The Day Everyone Decided To Stop
A clear, open space, outside or inside. Music can play or a soundtrack to accompany the words, or not. A figure of any age or ethnicity or gender recites the words. They can be visible or hidden. The speak clearly and emotively, but not sentimentally, as if looking back into the past to something they have seen.
It could be said it started with the cleaners. Instead of getting up at two am they had decided, en masse, to not. To not take the rattling night bus down the Old Kent Road to the City or Canary Wharf and clean every office block or pinnacle, Gherkin or Shard, Start-up or Sit-down or kiosk or cave or empty palace, from here to Kensington and the Billionaire’s Row. Those empty houses: a silent stretch of white, gold blocks, quietly rotting inside.
What struck the bankers and the brokers as they stepped into work a few hours later, was a devastating sense of loss; an eerie and unexplainable weight that tugged at their hearts. It was said that a junior estate agent of Foxtons Ltd, on entering his three-story cube in Angel, fell to his knees and wept as the automatic doors repeatedly opened and closed behind him.
There was a kind of atmosphere, everyone said, a feeling of decay or longing; like an Aunt who you had genuinely liked had just died or you realised they had stopped making a brand of chocolate you had loved in your youth.
There were other more obvious things. A fine layer of dust on the monitors, a browning apple core in a small bin. The toilets and cubicles smelt faintly of fish and not their usual blend of dust and paraffin. The swivel chairs creaked a little, the routers bleeped frenetically. The espresso machines groaned and clicked as some metal claw inside them pathetically tried to grab little coffee discs that simply weren’t there. Crumbs were scattered across the floor, there were sticky white stains in the stationary cupboard.
A single, white moth beat its wings and fluttered above the stairs.
At first, a thousand texts and calls were made. An assistant manager burst a vein, screaming down the line at a cleaner he did not know the name of. But no one answered. After an hour of this they gave up. They sat at their screens and tried to focus, but they couldn’t; they watched the little coloured loading disc turn round and round. They sat there silently, unable to think. Even a famously extroverted team leader called Samantha allegedly sat at her desk, clamped her head between her knees and wept, making a low, strange sound like a wounded animal. It was as if God had disappeared, if any of them believed in God.
Then there were the trains and the buses. No one showed up to drive them. They sat side-by-side in their depots like cattle, their white roofs gleaming in the sun. The DLR train was the only one to run, un-manned as it was. Back and forth, it slid across the thin, unmoving strips of silver, the shining discs and private gardens and lego trees. People, like shadows, drifted in and out of buildings, reading yesterday’s copy of the Evening Standard and staring at the water all around.
The entire city decided to have an early lunch.
Phones were out, sushi ordered, salmon bagels, soya cakes; Quorn patties and croissants baked with charcoal. Some though decided to go out, as it was a lovely day. They headed to the Tesco’s near the station under the shadow of Parliament, where ministerial aides and tourists usually mingled. Today though it was empty. Only the woman in her sleeping bag still sat there, her greasy palm still permanently stretched out over a pathetic, cardboard sign. Today though, for some reason, she was smiling.
The Tesco’s manager met them at the automated door. He apologised manically and tears or sweat streamed down his face. Apparently there had been no delivery today. There were no Cheese Twists, or sausage rolls or milkshakes or fruit. There were no Meal Deals. The Meal Deal consisted of sticky grapes in a bag, slices of apple that tasted of bleach, a smoothie or a can, maybe some crisps and the main course: the famously exhausted sandwich, filled with thin layers of meat and lettuce which were hardly discernible from each other. Like the fat kid in school, the Meal Deal was always the butt of everyone’s jokes but its sudden loss, like an abused partner finally escaping, was felt by many.
Apparently, a woman working at Debenhams had walked into the road at Oxford Circus but was disappointed to find no cars to mow her down. A junior stockbroker called his ex and cried for twenty minutes. A Member of Parliament, name unknown, had apparently thrown themselves into the Thames.
Some had brought lunch from home and drifted to the parks. As they looked up at the brilliant, blue sky they did not see a single jet stream or private jet. People felt the roof of their mouths with their tongues: the black, ashy taste had gone. No one dodged between cars or screamed at cyclists or pledged to kill pedestrians in their minds. The Human Statues had gone, the bag-pipe man had gone, the Tuk-Tuk driver, the flyerer, the shoppers, the police, the tourists with dogs in their bags: everyone.
The people who had not brought lunch began to walk. They went to Hyde Park and Knightsbridge, where the lime green Lamborghinis usually tore down old cobbled streets but now sat outside their homes; impotent, quiet, seagulls sporadically shitting on their windscreens. Some office workers, with nothing to do, peered in through these windows, through black gates and key pads, and terrified families staring back at them. Their guards and gardeners and nannies and cooks had not shown up today and behind shuttered windows there were muffled screams.
Drifting on to Regent’s Park, the animals had stopped too. The monkey’s refused to sling shit at one another, the tigers stopped pacing. Even the parakeets were more thoughtful and still and as the few remaining tourists lowered their cameras in disappointment. The geese in Green Park had stopped hissing and the pigeons stopped picking at chicken bones in Trafalgar Square.
The homeless drifted from their sleeping bags and lay on the lawns and private gardens of Notting Hill or swam in the lakes and private pools or sat beneath the willow trees.
But the most notable thing was the silence. Not from the absence of traffic the absence of drills and building sites and cranes, constantly picking at the air.
The day everyone decided to stop was not a day, but a series of days, leading up to it. Some say it was a climate change thing, a growing awareness. Or a cult of hippies, storming Parliament naked and blocking off Westminister bridge with little trees and tents. Or it was anxious yummy mummies on Telegraph Hill signing petitions and clasping cups of tea. Or it was the constant stream of images, of sunken villages and grey polar bears, of deserts growing in the Middle East and Africa.
Or it was an emotional thing, a need to stop. Too many bankers had impaled themselves on railings in Notting Hill, too many teenagers had committed suicide and their Facebook accounts filled with condolences. Or debt-ridden parents, faced with apocalyptic visions of the future, had closed their doors, switched on the gas and kissed their children good-night.
Whatever it was, it was that day that they did it. They turned in their beds, to their gentle alarms, and covered them with pillows. They did not Tweet, or post or message. Or drive or jog or Uber. They rode their bikes out to the sea. They took their children to the parks. They sat and thought about a face they had forgotten or a sadness that had disappeared.
On that day, as if by magic, a billionaire in St Paul’s decided to pay their tax. A woman turned her third home in Cornwall into a monkey sanctuary. A famous director of a famous museum decided, on that day, to sever all ties with the oiling conglomerate that had funded the place for years.
The Thames was silent as there were no more party boats sailing down it. No more bankers and agents puking and abusing catering staff or filling the air with Katy Perry. The birds flew and sang loudly. The foxes let you stroke them. Even the eels in the Thames grew calm as there was no more cocaine flooding the river and their homes.
The day everyone decided to stop was a day like any other, like all the days preceding it, and all the days that followed. There was no real reason. No definite cause. People just did it. Together. And that was it.
Max Wilkinson has had plays produced at Theatre 503, King’s Head Theatre, the Arcola, Paines Plough, among others. He has been a recipient of the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, a finalist for the Papatango Prize, Theatre Uncut's Prize for Political Writing and recently, the Nick Darke Award. He has collaborated with the Wooster Group in NYC, The English Theatre Berlin and the British Museum as a dramaturg. He is based in London.