A city dying in an unconditioned hotel room, where the only layer left to tear off is sweat-soaked skin.
A city baking itself alive in long, wide, stone-clad boulevards, streets and squares. Statues rank the roadways, tortured in their postures of eternal triumph. Their brazen faces glisten as though with sweat, whilst tourists smile and snap beside them.
Underground subways draw endless ranks down into their artificially-lit depths, their innards like those of rusting space hulks. The adverts on either side flash and change, garish screens alive. No longer mere pasted billboards, here science fiction becomes merely fiction.
In the city’s depths men swarm like maggots, buffeted by the gales of rancid, rotten wind being blasted through the ribbed tunnels. The stone-and-metal innards are decaying. When Red-head and Blue-eye blow their noses the snot comes out like tar. Fingernails resemble those of a corpse by each day’s end, caked black.
Yet down here even the foul winds of a train’s screaming, aching passage become blessed relief. Above, the city passes in and out of consciousness in the unremitting heat.
Six redcoats of the Grenadier Guards come to attention. It is as though service to Queen and Country has allowed them to transcend to godhood, where human concerns like heat, sweat or fatigue no longer exist. Their sergeant barks, jabs at a white bayonet sheath, as though the ten thousand-thousand eyes watching through scorching black rails would ever comprehend the miniscule fault on display.
The streets and monuments are mammoth slabs of stone and steel, as though the greatness of the men and women which this city represents somehow requires material as well as immaterial space to house it.
And always, everywhere, the people swarm over and around and through and under, burrowing and biting and building. Six youths, smoking and laughing out of their car door seven storeys below the hotel window. A tanned lady who smiles as she picks up and hands back a stranger’s change. The foreign boy who insists he just saw the Queen of “England” in the car that drove past the palace gates. The old man asleep on the subway with warm piss running down his leg.
Millennia-old stone watches it all and says nothing. It’s seen worse. Surrounding on all sides, the new, jagged edifices of steel and glass ignore it, too absorbed with trying to look majestic as they reflect the blazing sunlight.
Feet swell, become red, blister. Each night the plughole retches, turned black with washed-off grime. The water is never cold enough. Nothing is cold enough. It’s so fucking hot.
Red-head and Blue-eye burn. The city doesn’t care. It’s burned better men and women than them. The two Highlanders do their best to ignore red-raw flesh and stare in awe at the brown waters struggling past. The clean, blue depths of the river that runs through their home seems like a half-remembered fantasy. Here, at the other end of a Kingdom, their mountain-bound village occupies a different dimension from that of this, their Greater Capital.
London was, and is, and shall always be. The stone and the maggots and the rotting wind and the baking sun know this, and now the young Highlanders do too.
They will visit again, some day.