The impossible city

Brock Norman Brock is a writer, soldier, stalker.

Chaos in the City

If you, like me, have ever been a soldier, you will know that a simple stroll can hold many unforeseen dangers. Even when - perhaps especially when - the route is familiar and the risk apparently minimal. Your training will help you to assess any threats. But still, each step can have life or death consequences. It takes no great leap of imagination to understand how this applies, say, in a minefield. And perhaps you will take my word for it when I tell you how quickly the weather can close in on you in Brecon; how even good men have found themselves in trouble by deciding to go on when they should have gone back. But will you understand when I tell you that more perilous than any mountain expedition or behind-the-lines yomp is a straightforward walk through the City? Will you? Let me explain. Perhaps you, like me, have an amateur interest in Women's Studies, and so you might, like me, enjoy the idea of following secretaries to work in the rush hour. Look at them simply pour out of Liverpool Street station. Like from the mouth of some great geyser of secretaries, erupting each Monday through Friday at precisely 9am. You can set your watch by it. Which you do. Now.

What risk is there in standing behind - let's call her Tanya - Tanya as she inches her way up the escalator? You know that the key to any operation is planning and preparation and you've been watching her all week in her provocative shoes and her pencil-tight so-called business suit. So where's the harm? It's a free country, isn't it? It's been years since you've been anywhere near a uniform, and even longer a woman, but you never forget your drills. You know what you're doing. This time, instead of following her from behind down Bishopsgate, up until the revolving glass doors of her firm (once even pushing in with her which was close and perhaps ill-judged), you decide that you're ready to brush past her just as she reaches the top of the escalator, stop suddenly, and - patting your pockets pretending to have left something behind - turn around to (finally) get a good look at her from the front. Slightly more dangerous, yes, but what kind of intelligence is it if you can't get three hundred and sixty degrees? You can draw a detailed map of her ass, sure; you've memorized the contour lines of her legs; but what kind of intelligence, indeed? As the grille of the steps disappears into the metal teeth of the escalator, you flash back to the cargo door of the Herc coming down and your patrol commander shouting Three, Two, One, Go Go Go in your earpiece and that taste of alkaline and dread rises up at the back of your mouth all over again. Maybe you're over-reacting. Or maybe it's that old military adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Or maybe it's those goddamned politicians selling you down the river like they did last time. It doesn't matter. Save it for the debrief.

All that matters now is getting away as quickly as you can. Because this is what's happened: as you brush past her, you step on her foot. And as you step on her foot, she shrieks. And as she shrieks, you turn around. And as you turn around, she recognizes you as the strange man who's been following her for the last week. And - and here is why a foot put wrong in the City is so much, much more dangerous than mis-stepping in a minefield. As the t-shirt says, in a minefield, at least you know where you stand. But the City? The City is the Hub of the World, and every movement here travels exponentially outward like spokes on a wheel. Step on a Claymore and that's you done, and the rest of your patrol, too. But step on Tanya's stiletto and listen: the sound of far-off markets crashing. How can you see where your actions will end? In the City, even innocently following a woman to work, for God's sake, stalking her if you must, can set off a chain of events of which it is impossible to see the consequences. You've legged it, you've got your balaclava pulled down over your face (the CCTV bastards will never recognize you); but behind you Tanya's caused a jam at the top of the escalator and the commuters now are colliding into one another like a slapstick routine except this is very serious. A case is dropped. A call is missed. A tip not shared, a meet not made. Around the world, the repercussions reverberate. And by the time the day is done, and Tanya hobbles in to All Bar One, and downs her fruity flavoured vodka shots, and drunkenly drapes her arms across the chest of Giles for whom she's always had the hots, price has fallen well below its cost. And with it falls the government of some dictatorial, equatorial far-off spot, whose exports are - or were - chiefly bananas and tin pots.

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