Joint Third Place

Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted

It’s just after 2:15am on a moonless October night when Jack O’Hea sees movement up on the thirty-ninth floor. A lithe dark shadow, a will-o’-the-wisp, flits across the security monitor like a moth. Cameras lurk on every floor - even the thirty-ninth - one pointing at the service lift, another at the emergency stairwell. That floor is, after all, the very apex of the building as it currently stands. The only thing higher than the thirty-ninth is heaven, and there’s no use going in search of heaven up there. It has nothing but steel girders and concrete blocks and cladding, and vast sheets of thick semi-opaque plastic to keep the rain and the magpies out, and the masonry materials in. You might see the stars on a clear night, though. At least you would if the light pollution in Aldgate wasn’t so bad.

As fate would have it, Jack’s last night on duty before he retires is not going according to plan. Around midnight, a sunken-cheeked, hollow-eyed homeless man in a threadbare cavalry coat and a pair of dirt-encrusted mismatched shoes, hurled himself against the glass door, begging to be let in out of the cold. Jack gave him strong tea in a plastic cup and the address of the nearest shelter. Now, it looks like there’s a bona fide intruder on the premises. He pulls on his jacket and smiles resignedly when he spots one of the buttons dangling precariously by a thread. It just needs to hold on for a few more hours.

The common misconception is that it’s an isolated life, propped up behind a desk in the glow of a muted lamp while everyone else is asleep. But Jack is never bothered by annoying co-workers, and the off-peak commute to work is a breeze. Things were a lot different during the nineties. Back then he worked freelance in the entertainment business, as private security for a handful of dubious celebrities. He would never name names, but one or two were certifiably crazy, always giving him the runaround. These days, he can spend his nights studying. (He has a gift for soaking up random facts like a sponge.) And if he really wants to hear another human being, he’ll turn on the radio. But he never gets lonely. Not much, anyway.

Jack presses the call button for the service lift. He should take the stairs, but thirty-nine floors is a long way up and he’d waste too much time. Maybe it was nothing; maybe it’s the night playing tricks on him, but his instincts tell him otherwise.

He’s worked a couple of these construction gigs back to back now, and it still mystifies him why they keep building so many skyscrapers - one taller than the last - defying gravity, trying to reach God himself. There’s something unnatural about human beings going about their business within spitting distance of the clouds. Wasn’t it Tao Te Ching who said In dwelling live close to the ground? But then there are the developers and the money men who’ll tell you that skyscrapers add a touch of drama to the London skyline. If you were measuring the architectural heartbeats of the greatest cities in the world, some places would be flatliners compared to London. Nowadays, the structural pulse of the capital has so many vertiginous peaks, you’d think it was having a heart attack if you saw its outline on an ECG.

The Gherkin. Beep. BT Tower. Beep. One Canada Square. Beep. The Shard. BEEEEP.

The starkly lit lift propels Jack upwards. He rubs his neatly bearded face, wan from lack of daylight, but enlivened all the same by laughter lines creased into tiny rivulets around his eyes. Thirty-seven. Thirty-eight. Thirty-nine. Doors open. A biting wind whips around his cheeks. Why would anyone want to come up here at this hour? He shivers. It’s like the anteroom to hell, thirty-nine floors up.

“Urban Explorers”, that’s what they call themselves. Youngsters who are old enough to know better who break into buildings at night and get their kicks from scaling to the top, just so they can say they did it. And for what? The view? They burrow downwards too, deep into the bowels of the city, ferreting their way through disused tube stations and such. When did ground level become so pedestrian? They say they don’t cause any damage, but they can kill themselves in the process and that’s the part that bothers Jack. He’s guessing that’s what he may be dealing with here - a so-called urban explorer. It’s a miracle he’s never come across one before, but it was probably only a matter of time, and now tonight of all nights. Just his luck.

He’s got his phone in one hand, his power torch in the other, and he’s turned up his jacket collar against the chill. It’s like going out for a pint of milk in Siberia when the wind’s up on the thirty-ninth. He takes a few tentative steps forward and shines his torch between the dormant cement mixer and the slabs of concrete lined up on their sides like oversized dominoes, each one leaning against the other for warmth.

Nothing.

Jack swings his torch around to the left. Someone forgot to take the rubbish down again. Crumpled paper coffee cups, a copy of The Sun and empty food packaging lie discarded in a clear waste bag, weighed down with a brick.

Behind him, he hears the plastic sheeting flap furiously back and forth like giant sails in a squall. From somewhere down below, the sound of a wailing siren filters upwards and hangs mournfully on the air.

Then, he sees it.

A small hooded figure sitting in quiet contemplation, legs dangling over the edge of the building, gloved hands resting on knees. Dark hoodie, dark trousers, dark backpack, dark everything. A discreet shadow sprung to life. The silent figure turns towards him, but he can’t make out the features, the hood hangs too far over. In any event, he imagines it’s not a face that’s pleased to see him. The shadow turns to survey the sprawling cityscape once more, dazzlingly illuminated like a giant electrical grid below. It’s as though Jack’s not even here. Invisible. He has the strangest sensation that he is the intruder in this scenario; contrary to expectations, he is the voyeur.

Mary Mother Of God. Why am I the one who’s afraid? He’s standing on solid ground. Safe as long as he doesn’t go too near the drop and keeps his wits about him. The hooded figure is the one perched on the edge of life, and yet it appears calm; calmer than Jack, that’s for sure. But he makes his approach nonetheless. He has the law on his side. He knows what he has to do.

‘Son, I’m the building security guard. I need you to come towards me now. Move in slowly and very, very carefully. Do you understand?’

The figure turns to face him once again. Jack keeps the beam of his torch down low, the last thing he wants is to blind the lad so he loses his balance, but it means he can still only see a silhouette, coal-black against the ashen sky beyond.

‘Just a few more minutes, please. Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt myself, or you.’

Under the circumstances, the composure with which these words are delivered catches Jack off guard. The accent is Eastern European, the exact origin unidentifiable to his ears, but most surprising of all, it’s the voice not of a man, but of a young woman.

‘For your own safety, please come towards me. I’ll have to call the police if you don’t do as I say right away.’

The figure remains motionless, seemingly unfazed. A striking vision pops into Jack’s head of the Antony Gormley statues that gazed, silent and inert, from the edges of the city’s rooftops a few years back. As he recalls - somewhat uneasily - they had stunned and terrified him in equal measure.

‘It’s okay,’ the girl says, ‘I know you have a job to do. But believe me when I tell you there are others who have been planning to come up here, or so I heard. In a way, I’m doing you a favour. The fact that I’m sitting here right now proves the building security system is flawed. Now you can flag it up to the powers that be. You know, be the hero of the hour.’

‘I’m not interested in being a hero, but I am interested in why you would risk coming here at all? This is private property and what you’re doing, infiltrating a high-rise construction site in the dead of night, is dangerous. There must be better things you can do with your time that don’t involve breaking the law?’

The girl bats away Jack’s question with a shrug. ‘I’m not sure you’ll understand, but since you asked, I came to get a new perspective. The city is serene from here. It’s like winter, when the ground is covered with snow and all you can see for miles around is endless white. It covers up all the bad stuff underneath.’ She gestures towards the horizon, ‘Up here there’s distance from the madness below. It’s peaceful. Everyone asleep except us.’

Cautiously, gently, Jack manoeuvres himself one step closer. ‘Listen, tomorrow – or I should say “today” - I’m retiring, but tonight it’s still my responsibility to ensure the security of the building and the welfare of anyone who may be in it. Please, don’t make things any worse for yourself. Come inside, where it’s safe.’

She asks his name, then. As he replies, a faint twinge of pain rises up from somewhere in his lower back. He hopes the darkness will be forgiving and mask the involuntary grimace on his face.

‘Who’d have thought it, we’ve got more in common than you think, Jack. I’m retiring tonight, too. This is my last climb. You’ve probably made your mind up about me already, but I’m no trouble-maker. I just like to sit and spend time alone. That’s something you must understand in your job? The solace of being alone?’

He’s not sure why he’s still talking to this girl. He knows he should raise the phone to his ear, alert the police. The rules are very simple: security has been breached; trespassers will be prosecuted. She knew the risk she was taking, but he doesn’t want to startle her while she’s hovering so close to the edge. Perhaps she’s not right in the head, though she seems articulate enough. Dammit, why has she put them both in this position? It’s like she was waiting for him. Perhaps all that stuff about wanting to be alone was a cock-and-bull story. Perhaps she just wanted someone to talk to in the middle of the night, even an ageing security guard on his last watch like him. And now she’s moving! Dear God, please don’t let her fall.

The girl slides her body backwards across the concrete floor, pulls her legs up and swings herself around. She’s fully inside the building structure now, her legs bent at the knees and folded back under her chin, her thin arms coiled around her shins. She’s positioned herself at an angle so she can observe Jack, but still gaze out across the slumbering panorama. With her face shrouded by the hood, it’s as if he’s talking to a phantom. But a phantom wouldn’t show up on a security camera, right?

‘What’s the matter, Jack? You look conflicted. I can tell you’re a good man and I bet you’ve always done the right thing your whole life, but tonight is your last night on the job, and mine. Do you really want the hassle of having to file a police report?’

Jack takes a deep breath. A cool rush of night air hits his lungs. Why did I tell her I was retiring?

‘Tell me something,’ he asks, ‘why the sudden crisis of conscience?’

‘You said it yourself, it’s too dangerous. I’ve had a great ride, but someone close to me, back in my country, wasn’t so lucky. There was an accident a few weeks ago…’, her voice trails off. ‘Anyway, I’m quitting while I’m ahead. I need to finish my architecture degree. That’s my focus now.’

‘Well, this is a hell of a risky way to get hands-on experience!’

‘Honestly, I’m not so interested in skyscrapers. I just want to design something that’ll stand the test of time – transport people, like theatre, or poetry. Someone once told me if you believe in something enough, you can create it. I don’t know why we limit ourselves. I like to think we can make our own miracles in life. Does that sound so crazy?’ She pauses. ‘You’re about to start a new life of your own. What are you going to do?’

In spite of himself, in spite of his hand numb from the cold, the hand which he should be using now to call the police, Jack doesn’t call. He doesn’t call because this strange girl whose face he can’t see, has asked a question he feels compelled to answer.

‘I’m going to travel. I’ve been learning Spanish and I’m flying to Spain to visit my brother and his wife. It’s something I’ve been planning for a long time now. After that, we’ll see.’

‘That’s cool. Are you going to Barcelona?’

‘Initially, yes.’

‘Then you’ll be in the presence of Gaudí, one of the most incredible architects of all time. You have to visit the Sagrada Familia and the Casa Batlló. You’ll be amazed. And you’ll see for yourself how bricks and mortar can live and breathe like nature. Say “hi” from me, Jack, if you remember.’

He hears a disturbance from somewhere behind him now, something brushing against the plastic sheeting, but when he spins around and shines his torch he sees nothing but a deserted construction site. It’s odd, he read they had a fox living at the top of The Shard. They say it had been existing on scraps of food left by the workmen. They christened it Romeo and captured it eventually, gave it a medical check and some food and then released it onto the streets of Bermondsey, just after midnight. By all accounts, it glanced up at its former home in the sky, sniffed the air and then padded off in the opposite direction. Like a ghost.

When he turns back around the girl has vanished. The door to the emergency stairwell lies wedged open with a cinder block, guilty as charged; beyond it, only darkness.

And then, the sickening sensation in his gut that he’s been duped. Was he always intended to find her up here? Was being drawn into conversation all part of the plan - a distraction technique - while downstairs her friends have been looting? His computer stolen. The entire reception area stripped bare. The whole ground floor nothing but tumbleweed.

What an old fool he’ll look. You work in the security business as long as Jack and you learn to expect the worst from people, suspicion comes with the job. It’s an ugly trait, but what kind of security guard would he be otherwise?

She’ll be flying down the stairwell now, but if he takes the lift he can reach the ground floor before she does. Oh, but she’s smart! She’s stopped and re-called the lift to a lower floor to slow him down. He calls it back to the thirty-ninth. It takes its own sweet time, but finally here it is. Jack steps inside the cage. Come on. Don’t turn me into a laughing stock.

At ground level the doors slide open with a creak. Jack runs towards the reception area, his keys jangling on their security chain like old bones, his heart heavy now, sunk half way to his boots. He stops in front of his desk and looks around. Everything is intact. Not a hair out of place. Everything is exactly how he left it, apart from one thing.

Lying face up on his swivel chair is a book he’s never seen before – a well-thumbed anthology on the life and work of one of the world’s greatest architects: Antonio Gaudí. Jack picks it up and opens the front cover, its bottom right-hand corner bent back and scuffed, the edges of the inner pages blackened from overuse. Staring up at him from the title page are three words hastily scribbled in vibrant red ink: Enjoy The Ride.

He sits down at his desk, takes the phone in his hand and contemplates the keys. He should call the police, report a break-in. But what has he seen? A fleeting shadow on a security monitor. A discarded book about a dead Catalan architect.

Jack replaces the phone on the desk and turns to face his computer. Using his index fingers, he types up a final report for his supervisor, jabbing away at the keys with his customary deliberation. Area of concern: emergency stairwell at ground level appears to have been compromised; risk of serious security breach if not rectified. Recommendation: address first thing in the morning. Priority level: high.

He presses send.

Jack slips the Gaudí anthology safely inside his duffel bag alongside his Spanish text book for advanced students, and the brand new hardcover notebook where he intends to keep a record of his travels. Maybe stick a photo or two.

Looking out at the still charcoal sky, he feels strangely comforted. The sun will be up in a few hours. Until then, silence reigns once more.

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