I first met George at a flat-sharing convention, more accurately known as the ‘No Friends Club,’ in the main university building on Gower Street. I had finished my first year studying English literature and, due to a rather stubborn focus for my studies, found that I was scarce on friends when moving out of halls. Rather than live with a communal bathroom another year, I decided to take my chances at the convention.
I arrived late to the hall and found that many groups had already been formed. Fifty odd students stood about the tiled floor, the excited murmurs of their minglings reverberating in the high ceiling. My tardiness, at the very least, allowed me to observe how easily the surface, the skin deep, attracts and binds; groups here and there of large male students demonstrating how athletes congregate, while other groups consisted of only the most physically attractive. Geeks and geeks, nerds and nerds. Worst of all, each of them already seemed to have somebody. Flustered and out of breath, I decided to first grab one of the beers from the concessions table and cool my back against the stone wall. I leant there for a while, wondering whether I could be bothered or brave enough to actually make good on my attendance.
I was just about thinking that communal bathrooms weren’t actually that bad when a shadow appeared from my left.
‘Excuse me,’ drawled a low, husky voice.
I turned my head and looked straight into the great big tired eyes of one of the strangest looking students I had ever seen. He was taller than me, though not by much, and gangly too. He had long, unkempt black hair, growing wild and falling over his face. He stared with two white eyes that were so orbicular that, although they were half shut, they commanded my attention. Though it seemed that I had not stolen his, those eyes seemed to stare right through mine to the back of my head. He had two fingers of his right hand gently resting on the wall.
‘Excuse me,’ he said again.
‘I heard you the first time,’ I joked. ‘How can I help you?’
‘No,’ he murmured and looked about, scratching his head of hair with the little finger of his left hand. ‘I mean you’re in my way.’
A little baffled, I apologised and stepped away from the wall, never being one to prolong an awkward interaction.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
If I wasn’t confused enough, as I gathered my thoughts about who was in whose way and why anybody had to apologise for anything, I was about to perhaps say a timid word or two regarding a piece of my mind when the stranger began along the wall where I had stood, dragging those two slender fingers across the stone surface. I watched as he ran his hands across the wall, occasionally propping his ears to the stone, tasting the residue left on his fingertips. The scene was so intimate that I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable observing his antics.
‘What are you doing?’ I finally asked.
He paused, still staring at the wall. ‘William Wilkins,’ he said, eyes unwavering. ‘The same man who built the National Gallery.’ He then peered over his shoulder at me, those orbs conveying a deadly seriousness. ‘I prefer the National Gallery.’
I remember almost bursting into confused laughter at his quaint introduction before formally making my own. Something about the eccentric man and architect I would later come to know as George Taylor sparked a tickling curiosity and hilarity in me. Our conversation was short that day, and primarily regarded George’s love for buildings and their ‘stories,’ as he put it. I had become quite taken with him, and we decided to share a flat together after the summer.
It was a while before I realised he wasn’t actually an architecture student at all.
In fact, that was probably around the same time he told me about his time machine.
It was strange at first, although I suppose to say that it was ‘strange at first’ would suggest a regression to normalcy over our time spent together as flatmates. Truthfully, saying it was strange at first serves only as a precursor to the subsequent increase of the all-rounded strangeness that accompanied living with George.
In the month of August, prior to my second year, we hunted around Central London for a flat in close proximity to the university. My new companion, as I ought to have imagined from our first encounter, was extremely thorough in his selection process, carefully examining each estate with the empathic prowess of a house whisperer. As my only two concerns were affordability and location, I allowed George to take the lead. Most mornings of that month were spent rushing over to properties in Soho, Fitzrovia or Bloomsbury after receiving both a text message with an address and a brief phone call from George saying, ‘Come.’ I would arrive at the scene to find him standing outside the building, performing similar antics to those I first witnessed at the No Friends Club—testing the structural integrity of the site, tasting the difference in wind exposure to its walls.
I was always surprised by how unperturbed our estate agents seemed to be as they allowed George’s inspections. In fact, they seemed to defer to his overwhelming expertise. He loved Gothic Revival but detested it in residences, deeming pointed arches too aggressive for home living; Edwardian Baroque was also to be admired, but never lived in. How they nodded in agreement, almost kowtowing in apology, as George pointed out how this property would be worthy of its current rate if its plaster mouldings weren’t deceitfully masquerading as stone or, in another, that the many, west-facing windows (a desperate attempt to steal as much sunlight from the grey London sky) would pose the problem of overheating by each day’s end. I remember afterwards looking for the listings of various flats that had disappointed George, in order to perhaps change his mind. And at each turn, it seemed that someone else would have already moved in, or that no listing could be found whatsoever, much to the confusion of myself and the estate agents whom I called; they could not remember ever listing such a property. And whenever I did manage to find again one of these properties in their catalogue, I found it to be virtually unrecognisable.
Somehow, we finally found a property to both our liking just off Tottenham Court Road—an old Art Deco building constructed in the 1930’s and lately refurbished. The flat was on the sixth floor, small but comfortable, with two bedrooms, a separate living room and a kitchen. Upon inspection, George expressed his enthusiasm for the decor but muttered shame about the single-glazed windows; double-glazing would solve the noise problem from the busy road below, the sirens of the University Hospital ambulances. The estate agent nervously apologised and I, having been used to noise at my halls around the corner on University Street, wondered if we would ever find a place that met George’s extraordinary expectations. I received a call from him a day later saying that he had already paid the deposit and that we should be able to move in the next day.
I did not see George for a while after that. Our agent informed me that he had taken care of his side of the tenancy and that all that was left for me was to sign the contract and collect the keys. George’s belongings had already been moved into the flat, his boxes in a mountainous clutter in the living room. He left me instructions to pick a room and I happily obliged, choosing the larger of the two with the west-facing window (a feature for which George had made clear his misgivings). I slept like a log that night.
The next morning, I found that all George’s boxes had been moved into the other bedroom, although no sight of George himself. It was not until a week later that I glimpsed my flatmate again; during that time, I enjoyed the comforts of the flat all to myself. In fact, it was so peaceful that I finally realised the noise of Tottenham Court Road was hardly noticeable. A morning or two after George’s return, he was sitting in the living room reading the newspaper on the sofa while I inspected the balcony windows.
‘George,’ I said. ‘These windows…’
‘What about them?’ he croaked his low husk, eyes locked onto an article about graffiti at Westminster Cathedral.
George, his eyes lazy and dazed, glanced up at the windowpanes. He smiled. ‘So they are.’ And he returned to his article.
I guess I might have been suspicious then and there had I not been so pleasantly surprised by the advantages of tranquillity in my work environment, as well as being able to find some fault with this connoisseur of London architecture. We spoke little, due to long absences on his part. Most conversations tended towards George’s thoughts regarding the face of London’s skyline. Any true suspicions I had of subterfuge only began to grow when I noticed that those two hideous office-looking buildings at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, constructed generously from glass, much to my friend’s disdain, had been torn down in favour of Georgian housing, and we could finally properly view the London Eye from our balcony.
In the third month of our tenancy, I tentatively asked him how he was finding his studies at The Bartlett. He looked up at me from his copy of Ackroyd’s biography of London, with a lazy expression that might have seemed perplexed if not for those unmoving eyebrows.
‘I’m not an architecture student,’ he said. ‘I’m a time traveller.’
I began to avoid George after that. It was easy, what with the demands of my second year studies coupled with George’s mysterious disappearances. I admit I became somewhat frightened of George; his eccentricities had crossed a border into the realm of unwelcome insanity, a feature of our flat I preferred decidedly less to single-glazed windows.
The weeks after that, I walked around London. I began to notice the subtle changes, how everyday there seemed a new construction site around each corner, a stone and brick revolution that fought against the industrial glass and metal movements of modernity. Even the Wilkins building at the university seemed to incorporate evermore the Neo-Classical features of the National Gallery. Everyday I saw London in its architectural metamorphosis, and I feared George’s hand.
Once or twice he offered to take me with him, to show me the infinite possibilities of construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction through the boundless channels of time. I had to politely decline, fearing his crazed excitement, those great, unyielding eyes. He never told me where he chanced upon that infernal device, but I believe he fancied himself its master.
It has now been six months since we last spoke. George disappeared once more.
This time he took London with him.
A desolate, barren wasteland spans far and wide instead of a once great skyline. Here and there, scattered about, are the remnants and hints of the city that used to be—broken bricks of white towers by the river, dust and stone of futures past. The few of us that remain woke up that one morning, first in confusion but soon in ungodly terror, at this last, terrible transformation, crying out for an answer, for retribution. Where did it all go? Why did this happen? Only I know who must be responsible; I can only imagine that somewhere in time, something quite terrible must have happened to him.
As I stare up tonight into the blackest, clearest of London skies as I have ever seen, a cold breeze sweeping soft in the silence of this time-twisted desert, I wish upon these stars that once struggled to shine through the smog, that someone, somewhere, somewhen, will begin to build again.
Jeremy Yang is a young Chinese-British writer based in London. Having completed an undergraduate degree in psychology at UCL, as well as publishing his first story, shortlisted in the UCL Publisher’s Prize, Jeremy resolved to pursue a career in writing, in addition to his dreams of rock stardom and being a pirate. He is currently working on a series of short stories and two novels, both of which are taking a very long time. Piracy is beginning to look very appealing.