London Pride

Watching the unfurling horrors in Manchester and London, I am as bewildered as anyone else by the level of hatred and malevolence on display. I was born in London and still have family and friends there, so yesterday's incident is particularly close to the bone.

London is a city rich in mythology and legend (I'm sure Manchester is too, but I know very little about its stories) and the incident brought to mind both a favourite song - I am an admirer of the Golden Age of music from the 20s, 30s and 40s, including the Noel Coward number below, which I heard delivered to great effect by Kitt Hesketh-Harvey and Dillie Keane some years back. The song in turn brought to mind a semi-prophetic folk story from London's wide raging traditions. My spin on the story is included below - I hope it does not feel "too soon" to tell it.


London Pride

Karim’s lungs burnt as he raced through the city in hot pursuit of his friend, his once-friend, friend no more. What madness had eaten into Ali’s soul, Karim had no idea. They had both fled Saudi Arabia to get away from the hatred which Ali now so actively embraced. Ali had gone first, years earlier and established himself in their new land. Karim was only six weeks off the plane, his English too stilted to be of any use to him now.
“I die of love for him, perfect in every way”, how that thought had kept him going for all the years he and Ali had been parted, and how perversely apposite they now seemed when he surely would die for the man he had once loved. Ali had changed so much since coming to study medicine. Older, of course, and heavier – people age, which was only to be expected. That beautiful face half hidden now behind a straggling beard, the laughter and joy gone from his eyes which were now all seriousness and guilt. Eyes that could not bear to embrace Karim any more than those smooth hands could. What had once been, now forgotten and cast into shadows as if it had never been. When their lives had depended on secrecy, Ali had whispered in the night that he wanted to shout their love from the roof tops. Now they were in a land where they could do so and few would bat an eyelid, Ali refused to so much as mention what he decried now as an abomination.
A taxi blasted its horn as it roared past, seconds from crushing the bedraggled man who had been so hell bent on his chase that he hadn’t even registered the road. Karim clung to the lamppost drawing in ragged lungfuls of the toxic air and looking wildly about him. In his first week in London some of Ali’s friends had shown him a few sites, bewildered and overwhelmed by it all. He had tried to learn his way round, but it was confusing enough making his to the restaurant where he now worked and back let alone anything else.
Hauling himself across the busy road he checked the hastily drawn map that he had copied from a website earlier that evening. He needed to get to Trafalgar Square before midnight, less than twenty minutes from now. He hadn’t the money to pay for a taxi and his almost non-existent English had reduced his attempts to contact the police to an excitable, unintelligible cacophony. Who else could he contact? Karim’s mind raced even faster than his feet, four of the very few people he knew in Britain turned out to be deranged. He didn’t know who else he could trust, who would help stop what was happening and who might be aiding and abetting it. If he could get to the Square before Ali and his co-conspirators then he might have some slim chance of stopping their wickedness – talk them out of it, overpower them, somehow make someone else understand what was happening.
The great column loomed in the distance, giving him a flicker of hope as he dodged and dived between the crowds. Even at this late hour the city never slept. Were this the weekend the throngs of people would be all the denser and the journey that much slower.
Shoving aside a group of excitable teenage girls who shrieked abuse at him, Karim burst upon his destination just as the first tolling of the midnight bell struck. The bomb would be detonated on the final stroke of the clock, he had heard them plotting that whilst he was resting in the tiny attic room where Ali insisted he slept. The old house echoed terribly. Sometimes he could hear customers talking in the shop on the ground floor, let alone the secretive conversations in Ali’s room on the third floor. Had he not been feeling ill at work that night and come home early, he would have been none the wiser. At least not until the police had raided the house to cart off all the inhabitants for questioning following the horrors that his former beloved and his new circle of friends had unleashed.
As the third bell tolled he spun wildly around, a sweating dervish alarming passers-by as he searched for the face of Ali or one of the others that he might recognise. It was the woman he spotted first, her bleach-blonde hair stark under the street lights. She was dressed as any other backpacking tourist might be, unremarkable in the Square to all but the most attentive observer who might notice the vein pulsing in her forehead or the feline clutching and unclutching of her right hand. She spoke so fast most of the time he could barely follow her – not that she paid him the slightest attention. Lara only had time for Ali, who appeared to positively flourish under the attention.
Lara was at the base of the column, gawping not at the landmark but at someone off to her left. Pushing through the tourists, Karim followed her gaze and saw Ali some feet away clean-shaven and looking like his old self – though that younger Ali would never have left the house in a scruffy tracksuit and carrying a hideous green sports bag. Further off he caught sight of the portly figure of Asif in an ill-fitting business suit and carrying a briefcase. The other one would be somewhere, but in all the confusion of faces Karim could not see him. The woman was nearest – should he try to take her down? The bell tolled nine. Ali was the leader, and even with Lana out of the picture he could still give the others the go ahead to spread destruction.
“The tie that binds us is an unbreakable rope”, the words that had once been whispered to Karim echoed back across the years and pulled his feet in that direction. The eleventh bell struck as two drunks lurched into his path and knocked him over. Sprawling on to the pavement he saw Ali reaching inside his holdall, and screamed out for him to stop with all the force he could muster. As the twelfth note died away the two men locked eyes, Ali shocked to see his unwanted house mate’s horrified face. Unbeknownst to either, Lana also recognised the screaming man on the floor and strode towards him. She froze, as did the gathered crowds, to hear the great clock strike thirteen. They all stared at one another in bewilderment for a few moments before a terrifying roar blasted across the Square.
Karim huddled to the floor, hands over his head in a futile attempt to shield himself from shrapnel that never came. Instead a second and then a third roar reduced everyone to a blind panic. A high pitched scream interspersed between the thunder, and Karim glanced up to see Lana staring up at the enormous bronze lion that had suddenly stirred from its 150 year slumber. Stretching its limbs like any waking feline it leapt with an unexpected grace and crushed the blonde woman into the shattering paving slabs.
Fleeing people barrelled into Ali, knocking him flying and sending his holdall skittering in the opposite direction. The second of Landseer’s lions leapt from its stone podium and severed the unbreakable rope with a single snap of its monstrous jaws. Somewhere on the other side of Nelson’s column the quaking Karim saw a third lion stretch a bloodied muzzle and roar its pride into the night. Beyond his sight, a fourth lapped at the spreading pool of blood, drinking deep of its prey. Even before the man had recovered his feet, two of the vast black beasts had returned to their long watch over the city.
Soon the stains would be gone, and there would be no more blood on London’s streets that night.

(Thanks to Abu Nuwas for the quoted lies of poetry)




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