5 am. Gracechurch Avenue’s lampposts had managed to slightly chase away the darkness left by the night, but it still refused to give way to the rising dawn. The temperature was freezing cold, and the grey-bluish night mist seemed to absorb the lampposts’ dim orange light.
Had he not known what time it was, John could have sworn it was still the middle of the night, rather than morning. The sun was a late riser in London these days, as if she was aching for a lie-in herself, preferring the warmth of a pampering goose down duvet to spreading some light onto the frozen street.
John, back home called Yochi – an abbreviation for Yochanan - had to make his way to the office in the early morning hours, so that he would manage to start the working day alongside the offices of his employer’s company, oversees.
Today, he left his soulless Tower Bridge serviced apartment, which was rented for him by the firm, even before the clock struck five. It was his fourth month in the kingdom’s capital, a gig which had started as a temporary project assignment, and subsequently took shape as a rather permanent posting to the firm’s London offices. And yet, he didn’t mind. At 30 winters old, John – single and unattached - was happy to spend time in one of the world’s most buzzing cultural cities. It sure as hell beat the provinciality of being back home.
John was unmistakably a handsome man. He was 6 foot tall, and had an upright and self-confident posture, which was not apparent under the oafish black winter coat. His brown hair was mostly hidden under the black beanie hat he wore only until he was to reach the office, just at the end of Liverpool street station. Despite his relatively young age, John’s face was already entwined with a hint of some wrinkles, especially underneath his big, olive colored eyes. He seemed exhausted, a direct outcome of the numerous working hours he was putting in (along with the drinking nights with the English colleagues).
He picked up his pace, stepping over the large, crooked, cobble stoned sidewalk, going past the lorry drivers and the merchants who were unloading in the entrance to Leadenhall market. These were the first signs that Wednesday had begun, though for John yesterday never truly ended. He had been up all night running possible scenarios in his head, for possible failure of the computer program he had been working on in the past six months.
John’s firm was situated in the east end of the City of London, right by the big banks and brokerage firms. This location was not coincidental, as his firm was developing online trading and banking applications for exactly this clientele base. Today’s software launch would determine John’s future with the firm. Success meant prestige, an assured continuation of the London based project and a nice five figure incentive bonus; whereas failure would most likely send him to the unemployment office back home.
The pavement felt rough under his frozen feet, and he stumbled as the path curved to the left. A garbage truck pulled up beside him, and burly garbage workers, equipped with bright yellow jumpers, nearly ran over him on their way to the big dumpster bins of the crossroad, where the avenue becomes Bishopsgate. The commotion they caused woke him up, and sharpened his senses, as he was pacing faster in order to keep warm… and maybe to distract the pessimistic notions regarding his project.
As he reached the gargantuan building of Liverpool Street Station, he took out a pack of cigarettes and lingered at the entrance. He never used to smoke before midday, but since he was up for already a day and a half, he figured he could get away with it. The warm smoke engulfed his cold lungs made his throat tingle. He felt dizzy and after three more puffs, threw the cigarette to the curb.
Walking on the lower level of the station was his best route to reach the company’s offices in Broadgate Circle, at the end of the station. Plus, the sheltered station provided some protection against the chilly outdoors. Several people were already waiting in the station for the early trains to arrive.
The number of people already standing at the heart of the station, underneath the train departure board, made it slower to walk through, and on a warmer day he would have gladly avoided the hubbub and would have overtaken the station from the outside. At these hours he was still not accustomed to interacting, no – he was not a morning person at all. It was only with the double espresso he would drink in about an hour’s time that his hostility towards the world would start to dissolve.
“STOP! WE JUST WANT TO TALK TO YOU!” A shout was heard through the dozens of people standing in the station. Everybody immediately turned their gaze toward the source of the cry and started moving uncomfortably to either clear the way or to locate the person responsible for the racket, in an effort to feed their curiosity.
Abruptly, an elderly man emerged from in between the crowd, running frantically towards John. He ran into a young man’s shoulder and kept running while pushing another woman and mumbling apologetic words. His clothes were shabby – a brown suit with a tweed jacket that had seen better days. His skin looked clammy, a result of his overwrought run.
The old man’s eyes were darting all over the place, and he had a panicky look on his face. His eyes were trying to focus on something that seemed not there, rather than concentrating on finding a safe route between the people. John was transfixed by the scene like a deer staring into the lights of a vehicle at night, and was unable to move aside as the man picked up his run and headed straight towards him. The collision was imminent.
With a loud thud John fell to the ground with the man lying on top of him. “I am sorry … I am sorry” cried the old man, trying to pick himself up from John, neither accepting nor being offered any help from the bystanders. In the corner of his eye, John managed to see two men, dressed in black leather jackets, heading towards them. His first thought was that these coats are too thin for this cold weather, as if they were meant to impress others rather than to actually protect the pursuers. He immediately dismissed the thought as irrelevant and lifted himself while aiding the man to his feet.
“The Queen... the queen … where she is seated… they are all standing there behind her” John gave a baffled stare to the man, who seemed incoherent and spoke with a foreign, maybe east European accent. “THE QUEEN – come on – they are all standing!” he begged, as his eyes shot a penetrating stare into John’s.
As the leathered gentlemen drew near, the man shot off again and John thought he heard him mumble “remember the queen”. As soon as one of the chasers reached John, the other kept running after the old man. He touched John’s shoulder and straighten his coat, gently frisking him as if he was looking for a weapon of some sort.
“You ok mate?” the guy asked, though something about his smile seemed phony, or at least not sincere. Meanwhile the elderly man ran through an open gate to the trains’ platform. John was still overwhelmed and before he could begin to answer a shriek was heard throughout the station’s hall.
The screeching noise of a train trying to brake filled the air and scorched John’s eardrums. More screams were now heard and a boy started crying. Dozens of people started to run towards the platform, where the man had apparently thrown himself to the oncoming locomotive, which was just arriving at bay number two.
“Did he hand you anything?” the man asked John abruptly with annoyance. “No,” John stammered “I mean, I don’t think so … he just knocked me over.” he found it hard to compose himself.
The man drew out a business card and stuffed it into John’s palm. “Give me a call if you remember anything-” he spoke in a raggedy cockney accent, and never mentioned his name “-just a mad geezer, hey mate?!” The man’s smile was broad and seemed inappropriate. He disengaged and headed rapidly towards the escalator leading to the top floor of the station, signaling his friend as they both made their way away from the scene of the incident. Met and transport police officers were already congregating near the platforms.
“Yes…” John murmured, but the guy was long gone.