I stepped from the curb into a rivulet that ran right down to the Underground station at the road’s end, and then skimmed the water into an abandoned paper cup that rolled across the street. It was an English summer, another way to say it was wet and grey; but I cared very little as I walked right down the middle of the road. In the old days, this would be inconceivable; but London was much emptier now. I remembered how, less than a decade ago, scooter gangs would dominate these roads: the stot for the London teenager, a wheelie in the road’s middle to prove masculinity and fitness to breed—then perhaps acquire a phone or a purse to support the baby. Moped-mediated theft.
It was all gone now. London was very empty these days; so empty, in fact, that every third house had its windows covered over with newspaper or whitewashed out. So I had the street to myself. I have to admit that I had a slight hand in the change. I found a fragment in an old officer’s diary that said, “I don’t know if he was a better man than me and, anyway, I’ve killed better men than me so many times…” It stayed with me, mixed in with movie quotes and sentimental songs blasted from stereos.
The city might be emptier today, but not in the sky. In the sky there were cranes upon cranes. The boom had been on for about five years now, and it started pretty much the year after the Sweep ended. I can see the children who grew up under those years now; they are distinct from the adults—from the people before, from a marshmallowy time. There is more determination in the generation to come; it leaves me a little frightened. I was born in a very soft time, soft and rotten. Now when I walk through London it seems recognisable. This is the Warden’s doing, of course, the city is pretty much his private fief; and he likes it kept a certain way—sycamores are being planted everywhere, his favourite tree. It comes from his own purse and happens on his own land, but he owns a lot of land these days.
The streets that were once filled with Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are more or less empty. Before the Sweep there were no rules, not for ethnics; they came and went as they pleased. The Warden has a private company to run resettlement—a few in competition, actually—and it works pretty well. Here and there I see a few guest workers in their blue jumpsuits, each with a unique identifier to show which company they belong to; they work hard, retire to the their dormitories in the Isle of Dogs every night and are gone the next day if they breach their contract.
As for the rest; well, as we know now, the files being declassified, they were here for demographic warfare purposes: the Warden’s enemies used to pay them off through various groups—little Marxist cells or Islamist groups—to smash up J.D. Sports or burn down a suburb, anything to keep the middle class cowed. They are easily cowed. I know. I grew up among them. Today, the streets look more like the Warden would have them; in other words, the streets resemble him—English quintessence.
I climb up the steps into a small Victorian mansion; it used to be subdivided into multiple rooms, but there is more money about now—the tax rate is effectively zero per cent—and the euro trash has gone and so the old mansions have been snapped up, converted wholesale by new money. I find the old room—a hole still in the window—and the hiding place behind the skirting board that contains a Stonehenge postcard. Nobody really sends these today. I turn the card over and see the cryptoglyphs on the back. The handwriting is mine, atrophied from years on the computer; again, not like these youngsters—if they are smart enough they are trained in ink and calligraphy. The Warden thinks this is more robust; some professors from Beijing say otherwise, but we prefer not to listen to them. They are still too busy copying the old dead world—an Oriental habit, to copy too perfectly.
My cryptoglyphs represent a code, unpleasant memories come with them—memories that make me snap my teeth and say “error” out loud. There is no furniture in the room, so I lean against the wall to read. The Sweep was necessary; the young people will not understand, but there was, in my day, a lot of…material. Ugly and debased, there was no innocence to it. People had to be clever back then. I pause to watch a florist bike up the street; he rings his bell to attract attention. There are more and more businesses that work so in these days; everything is a lot smaller and slower, yet more elegant. It feels like a very slow and purposeful dance.
Yes, we did things—I did things—at that facility…or was it a camp? People used to talk a lot about camps in my day, camps were bad things; although everybody had them, we all knew that. We had the hardest prisoners there, just outside Stonehenge, the fanatics and drug addicts who once held senior positions in the regime, captured after London fell. There was one who was different, the only one I would have spared; not that he was better, but rather I think he experienced metanoia, a change of heart…
What did I want to communicate to myself ten years ago? As I reached the cypher’s end I found the last crucial keys had blurred to obscurity. There was nothing more to see; the veil had fallen again. I stepped back into the street and tore the postcard to pieces. Yes, there was a future, a British future—a future with the Warden—and it was…good.