The Thirty Five Timely & Untimely Deaths Of Cumberland County

By Mason Ball

1934: a doctor struggles with belief, mortality and murder; a novel inspired by real events

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The March On Canada Square

Hey there shed-dwellers.

Just thought I'd drop you a line to 'gift' this short story and to let those of you who have yet to pledge know that those who have already supported The Dutch Wives have exclusive access to a growing number of short stories by me, so why not join 'em?

This particular story seemed almost topical, what with the release of Ben Wheatley's Ballard adaptation High Rise. My little tribute to JG, written the week he died. JG Ballard, who, at a signing, in answer to my question "do you have any advice for a young writer unsure as to whether his subject matter might prove popular with the publishing industry?" thought for a while and replied wrly "take up brain surgery."


The March On Canada Square   

(for JG Ballard)


     It seemed that we didn’t belong, this was the message the numerous incursions appeared to be communicating. We had been assessed and summarily rejected, like some foreign body or unsuccessful transplant. In the end though it turned out we were merely practice, baby steps before the sprint to the finish; we were the fish you threw back for being too small.

     We’d migrated east to Locksons Close to escape the squalid heights of Pentonville Road, it’s antiquated central heating system and the claustrophobia of flatmates; the eternal round of compromises and the perennially locked bathroom door.

     We had quit the centre, marooned ourselves away from the tube system, among the latticework ramblings of the Docklands Light Railway, little more than a Lego railway it seemed, driverless, trundling east between new money and old brick.

     Locksons Close was new when we moved in, its hallways at first glance pristine, only the smears and fingerprints in the paintwork, or the faulty wiring, betraying the haste with which it had been thrown up; its laminate flooring still showing the tread from a hundred or more builders, plasterers and electricians.

     Outwardly the building wore the yellowish brick of early millennial development, its high archway and black electric gates letting on to a car park and four double-glazed storeys, elevated on concrete stilts, as if raising their skirts for fear of flooding from the Limehouse Cut.

     The cut, which ran along the back of the complex, reached northeast to the River Lee and southwest out to the Thames, the oldest canal in London slicing effortless and indifferent through new and old alike.

     We were New among Old and it seemed The Old found us unpalatable. Opposite Locksons Close squatted the northern edge of the Lansbury Estate, a long, low block of flats, always one communal light blinking, strobing a sly wink, glaring across at Locksons Close like a disgruntled opponent in a chess game.

     It seems we were perceived by The Old as some kind of higher caste, rich, ravenous offspring of 80s yuppies; though we were far from that. We were a mid-thirties couple paying rent they could barely afford for a flat cobbled together, jerry built, inhaling our money hand over fist.

     Outside the close, the patchwork of council houses bristled with St. George’s flags, the pavements piebald with dog shit. Gangs of youths peppered the area, Asian, black, white, sometimes various cocktails of all three, surly and idling in circles, tracksuits and BMXs, smoking and eyeing from under hoods; something of the hyena about them. These were the foot soldiers of The Old, and against the interlopers.

     First to fall of course were the electric gates, forced open by hands unseen, the mechanical arms buckled and fractured from the outside, left swinging; bemused workmen that came to fix the gates told me it would have taken several men working together to break them. In the three years that followed they were fixed numerous times, seldom for any more than a fortnight. Whenever open, outside cars would flood in, eagerly taking advantage of free parking. It seemed a matter of space and the right to occupy it.

     A taxi driver once told me that Locksons Close had been built on an old police car pound, resting place and waiting area for stolen, recovered or seized vehicles. Perhaps the incursions and attacks were an echo of local resentment to this sanctioned theft, perhaps merely nostalgia for some kind of automotive martyrdom. It had been a limbo, a place of property orphaned between rightful ownerships, holding in its way something innate about East London’s history; its immigration and overcrowding, its chimeric identity.

     The gates would be fixed, the gates would be broken, it became a cycle. The management company soon gave up and the gates remained ajar.

     Next to come under attack were residents’ cars in the car park, windows broken, interiors plundered, the merest dark shape seen fleeing: the curve of a bicycle wheel, the blurred heel of a trainer in the streetlights, leaving car alarms screeching like rape victims, the yellow bricks of the building flaring, flashing indicator-orange.

     Crack pipes were found, like the spoor from some sick animal, drug deals spied from behind net curtains, late night liaisons, discarded underwear. Laid open, the close became a magnet for anything that wished to hide from view, resting place for an itinerant moral jetsam. Police patrolled the car park on bicycles. Eventually the building itself was invaded, graffiti scrawled on the sterile walls, unclaimed post rifled in the lobby area, one resident assaulted.

     Gradually though, perhaps as we became a familiar fixture, perhaps as other, newer buildings sprang up nearby, judged more blasphemous, the incursions lessened, the cars remaining unscandalised in their spaces; the graffiti was painted out. The gates however remained crippled and open, some kind of monument to the victory of The Old.

     It was easy to see this flare up of petty crime as just that, small and spiteful, inevitable result of The Evil Poor, although in time I came to see it as perhaps something else. There seemed to me something hive-like and blind at work, a machine testing limitations and weaknesses, a trial and error of the masses working toward something larger and more dramatic. It was to become an escalation of violence prompted not by spite or individual gain, but instead by a kind of shared and unknowing social psychopathology. Will supplanted by a collective madness, a madness categorised as such only by its opposition to some kind of nebulous sense of establishment, of ruling ethos.

     I was in the car park around ten one morning when I noticed, through the broken gates, several youths passing on Broomfield Street; ten, perhaps as many as fifteen. It was odd to see the hyenas in such large numbers, so I stood and watched them pass, as if observing a parade. Each one appeared to be carrying a weapon of some kind; there a cricket bat, there a broom handle, there a pool cue. A tall thin boy in an England shirt, no more than thirteen, was struggling along with a large holdall slung over his shoulder; behind him an overweight child wearing a baseball cap was carrying a large kitchen knife. As one they disappeared around the corner in the direction of Chrisp Street. Without questioning why, I followed.

     On the corner of the East India Dock Road their numbers increased, streaming between traffic, terrified drivers not daring to sound their horns no matter what the traffic light’s colour; I counted as many as eighty. Here a pick handle, there a scaffold pole; a ten year old girl holding what looked like a samurai sword, almost as tall as she was.

     I was reminded perversely of the Children’s Crusade, that largely discredited account of bands of children, who in the early 1200s marched towards the holy land to convert the heathen, only to fall to starvation, to drowning or to slavery. In contrast the crusaders I had followed, most of them teenagers, seemed to have little piety about them, their arsenal of bats and bottles alone suggesting something more than mere evangelism, or even pilgrimage. Visually the hyenas said gang warfare and yet there was no swagger in them, no posturing; just a dogged procession to somewhere else.

     Perhaps it was this procession, this travelling, that leant them an air of the other, of the atypical, contradicting as it did the middle class notion that the proles spent their time stealing from one another, breaking their neighbours’ windows, shitting on their own doorstep. These proles were going somewhere.

     The obelisk of the Canary Wharf building dominated the distant southern skyline, reaching up and over anything else, polished, the pyramid on its roof steaming, as if breathing, or on fire. The foot soldiers of The Old marched towards it, south to the Isle of Dogs and I, keeping my distance, followed.

     I had the strange impression that the tracksuits were homing somehow, something magnetic and irrational drawing them back to their source, or to the source of their equally irrational aspirations. It was as if, having been recruited, they were now being called to the corporate mother ship to await orders. Something in them had been mobilised; the phrase coup d’état came and went. Sky scrapers as war machines. Commerce as despot in waiting.

     At the base of the footbridge over Aspen Way they had already grown too many to count. I waited out of sight while they crossed. They filled the bridge over West India Quay.

     Canary Wharf is a binary place. Morning, lunchtime and evening it’s choked with suits, bodies crowding the immaculate pavements, being inhaled down into the gaping, domed oesophagus of its tube station; it’s part political rally and part religious gathering, each exercise in the hope of some unspecified, and perhaps insubstantial gain.

     At every other time however it’s deserted, a ghost town, a show-home hemmed in by sky scraping giants, panelled with tinted glass, fountains showing off to no one, paved with figurative gold, not a soul in sight; an apocalyptic diorama.

     As if to fill a space left, the area is crammed with corporate art, statues both abstract and literal, sculptures and architectural eccentricities that proclaim some kind of identity in lieu of any real animal warmth.

     No dog shit here, all litter is expunged, Canary Wharf’s own security forces prowling the cathedrals of shopping malls, the manicured parks. Almost a principality in its own right, it’s a theme park, an idea which you must either buy from, buy into, or leave. Steam cleaned and buffed to a high sheen it has all the warmth of a cutlery drawer, like a chunk of some cartoonish Manhattan was uprooted by a giant hand and simply dropped north of the Isle of Dogs and left to make do.

     I have a weakness for history books, for making connections. I say weakness because it has always seemed to me that too close a reading of history merely serves to undermine the present, to give excuses to its excesses and transgressions, a kind of grandiose reworking of the tabloid mantra I blame the parents. I tell myself that history is merely the foundation for now, rather than the blueprint. When we moved into Locksons Close I began reading.

     Ships left what’s now known as Canary Wharf for Africa, to collect slaves which they took to the Caribbean, to the plantations, returning home laden with sugar, as if to sweeten this sour deed. Doubtless many men grew fat having never laid eyes on an African, free or otherwise. Canary Wharf had been the flashpoint of the Great Strike of 1889, in which dockworkers had protested poor pay and conditions, and which lead directly to the formation of the labour movement. I told myself it was easy to see the history of anywhere as a series of injustices, exploitations and uprisings, which of course it is; in fact the more material read, the more it’s difficult to see anywhere in any other way.

     Some will tell you that the Isle of Dogs is so named because Edward III kept his hunting dogs there; others believe the dogs that gave the area its name were in fact feral animals that roamed the uninhabited marshland. I know which I believe.

     The tracksuited hyenas filed into Canada Square, before fanning out, forming a series of orderly lines, facing the flashing silvered monolith of the Canary Wharf building. No one individual seemed to be in charge, no order had been given; the youths moved as one, like a shoal of well drilled synchronised swimmers, fixed smiles erased to leave blank expressions. They filed in and waited.

     Some dug their trainer toes impatiently into the turf, others began trying to scratch their names into the huge blue asymmetrical sculpture with their weapons.

     I saw the boy with the holdall shrug it from his shoulder, digging into it, handing out small objects to the assembled crowd. The objects shone in the morning sun like dull metallic bricks. I thought they might perhaps be explosives of some kind, perhaps incendiary devices. The word terrorism came and went, feeling hackneyed and useless.

     The stillness that had been interrupted by the foot soldier’s arrival gradually returned. There was an intent in the air, an acidity of purpose. I stood out of sight, sweat staining my shirt, my stomach making fists. I asked myself why I’d left Locksons Close. I thought of running.

     The Canary Wharf building glowed. The hyenas waited, for what I couldn’t tell.

A late arrival, a girl no more than fifteen, heavily pregnant in her white tracksuit, flaming with acne and cheap gold jewellery, brushed passed me before glancing back. She looked at me intently, yet somehow without emotion, questioning; like an animal that catches sight of a television screen. Her head tilted ever so slightly to one side and she blinked, before reaching into a ragged carrier bag and handing me a short handled axe. With no more acknowledgement she left to join the others. I looked down at the axe, felt its weight, its dumb eagerness.

     I looked at them, fidgeting, as if in anticipation of the crack of a starting pistol.

     Just then a series of dark shapes began streaming around the base of the building, quick but orderly, not running; the memory of school prefects during a fire drill: More haste less speed. Something about their precision, the triumph of control over vulgar celerity, made them powerful and a little frightening.

     In time the shapes betrayed themselves as men and women, smartly dressed, each in an impeccable business suit, ties tied, hair shaped or pinned in place; pin stripes and city shorts, brogues and tweeds. Razor creases. In my mind imagery switched from prefects to headmasters and mistresses.

     They stepped out of the shade and kept coming, perhaps hundreds of them, thousands maybe, seemingly unending, eventually forming a kind of reflection of the hyena’s battle line; though outnumbering them by some considerable margin. I noticed that each of the suits carried an automatic rifle, exquisite, oiled and flawlessly black. Every weapon was duly checked, cocked and made ready. Stocks nosed at designer shoulders.

     This was to be no homing I realised, no corporate recall of infantry; something had gone terribly wrong. A flaw in the mother ship’s equations, in its promotion of flat ambition to the plebeian hoards, something lost in translation between castes; a cracked logic. Against all predictions, it seemed the hyenas had grown tired of eating their own.

     For a long moment nothing happened. Everything had the feel of stalled street theatre; corpsing and forgotten lines. Traffic lights changed at nothing. DLR trains crossed in the sky. I thought about running.

     As I watched, the thin boy in the England shirt knelt, reached into his bag and standing, threw one of the silvered bricks in a high arc. There was an interval during which I realised that the point of no return had passed and a strange calm settled; my axe and I took a step into the square. Seconds later a huge bloom of fire detonated against the building’s silvered façade, showering glass.

     The suits each closed one eye, took aim and opened fire. Hyenas fell in droves.

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