Twelve Storeys by Sam Szanto

‘Say if you’d rather not do it,’ he says in his confident voice. ‘We can just go to the pub.’

Silence layers like a fog. The pub sounds good, alcohol helps on first dates. But I’d told Graham I wanted to do this. More importantly, after my split with Tom, the five-year fiancĂ©e, I promised myself new experiences. This is something that Tom would never have done.

To our right, traffic flies downhill. I gaze up at the tower block, a monument to Brutalist architecture. It must be ten storeys’ high.

‘It’s twelve storeys.’ Graham reads my mind. ‘Is this too much for you, Melissa?’

He turns his eyes – an intense, two-tone green, like the writhing of a tropical jungle – on me. Evening is growing around us, the clouds darkening, the treetops yellowing. The sun is small as a rose.

‘How do we get in?’ I indicate the building with my head.

A large smile winging across his lean tanned face, Graham produces a skeleton key. Fire services have access to master keys; it’s not hard to obtain them, he tells me.

‘Only obstacle is the skylight,’ he says, as a bus rocks past on the road. Can the people inside see us?

He doesn’t need the key. As we approach the block, a woman pushing a pram is coming out. Graham holds the door for her and she smiles at him. I don’t make eye contact in case she is called upon to be a witness later.

In the hallway, we walk across the blue lino to the lift. The marijuana-scented air thickens in my chest, weighing me down.

Although I expect the lift to stop as we reach each floor, it doesn’t. There is no one on the top floor when we get out, either.

‘Told you it’d be easy,’ Graham says.

My heart is pounding as if I’d climbed the stairs. Being with Graham is like being inside a storm. We could well end up at the police station at the end of the night: he has received a fine of a thousand pounds for his urban explorations in the past.

As quietly as possible, we unhook the ladder leading to the skylight and ascend. Graham has a key for the skylight too. The cobwebs on it suggest not many people come up.

‘This is the good bit, Melissa.’

‘Are you sure the roof will hold our weight?’ I ask, and he laughs.

The roof is uncluttered and flat. I take tentative steps. In the setting sun, London is spread out: the Gherkin, the Shard, the Wembley arches, a main arterial road with cars glowing red, the twinkling lights of thousands of houses… From this height, the glass and stone below are passive. I could pick up a building and discover its secrets.

Graham takes photo after photo from various angles, to post onto a site. I stand and stare.

‘I love seeing London in the past – like these terraced houses that would normally be obscured by all those modern buildings,’ he says, snap-snapping.

As Graham rests a forearm on my shoulder, I imagine him pushing me. Nobody knows we are rooftopping. No one would see. I would be a flying body, the opposite of a superhero. But it’s not likely, of course. I have told friends about this date, the ones who goaded me into using the hook-up app, there is an Internet history. And Graham is a nice man; probably. He’s certainly more interesting than the others who contacted me, with their nourished hair and ‘Hey girl! Shall we go clubbing?’ Graham said he wouldn’t go to a ‘nightclub’ (I’d loved his use of that word; he said ‘clubbing’ made him think of psychotic cavemen) unless it was on top of, or underneath the world.

‘And look, there’s the hills of North London.’ Graham turns his fresh thirtyish face to me, those eyes penetrating mine. ‘Year by year, all of this twisting and turning. Never staying the same.’

I get it. Urban exploration lets you feel your way round a city, lets you feel part of it. Although I’d skip going down the sewers, as the drainers do: Graham included. I’d also skip climbing onto the roof of Canary’s Wharf’s One Canada Square and scaling its pyramid, as he and a couple of mates did last week; it was on YouTube.

‘Thank you for bringing me,’ I say.

It’s a shame I can’t tell anyone, given that we’ve broken the law. Can I trust my friends to keep the secret? I certainly couldn’t tell my parents: my mother’s a judge.

Graham takes another couple of photos. It’s getting cold. I wonder whether we’ll do something after this: if he’ll suggest it, or I will. When he’s not breaking into urban sites, Graham likes pubs, he’s sent me links to a few near where he lives in West London; they’re real ale, board games and bring your dog places, but I like that sort. That’s not the only thing we have in common; over the weeks of messaging, I’ve found out we both like storytelling. It started when he was worried about telling me he was an urbexer, so he told me about one of his exploits as a story in the third person. I told him a story back, about a girl who was jilted at the altar. We messaged more and more frequently over time; at work, in bathroom and lunch breaks, on the tube, passing each other little stories. I start them in a Word document, to edit them, and so he won’t see ‘Melissa is typing…’ whenever he looks at WhatsApp. I’ve started a story and he’s finished it before, or given it an alternative ending, our back and forths often taking on a sitcom quirkiness. Whatever I am doing, working or in the shower, my thoughts revolve around what I will imagine next for Graham, trapping the prettiest phrases like butterflies. I don’t know what’s real and what’s not, sometimes, but the stories take me to places I’ve never been.

‘Sorry, did you say something?’ I ask, noticing Graham looking at me expectantly.

‘I said, have you had enough?’

Selected: 24th Short Story
Published in Issue #30

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