Copyright Adam Smith
Maybe he comes here because he wants to film the shifting. He’s brought his camera again. He’s screwed it onto the top of his tripod. It stands still, gathering. That little, single-eyed black box is a third person between us. It is his silent friend, and I am their silent stalker. I’ve watched him for weeks now. He doesn’t always bring a camera. He doesn’t always come, not every night. Sometimes he comes for five minutes: he just steps along one of the concrete walkways, follows the yellow line over the clay tiles for a while and then takes the steps down to the street and that’s when I lose him. I don’t care where he goes when he’s not here. I only really care because I’m worried he knows about the shifting. That’s why I have to follow him when he’s here making his films or standing and watching or taking photos. He’s waiting, I think. So I wait with him. If a shift happens when he’s here, I’ll… I don’t know what I’ll do. There’s a brick in my belly.
I’m scrunched up. The corners are the best places for this. You can get low and deep in the dark and sometimes the floor isn’t wet in the corners. Even in the daytime you could scrunch here and few people would see you. I’ve done that before. At nighttime it’s better because you’re definitely a secret. I used to feel this way in bed when I was younger. With my head under the covers, nobody would know where I was. A child’s dream. Now I know it’s not true. I try to stay in my room. I can see the whole city from up there, but it’s just lights. The people and the places in this city are as distant as the stars. I’m so far away from them up there in my room; they’re just pinpricks of brightness. I like to be close, to be inside something. I prefer to be walking on one of the slopes leading people into the Barbican Centre with the concrete roof above me, or alone and secret. Scrunched into one of the estate’s corners.
If there’s a shift, being in a corner is dangerous. The floor might fall. The hammered concrete panel behind me could be swept away. I’d tumble backwards down the steps or be scooped up by a rising walkway. It’s like the game me and my brother play when Mum’s in the kitchen. We take it in turns to lean against the door on the living room side. The door opens into the kitchen, so whoever is leaning on it when Mum pulls it open will have to deflect her anger and lose the game. I like the fear and the way my little brother can’t help but giggle even though he knows the sound is more likely to draw Mum to open the door. Dad sits by the window or on the balcony if it’s summer, ignoring us. He looks over to the other tower block or maybe he looks further out, east. He’s usually trying to estimate distances to other buildings. He checks his guesses on a map with a ruler and a length of string. Mum opens the door, my brother falls down and laughs while she shouts at him, and then we have dinner. My brother spills peas onto the table and Dad tuts. I have to report news from school: the names of the bits in a human cell, the kind of paint we used for our model of the Mary Rose, the properties of the prime numbers—they squeeze these details out of me until I go and stand on the balcony looking over. Then Dad pulls me back in because he thinks I’m about to jump. He is a vacuum cleaner. He sucks me back into the flat.
Dad calls me risky. But down here, out on the estate, I can take a real risk. I can walk along the barrier on Gilbert Bridge, the walkway underneath Gilbert House, eight metres above two fates: the clay floor tiles or the shallow lake. The risk is why it’s good to scrunch. If you put your bum on the floor and push your back into the corner to try to close the gap between your spine and the meeting at right angles of the two concrete sides, and you pull your knees towards you with your feet flat, you’re ready to push back when the shift happens. I’ve never pushed back when the shift starts but the thought of it makes my breathing deep and long, and that makes my heart boom. Sometimes, when I’m scrunched like this, really scrunched with my knees under my chin and my arms crossing in front of my shins, every muscle is taut and I can feel my pulse all over my body. It’s like I’m a single particle, scrunched in a corner of the estate and throbbing as if there’s a charge shooting through me. I buzz like the blue neon strips that direct lost visitors into the arts centre through the gloomy north end of Gilbert House.
Today we’re under Gilbert House. The theatre has already kicked out. The stragglers are usually just dispersing when I leave the flat to come out and wait for the shift. They chatter and hurry to reach the Tube. They always get lost. They always have to check the smooth black plastic maps embedded into the jagged concrete estate walls. Concrete can be spread out and flattened down; I don’t know why they deliberately made the walls here so rough. Mum said the concrete wall panels and columns were bashed by hand for effect. It’s like how she makes peaks and waves on the topping of a lemon meringue pie—randomness requires special attention. The people don’t think about this when they check the map panels. They just want to know the quickest way out.
They’ve all left now. He’s here, still. I wish he would go away too. I wish I didn’t have to follow him around to see whether he knows about the shift. He’s trying to film it, isn’t he? He stares down the length of Gilbert House, southwest in the direction of the church. The lake stretches underneath Gilbert—both the building and the lake are long and thin, but they head in opposite directions. They cross. I’m scrunched. My knees need to relax but I’m pushing back into the corner at the top of the steps outside the music school. Beside him, his camera pulls everything in. The camera’s light—a dot of red—floats in the darkness. It’s a pinprick of light from another time. I could pull it apart, open up a bright red gap in the air and climb through into… It’s late and it’s dark and it’s quiet. We’re in the city but somewhere else at the same time.
That’s one reason why no one would ever suspect the shift—it happens silently. Even though we’re talking about tons of concrete pivoting and bricks turning in their place and steel covered in bashed cement swinging around, if you couldn’t see it with your eyes you wouldn’t know it was happening. There is no sound to it. The first time I saw it, my brain made up the thud of one concrete column slotting into place. When I saw the roof of Bryer Court pivot at one end and sweep horizontally to become the roof of Bunyan Court, which had sunk one floor into the ground moments before, I imagined the scraping sound. It was a crisp shttk. Bunyan Court rose a floor then, jacked up like a car, and one of its storeys swung out at right angles. My brain heard a faint swoosh but no sound when Bryer Court was jacked down two storeys, with one of its floors slotting in to swap places with the floor from Bunyan.
I lost my breath. I made no sound. I watched this shifting concrete spectacle from the wide boulevard beside Defoe House and found my body falling back onto one of the square plant boxes that hold the bizarre palm trees. Within seconds, the estate was still. The silence, in reality, had not been disturbed for a moment. I focused long-distance on a few residents walking by their windows in Bryer, flicking on a TV or fiddling with a blind, unaware.
The next night I was standing in the same place. Something about these giant blocks had pulled me in. It’s not good enough to be in our flat near the top of Cromwell Tower, even though this is part of the estate. I’ve got to be outside and low, with the towers and the blocks standing over me. They are my parents.
As I waited to see another shift—to test that I hadn’t made the whole thing up—the middle of the three high-rise towers on the estate began to twist. Some storeys revolved clockwise and others turned in the opposite direction. This tower is called Shakespeare. I can’t see any part of it from where I’m scrunched up now under Gilbert. It’s impossible to see the whole tower unless you’re in our flat in Cromwell or above the whole estate in a helicopter.
I’m certain that the estate hasn’t shifted when he’s been here. I’ve only seen him for the past three weeks, eleven times in total. He wears his small leather jacket and his hard-soled boots. He’s really old—he must be about 30. He’s lived twice as long as me but he hasn’t seen the shift. He’s working on it though. He waits until the theatre is finished, and the cinemas and all the other things they do inside. He arrives just as the final people leave and most residents are home closing their curtains and calling family members far away. He walks around, finding a spot he hasn’t previously settled in. He looks, he waits, he watches. Then he sets up the camera or takes a few photos or starts to draw. He’s working on something. He’s preparing for something. For a shift? Maybe. I want to see it again too.
He’s old but he’s younger than my dad. And he’s different. He is quiet and he stands back while he gathers. Gathering is like thinking but it’s thinking about what you’re watching. It’s different from information and from facts—that’s the stuff Dad likes. What time did I get up? What was the Arsenal score? How much biology have I got to do tonight? Our flat could be revolving or slotting into another block and Dad would be inside checking that the kitchen drawer is stocking a spare set of triple-A batteries for the remote control. My brother darts around, my dad tutting him, mum tries to rest on the sofa, these people, these bodies weave through our flat, doors opening and closing every day, opening and closing, bathroom light clicking on. Clicking off. The plastic teardrop on the end of the cord taps against the wall until it settles. I hear it every day. Morning and night it is the same click-click-tap-tap.
Maybe that’s why he brings his camera and films. He wants to see how the estate changes from one day to the next. Or stays the same. He is yet to see a shift.
He is shifting himself now, gently swaying left and right to keep his legs alive. The camera is still as he steps away and paces. He looks towards my corner and my muscles tense. I push back into my scrunch. His gaze continues on, sweeping around and then falling to the ground.
He traces the rectangle outline of a clay tile on the floor with his toe. I drop my breath for a second because I’m doing the same thing with my finger on a tile. The tip of my right index finger scrapes the long side of the tile, pivots for the short length, runs up the other side and turns again for the final flick to complete the rectangle. I’ve been doing this over and over for twenty minutes. Now the tile begins to descend and my hand is left hanging. My heart jumps. A whole section of the walkway near me remains flat but drops. I’m now on a narrow ledge with my back against the corner concrete panels. I shift and for an everlasting second my foot dangles over the nothingness and my heart jumps again and my mind freezes and I don’t know what’s happening and I’m scared. I’m an ant getting squished. I’m a nothing thing. I breathe. Scrunching. Scrunching harder helps and I can feel myself calming. Even when I pull my legs in tighter to the scrunch, my toes protrude over the edge where the floor tiles once laid and where I can now see only blackness.
I stand up and it feels like someone is tearing my leg muscles apart. But I’ve got to go. Gilbert Bridge is being retracted south. The floor above me—the first flat in Gilbert House held up by the concrete stilts—is moving away. It slides out like the CD drawer in my dad’s old player. My hands grasp a wall. My fingers run into the grooves as I wonder whether they’re deep enough for me to hold onto if the floor below me falls. My heart thunders. Columns rise from the rectangular pond nearby, pushing water out onto the clay tiles. These pillars hold up the newly located Gilbert House. I’m breathless. I’m spinning in space. I can’t tell which is the right way up. In the distance across the lake, Defoe House is collapsing, but not haphazardly. It is being dismantled by an invisible hand, block by block. Are some of the sections upside down? The staircase down from Defoe to the plaza is levering up like a drawbridge. The lights are still on in the flats.
The wall behind me pulls away. I nearly lose my balance and fall into the abyss below. While my body wavers as if deciding whether to fade into the blackness or to gamble I feel nothing again, weightlessness. I force myself forwards instead and I can sense an emptiness behind me where the wall used to me. Now there is just space. I’m an astronaut alone. I’m not even shocked that my time nearly ended. I just feel excited that I’m the only one here. The only person who can see the earth from space is me. Right now, just me.
The floor begins to vibrate. It’s about to move. Before it disappears I pound down the steps ahead of me towards the pond. I land on the water that was washed onto the tiles like a tide. I could be trapped here, hemmed into this square with the lake in the centre, so I turn back on myself.
I see him now. I had forgotten. He’s missing the whole thing. He’s out near a metal bench in front of the music school. Behind me Frobisher Crescent is rising up without a sound and flipping over to make an arch but ahead of me, he is standing beside his camera pointed away towards the low-rise Brandon Mews in front of Willoughby. Another section of the floor disappears, forcing me towards him. I’m three metres from him and he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything. He is missing the shift. He is by his tripod with his hand on the panning stick, pushing it gently so as to turn the camera away from Brandon Mews. Eventually after 180 degrees he’ll reach me and the mayhem going on behind. I swing my head round to check: Frobisher Crescent has flipped over entirely and now sits on top of the lake. Further away and high above, Lauderdale Tower is twisting like a tortured spine.
He is still panning slowly, now shooting northeast to take in Speed House. Even the trees there don’t move. There is no wind. I open my mouth to speak but I just suck in my breath instead, and my throat dries as the air touches it. He stops. He is shooting north. He tilts the camera now, pointing the lens upwards. He is filming Cromwell Tower, but just the tip. You can only make out the highest four floors above all the other buildings. My flat is on one of those floors, third down from the top. He adjusts the direction of the camera and… and I can tell he’s pointing it at our flat.
I shout at him. I can feel the noise in my throat, but no sound comes. I’m like one of these buildings as it shifts: impossibly silent. The water is rising, or the tiled floor is dropping. My feet are sodden, submerged. The ducks left some time ago. Andrewes House behind me shudders. The individual flats are dropping out like books from a tilted shelf. I shout again, but he can’t hear me. There is no noise despite the chaos. He is still, focusing on the camera, gathering our flat.
Cromwell Tower begins to sink floor by floor, drilling into the ground. I’m trapped in the shifting. I know if I touch him, one of us will vanish.