Fourteen Leonard Street. Fourteen. Silicon. A grey tinge, a shine like rainwater, a reflective blue from the high windows that flanked all three hundred and sixty round. A tin foil Ferris Wheel, a merry-go-round of shofer-driven electric. Round and round, it made her dizzy, the height of it. Black taxi’s circled the circumference, hovering outside every level like pesky flies.
“I remember when that roundabout was the cusp of the CCZ,” her Grandmother had said. “When the CCZ was paint, instead of brick. When we didn’t even have The Shuttle.”
Zone One. Between City Road and Old Street. Fourteen Leonard Street. Silicon roundabout.
His eyes were misty, light in the head but not from the altitude. Round and round, his pupils rotated with the buzz, sweeping insects and intoxication. Round and round the globe, his world. Zone One, Old Street, Silicon roundabout. Where else was there to go?
The holograms on the nearby roofs had clocked them. The closest one was flickering. Tampered with. Scarred with a scarlet house. Every 0.25 minutes, a family in London loses their home. With your support, we can save the home they need. Shelter. The blood red words skated against the adjacent wall. Join us in the fight to make One to Five affordable for all.
She looked away, guilty shoes rubbing the terrace wall. The sight of the rogue red, running up the edges, it used to make her feel… something. Back when she thought things could change. Youth and naivety, and now she’d been placed on the flip side. Worried about eviction? Facing homeless? Talk to Shelter. We’re fighting for YOU, to make One to Five affordable for all.
She looked at him. He was staring past the hologram graffiti to a few roofs down. A sale for LK Bennett shoes. Pay for them in instalments! Take as long as you need! She wondered what he was seeing. An interior design advert, maybe. She’d never seen one. Porn, probably.
“This space is shared with everyone in the building,” he said. His eyes were stuck. “But most of us work over here,” he indicated the view. “Web based, IT, new commerce, most of the day it’s fairly quiet up here.”
The top of Fourteen Leonard Street. Around twenty meters squared. A couple of old-style deck chairs clustered in the corner. Red and white, peppermint striped. Shelter’s strip. Anarchy. England.
“That’s where you work?” she forced some conversation. The ticking clock face of the roundabout never seemed to stop or slow.
“Yes I do.” A puffin with cuff links and a few curling chest hairs. “You?”
“Yeah,” she said, to which he looked confused. “I work in St. Agnes Well.” The same crimped brow. “Underneath?”
“Oh, okay,” he nodded. He twisted his cuff links twice around each way. Round and round. He was still staring at the space where her LK Bennett ad had been. She had only a fraction of his mind. “What happens down there?”
“A food store, a few shops.”
She was nauseous with the excited height, faint with the nerves that made her itchy.
“I’ve never heard of it,” he said.
“It does cheaper lunches, newspapers, cigarettes, for the workers you know?”
“Right,” he nodded.
He looked slightly cheated. The big unveil of the roof terrace, saved until last, a let down. Not as grand as it should be for a girl from Six to Ten.
“You’ll be used to all this then.”
She shrugged an unimpressed facade but her insides felt as high as she was. The Shuttle dropped them right inside for work. She hardly ever had the time to go upstairs. A few quick lunch breaks, circling the inner lap, sitting in the segment of one ‘O’ clock reflected sun down on City Road.
“The Shoreditch Grind,” her Grandmother had said. “They used to make the best Espresso Martini.”
Her lips physically wet, as if the bitter taste of coffee and sweet boozy sauce still hung close across them. Three beans lounging in the foam on top, she cracked them against the memory of real teeth.
It wasn’t there, of course, another corporation now, another pane of one-way glass.
“In 2014 they made the best Espresso Martini,” her Grandmother had said. “Remember how good they tasted?”
She stepped away from the edge, hoping he’d suggest they go back down.
“I’ve never seen it from this height, obviously,” she said.
It rippled inside her, almost too much, she scratched her palms for something, an awakened pinch, to not be dreaming. Years ago she might have felt an anger, to see this sight for real. Join us in the fight to make One to Five affordable for all. It was her dream to live in One to Five, now somewhere near her tongue, a tang much tastier than anger, the city already inside her gums.
They returned inside, back down to his two-bedroom flat. It was clean, the sofa smelt of fabric conditioner, he had a kitchen breakfast bar that sparkled and when he offered her a tea it trickled out a second later from a DRINKSMixJM2080.
“So you’ve seen the place…” he handed her the steaming mug. “I take it you like the location?”
She wanted to seem less keen, wrapping her fingers tight around the heat. Central. East. Zone One. She could walk everywhere from here. All the places she’d only seen in print. The Tate. Britain and Modern. The East London galleries of White Chapel. The Barbican. Sunny green in Hyde Park, eat pastries in Covent Garden, get bagels on Brick Lane. It was the London her Grandmother lived in. “Remember how good they tasted?” She wanted so much to know how good they tasted.
“So it’s a pretty simple set up really,” he said. He lent against the kitchen bar, casual, matter-of-fact but brisk, his eyes moved like he was planning other things. “I’d just want to do it once a day and of course it’d need to be in the evening, because I’m at work all day. We’d set up a time that’s mutually agreeable, so we have some sort of a routine. There are no other obligations. Rent is paid monthly and it includes all the bills.”
He only had a few years on her, skin slightly silicon, a faint tint of lead, sun-licked rarely and pasty. A natural Zone One man. Good-looking though. Hair that hung across his face, weights stacked in the corner and face peels stacked above the bathroom sink.
But then she choked. The air felt thin and not so easy, manufactured, pumped around in One, it never felt the same. Her hands gripped and bubbled slightly, against the boiling china. She’d read the ad, of course, generally agreeable on paper, inside the screen, not real, not real, just a concept, a trade that she could justify away…
‘The Eastern half of the road is on the London Inner Ring Road and as such forms part of the boundary where the CCZ used to be.’ Where the CCZ used to be, way back in 2014. That’s insane, that’s mad! Leonard Street, Fourteen Leonard Street was still inside the CCZ in 2014. When the major had whispery blonde hair. When your grandmother drank Espresso Martinis down the Shoreditch Grind in Old Street. At the very start of the housing crisis. On the fringe of change. When change was a believable thing. Before the Pricing Out. Before the Six to Ten. Before we knew any war for affordable housing. Before Shelter became an underground political movement. Before The Shuttle.
“Have you had much interest?” she said, because she couldn’t give him the answer she thought she had already. Her words were weak, forming somewhere in her throat.
“What do you think?” he replied, draining his tea. He tapped the DRINKSMixJM2080 for another. “It’ll go today, or tomorrow for sure.”
She’d been certain. She’d been ninety-eight percent certain. On The Shuttle she always felt certain. Anything to move, anything not to ride this piece of shit in and out. Every. Single. Day.
It was all she wanted. Since moving to London, moving in with her Grandmother, the only one who got it. She would never leave. Even after the Pricing Out. Even after her children all left and stayed away. She wouldn’t leave her capital city. Even if it wasn’t quite the same. This was the only way to do it. Join us in the fight to make One to Five affordable for all. Bollocks. The fight was dead. Youth and Naivety. Shelter had lost and this was the only way left.
People do stuff like this all the time. People do more for less. People do so much more for so much less. This is where the CCZ was in 2014. In 2014 for Christ Sake! It’s only once a day… Man up!
“You’re moving to be closer to your job?” he said. Filling in the silence, sipping at the second tea.
“I can’t stand The Shuttle anymore,” she replied.
But it wasn’t only that. She wanted a better job. It was hard getting employed from Six to Ten, spending so much time on The Shuttle.
He smiled. He had a charming smile, when it focused in, a neat row of whites. It would be easier once they’d got to know each other. After the first few times. The humiliation would pass. It would be like clockwork, the evening routine, before making pasta, before settling down to a film.
“Who do you live with now?” he asked.
“My Grandmother. On the boarder of Six and Seven.”
“That’s not too bad.”
She knew it wasn’t, she had it easy compared to most. The Shuttle seats already taken by people half way through their journeys in. The few eyes open, hot with envy across her back. But she didn’t want to join them.
“She’s been there a while but she’s… old.” She couldn’t manage “dying”.
She tried to flatten the lines that must have sprung and wrapped themselves underneath her eyes. Inside the heavy luggage that already hung there from the constant care.
Suddenly she had his full attention and he looked confused.
“She never bought?” he asked.
“No, it was back in 2014, she could never afford to. And she didn’t want to move away from London.”
“No inheritance?” he asked. More confusion etched around his temples.
“It’s just about gone, on keeping the house, on rent.”
It wasn’t exactly uncommon, but maybe it was for a Zone One brain. They probably didn’t meet many Six to Ten people. Zone One, Old Street, what else is there?
“But your parents…?” he tried to wrap his mind around it.
“Out of London.”
Move out of London, that was their advice. They couldn’t help, teachers on a standard-wage. They couldn’t pay for their twenty-something daughter to live it up in One to Five, why should they?
“London’s not made for people like us anymore,” her mother had said. “Do the sensible thing and move back home.”
“Screw the sensible thing,” her Grandmother had said. “You only live once.”
A direct product of the #Yolo generation, back when they just didn’t give a shit. You only live once, fuck everything else. Drink Espresso Martinis, spend money you don’t yet have, follow your dreams, burn the candle at the sides, don’t think about mortgages or pensions or saving for the future. Living is for now.
Her Grandmother and her spirit were the reasons she’d moved to London, her stories, the mixed up colour and life of her time. But it wasn’t the same now. Nothing had been the same after the Pricing Out had started. After spending every day on The Shuttle, her weekends too poor and tired, suffering because of it.
But now it was her time. This is what she had. She felt like her Grandmother must have felt. I can’t leave London, now isn’t the time to leave. Now is the time to grab the opportunity in front of me, because you only live once, so what else is there?
He reached for the DRINKSMixJM2080. He flicked it and out poured two gin and tonics, yellow dangling and three cloudy rocks of ice in each.
He handed her one. She poured it down, guzzled it under. Thirsty for that real buzz that she could rarely afford. That high she got from sucking a cigarette stone dry, inhaling as deeply as her lungs would expand, just for a momentary head spin. To take her out of the game, just for one tiny second. Worried about eviction? Facing homeless? For a moment she didn’t want to think.
“Did you want to ask me anything?” he said. He slurped his drink at a much slower speed. She felt the fire, roaring up her sides. “About the room? Or the conditions?”
She’d momentarily forgotten the actual act. In thinking about the decision she’d forgotten the physical act, not real, not real. But as the liquor licked her she pulled it all together. Now was her time. It was her time to live inside the CCZ. It was her fucking time.
“Where would you want me to…?” she swallowed. She couldn’t quite get her mouth around the words.
“On the bed, occasionally in the bath.” Not a shred of blush as she felt the hotness up inside her jaw. Gin breath and a little extra courage, lemon flesh and bitter, moving around with her saliva.
It wasn’t an awkward silence, for him. A twist of each cufflink. Round and round. His smile was reassuring. She put down her glass, stared straight ahead at the DRINKSMixJM2080.
“Can I use this?” she asked. “If I move in?”
“Does it make any drink?” Eyes slightly wide. “Any drink you want?”
“Yup, any drink.”
Zone One, Old Street, Silicon roundabout. Fourteen Leonard Street.
“I remember when Banksy and Jef Aerosol used to paint all over that place,” her Grandmother said. “We went to a warehouse party that was covered top to bottom in colour. On the cusp of where the CCZ used to be, back when that was paint, instead of brick.”
“That’s where I’m going to live Gran.” Her Grandmother cracked in a smile. “You don’t need to worry about me anymore, I’ve found a place where the rent’s affordable.”
Other words hovered by her lips. She wondered whether to say anything else. “I’m going to drink a real Espresso Martini,” she told her instead.