It is the occasion of champagne that gives it its appeal and the same is true of sugary tea. Normally she wouldn’t touch the stuff, but sat in Caffe Nero on Piccadilly Gardens at 7.20 in the morning she mused that it did seem to do the trick.
Maybe shock was too severe a description, but she certainly felt stunned, and shaken, and cold. And off-kilter in the way that staying up all night, self-caffeinating to write a funding application probably doesn’t help.
Just before 6am the Ladies toilets had been very noisy. A few feet away from the frosted window was the scaffolding of another block being renovated and the builders were always shouting, amplified in the industrial bathroom with its shiny tracing paper bogroll that no one believed still existed. It would sound as though the workmen were very close to the glass.
And now, she thought, kids have got up there and are knocking poles together and letting off bangers. She was dopy and the realisation was slow. The lights beyond the window red and yellow, the insistent crackle, the smoke starting to thicken in the air.
She returned to her desk, an indignant inner voice proclaiming that she had worked all night (goddamit!) and she must e-mail the documents over to her London colleague. With the header ‘my building is on fire’ she attached the first files and sent. Midway through the second e-mail however, a different inner voice piped up, “What the hell are you doing? There is smoke in your building. Drop everything and leave.”
The fire engines were arriving as she descended the three flights and stepped out onto the street. The blaze was mighty and the sight of the men battling it was compelling. She stood feeling stupid for taking photos on her camera phone, like a competition winner at a gig. She considered sending them to the BBC or Channel M but didn’t know how, so she texted them to her sleeping colleagues. She continued to stand and watch and shiver and smoked a cigarette.
Where do you go at this time of day, when you’re wired awake and exhausted? Then the sugary tea thought occurred. So here she was, a free drink secured by a fully stamped loyalty card she saved for rainy days between rent and paycheck. And this is what she saw.
The ash had sprinkled all the way onto Piccadilly in black blocks the size of your fist, but squidgy under foot, like a flaky polystyrene. And the smoke too had drifted in the wind, people crossing the gardens briskly with hands over mouths because of the smell. A young guy in a hi-vis vest picking litter didn’t bother with the ash as it unendingly reappeared, instead following coke cans in the wind. And off above the buildings to the north east of the square you could see the black plumes from the site, tinged red on the skyline.
Then for a moment, further east, through clouds and soot, a sun appeared and sent beams through the haze to the scuttling workers traversing the gardens and the Queen Victoria statue, and the moment was beautiful awesome and a bit religious (or on reflection a bit John Woo), and she thought no one will ever believe this.