Out on the bombsite, among the weeds and rubble, children in grey school coats ran and shrieked. Sharpened by distance, their voices cried like gulls fleeing storms at sea. The architect blew on his cold fingers. It was nearly dinner time; he was going to be late again, and his wife would complain. She said he worked too hard. He knew it was true, but when you saw how so many people were living, when out of the slums you had the chance to build something, how could you stop? He ran his eyes over the site, imagining the estate he would build. He would have to put in some low rise blocks, maybe even a few houses with gardens, or his bosses at the council would object, but he could work with that. There was the bottom end, down where the soot-stained railway bridge crossed the road, for the dull, conventional stuff. He could put them there, and it would still leave the rest of the site for the towers.
He’d already decided there would be three of them, two facing each other across the centre of the site and the other, the largest one, at the top by the main road, standing over the estate entrance like a sentinel. The councillors would insist he called them after the terraces the bombs had destroyed, but he was determined that would be the only thing of the past about them. He could almost see it, his first tower, soaring sleek and modern like a street in the sky, as if his drawing were unrolled, life sized, in front of him. He imagined the residents he’d sketched, sitting on their balconies after a long day at work, washing in the mornings in their very own bathrooms, eating in sparkling kitchens like people of the future, so happy living in the air that they never had to come down.
A fresh gust of wind made his eyes water. He blinked and the tower blurred, hanging there in his clouded vision like an idea given form. He blinked again. There was a buzzing in his ears like a telephone when the exchange was putting a call through, a spinning tiredness that made him feel disembodied. The idea of the tower loomed over him in an immense shadow, the setting sun shining behind every window like eyes. For a moment, he felt as if something was looking at him, looking out at him from the tower, but then he shook his head and it was nothing, only paper, again.
Hurrying back to his car, he kept feeling that something had happened, like an appointment on the tip of his tongue, though he never forgot an appointment. But he knew that nothing had; he was working too hard, that was all. There was nothing there. The architect started his car and drove away into the evening. From the air where the first tower would be, nothing watched him go.
The rain stopped towards dawn and the sun rose over east London. It shone off the grey, wet roofs, sparkled on the steel columns of the City in the distance, poured gold over spires and minarets, gasometers and the incinerator chimney, turning its smoke purple. Creeping over the estate it caught a red flash of an early bus, the top of a goods train and the still jaws of bulldozers on the building site where two of the towers had been demolished. Then it hit the windows of the last, largest tower, and the tower woke.
It stretched, making its windows creak. One of the boards on a broken window on the eighteenth floor had come away in the night; it could feel the rainwater seeping into the floor. The lift was stuck as usual, and a pigeon flock was roosting on the roof. It creaked again, checking itself, feeling its humans move. There weren’t as many of them as there used to be, before the other humans had come and sealed half the floors and even more of the flats away, shutting them up for insects and dust. When the tower was full it used to echo with human noises: human feet, human voices, humans slamming the doors and dropping human things on the floor. Now the winds howled through the shattered windows and along the closed corridors, sweeping litter before them in clouds of newspapers and takeaway leaflets.
There were so few humans that the tower had learned to predict what they would be doing: the human on the thirteenth floor who would be sleeping all morning at the kitchen table, while the other four humans in the flat slept in the three beds; the old one on the sixth floor who hung out cloths on its balcony; the one with the small human who would be dragging a wheeled cart down the stairs around the useless lift. The tower would watch them as they came and went, climbing slowly up the steps or trudging away along the pavement until they reached the wide road and were lost in the crowds.
It always wondered what its humans did, out there in the world beyond it. It had tried to talk about it with the other two towers, but it didn’t know if they listened. It thought they must do, but they had never answered. They weren’t interested in their humans. The tower had always known that its task was to protect its humans, ever since the first ones had come in with their boxes and bundles, past the large one with the yellow chain round its neck who had cut the rope across the entrance and given it its name. ‘Welcome to All Saints Tower.’ That was what saints did. It was one of the things the other humans, the ones who had given it skin, had said, when they had dropped a thing or wobbled on the planks high up on its unfinished sides: ‘Saints preserve us!’ A saint was like a god, it reasoned, like the humans in the building across the wide road sang about, something that watched over humans, that saw everything they did. It had known very soon what it was.
The cars slid up and down the wide road, muttering off into the distance on their human business. The buses crept and stopped, crept and stopped, and humans crowded on to them and disappeared. A car growled up from under the railway bridge and turned into the estate road. It stopped opposite the front door of the tower. The tower looked at it. It was grey, duly shining, not pulsing with music or clouded in blue smoke like most of the cars on the estate. One of its doors opened and a human got out.
The tower had learned long ago that the colour of humans was important. It had not yet worked out why, but it noted it, carefully, about every one it saw. The man from the car was one of the pale ones, capped with brown hair and covered in the same grey as its car, as if it was wearing the car wrapped round itself. It had a black box in its hand and as it shut the car door it turned and looked up at the tower. It didn’t look as the humans of the estate did, one fleeting glance and away, but slowly, running its eyes up and down it like it was thinking human things about it. Then it made its car bleep, and crossed the road to the tower door.
The front door was open, as it usually was. The lock only worked if one of the humans slammed it as they left. The pale human went into the lobby and its shoes made little splashes in the puddles on the floor. The tower felt it climb inside, picking its way over the crumbling steps, brushing the cobwebs away, breathing harder as it went up past the floors. A trickle of rainwater dripped onto its head and it muttered to itself something the tower could not hear. When it reached the eighth floor it turned along the corridor, walking with heavy, definite steps until it reached one of the sealed flats. It unlocked the grille over the door and spent a long time pacing about inside, shining a long thin light on the walls and writing things down on a board. On its way back down the stairs, it paused at the blocked-off entrance to the seventh floor and shook the grille there, thoughtfully.
The tower thought along with it. It didn’t like pale humans with black boxes. It was pale humans with black boxes who had come before they sealed off the floors, who had stood at the base of the other two towers before they had blown them down. When pale humans came, bad things happened. The light in the stairwell flickered, off and on, off and on, as it brooded. The human glanced up at it and wrote something else on its board. The winds howled along the blocked-off floors and the pigeons pecked at the asphalt roof. The human was on the last flight of stairs. It had the board with the writing on it under one arm, the black box hanging closed from its hand. The tower tried to see what it was thinking, but all it could find was a strange picture, a bundle of white papers that was also a crowd of humans, squashed together with bundles and boxes around their feet. There were words too, sounding in the human’s mind: ‘waiting list.’ The tower didn’t know what that meant. It pushed harder. The human slapped its hand to the back of its head, then took it away and studied it as if it expected to see something there. It looked up at the cobwebs and the scarves of paint hanging from the ceiling and shook its shoulders in that way humans did. It splashed across the lobby and pulled the door so that it banged shut behind it.
The sun set and the sun rose. The truck humans came to empty the bins and the rats fought over the rubbish tipped out around the bin store door. The broken window on the eighteenth floor let in some more rain. The lift juddered down to the second floor and stuck again. A patch of ceiling over the stairs to the ninth floor gave way in a gentle sigh of plaster. The tower worried at the pale human’s paper humans as if it could work out what they meant. It was how their faces looked that mattered with humans, it knew. It was what they said to each other: ‘You look tired’; ‘You look pissed off’; but however much it studied them, going right up to the ends of their noses to peer at them, it could never work out what was different.
The pigeon flock rustled as it settled down to sleep, mutters running from bird to bird like fluttering wings. ‘More humans’ they cooed, rustling. ‘More humans here, soon. More food for us.’ The tower thought of boards ripping from blinded windows, corridors echoing with human noises, lights shining from darkened flats. Then it remembered what they had done to the other two towers, how their humans had straggled out with boxes shedding human stuff down the steps, then the humans in yellow coats had come and the towers had disappeared into clouds of air and dust. If it had more humans it would protect them, it would look after them. The new flats, around the craters where the other towers had been, didn’t watch over their humans. When the tower glared at them, they stared straight back with blank, unfriendly windows. They weren’t gods.
The pigeons were still muttering to themselves. The tower thought harder. Its task was to watch over its humans, even when they went out into the world and it could not see them. So if there were other humans out there, humans who might come to live in it, wasn’t it responsible for them, too? It would be good for them, better than the new flats. So didn’t it have a duty to make sure that they could come? ‘Fine idea’ sniggered the pigeons. ‘Go out, get humans. How do that?’ They preened their feathers. ‘Stupid. Not like us.’ The tower shook itself, stretching until a piece of parapet broke off and landed in the middle of the flock. They squawked and took off in a whirl of wings.
It did have a duty, the tower realised. It was clear, now that it thought about it. It had to get more humans, it had to have them all come, as many as it could hold, so that it could protect them. It remembered how, long ago, when pale humans had walked around looking at the flats, it had meant repairs and painting and new humans sitting on the balconies, while the winds played around them in gusts. The tower didn’t know why that had stopped happening. Maybe it could happen again. Maybe it could make it happen again. It thought of the pale human pacing the corridors, writing things on its board. The tower had seen one thing the human was thinking, even though it hadn’t worked out yet what it meant. Now the tower wondered if it could show the human one thing that it itself was thinking. Humans did that themselves, it knew; it heard them telling human thoughts to each other all the time. If humans could, why couldn’t it? When the pale human came back…The pigeons glided round in one derisive turn, then flapped over to one the new flats. The tower ignored them. It was settling down to wait.
The tower didn’t know how long it was before the pale human came back. It was good at waiting. It watched the sun rise and the sun set; it watched the humans come and go; and then the pale human was there. It had a black box with it, larger this time, with a shiny clasp, and in its other hand it was carrying a hard, yellow dome. It stood by the side of its grey car, breathing, then it put the dome on its head and walked across the road to the door. It walked more quickly than it had before, and it did not look up. It stopped on the other side of the door and stood looking at the corner where the stairs disappeared up into the tower. The tower pushed at it, but there was nothing. It couldn’t see what it was thinking. The pale human took a pen out of the fold of its jacket and used it to push the button for the lift.
The lift was still stuck on the second floor, but if it didn’t come, the human might leave. The tower overrode the safety shutdown and sent the lift to it. The pale human got in, wrinkling its nose, and pushed the button for the tenth floor with the pen. The lift jolted, whirred and started to climb up the shaft. The tower didn’t mean it not to stop. It was watching the human as it stood in the middle of the lift, not touching the scratched walls. The tower couldn’t push into the human’s head; it was as if it was sealed, as if the yellow hat kept the tower out. It pushed at it again, the human pulled the yellow hat further down over its head, and the lift went on clanking past the tenth floor.
The human exclaimed. It pounded on the emergency button, but it was a long time since that had worked. The lift pulled past the twelfth floor, the thirteenth…The tower tried to find the brake mechanism. The lift was gaining speed now, swaying from side to side so that it hit the walls of the shaft. Shards of concrete pattered down behind it. The human kept on pressing the button, its face even paler than before. The tower gave up on the brake and turned the power off. The lift stopped with a jerk. Its light went out. The human shouted something, but the tower was too busy making the cables pull the lift up to listen. It got the lift up to the next floor and opened the doors.
The human staggered out of the lift and across the corridor to the long window, where the estate lay spread out far below. The winds were booming along the closed floor above, swirling around the corner of the tower, making the glass rattle. The human stepped back from the window. The tower saw it swallow. It stood, staring down at the stained floor tiles, breathing deeply, then it put its shoulders back and lifted its head. The tower didn’t know how it was going to reach it. The human turned back to the lift. The tower thought it might be a good place for it to try again, except that the power was still off and it wasn’t sure it could get the lift all the way down without dropping it. It shut the lift door, quickly, in front of the human’s face. The human gave a little gasp and turned to the stairs. It was very pale, the tower thought. In the dimly lit stairway it looked green.
The human stopped two floors below to open one of the closed flats. The light from the corridor shone in on the empty rooms, the scraps of torn carpet, the pile of dust and wood where a leak had brought part of the ceiling down. The winds pulled at the boarded windows, rattling. The tower watched it. How could it reach it? Why wouldn’t it listen? The lights in the corridor flickered as it tried again, off and on, off and on, off and on, until the fuse blew. The human opened its black box and took out something dark and heavy. It pushed something on its top as if it expected something to happen, but nothing did. It shook it. ‘Damn’ the human said. The winds shook the boards on the windows. The human stretched its arms out in front of it and edged into the empty living room. It was less dark in there, light edging the sides of the grilled windows in shining grey. The human walked across the floorboards to the door to the balcony. The handle turned, but the door, swollen, stuck in the frame. The human put its shoulder against the door, and pushed.
The winds caught the door as the human opened it. They snatched it out of its hand, back against the wall so that the glass shattered. They swept off its yellow hat, shoved it back against the frame, rushed into the flat; screaming, pulling at the walls, the lights, the cupboards, splintering and crashing and breaking. The human crouched, holding onto the door frame. It had its hand up over its face and over one eye a red line was dripping. The tower could see its thoughts now, but they were such a whirl of pictures there was nothing the tower could understand. The winds roared through the flat, and the winds from the corridor above joined them in a howling chorus. The tower studied the human. How could it reach it? The human wasn’t listening. It was hurt, it was leaking, it had lost its hat, and it still wasn’t listening. The flat was full of whirling debris, a cloud of wallpaper and plaster dust and pieces of rafter from the fallen ceiling. The human was watching them, squinting between its fingers. Humans only paid attention, the tower thought, to things they could see.
It concentrated. They were pieces of tower, pieces of itself. It was in them already, all it had to do was pull. The cloud swirled higher, hanging in the air over the human, corners squaring, whirling faster and faster, motes catching the light as if it was burning. The human stared at it. It pulled itself up the door frame, stepped backwards onto the balcony. Its mouth was hanging open, as if it was going to say something, as if it was going to speak to the tower, but nothing came out. What did humans do, when they met each other, when they wanted to talk? The tower remembered. It pushed a line of dust out towards the human’s hand.
The pale human swayed back against the balcony rail. As its weight hit it, the tower saw the trickle of dust from the holes where the metal met the wall. The rail shuddered, rocking up and down as if something was pulling it, then the last fixing gave way. The wind was still swirling. At first, for a moment, it looked as if the human were hanging there, flying; as if it were a new sort of human that could live in the air, that would never have to come down. Its arms came out like a bird’s wings, like a pigeon gliding, dark against the sun. Then the rail dropped, and it fell.
The tower watched the cars with the blue lights, the bustle of humans shouting and crying, talking to each other in a high, human babble too quick for the tower to hear. They fixed a line to the rail by the front steps and ran it all the way to the other corner. They put a red cloth over the pale human and took it away. The tower’s humans came out with boxes and bags in their arms, and the others ran a line of yellow tape in front of the door. Later, a group came in yellow hats and stood looking for a long time at the taped-off patch and the gap high up on the wall where the balcony rail had been. The tower imagined itself taking pieces of the crumbling wall and throwing them at them.
It was aware of heat building deep inside it, like when the young humans set fire to the bins. It saw parapets falling, lifts crashing, yellow hat humans running as windows burst from its sides in screams of glass. The pigeons roosted on the roof of the new flats, sleeping with one eye peering over their wings. In the tower, the winds howled along the empty corridors and the lights on every floor pulsed on and off. The rats scuttled out of the bin store. Behind the sealing tape, the front door opened and slammed. In the air and dust the tower waited, dreaming shuddering concrete dreams.
Published online at The Harrow.