. I just have to go and check on someone, but let’s chat later. Have another drink. Food’s ready soon.’ She pointed towards a couple of guys in black aprons sweating over a grill on the other side of the roof, the smell of burgers and falafels wafting over. ‘And thanks for coming out and showing your support. It means a lot to us all.
’ He started to speak again but she was already moving, heading for a circle of old milk crates they’d found in the basement this morning and carried up to the roof, the best they could do for seating on the limited budget. Molly was sitting there swaddled in a red fake-fur coat, a woman about her age but much older-looking, rolling a joint next to her. Carol was one of Molly’s friends from way back. Ella had met her at a vigil last year. Afterwards, Ella took them both to the pub and listened as they shared their war stories: Greenham Common and Reclaim the Streets, road protests where they’d chained themselves to diggers, incursions into animal-testing labs. Since then Ella had attended sit-ins and marches with Carol, drunk with her, been to her house, been taken into her trust and lost it again, and still she couldn’t decide if Carol cared about everything or nothing. If protest was just a way of life she’d fallen into and now had nothing to replace it with. She was fifty-seven and had been doing this since the mid-eighties. No partner or children, just like Molly, but a network of people she considered family. And one man, in particular, she regarded as a son.
He was the reason Ella hadn’t expected to see her here, why she’d not invited her. Evidently Molly had decided to play the diplomat, take this opportunity to encourage two of her closest friends to make peace. Judging by the sour expression on Carol’s face, she wasn’t in a forgiving mood. As Ella approached them, Carol lit her joint, took a quick drag and held it out to her, giving her a challenging look. Daring her to reject the deliberately inappropriate olive branch. ‘You know Ella doesn’t.’ Molly plucked the joint from between Carol’s fingers. ‘She’s a good girl, aren’t you, sweetheart?’ ‘It makes me paranoid.’ She drew up a crate. ‘And I’m already nervous as hell about giving this speech.
’ ‘Just tell them what you think they want to hear,’ Carol said. ‘That’s worked out well for you lately.’ Ella glanced at Molly, who gave her an apologetic shrug then tucked her chin down into the collar of her coat. ‘How many are you expecting?’ ‘We’ve got fifty people who took the patron option – they’re the only ones who paid enough for an invite.’ Ella warily eyed Carol, who was staring at the guests with open contempt. ‘Then we sent out another eighty invites to locals and some of the other people who’ll be involved in the book, but you know how it is, not everyone who says they’re coming comes.’ ‘People are so unreliable these days,’ Carol said coldly. Ella scanned the crowd, perhaps sixty strong now and mingling well. She spotted Derek from 309 talking to a young reporter from the local paper. No sign of the other remaining residents she’d invited but it was still early.
They were the people she needed to be here. Human stories commanded column inches and, while Derek would happily talk even the most patient reporter’s ear off, one man wasn’t enough. She recognised a couple from the local residents’ association, waved at the man when she caught his eye. They’d cornered a freelance journalist and were, no doubt, explaining how the homeless shelter they both volunteered at was currently fighting closure. They’d get their coverage, Ella thought. They were young, photogenic and fiercely committed, just the kind of people she’d wanted involved. He was doing a series of shorts for the book, putting regulars at the shelter to the Proust questionnaire. She was contributing a piece about the shutting down of historical gay bars in the area. ‘What’s all this lot cost?’ Carol asked. ‘We managed most of it with volunteers and donations,’ Ella said, knowing why Carol disapproved.
‘Nothing’s come out of the main fund.’ She could have asked who paid to get Carol to Sizewell B all those years ago, who bought her bolt croppers and the fabric for her banners, but she wanted tonight to go well so she changed the subject. ‘How are things going with your community centre?’ she asked. Carol grunted. ‘Developers are saying they “no longer have the requisite funds” to build it. It’s a hundred and fifty grand, for fuck’s sake. They think we’re idiots. It was a condition of their planning permission and the council are doing nothing to force them to comply.’ Ella nodded, half listening as Molly started questioning Carol on the details, avenues she might go down and people who could help. Two guys came over and sat on the crates opposite her, started tucking into their burgers and talking animatedly about an exhibition they’d just come from at the Damien Hirst gallery on Newport Street.
No sense of irony, Ella thought. Happy to spend an evening going from one site of gentrification to an event trying to help the very people pushed out by the process. Still, they’d have a copy of the book when it was finished, could put it on their coffee table next to the gallery catalogues they’d collected and enjoy the playful juxtaposition. Behind them the Rise 1 tower thrust arrogantly into the night sky and she noticed a lone figure on one of the balconies, watching this party. It must look like a sad gathering from so high up, a celebration for a non-victory, because this building would come down and a bigger, shinier one would go up in its place. They were causing the owners only minimal disruption with their refusal to take the offers that kept coming in, upped by a couple of thousand pounds a time. While the real estate itself increased at a much faster rate. Even in this economic climate. The words of her speech, which she was running through in her head once again, sounded hollow and naïve. This crowd would cheer, they would raise their glasses in drunken defiance, but tomorrow morning the same choice would be facing Molly and others: go now or go later.
She looked at Molly, bent double with laughter, and knew she must realise that too. Every fight she’d taken on had been lost – roads got built, power went nuclear and women were no safer on the streets – because the system was too huge to fight and it had stopped allowing the little people their small victories, because even the stingiest concessions led them to believe they deserved better and that belief was too dangerous to be tolerated. ‘If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.’ One of her father’s favourite sayings, now seemingly a global policy. Ella shook her head, told herself not to think like that. People were still fighting and, one thing she knew for certain, fought all the harder when their backs were against the wall. More guests had arrived during the last half hour and, without her noticing, the background chatter had become a babble. She saw the man who had approached her earlier talking to a young woman who exhaled her e-cigarette vapour into his face, watched him wave it away, refusing to read the signal she was giving. The man went to fetch two bottles of beer and by the time he turned back to her the woman had joined another group, obviously friends because they circled her protectively. Molly elbowed Ella, holding out a bottle of bourbon she’d brought from her flat.
‘For your nerves.’ ‘Do I look that scared?’ she asked, trying to make a joke of it. ‘Only because I know you.’ Ella took a small mouthful and forced herself to swallow. She wasn’t a big drinker, especially neat spirits. But it started some warmth spreading through her chest and into her belly and the second go wasn’t quite as unpleasant. ‘We’ll corrupt you yet,’ Carol said humourlessly. They passed the bottle around between them and Carol rolled another joint, the smoke dieselsmelling and heady when she blew it out. Ella was sure she was aiming it in her direction on purpose, as if she could get her high like that. They thought she was a puritan and Ella wouldn’t correct them.
They didn’t need to know how much she’d smoked at university, how she’d bought weed rather than food during most of her first year, blasted through it alone, because nobody seemed to want to be around her at Trinity, not her housemates, or her classmates; not even the couple of other girls who’d come from her old school, bringing the childish barbs and gossip and the nicknames along with them. If they could see her now, she thought, watching the crowd begin to coalesce at the centre of the roof between the drinks and food, as if they knew the evening was reaching its purpose. The alcohol had silenced the negative voice at the back of her head, the one that had been dogging her all day, reminding her how bad she was at public speaking. She would not forget her lines. She’d been through the speech two dozen times; it was seared on her brain. This was important, it was the right thing, it was what people wanted from Ella Riordan. ‘Now?’ she asked Molly. ‘If you’re ready.’ ‘I am.’ Molly and Carol shoved a few crates together, placed one on top to create a platform.
A police helicopter passed overhead and Carol paused to shout at it, raising her fist with the joint between her fingers. A few other people followed her example and a bottle went sailing over the edge of the roof, missing the helicopter by thirty metres or more, but it got a cheer and something shifted in the air, a new edge of menace creeping through the crowd, a chaotic ripple that momentarily stopped her from taking the makeshift stage. The small, scared voice inside her wondered if they might turn on her next. ‘Come on, sweetheart,’ Molly whispered, holding her by the elbow. ‘You’ve worked hard for this, enjoy your moment.’ The crates wobbled slightly as she stepped up on to them, but she kept her footing. ‘Everyone!’ Molly shouted. ‘Your attention, please.’