You stare at them for long enough and they cease to be human, that’s what he’s learned. You have to be above, standing still and watching them pass below to really see it. In their thousands, beneath your feet. They make shapes with their movements, patterns they’re not even aware of, like ants, like a virus, they copy each others actions, they follow without knowing why, they flow. ‘Like water’, he’s thinking as he watches them pouring down the escalator; it’s what they sound like too with all their talking and rustling of bags, as if they were no more than atoms in a stream, washing over him and he is the rock, resisting.
Losing it, Terry, he tells himself, get back to work, mate.
Up there on the fourth floor by Accessorize he looks down into them for signs. By H&M, by Gap, hundreds wearing just what the mannequins are wearing, all blurring into each other. There’s a little cut on his palm and he digs his nails into it, to open the wound, to feel again the lucid pain of last week.
Wednesday, four pm. He’d been tailing them for fifteen minutes around the arcade. Ferret, Fatboy and Fall Guy, those were his names for them, the oldest could only have been fourteen. Two had been standing at the foot of the escalator with their camera phones while the third, Fall Guy, had been going up and down, searching for their victim. Ferret nodded and Fall Guy went first with them following with their phones recording. The girl was maybe thirteen and wearing a short stripey skirt; her friend was wearing one just the same. The three got on the escalator just behind the girls and held their phone cameras low, pointing up the skirts. Ferret nodded and the Fall Guy lifted the fabric, carefully, like a shoplifter; you could see the girls arse, her thong, even from the distance he’d been at. Just before the top of the escalator, Ferret, pushed and Fall Guy fell against the girls and they landed on the moving metal. Ferret filmed everything, the girls legs in the air. Everywhere people scared or laughing.
He’d got there just in time, caught them heading for the doors. Spun the Ferret round, the kid’s face spitting hate.
- You’re in big trouble son.
- Ooohh big man, eh? GBH is it, hitting a minor, eh? One of them was still filming. He tightened his grip, cut his hand on the kid’s zip, sucked it to his mouth. They started laughing at him.
- Better get his ma, Jamie, this cunts suckin his thumb!
Control hadn’t recorded anything, he had nothing on them. But that wasn’t why he let them go. It was the eyes. Something in the kid’s eyes had made him shudder. Nothing. The kid looked through him like he was nothing.
No son of his would behave like that. Been a while since he had a call from Steve, not since he’d moved out of the ex’s and off to technical college. He’d give him a call tonight, after he’d seen his mum. Yes, it had been a while since he’d seen his mum.
There. Now. Ground floor, between H&M and Mothercare. The first one in a blue sports top, the face hidden by a hood, doing that thing they do, hands in pockets, pretending to be looking in the window, going back again and again over the same spot. Checking his phone now, looking round, walking those little steps they do, like those rapper guys on TV. He’s texting now. This is what they do, they loiter, they congregate and then it starts.
He looks up at camera twelve by the door at HMV and nods, but no reply, just static in his ear-piece. All the cameras are pointed at the wrong things, most of them jammed. He suspects the guys in control room spend half their time following tits and arse. They’re part of the problem. He’ll have to do this alone.
Sure enough it’s started, number two and three are coming through the glass doors. They always work in threes or more, they goad each other on, they’re cowards at heart, junkie babies, mummies boys. The one with the blue baseball cap, his skinny arms dangling from his sleeveless sports shirt. The way he keeps pulling the cap down; they’ve never managed to get a shot of his face on the tapes, but it’s The Ferret, he’s sure of it. He’s walking past the first guy now, they’re texting each other even though they’re only feet apart, having a laugh, no doubt, about what they have planned. Number three, in the stripey top and white poly joggers. Spiked slicked hair. From up there it’s hard to tell, but he’s pretty sure it’s the Fall Guy. They’re all the same anyway. He heads to the escalators.
- I need you to locate and record - over. Control are not responding. Just static.
A balloon, red - Toy’s’R Us logo, is blocking his view. Two women and their child. He’s out and round them, quickly. He’s looking down the five floors but they’ve gone. Scrammed, action stations. It’s proof they’re acting together. They say he’s paranoid up in control but he’s seen what these kids can do.
‘Happy slappy’ they call it. Over three thousand clips on youtube. Going up to strangers and hitting them, knifing them, for a laugh, for their camera phones. Rape and murder too, in five cases, he’d read, in The Mail. Posted on the net to humiliate their victims. A trend, a way of showing off, all over the world it was now. Anywhere the scum had the technology.
There’s some kind of rush on in Zavvi, he can’t get through to the escalator; a closing down sale. This couple of girls with their boobs all on display, blocking his way with their Playboy branded bags. Be preggers soon enough he thinks, part of the problem. He bumps into them, couldn’t help it, now they’re making it seem like he’s the perv.
-Sorry, sorry, he’s saying, like a damned fool.
He holds his earpiece and talks into his lapel mic as he puts his back to them. They’re laughing at him now.
- Control, this is Terry. I urgently need a visual on a group of three, last seen
by H&M male, under sixteen, caps and hoods.
No reply. He finally gets on escalator one but is stuck behind a baby buggy. A little kid in a fluffy hat and gloves on string is holding it’s mother’s hand staring back at him, face covered in chocolate. Kids. Escalators - they give him the fear now.
Tommy Bainbridge from Hackney. A gang of girls had pushed him down an escalator in Westfield shopping centre, he’d been falling towards this mother with a baby in her arms, if he’d hit the mother, for sure the baby would have gone over the edge, he threw himself out of her way and went over, himself. He fell four floors and smashed his skull and spine. After being in a coma for six weeks, he was officially pronounced brain dead but his mother wouldn’t turn off his life support. People were praying for his recovery, sending money. Chelsea O'Mahoney 14, and her co-defendants Darren Sargeant, 15, Reece Case, 16, and David Rice, 12. were cleared of all charges. No parental role models, the judge said, no fathers. Kids raised by teenage mothers. Tommy’s mother was only twenty four and was ill equipped to know her maternal role as all mothers who had a child before the age of consent are. The state is to blame. Greater powers to the state to intervene in such cases were recommended in the judges summation and increased role for the social services. We should try to pity these people. Every one is a victim here.
A child falling through space.
The footage had been on the net for a whole month before the powers that be got it taken off. 392,876 people had seen it. Worldwide. There had even been sites that intercut the falling child with falling people from 9/11, and some that had played the footage backwards. One that had intercut the falling child with images of bombs falling and another that had the kid go up and down forward and reverse to some dance track.
He should never have watched it all.
He fights his way through to the second escalator and scans the forecourt by H&M, below. He glimpses the fall guy, running, but cannot pursue. A woman, obese, is blocking his way. He sees what might be Ferret and Fall Guy; the view is difficult, directly above, they are just caps and feet and mobile phones, compressed by gravity. The cheery music is taunting him as time descends so slowly. The swift turn to the third escalator and an elbow in his ribs and a waft of cheap aftershave and he’s stuck there behind a baby buggy. They are supposed to fold those things and carry them, it’s a fire hazard. Mothers these days. He should definitely go and see his mother tonight, with some flowers, cheer her up.
The hiss in his ear, static.
- Control, here. Is that Dave?
Christ, he’s worked here how long and they still don’t know his name.
- It’s Terry, where the hell have you been? Look, I need you to scan
the forecourt for three youths, one in baseball cap, one in hood.
Even as he says it, he knows it’s pointless, even before he hears the guy in control laughing. He pulls the earpiece out. He’s getting closer. He scans the five stores by the entrance: Lacoste, KFC, La Senza, JD sports. Through the window display, deep in PC World he sees the blue baseball cap. Or is it Purple? Just two hundred feet away and another escalator to go.
He pushes through with many apologies, and is off and heading to the entrance. He moves as quick as he can without upsetting the shoppers. He’s not supposed to freely walk in and out of stores, they have their own security. He doesn’t know the guard at the door there. New, black guy, smiling over at him. No point doing the introductions, only waste time and he has to make a positive identification now.
Through the glass, he sees the blue cap turning from side to side and the hair spikes bobbing along the shelves by the Macbooks. He knows what they can do, quick as a flash, two bob in the hand and they’ve prized off the return button, or the space bar. Kicked it onto the floor, trashed the keypad. They’re not here to shoplift, they don’t need money, the powers that be take care of them just fine. Molly-coddling the little murderous fuckers.
The hoodie, over there by the Playstations. A line of kids, just like them, all waiting to play. They can push the buttons just that bit too hard, or pull the wire in a certain way and then it’s ruined. Thousands of pounds worth of damage, people lose their jobs.
- Look what you made me do! They’ll say when you grab them. Oh yes, he knows what they do. They try on trainers in Sportsworld and put chewing gum inside, or tear off the branding stripes. They follow random adults, stepping on their heels, swearing at them, freaking them out. They push each other into old people, making them spill their scalding coffee. They piss in the elevators. Worst of all they know when they’re being followed so they behave. That’s what really gets him. The feral intelligence.
The cap has gone and the spike hair has the wrong colour of shirt. Too many kids in the way and adverts and signs and reflections in the glass. Nothing for it. He nods at the guard and heads inside.
He scans the faces at computer consuls and joysticks, as electronic screams and explosions go off in his face. Row after row and all have spiked hair and hoods and caps.
Looking up, as if for help, he sees the stair. There. At the back, to the second floor. They’ll be up and on the Atrium, laughing at him by now. He legs it up the stairs and a hundred yards away, over the shelves, through the glass, he glimpses the cap under the alcove by Baby Gap, just by the elevators. The elevators are part of his plan. Last week, he checked up in control. He asked the guy to show him all the places on his screens, the fountain and the doors and there were, as he had hoped, a few gaps, places the cameras couldn’t go.
Below camera twelve by Toy’s R Us.
To the right of camera eighteen by the elevators.
Inside elevator three.
- Have to get that fixed, he’d said to the control guy.
- Yeah, but the paperwork. Fuck it!
In elevator three, he’ll fix them for good. He runs,
bumping into a couple, apologising, spinning round, sliding on the polished floor, people are staring but he doesn’t care, his target is in sight. Their branded backs seem to rise in defence as he approaches, their shoulders primed for attack. Right outside Mothercare he grabs the one with cap.
- Right wise guys, follow me.
The faces turn. They are not the faces.
- What the fuck? Says one.
He has freckles, the other, a scar below his eye. No Ferret, no Fatboy.
The kid shrugs his hand from his shoulder.
- Fakin’ poofter! He laughs and the two laugh with him.
- I want no trouble here, he says, we’re watching you.
As he turns away he hears a click and a phone beep and he knows, he just knows they are recording him.
The screeching of rubber wheels on lino, the numb thrumming of television game shows and canned laughter suffocated behind closed doors. The smell of bleach and flower scented spray which cannot mask those other smells, un-nameable. The plastic wrapper on the chrysanthemums rustles against his leg as he scurries down the corridor and head towards Rose. She is in Rose, his mother who is called Betty; they’ve named the four wings after flowers, they’re not called wards but wings. Room 28. Her room in this place he has put her, this thing called a home.
- Hi mum. He pushes open the door gently, there is no point in
knocking, she is so hard of hearing now.
But what he sees cannot be his mother. The naked knots of a spine, flesh hanging from it, a nappy sagging, an arm, skeletal, fingers clawing the air, blue veined arthritic knuckles, reaching for the metal bed bars. Her face buried against the wall.
– Jesus mum! He’s trying to take her weight, sliding on the damp floor, pulling the emergency chord, the red light goes on but he can’t hear if the alarm has sounded as the TV above her bed is so loud - The Weakest Link
Squeaking rubber feet and a hand on his shoulder. The carer in the green uniform, whose name he has forgotten, is there with another, there is no hello, she shouts to his mother, over the telly.
- At it again Betty, I told yah not to put the side down. She hoists his mother up-right and now he sees her face, the skin seems pale on one side, as if the blood had drained from it. How long had she been lying like that? Jesus. His mother smiles as if nothing has happened.
- She’s always at it. The nurse shouts to him, it’s like the great escape in here. She thinks she’s going to the dancing, that right Betty? She winks at him
This is no way to talk to his mother.
The carer and orderly get the side of the bed up and he’s staring at her long profiled nose. She’s smiling at the TV and still hasn’t said hello. The carer puts her hand out to him.
- Get some water for those shall I?
The flowers, of course. He lets her take them. She hits the remote control and the TV goes mute.
- She’s a real telly-tubby, aren’t ya Betty?
Then she is away with his flowers. He fights the urge, tries to rationalise the anger away as his mother always taught him. Yes, this is the way they cope, these women paid to care for a hundred aged that they will see die, only to be replaced with more of the same, their daily routine of cleaning and washing, the smell they take home on their skin. It’s understandable, this way they have of making a joke and teasing the old deaf ones; just their way of keeping chirpy, a way of relating of sorts, not like some of the others he’s seen on TV. The ones that have given up joking, those are the dangerous ones. They’re not so bad here, the place wasn’t cheap but he was damned if she was going NHS. See, you’re much calmer now, he tells himself.
- Hi mum.
Her eyes reflect the TV. They are still clear, not clouded, not as he had feared. She is chewing something, sticking her tongue out to lick the sides of her mouth. She hasn’t got her teeth in. He looks round to find them, so she can talk. Why do they do that, take their teeth away? Jesus, these places.
On TV under the blue studio lights they are each turning over the name of the person that’s the weakest link. Four of them vote for Jerry.
- How you feeling mum? Any better?
He cannot find her teeth and she does not hear, he has to raise his voice. She
turns to him, her eyes still flickering back to the telly.
- Is that you, George?
- It’s me mum, Terry.
This George thing started about a month ago. He’d hoped it would
have stopped by now. It gives him the shivers. She looks him in the eye and scans his face. She used to say she could read his mind and see bad things in there. She goes back to the telly, mumbles and starts chewing again.
- Is it tea time?
- It’s… he checks his watch, it’s eight thirty mum, soon be time for bed.
She winces suddenly.
- Oh I’m bursting.
He gets to his feet, to call the nurse to ask them to take his mum to the toilet
but then his eyes catch sight of it, under the bed. The bag, the catheter.
- It’s OK, mum, you can do it here, there’s a tube.
- I’m bloody bursting.
She never used to swear, and he swears that since her stroke, she’s started
talking with an accent from the north of England. Her mother was from Yorkshire, but she never lived there herself.
- I can go if you need to do it alone, he says. She motions for him to come closer, he is glad for that for that movement, that promise of a moment, he takes her hand, her lips close to his ear.
- Is it tea time yet?
He always tells her the same thing.
- It’s nearly bedtime, mum.
- Starving, she says and starts to weep.
As always he gives her the benefit of the doubt, thinks there must be some
kind of mistake, maybe they haven’t fed her, how would he ever know? These powers that be get corrupted like that. They bleed them dry, milk their bank accounts, then starve them, give them overdoses, just to get the free beds so they can get the next ones in. He read about it, right here, in The Mail, about the same time he read about little Tommy Bainbridge.
- Nurse, he calls out. He pulls the chord again and in no time she is there
- Sorry, but she’s saying she’s hungry, is there any chance she could have a …
She shakes her head and raises her voice to his mother, not to him.
-You at it again Betty? Eh, I don’t know where you put it love? Hollow legs.
She winks at him, hands him the chart.
- Lancashire hotpot with brussell sprouts, mashed potatoes and peas and then
ice cream and jelly, that was twenty minutes ago, see.
It’s all written down there, next to what she had the day before and before that and the times for nappy changing, room cleaning and urotstomy bag change. He apologises.
-S’awright. She loves her scran. Isn’t that right Betty? The nurse
gives his mother a hug, kisses her forehead. She lowers her voice slightly.
- Sweetie, isn’t she. Did she say she was bursting too?
-Changed her bag an hour ago and gave her a bed bath. She doesn’t like the
tube, but we can’t lift her anymore, they’re like big babies, you gotta love ‘em though.
She raises her voice again.
- Got to pee in the tube Betty, no need to burst, let yourself go, love.
He can’t help but take offence, the way he is excluded. His mother too seems not part of it, not the mother he knew. This Betty who begs for food.
- Is George here? She asks again.
- Yes, love he’s right here. She raises her voice - Your boy’s right here. Say
hello to George.
And she heads to the door.
- I’m Terry.
- Really? She smiles to herself. Not to worry, they get stuck, you know, in the loop, round and round, three or four things, crying and that. Was he your Dad?
He shakes his head. She laughs.
- It happens.
- You think she’ll …
He was going to ask if she’d get better. The carer smiles and raises her voice.
- Whose George then Betty? Ya old rascal - yer toy boy eh? George Clooney
She nudges him, winks at him.
- If I were you, I’d tell her you’re George, might get some conversation out
of her then.
- Oh, I’m bursting, his mother says.
- Have a nice time. The carer says, walks out and closes the door.
He sits beside his mother and watches the TV with the sound off. He hesitates then takes her hand. The skin like webbed silk, translucent, a milk sheen over veins, he feels the pulse, stronger than the muscles of her fingers which do not return his touch. He doesn’t want to hurt her, she always said he didn’t know his own strength. Had to watch it.
He looks at her profile, her thin strands of white hair, her strong cheekbones,
her long neck, that little pink ribbon that’s on her nightie that’s not a ribbon at all, but just a bow that’s been stuck on. His ex said what he needed was a mummy not a real woman. Temper tantrums, a big baby you are she said.
On the weakest link they are down to the final three, the lights swirl as the
contestants write down the name of the person to be thrown out. Two out of the three vote for Joan. Joan leaves the studio.
- Is it tea time? She says.
He lets go of her hand, grabs the remote and turns the volume up.
- The game of shinty is played in which country?
- Where’s George?
It’s too late now to tell and to ask of many things. Of how he was sorry for having been a clinging child in those years after his father left. Of how he felt shame for keeping her all to himself, never letting her find a new man, for selfishly, in his screaming fits, destroying all of her friendships with prospective suitors. Maybe there had been a George, or maybe George was why his father left, or maybe he was just trying to join things up that had no connection.
- Is it A - Afghanistan. B - Scotland or C - Iceland?
The Mail is sitting there on the table at the foot of the bed. He picks it up
thinking he’ll have a scan of the sports pages, but sees the cover, that picture of poor Tommy Bainbridge and the date. The same bloody paper’s been lying there for a month.
- I’m bursting, she says.
He will not open the paper. The picture of the escalator on
page five. The frozen image of the child’s fall caught on the mobile phone of his killers.
Tomorrow. Ferret and Fatboy and Fall Guy, in elevator three. Lock them in, hit the emergency stop between floors. One by one, smash their faces on the cold metal, crush their skulls with his heel and leave them lying in blood and sick and bone. Photograph them on his phone, say he found them like that, they did it to themselves. Teeth grinding in the metal under boot. Eyes bursting from skull.
- What is the chemical name for Carbon Monoxide? Asks the TV.
She chews her lip as she watches the TV. He lets go of her limp hand and gets to his feet.
Vision Express, Starbucks, Dorothy Perkins, Borders. A middle aged woman in heels with three bulging M&S bags talks on her mobile as her bags brush his passing leg. A couple laugh as they walk arm in arm and kiss, right in front of him. Children run punching each other and throw him off balance. A hundred are on escalator four, the smell from the perfume shops is overwhelming, from the food hall - Chinese and burgers and fries and un-nameable things. The smell. After he has returned home and showered and had a drink, it’ll still be there with him, the way sewage lingers or pig dirt or industrial chemicals or the fake floral stench of the home. And the noise, it roars, it bears down on him with the weight of four floors and the heavens and years alone. He just has to get up and above, to his place at the top, to not be crushed.
He hits the up elevator button. His earphone crackles static.
- Hey Dave, howzit going, you see the babe by escalator three.
He turns the thing off. The elevator has arrived and a mother and child get out, he holds the door, waiting a second, watching the glass doors for the three. The elevator pushing against his hand, again, again. Fatboy and Ferret will come soon. Not today but tomorrow. Or the next day; he has time. He is paid to watch and wait like this, he is a security man.
The metal walls and floor of the elevator. Some little cunt has scored DIE FUCKERZ into the wall. The floor, the repeat pattern textures of the molded steel as if the people who designed this knew.
He ascends and feels in his gut the rewind of the same picture again and again.
When you run the footage backwards little Tommy Bainbridge leaps from the blood and mess of the ground floor tiles, up, back, past H&M and Topman up past Starbucks and Accessorize to the top floor and into the arms of his mother.