Drop in the Ocean
Centre Street, Rockbay; 09:10, January 29th
Waking up in the middle of a busy shopping street is not the first thing I expected on a Saturday morning. However, it turned out to be an unusual kind of day.
The din of this city is unmusical and harsh, and it made an alarm far different from the sounds I expected to awake to. Car engines and ceaseless voices screamed at me to open my eyes, rather than the quiet and familiar music my clockradio uses to coax me awake.
So, as the mists of sleep were forcibly thinned and reality sharpened into existence before my eyes, I was convinced my senses had failed me – these shouts and roars are not sounds which should echo round a bedroom, the smells of rain and gasoline are generally not to be found in a flat, the cold damp of a drizzle seeping into my clothes and the hard tarmac I lay on did not resemble my bed, the myriad people and cars and streaming rays of the rising sun not features of a home.
Thus, even through bleary eyes, it was not hard to determine that my environs were not my bedroom, and the people around me were, unfortunately, not my pillows. Hopefully the day wouldn’t go downhill from here.
I struggled to my feet, feeling battered as other people pushed past me, all but ignorant and completely uncaring that a man had recently been lying asleep at their feet in the middle of the street.
Street? How did I get onto a street? I distinctly remember going to sleep in my bed.
At last, while words struggled into sentences in my head, the real world became clearer, and I could take in my surroundings. Silver buildings rose high on either side of the road, their sunlit windows glowing like white-hot bolts of lightning. A road lay on both sides of the shop-lined street, one separated from the other by a line of grass, which itself was broken up by a string of Yew trees, each spaced so that the longest branches of one just brushed those of the next. People hummed past in crowds so thick they resembled an ant colony as they writhed towards an unknown end, and the jumble of their voices created an uproar that drowned out the river of cars that never ceased rumbling past only streets away. Here, though, at this convergence of five of the city’s major roads, all vehicles had come to a complete standstill; motors chugged and whirred, forced to wait as they were held back by sentinel-like traffic-lights, while a hundred people made their way over the wide-spanning pedestrian scramble while their chance to cross remained.
The last detail told me where I was – Centre Street, in the middle of the city, and a good few miles from my flat. Now how many sleepwalkers make it this far?
Before I could think, the swarming mass of people opened up near the centre of the crossing, to my left. Amid the crowd emerged a small boy. The sea of people had parted either side of him, like water before an island of white and black tarmac, but there did not seem to be any reason why.
I had turned my head swiftly, hoping to get a better view of this peculiarity, then wished I hadn’t as my head gave its complaints with a thunderous throbbing. I wondered if this was how a hangover felt.
As my eyes spun, they again rested on the young child across the road. I studied him, wondering why the crowd gave him such berth. Maybe he was a celebrity.
He wore a long t-shirt that didn’t fit him, a pair of filthy cotton shorts, and some trainers that were falling apart. His skin was dark, his dirty hair a grey-black, and I guessed him to be of African descent; here, in this western city, he stuck out like a puppy in the ocean. I was sure he was no more than eight, but there was something in his gaze that told me he was only young physically. His eyes sent a chilled ripple down my spine.
A hoodie-wearing youth barged straight into me, cursed roughly, and yelled back without stopping “What are you doing here?” I wished I knew.
I looked past him, at the sky. The sun hung so low that the horizon was yellow and shadows stretched twice their owner’s height; it couldn’t be much later than nine in the morning, so what had I been doing here?
Digging my hands in my pockets, I found only my phone and wallet, no explanation how I got here.
As I scanned my surroundings, I was drawn once more to the African boy. This possible-celeb had not moved from his spot, and the tide of people had not washed up on the asphalt shores around him. He stood watching me fixedly, and I him, until, slowly and distinctively, he mouthed two words: leave now.
I blinked, and when I looked again, a wave of citizens had finally crashed around him, swallowing his asphalt island. He was consumed in the mass of faces and bodies, impossible to pick out, a real-life Where’s Wally? There were early-morning shoppers, a teenager filming this way with a compact video-camera, and umpteen businessmen, but no children.
Engines roared back into life as they were at last set loose, restrained no more by the red-faced sentinels, prowling slowly along the streets to rejoin the flow of the roads.
As the traffic lulled, another inspection of the road told me the boy had gone, no trace, but it wasn’t that much of an issue.
I knew this area well enough – my office wasn’t far away, and I frequented a café around here; it would be as good a place as any to try and get a grip of the situation: why I had wound up here. From there I’d make my way to the office. Hopefully Ken wouldn’t chaste me for being late. Or was it Saturday? I definitely needed to get my thoughts sorted.
The colony of people made no attempt to step aside as I struggled against the flow, to the extent that I didn’t notice the man until I knocked into him.
I slowed to mumble an apology, but came to an abrupt stop when I saw his face. Rather, his lack thereof.
Somebody cut across me, (another hoodie, or possibly the same one) drawing my attention for a second, but no-face had vanished when I looked back.
I had seen two strange people vanish into the crowd within five minutes; evidently, dreams had not been entirely cleared out of my head.
I possess no sixth sense, no gift of clairvoyance, no crystal ball or tarot cards, and even seem to lack a characteristic common to most heroes or protagonists: the ever present ‘primal instinct’. Perhaps this is because I am no hero, and only the protagonist of my own story. This is why I dismissed no-face as nothing more than my imagination, forgot about him within seconds, and I continued to the café thinking nothing of it.
I was there within ten minutes.