“8th of March, 2027. In the mornings when I check my phone, I still expect a message. Today I don’t even have a signal. Four days after the flood, and there’s no news of her. I want to deny what’s happened: – to look away, and then turn back, gaze out of the window, and see the familiar view restored. Just like everyone after a natural disaster. Although this disaster wasn’t natural. And it’s pretty ironic that I should be so affected. Me. Through her. When we’ve both been campaigning for years, shouting to anyone that disasters like this would happen. That they will happen more and more. Though neither of us expected that it would be London. And we didn’t imagine… Well, you don’t.
Huh. It may be the fourth or fifth time I’ve diarised this, but the picture won’t fade. The helicopter shot of the Thames barrier, everything covered apart from the silver tops of the pontoons, like the bows of sinking boats beneath the storm surge. I knew when I saw what it could mean. I didn’t panic. I don’t panic. But I was afraid for her, even then. The bird’s eye view, looking down on hooded curves jutting through the foam, like metal teeth on an enormous mouth. Yes. I was scared then.
Yesterday I slipped under a police line and got into the flood zone. I wish I hadn’t. Near the theatre, where she was supposed to make a meeting about drama in prisons. Almost everywhere has drained now. Like on the news, there are piles of splintered rubbish, silt-covered cars, and the occasional handbag or shoe. Everything stinks of sewage. And there are the remains of people. Things. I saw two, in an alley by a doorway, before I turned back. There was no point me being there, after all; I was just going to get arrested. The corpses – man up, that’s what they were – were bloated and stinking. The police or army will take them to Smithfield meat market to be held in the fridges, before what I guess is a cursory examination. To work out who they are, that’s all. Who cares about cause of death? At the moment they’re just racking the figures up on the tally, feeding the press, the TV ticker tape. And she’s there – somewhere. Halfway to becoming a statistic.
I have to go to the police station. Again. I think that’s why I’m running through this, to put together a timeline, to explain to myself, as though I had the capacity of a five-year-old, that she’s not coming back. Or I could keep waiting for a knock on the front door. How long will it take them? When I look at this photo, the one of us on holiday in Liguria, I think I’ll wait. As though I could hop on a train to northern Italy and she’d still be there, in that turquoise dress, sitting in a square with an affogato, flirting politely with the waiters. I feel like she’s still out there. If I scream long and hard enough I can go back to that time, find her there – I can shift out of the present like a man who dives into the sea, and then never comes up for air. The wall to the past should be flimsy; an insubstantial, oily film that you can slip through.
This is whimsical shit. I have to go to the police station. Maybe this time they’ll actually be letting people in. Microphone off.”
Wednesday 31st March, 2030
Puffy eyed and fearful, the suspect quivered under Paskins’ stare. A Mr Ben Martins, who’d been pulled out of bed at seven, and was still disorientated. The lack of natural light in the interview room didn’t help: outside it was a sunny ten o’clock, but in here it was airport anytime.
“So you think you’re some kind of crusader?”
“I try and do the right thing.”
There was shaky defiance in his voice, but Paskins could tell it was costing him. Good interrogation was about pacing, like seduction, or door to door selling. Glancing across at DC Mark Leach, blue-jawed and spiky-haired, he thought: first make the accusation, then build up the reality.
“And doing the right thing meant stabbing Ron Boothby in the back?” Paskins leant forward, hands clasped.
“No!” Martins recoiled.
“Oh, come on Ben, you hated him. I’ve seen his TV show. The bastard didn’t care that there are ten million climate refugees, or that the world can’t feed itself because of rainstorms and droughts. Or that until the new barrier goes up, London could flood again.”
There was no reaction from Martins. He was an activist, and came well prepared: he had memorised the number of his solicitor, and would no doubt get lippy about his rights. The solicitor, a Mr Osgood, was sat there now. Paskins reached into a document wallet and drew out a handful of photos. He laid them on the table one by one, like an optician switching lenses.
“He opposed everything that you believe in. Made a career out of attacking the environmental movement. What did he say? ‘Man made climate change is a long con, a guilt trip for the middle classes.’ Who knows, perhaps he was right. He made jokes about dropping his ex-wife into the Arctic Ocean, so that it would freeze over again.”
“Roll on Kentish Cab Sav, and sod the misery-makers,” DC Leach chipped in.
Martins reacted strongly. “Oh and what about the flood? How funny was that? Look, you won’t wind me up by chatting shit. And you can stuff those photos up your arse.”
“So you do blame him for the flood?” said Paskins.
“What if I do?”
Paskins placed a photo on the spot Martins was staring at. A balding, blonde haired man lay crumpled on the pavement like an upended takeaway, a semi-circle of red emerging from his left side to dribble over the kerbstone into the gutter. Martins’ jaw wobbled open. He was what, late twenties? Paskins wasn’t sure that his suspect had the confidence, the chutzpah to do this. To knife a talkshow host walking from the studio back door to his car. Right now he was six feet of plasticine.
“Most killers are sad bastards who kill because they’re angry, pissed or broke. But you made a choice to do what you thought was right. If you’re strong enough to do that, you should be strong enough to take the consequences. You get me?” When no response came, Paskins laid down another photo. The knife had a wooden handle with brass screws, and it was driven in up to the hilt. Free of prints, unfortunately.
“You’ll feel better if you admit it, believe me. You killed him, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
Paskins held Martins in a cold gaze. The guy was wearing a black T-shirt with the slogan, ‘Lack of charisma can be fatal’.
“Well, somebody left that knife in him. We know it was you. Come clean.”
“Bollocks. You don’t know anything.”
Leach glanced at Paskins, but he shook his head. No, it wasn’t time for that, not yet. They couldn’t be certain that Martins was guilty; they simply had to exert as much pressure as they could, and hope for a confession. And that meant withholding their strongest piece of evidence, until Martins’ willpower had been sweated out of him.
“Where were you last Friday night?” barked Leach.
“I’m not sure. I mean… Yes, I was at home. Asleep.”
“On a Friday night?” Leach raised his eyebrows and turned down the corners of his mouth. Paskins had seen his mournful boxer dog look before.
“Can anyone verify your whereabouts for us, Ben?” he said.
“Was anyone with you?” Leach added.
“No,” muttered Martins, his forehead, supported by his hand, now parallel to the desk.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No. My flatmate Chris saw me earlier in the evening, but he went out later. You should talk to him.”
“You can get on that in a bit,” said Paskins to Leach. “So tell me what you did that evening.”
“I’m not sure, I suppose I got in from work about half six… had some pasta, caught up with email. I think I watched a film.”
“What did you watch?”
“The Big Boss. Er yeah, I think that was Friday.”
“The Big Boss?” said Leach. “Never heard of it.” His sweatshirt rose over his chest as he stretched his arms behind his head.
“It’s an old martial arts film.”
Martins lifted his head, straightened his spine and looked at them both, his heavy brow red with a handprint, his unshaven face pasty white. “Yes,” he said.
“Martial arts films, no girlfriend, in on a Friday night for chrissake… He fits the profile. Of the kind of saddo who’d murder a public figure,” said Leach, turning to his superior.
“Oh, sod off.” Martins folded his arms.
“How do you feel about Boothby, then? How do you feel now that he’s dead?” said Paskins.
“I don’t give a shit. There are nine billion people on the planet, do you really think it matters if we lose a few?”
Leach swore softly. The solicitor looked across at Martins and made eye contact. Paskins sneered.
“You don’t think it matters, do you, Ben? You think that people like Boothby deserve to die. You’ve made that judgment – correct?”
Martins looked at them blankly. His short hair was flattened and askew, yesterday’s gel glistening under the low power lighting.
“I’m not bothered if they die. That’s all.”
“The individual doesn’t matter to you. You’re so keen on humanity living in harmony with nature, that the person is expendable. Isn’t that right?”
“Boothby’s gone. He’d been lying for years about something which is crucial to our future. He was probably taking money from the Global Climate Coalition. You guys won’t know who they are, but I mean that clinches it: why should his death bother me?”
“He had a son and a daughter,” said Paskins, weighing each word. “Both teenagers. James and Sarah.” He looked away in disgust.
“I interviewed them on Sunday,” said Leach, anger catching in his throat. “How do you think it feels to be nineteen, when somebody’s topped your old man, and I barge into your home asking if anyone wanted to hurt him?”
Leach recalled the well-heeled elegance of Boothby’s Camden house. Red furniture on dark oak floorboards, a four foot TV screen, some mildly disturbing abstract art, and marooned on the floor by a small mahogany table, a willowy ash-blonde girl folded up like a flat-pack chair. As the uniformed officer backed out into the hallway, he perched on the edge of a recliner, and tried to gain eye contact.
He said, “Sarah, my name is Detective Constable Leach. I know that this must be very hard for you, but I need to ask you a few questions about your Dad.”
The girl shook her head and rocked back and forth.
“I hear your mum’s plane gets in from Sydney this evening. But your step-mum and your brother are around, right?”
The girl nodded, looking up at Leach over her knees, and drew breath. “You know me and Dad never really got on. I came over here to do my degree, but before then I was living with Mum in Sydney. I was just starting to see him a bit more often…it’s funny.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“We went to this Argentine steakhouse place. Talked about the old days when we were all together; talked a bit about economics. He knows loads, actually. I know he has this, this persona, but he’s a clever guy.”
“Did he say that anyone had threatened him, did he say anything unusual, or was there anything that stuck out, that startled you?”
“No… I mean there really wasn’t. I know there were people out there who didn’t like him, I think he got sent stuff in the mail.” She looked at Leach full in the face for the first time, “He had his opinions, but so what?”
“What kind of things did he get in the post?”
“I don’t know: I just know that he used to get shit from people. It’s not like he’d tell me anyway.” She was off the floor and sat on the sofa, legs up, hands clasped around her knees. Her wrists sported a collection of bangles and friendship bracelets, while her fingers were encrusted with gold and plastic rings.
“Did your father have any enemies, anybody who wanted to hurt him?”
“Jeez, it seems like somebody wanted to hurt him pretty badly!” She sobbed, put her head in her hands, then looked up slowly, her fingers sliding off her face. “Why do you think someone did this? Did they take his wallet?”
“No, they didn’t. Look, I don’t know.” She sniffed and looked up at him, twisting her rings, her eyes pink around the edges, her mouth angry and compressed. Her face interrogated him bitterly. He breathed in.
“Have you ever had any intruders in the house, or seen anybody snooping around?” he asked, hoping that she would hold her composure for a few more minutes.
“I don’t think so,” she murmured, and sniffed again. Her eyes widened as a memory coalesced.
“Actually, there was someone hanging around outside a couple of weeks back. A woman. She was standing in the front garden. I went out to ask what she was doing, but by the time I got to the door she’d gone. The side gate was open, so I went round and locked it.” Leach leant forward on the edge of the recliner, scribbling down a few notes.
“What did she look like?”
“I’m not sure: late 20s or early 30s, wearing jeans? She had brown hair I think. To here…” She motioned to her shoulder line.
“Any other details? This could be important.”
“I can’t really say. I think she was wearing a white cardigan.”
“Did you see her face?”
“Er yes, I did.” Nodding.
“So you think you’d be able to recognise her?”
“Probably. I’m not sure.”
“Did you say anything to your mother?”
“My Mum is not here!”
“Sorry, did you say anything to Vanessa?”
“I don’t think I did. It was weird, you know, and then I forgot about it.” She looked to one side and scratched her scalp. The skin on her hand bore the scabby traces of henna.
“Can I go now?” She stood and stretched: arms out, chest up – a cruciform angel, defying him not to back away. He would have preferred to ask a few more questions, but she had a riled uncooperative look, and he felt sorry for her.
“Okay, okay. Listen, Constable Davies can put you in touch with someone from Victim Support. She will let you know if there are any developments.” He gestured to the woman in the hall and walked out.
Vanessa, Boothby’s wife, was no more useful. Leach had stood there in the kitchen along with DI Paskins, studying the reflections of flowers on the granite worktop as he listened to her tirade.
“It will be one of these bloody greenies, that’s who. We tried to keep our address secret, but I was always worried about him being followed home, and now some spineless shit has gone and stabbed him.” She inhaled sharply through clenched teeth, and knocked her fingernails on the worktop. They were painted in a swirly black and silver pattern, which curiously matched the granite. “I suppose you know we had that group, Rising Tide, on the roof?” Leach shook his head.
“Go on,” said Paskins.
“They climbed up there with a banner, and then when Ron came outside they poured two buckets of water over him.”
“Did you report this?”
“I called 999 straight away.”
“Good, we’ll have a record of that. Were there any threats or abuse, do you know if any arrests were made?”
“I didn’t hear anything. Ron said they had a camera and as soon as they’d taken the shot they wanted, they jumped down onto the garage and ran off. Nobody ever got arrested. And they were here, sitting on top of our house.” She stabbed a finger skywards, and blinked away a tear.
“We’ll check and see if any progress was made,” said Leach heavily. “Your stepdaughter says she saw a woman she didn’t recognise in the front garden a few days ago. Late twenties, jeans, brown hair and a white cardigan?”
“No, no I don’t know who that could be.” Vanessa stared at him, then moved some plates and cutlery and started scrubbing the sink with a sponge. Leach waited. Her back was almost turned, and Leach could see her shoulders working as she scrubbed, her hair a straw-blonde splash against a thin green sweater.
“You don’t know?”
“Not a clue. Maybe you should find out,” she snapped acidly.
“Do you know if your husband received any threats, any intimidating messages, anything of that kind?” asked Paskins, his hands pressed against the sides of his suit trousers.
“Oh, I’m sure he did, but he was tough, he didn’t care, he wouldn’t burden me with that.” She turned to a vase full of chrysanthemums and twirled the flower stems between her thumb and forefinger. Her face was as cracked as a dry river bed. However old she was, right now she looked older, thought Paskins. Pulling her hair back behind her ear, Vanessa looked up and fastened tired blue eyes on him.
“So do you have anything yet? Do you know anything?”
“It’s really too early to say. We do have a possible lead. You will be informed if there are any concrete developments.”
“Well then get out there and catch him, will you? You’re not doing any good here.” She walked to the kitchen sink, put her hands under the tap, and splashed her face with water. There was something instinctive about it, like a cat lapping milk.
They took the stairs to Boothby’s study. On the glass desk were invitations to appear at a comedy show and a book launch, a mug signed by the cast of an American sitcom, two plastic Aussie rules football players, and a history of advertising. Paskins switched on the display, and checked the e-mail, but scanning the messages he could find neither adulation nor hatred. This address had been carefully guarded. With luck access to Boothby’s work e-mail would prove more interesting. They retreated downstairs, repeated their condolences and said their goodbyes. Paskins was suddenly aware that in the midst of the storm of bereavement, everything in the house was unnervingly clean.
As this stage, less than two days after the murder, Paskins had been quietly nervous about the investigation. The more people a person knew, the more potential suspects there were. Being on television widened the scope of a person’s acquaintance almost infinitely, to the point where you could only investigate people who had managed to bring themselves to your attention, who had done something to step out of the multitude, had already made the error of giving themselves a profile of some kind. There must be a lot of people who might hold a grudge against Ron Boothby who had done none of these things. So when he had heard that Domestic Extremism might have a match for the hooded figure on CCTV, just as he was watching the late news on Tuesday night, it had been a welcome relief. But the acid test was approaching right now, and he needed a breather. Nerves. In the old days, before the disaster, he’d have gone for it.
“Interview paused 10:17 am.”
He raised an eyebrow towards the door and Leach understood that he was being called out.
“Back in two minutes,” said Paskins. Martins’ solicitor nodded.
They walked a few yards down the corridor, the noise of the custody desk at the far end a verbal merry-go-round, despite it being a Wednesday morning. Paskins adjusted his circular glasses, which added to the exacting air of a regular face with a ruler-straight nose.
“What do you reckon?” he said.
“He seems pretty soft, but he’s not saying much. He watches martial arts films – could be the kind of fantasist who might do a murder,” replied Leach.
“Hmmm. His prints are on the system. But they aren’t a match for any of the love letters. We need something out of him.” Paskins stroked his pink silk tie.
“He’s scared, boss. If we pressure –”
“Yeah. Yeah. We should do the stills now.” He spun around and strode back.
Returned to the interview room, Paskins hung his jacket up neatly. In his jogging bottoms and sweatshirt, Leach was casual but tough, a gym instructor or off-duty squaddie. He wore an affable confidence, whilst Paskins was angles and focus, pale skin made paler by a white shirt. Paskins restarted the recorder and continued:
“Interview resumed 10:19 am. Mr Martins, Detective Constable Leach is going to show you a photograph taken at a recent demonstration at Kingsnorth power station.”
Leach reached into a folder and withdrew an image. In the foreground was a tall security fence topped with loose curls of razor wire. A few yards behind it was a large tripod held together with steel pins and rope, effectively a scaffold-pole A-frame with an extra leg. Undulating into the distance were a crowd of protesters, a colourful sprawl of banners, face masks and a mannequin of the Energy Secretary on a wooden pole. At the centre of the photograph, perched atop the apex of the tripod, and clearly the target of the police photographer, was Ben Martins. Wearing trainers, jeans and a hooded sweatshirt with the slogan, “Keep coal underground, Keep people above water”, Martins’ left hand was grasping the rope binding whilst his right was pointing a finger at the police lines. There was a blue bandanna around his neck, which presumably had been intended to cover his face. It was undeniably him; the prominent brow, spiked hair and moody demeanour were clearly apparent.
“You made quite a little speech while you were up there.” Paskins’ voice was soft but sardonic. “I have a transcript of the recording we made.” He scanned through the text. “We’re here to protest against the moral outrage of burning coal in a destabilised global climate. People are losing their homes and their lives because of this. And I want to say that the people who lie and mislead are guilty, and they must bear the responsibility, and the consequences.” He paused and stared at Martins vacantly. “What exactly did you mean by that?”
“Just that they should bear the moral responsibility.”
“And who did you mean by ‘they’? Men like Boothby?”
“I guess so.” Martins’ face was shiny with sweat, his ears crimson and his voice clogging. Paskins clasped his hands neatly in front of him. Leach followed suit.
“And what were the consequences?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you have the moral high ground, if you’re in the right, and you weren’t involved with Boothby’s killing, then why do you look so scared?” Leach cut in aggressively.
“Probably because I’m frightened you guys are going to fit me up!”
“There’s no need for insults,” said Paskins. “Look, this entire demonstration and speech were carefully planned. You had your own people there recording it. I think you know precisely what you meant by bearing the consequences.” He waited, motionless. “One month later Ron Boothby was dead. The rear of the studio entrance has several CCTV cameras, but he was stabbed in a blind spot. Someone had worked the job out carefully. I think you and your mates had got bored with demonstrations. You couldn’t repeat what happened in Nottinghamshire. You weren’t getting anywhere and you needed more oxygen, a bigger thrill, something to make the headlines. And so you killed him.”
Nottinghamshire? As Paskins spoke, Leach recalled the break-in and mass occupation of the power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, a coal and grass burning site that should have been decommissioned years ago. The facility had been shut for one month, in a struggle which had drained reservists from across the country, and seen the giant cooling towers dominate the news.
“This is all speculation. Perhaps you could present my client with some evidence.” The solicitor rolled his ballpoint pen between his fingers.
“We’re coming to that,” said Paskins. “We have a shot of the suspect leaving the scene of the crime.” Leach took another transparent leaflet from the folder, holding a grainy still from a CCTV camera. A man in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt was running, head down, towards the camera. His face was cast in shadow, but the logo on the top was clearly visible, “Keep coal underground, Keep people above water”.
“Now who does that remind you of?” Paskins’ voice had tightened a little.
“Remember you don’t have to comment on any of this,” said the solicitor.
“Same slogan on the top, same hemp trainers from EcoClo. It’s you.” Paskins jabbed a finger – dagger-like ¬– at Martins, his lip curling in a snarl. It was a display of emotion from a man who had appeared an empty vessel. Martins flinched.
“It’s not. It wasn’t me.”
“You have a motive, you don’t have an alibi, and you were there. End of.” Leach shrugged.
“I need the loo.” Martins’ eyes were flitting about the room, unable to settle. His chin wobbled slightly.
“Can we have a short break, please?” The solicitor intervened.
“No, he can hold it,” barked Paskins.
“You’re denying the obvious, Ben, and pretending that you need to piss is not going to help.” Leach cracked his knuckles.
“Really, I do!”
There was silence. Paskins waited. “Fifteen minutes,” he said. Martins stood, and Leach led him to the gents. The solicitor followed, leaving Paskins perusing the photos.
“Keep coal underground, Keep people above water.” The slogan whispered to Paskins like an offstage prompt, like a wisp of smoke in the clean white space which he reserved for conscious thought. He knew that denying memories of the flood was self-defeating, but even if he made the effort to acknowledge them at a time of his choosing, they would slip from the periphery to the centre at times when he wanted to focus on something else.
On the day of the flood, three years previously, Paskins had been off duty and sitting in the dining room of his parents’ house, no more than a mile from his own. His mother came in with the tea on a tray.
“It’s not looking too clever out there, is it?” she said, glancing at the window. Dense clouds of gunmetal grey were merging into a heavy blanket that promised a deluge. In the street outside a leafless mountain ash was rippling in the wind.
“They forecast a storm,” said Paskins indifferently.
“Anyway, I think Mr Hobson did a good job.” His mother poured the tea and cut some slices from the fruit loaf. The raisins and cherries glistened like wet cobblestones. Paskins helped himself.
“It’s a lovely room. I’m sure Peter and Sue will be happy to stay there. How are they?”
“Fine. They’ve just got back from a break in Spain. They went to the Alhambra Palace, and that famous art gallery in Madrid. Lots of places, I think.”
He nodded. As he was slurping his tea, mind vacant, his mobile rang.
“Sorry Mum, this won’t take a second. Paskins.”
“Sir, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Thames barrier has been overtopped and a large area is flooding. Everyone is being called in. There might be a major incident briefing later but we probably won’t have the time.” Paskins blinked.
“Has there been a general evacuation order?”
“Negative, but we are evacuating the tube.”
“I’ll get down the station as soon as I can.” He rang off, his chin dropping as he saw his mother’s face. He breathed in.
“I’m sorry I have to go. It’s urgent.” He stood up, the chair dragging on the floorboards. “I’ll see you next weekend. And… stay inside this afternoon, okay?”
“Oh dear, well it wouldn’t hurt to just finish your tea.” She stretched out an arm as he walked past. He clasped it briefly.
A freezing north easterly gale chased him along the street. As he pulled the car door to, it felt like he’d just stepped out of a chiller cabinet. He keyed in the start code so quickly that he almost fumbled, pulled out and sped down the road whilst switching on the police radio with his spare hand.
“… to the flood zone. Repeat there is a severe tidal flood in progress. Priority evacuation of vulnerable citizens. Gold commanders will issue specific orders for each area. All units must proceed to the flood zone.” There followed a confused chatter of messages, one layered over another with varying degrees of distortion and panic. It was like trying to read a newspaper that had been turned into papier mâché. Paskins had never heard the system in such complete overload. He would have to get to the station in Kennington, ideally put on a uniform, and go from there.
He was in Brixton when he hit heavy traffic. The petrol engine of the hybrid cut out and he sat there in near silence, ragged snippets of conversation coming over the radio.
“We can’t get access to St Thomas’s Hospital. The whole area’s under 6 feet of water…”
“two pensioners trapped in a bungalow on Copperfield Street…”
“request assistance at 31”
“they’ll have to stay in there…”
“repeat the entire South Bank is flooded”
“negative, he’s not answering”
“sorry, you’ll have to coordinate that locally. New Scotland Yard is being evacuated.”
“this is Sergeant Price at Vauxhall Cross primary school. I think we got them all out, but there are 32 children sitting on the roof. Request immediate assistance. We need boats.”
“the current’s too strong I just can’t get to them.”
“this is the Gold Commander at Lambeth North. All units with boats please proceed to St Thomas’s Hospital.”
“chaos down here. We have multiple civilian casualties.”
“repeat the Central Command Complex will be running at Hendon.”
“evacuate and regroup at Borough station. You’ll have to leave them there.”
“can you repeat that please?”
“this is PCSO Patel on Waterloo Road. I have people injured by debris from a collapsed wall…”
“this is the Gold Commander at Lambeth North. We are commandeering the River bus ferries to assist in evacuation, but need a suitable embarkation point. Please prepare…”
“that’s not a realistic prospect, Gold Commander,”
“Price are you suitable location for evacuation by helicopter? Army air support has been promised.”
“just get someone over here, they’re all too old, I can’t move them!”
Paskins found himself listening with the passive intensity of a rubbernecker at a car crash. He plugged the blue light into the dashboard, wound down the window and slapped it on the roof, then pulled out into the other lane. Progress quickly became impossible; people were driving two vehicles abreast, some of them even cutting onto the pavement, trying to escape the flood which was who knows how far behind them. An old Nissan heavily laden with a frightened family crawled past, the mother in the passenger seat with two children on her lap. She saw the blue light and raised her hands. Paskins glanced along the street. A discount shoe shop, a ‘US style’ hairdresser, a pizza chain, a pub, a phone shop, a Polish deli, an off-licence, an old Jaguar kerb-crawling towards him. Shrieking with fear and excitement, a gaggle of schoolgirls in blue uniforms made their way between the cars. Only the direction of the whole group was obvious; it was like watching a swarm of flies.
He switched the radio off, pulled the car over, and got out. His hand resting on the door pillar, he stared north up the road, holding the pose long enough to take a deep breath. Then he dipped his head and started to run, with only the vaguest notion of where he was headed. The station at Kennington was probably flooded; he was just going to try and get as close as he could. Fat drops of rain hit him in the face, covering his glasses and chilling his head. His mind blank, he focussed on his breathing and ran until his lungs began to burn. Approaching Stockwell tube, he sheltered under a shop awning and tried to call Sergeant Hussein back on his mobile. A long silence followed by three angry beeps didn’t surprise him – the network was overloaded.
“You don’t want to go that way, mate.” A guy in a quilted jacket and purple corduroys put a hand on Paskins’ shoulder. “It’s all flooded and everybody’s running. It’s a madness up there, I’m telling you.”
“It’s okay, I’m a police detective. I need to get up there.”
“Shit… You’re gonna have one bad day at the office. Talk later.” He jogged away.
Moving further up the street was difficult; cars were packed across the road and onto the pavement, drivers venting their frustration in futile horn blasts that mingled unpleasantly with emergency sirens. The constant thrum of the rain on car bonnets and the soaking chill took the edge off the senses, to the point where Paskins could only focus on moving in the right direction, pushing his way through crowds of increasing density. The opposing mass was cold, panicky and shell-shocked, one woman clutching the handle of a collapsed umbrella with the determination of a child on a fairground ride, as though she might fly away like Mary Poppins.
“You’re going the wrong way!” shouted a woman in a burkha at him angrily, “Go that way,” pointing with her finger.
“Excuse me Madam,” he said automatically, and pushed past. Since when did those women speak to him? It was easier to move forward if he was immediately next to the wall, so he squeezed along shopfronts, crawling past a pub crammed with people escaping the rain and the crush, staring empty-handed out of the windows. Almost past it before he realised, he came across a takeaway with a television in the corner of the waiting area. He pushed his way in, drawing glares from frightened faces.
“Can’t you see we’re full in here?” shouted a woman with dreadlocks and glasses at the back of the group.
“I just want to see the television, I need to find out what’s going on. I’m a police detective.” He reached into his pocket for his badge, and then thought, why bother.
“Oh my, you’re a policeman, well what in God’s name are you doing here? Get out there and help people.” An older woman near the counter pointed a finger to the window. There was a murmur of agreement.
“London’s flooding, innit?” A teenager with a pierced lip glared at him sullenly, then moved the piercing with his tongue when he saw that he caught Paskins’ eye.
“That’s the police for you,” said a laughing old guy with a Jamaican accent, “The city is going underwater and they know less about it than we do!” Everyone else was silent. BBC News 24 was showing an aerial helicopter shot of Westminster Palace and the surrounding area. A thick brown slab of water obscured everything at ground level, as though an artist had dipped a palette knife into a large tub of acrylic and was slapping it over the canvas in big, dirty swathes. Roads were apparent only from the absence of buildings and the lines of lampposts, although tall vehicles were still above water. The scene seemed devoid of people, except – yes – there were two people on a rooftop balcony looking out across the Victorian Gothic battlements of what, one hour ago, had been the country’s centre of government. The news ticker across the bottom was not especially helpful, “… the Houses of Parliament have been evacuated. Much of central London is flooded and the emergency services are overwhelmed. There are reports of considerable loss of life.”
Paskins turned and pushed his way out, the floor full of damp shoes and dripping hems. As he reached the door he stopped to dry his glasses on a tissue, a fairly pointless exercise as outside it was still raining hard. The clammy hand of panic squeezed his intestines. Twenty-five years of working for the Criminal Investigation Department had left him accustomed to a responsive approach. The crime had been committed, and he could methodically build up a case, fill in the blanks, play a human-dimensional game of Tetris. Today it was back to first principles, basic training, like the brain surgeon trying to remember mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Whatever he was going to find, he didn’t feel ready for it.
The main junction by the station was a gridlocked snarl-up, yet the scene was quieter than expected; many cars seemed to have been abandoned, forcing other drivers to do the same. A small crowd of stunned pedestrians hung by the entry to the tube station, trying to take some protection from the rain. He spotted an ambulance and zigzagged his way through the cars, pulling out his detective’s badge as he approached the driver’s window.
“Sorry mate, I’ve got a patient in the back, I need to stay with him,” said the driver casually as he wound down the window. He had floppy hair and a youthful insouciance that left Paskins riled.
“I just wondered if you had any idea what’s going on? I’ve been off duty, the mobile network’s down and the radio’s blended.”
“Can’t really help you I’m afraid. I was taking this guy to St George’s in Tooting when the traffic went solid, people left their cars and I’ve been stuck here since. I can’t get through to ambulance control, but that’s in Waterloo so maybe it’s been flooded.” He paused. “So you’re heading up there are you?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to get to the station in Kennington.”
“Doubt you’ll manage that. Here, take this.” He handed Paskins a shiny high visibility jacket, a jumble of shifting planes of yellow. As Paskins moved closer to the window, he caught a snatch of the radio “… feeling the vibe on Jazz FM.” He paused briefly, wondering about BBC radio, but he didn’t want to be told, repeatedly, that everything was chaos.
The yellow jacket was a little tight across his shoulder blades, pressing his sodden shirt and jumper against his skin. Jogging at a steady pace, he started up the South Lambeth Road. The area turned surprisingly quiet; cars and pedestrians had made it out of here, leaving only the stragglers. The cavernous arch of the Stockwell Bus garage gaped hungrily, the buses parked in silent ranks. There was almost no traffic, though one car shot past at around fifty miles an hour, the driver in the Hollywood movie of his own life. Paskins wondered what effect flooding would have on the electric charging points. They’d probably all be out for ages. He passed a redbrick Victorian mansion block, austere regularity rising above the gaudy colours of fast food joints and hairdressers. Opposite large Georgian houses hung gloomily in the freezing rain. Something in the distance seemed to be moving up the street towards him. He did a double take: no, yes, yes it was a small wave, about a foot high.
Okay, time to go inside. The hairdressing salon was all white tiles and black leather chairs, the warm air and reflective surfaces taking him back for a second. Starry curves of blue, green and white LED’s in the ceiling gave the place an unnatural light. How they coloured anybody’s hair properly with that going on, he didn’t know. The place was empty, save for a couple of staff hunkered over mugs of tea listening to the radio.
“I’m Detective Inspector Paskins. Can you move upstairs? There’s a wave coming up the street.”
“Shame you can’t arrest it,” said a green-eyed, olive-skinned woman with hair like molten treacle.
“Seriously,” said Paskins shaking rainwater off his hands, “this whole place will flood. You haven’t got any sandbags?” He looked across to the guy, in black jeans and a thin black jumper, who shrugged.
“Nah, we’re out of stock on those. I’m Simon,” he added, offering a hand. Paskins moved forward to take it, but the lights went off, and the radio cut dead. The hand was still proffered, and Paskins shook it, looking across at the girl who said “Hi, I’m Asia,” finger waggling as she did so. The power cut had left them wide-eyed.
“Let’s go up to my flat,” said Simon, “We can go round the fire escape at the back.”
The door shook and muddy brown water slid underneath it, the wave passing the salon at some speed. A Chinese woman in a green blouse peered out of the block opposite, and as she did so the entry door opened, and a man in his sixties wearing jeans and a brown car coat came out splashing through the flood, raising his knees high to try and gain ground, his arms flailing. The three of them stood and watched as his arms whirled, he fell and was briefly submerged, before appearing a few yards further down the street, clinging to a lamppost.
“Can you get to him?” said Asia, putting a hand on Simon’s forearm. The windows were shaking. Paskins looked at Simon ominously. Dammit, he’d been running to get to “the scene”, though that could have been anywhere in central London, and now here, he was trapped inside a hair salon in a bright yellow jacket, like a sign which said “Warning: panic”. The water outside was at least a foot deep and was moving fast.
“I’ve got some climbing rope upstairs,” Simon spoke in a quiet monotone, as he stared at the guy embracing the lamppost. His hair formed well-marshalled pinnacles of gel, almost like the underside of a running shoe.
“Okay,” said Paskins, “and if you’ve got some shoes with some grip put them on,” he added, looking at the guy’s black leather flats already shipping water. As Simon opened the back door, the water surged in. It was cold and smelt of earth. Paskins recoiled slightly when Asia squeezed his bicep.
“The radio was telling most people to stay indoors. It was kind of unclear. How did you get here?” Her eyes like small green saucers.
“I was off duty. I was trying to get to my station in Kennington.”
“So you know what to do, right?” Her lip curled slightly as she smiled.
The water in the salon was now almost as deep as outside, the mirrors reflecting the filthy wet below. It reminded Paskins of some surreal art installation, the kind you’d spot in the Sunday papers. The guy Simon returned with a climbing rope slung over a shoulder. They tied it around the base of a chair that was bolted to the floor, then hesitated.
“Like this,” said Simon, putting the rope between his legs, over his shoulder and then under his right arm. Paskins did the same, the movement perhaps stirring some memory of training in a distant era.
“So you go climbing, do you?” He felt like a big yellow parcel and needed some reassurance.
“A few times a year. I help out on the climbing wall at the Brixton Rec.”
“Okay,” said Paskins loudly, trying to assume command, “I’ll go first, er Simon, you pay the rope out to me and give me some tension. And don’t stand in the middle of the street, the flow will be fastest there. Asia, you stay here and help pull us in.”
Keeping his legs apart for balance, Paskins waded out into the street. It occurred to him that he should have physically tied the rope around himself in some way, but it was rather late for that now. The water was approaching knee height, and every step was a gamble. He found himself keeping his feet as close to the bottom as he could, moving like a skater in slow motion. Only when he was a couple of metres away did the man seem to notice him, his head moving with an animal slowness that was, Paskins knew, the product of cold and terror.
“Stay there, stay there until I can reach you.” The water was deeper near the kerb and seemed to be flowing faster, and Paskins moved as quickly as he dared. The man reached out an arm, five splayed fingers ringed pink and white like a coral. Paskins pulled on the rope for some slack, and then tied it around the man’s waist.
“What’s your name?” he said. There was no response. “When I got out of bed this morning, this wasn’t what I had in mind!” he added. “What’s your name?”
“Right then Dave, follow me. Keep your feet wide apart and put one hand on my shoulder.” They moved slowly across the flooded street, like two drunks finding their way home in the dark. Simon and Asia pulled them in, though the loose rope wound over Paskins’ body seemed to constrict his chest when it got too tight. No, this wasn’t how it was meant to be done. It was still raining at forty-five degrees, like cross hatching on a cartoon. The water was now knee deep, a choppy swirling mass already carrying the imprint of streets engulfed: an orange traffic cone here, there a yellow hardhat bobbing absurdly like a bathroom duck, fag ends and crisp packets and plastic bottles, sawdust and chewing gum papers, nightclub flyers and business cards, floating past like a memory game conveyor belt.
They reached the other side and Simon held out a hand to Paskins, Paskins feeling his strength and thinking that the younger man should have gone first. The guy they had rescued collapsed into one of the leather barber’s chairs.
“I’d get you a cup of tea, but there’s no power,” said Asia, dropping the end of the rope.
“Well at least we can go upstairs and get dry,” said Paskins, trying to overcome the sense of disorientation. Asia took the old guy’s hand and led him towards the door at the rear.
For a Detective Inspector, Paskins’ life was rarely interrupted by moments of anguish. Subordinates would deal with grieving families, while suspects and victims were puzzles to be manipulated like a Rubik’s cube, their feelings merely patterns of colour. Bodies were evidence bases. He would break a murder down into smaller and smaller pieces of information, atomise it until the human element was no longer visible. Once drained of emotional potential, he would reassemble it, giving it an order, laying it out as a timeline of facts, a string stretching into the past on which a person’s death was merely another integer. At home he was scratch building a model of the International Space Station. The painstaking progress was both tortuous and satisfying, each little square of gold foil cut to size, every piece of aluminium drinks can rolled flat, every tiny wire antenna a step along the way to an alternate reality, cold, pristine and controlled. He didn’t smoke or drink like his father had, but let off steam with tiny cuts of a craft knife, and applications of jewel-like dots of glue. It would take years of solitary toil to dull the resonance of what came next.
The scream was high, piercing and ragged. Despite the eerie silence, it was hard to pinpoint the direction. The water was now up to Paskins’ waist, and with some effort he opened the glass front door. It felt like the door of a bank vault. A redheaded woman in an orangey-brown jumper was wading, then swimming, then wading, splashing with exhaustive desperation as she moved against the current. He walked outside, his legs like tree trunks.
“My boy, my little boy, he’s in that car.” She pointed up the street, then lost her footing. Spluttering and pale, she reappeared a second later, and Paskins stretched an arm towards her, with Simon the hairdresser guy behind, one arm on the door, the other extended along the rope, the two of them human pylons in a brown field. Paskins gave her a hook of curled fingers to grasp, then pulled her in.
“That’s it, up there.” She picked out an electric blue Renault, a little three-door now mostly submerged. With his glasses covered by rain, it was hard to judge the distance, but it couldn’t be more than twenty metres. They linked arms and ploughed heavily through the freezing water. Being of different height and unsettled by the current, they moved like two students in a three-legged pub crawl. Paskins lost a foot: either it was the kerb of the pavement, or maybe the cover had come off a drain. They fell in slow motion, the rope going slack until Simon pulled it in. The woman lost any traction and Paskins felt her body flowing away from him, his arm outstretched. A sickening curl of filthy water caught the back of his throat, and he checked the impulse to breathe. Time slowed down in a murky stillness. Then they both kneeled and stood as one, leaning against each other and coughing. Paskins gestured to Simon stay where he was.
As they approached the vehicle only the upper half of it was visible, a large blue bubble supported by curving metal uprights. The boot was slightly open, presumably tied at the base, accommodating a piece of furniture. On the far side a small brown-haired boy was strapped into a child seat, thrashing and wailing loud enough to be heard through the glass. The woman reached down below the waterline, pulling a key card out of her waist pocket, and handed it to Paskins, who let go of her and moved around to the passenger door. The child was straining in his seat, his back arched, his arms dancing in a parody of puppetry. The water was at chin level and rising.
“We’re coming, Harry,” called the woman with desperate normality. “Mummy will get you out of there now.” Paskins pressed the key card button, reached underwater and pulled hard on the handle, but the door was still locked. Again, he pressed and pulled.
“Open it,” screamed the woman. As she shouted, Paskins understood. Most of the vehicle was below water, the electrics were flooded – and pressing the card was futile. Paskins’ numb fingers picked at the card, pulling out the slim metal side key. He fumbled underwater, and managed to flick open the lock cover. As he engaged the key, he felt the point of it wobble on the lock rim, slide across the door and then out of his grasp altogether. He had dropped it. Shit. His fists hit the window glass until they were raw and bloody, he thought of trying to kick it with the heel of his shoe, smash it with his elbow, there must be a dozen ways to instantly remove this pale transparency. He put a house key between his fingers and punched it, then fell back, his hand in agony. The window had cracked, but the child had stopped moving, his hair floating like a mop on the surface. The window shattered in a twinkling shower, the straps were undone, the boy lifted, but… but… A brief silence.
That memory formed a psychological bookend at the start of the most traumatic and chaotic period that anyone had known in the force. Paskins spent the next eighteen hours trapped in the small flat above the hair salon, with a hysterical mother and a dead child, a disorientated pensioner and the two staff, all of them wet and cold, struggling to avoid hypothermia, listening turn by turn to the radio on the only functioning iPod they had. Once evacuated, he had returned home, managed to sleep for barely a couple of hours, and then staggered up to Brixton police station at two in the afternoon. Rescue operations were still ongoing: many areas hadn’t drained. Then the focus shifted to looting of abandoned cars and shops, preventing the spread of disease from widespread sewage contamination, and ensuring that people had access to clean drinking water. There was a spate of arson attacks and a spike in the murder rate. And all the while bodies were being recovered, bloated and swollen.
At the end of three months Paskins and his wife Liz went to stay in the Auvergne for two weeks. He felt rolled paper-thin, and for several days hardly said a word. When he got back, the pressure was still intense, but the nadir had passed, for the force as a whole. Yet for him, the sense of guilt was increasing. The confusion had faded, and now the story was clear. If he had not dropped the key, the child would still have been alive today. He couldn’t remove or add anything to that statement: the naked causation was unassailable, perfect. An ‘only because’ was superfluous. Harry Sleeman, two years old, and his death was on Paskins’ conscience. One by one the months were filed away, until a changed London became familiar, but for Paskins a lolling head and a chubby, pale face remained agonisingly fresh. Night after night, he would stretch for something out of reach, and wake up gasping.
For hard copy: