London, present day.

It hadn’t taken long for a crowd to gather around the man’s body as it lay on the pavement. Its limbs were arranged in an unnaturally splayed position: head pointing awkwardly upwards and a knee bent back on itself so that the foot was almost touching the hip. Despite this, it was otherwise surprisingly intact given the height from which it had fallen. Onlookers snapped stills and took videos with their phones as blood seeped from the dead man’s mouth and ears. Modern society seemed to have developed a morbid fascination with tragic events; and for some, documenting and sharing them with others had become the norm. No one offered assistance, even though any efforts would have been futile. The dead man might have pondered this disturbing behaviour had he still had the capacity for thought.

Twenty-three seconds earlier, there had been no sound as the man had fallen from the belfry at the top of Elizabeth Tower.

Three minutes and twelve seconds later, the dead man’s assailant had completed his descent from the tower and made his way onto the streets. He pushed through the crowd and knelt beside the body. He checked for a pulse, more as a predilection for thoroughness than with any expectation of finding one. His hand slid down to the man’s pockets, perhaps searching for identification. The crowd – which moments before had collectively approved of capturing images of a corpse to be shared among their friends, family and the many social voyeurs of the world – appeared to find this behaviour unacceptable. Their delicate sensibilities offended, they frowned and shuffled, looking at one another to see who might object to the dead man having his pockets searched in this way. They all murmured to one another.

‘Is this guy a doctor? I think he’s robbing him,’ grumbled one.

‘What’s he think he’s doing?’ spluttered another.

‘Should we call an ambulance?’ someone else asked.

All the while the cameras continued to flash and roll.

One camera elicited a familiar sound that the assailant was surprised and perplexed to hear in this setting: the distinctive mechanical shutter of a Polaroid-style camera. Turning to the direction of the sound, there was no doubt from where it came. The young woman holding the camera and fanning the photograph through the air was a flash of neon colours. Her voluminous hair was held up in a rough side ponytail. She wore high-waisted jeans with leg warmers bunched around her calves and a polka-dot jacket with wide shoulders and flouncy sleeves pulled up to her elbows. A silver cassette player was hooked into her waistband, a pair of bright orange headphones slung around her neck. She looked as if she was from a different time period altogether.

Twenty-seven seconds earlier, the man had been surprised by the unexpected turn of events that had led to him being pushed to his death. He was one and a half seconds into his fall by the time he even realised he was falling. He spent the remaining three seconds of his life paralysed by fear. Had he had more time, perhaps a scream would have escaped his lips. The ninety-six-metre height of the fall was roughly one-fifth the distance required to reach terminal velocity, but even so, he had still accelerated to almost one hundred miles an hour by then and his body struck the pavement with a crunch. He died instantly.

Three minutes and forty-two seconds later, the assailant turned his attention back to his frantic search of the body. His fingers passed over a shape inside the dead man’s jacket that could have been a wallet, but before he could secure it a police officer pressed his way towards the scene behind him. Still hunched over the body, the assailant’s eyes met the officer’s. The officer pointed an authoritative finger at him and said, ‘Sir, please step away. Nice and slowly now.’

The assailant did as instructed. Still kneeling, he moved backwards so he was sitting on his heels. As a sign of compliance, he raised his arms with his palms facing forwards.

The officer seemed to relax slightly, lowering his hand as he approached. The assailant took his chance and rose quickly, springing upwards from his crouched position, shunting the officer aside and hustling towards the crowd. The woman in the polka-dot jacket was still wafting the Polaroid back and forth when he plucked it from her hand as he passed. He was a slight man but wiry and powerful, and he bulldozed his way through the conglomerate of people, shoving to the ground anyone who stood in his way. As he breached the huddle he broke into a sprint, pursued by the officer he’d locked eyes with and another who’d just arrived at the scene. He ran east across Westminster Bridge, away from Westminster Abbey and Elizabeth Tower.

Fifty-four seconds earlier, the man had argued with his assailant in the belfry. He needed something from him, something that would help him escape this place. He had been trapped here, alone and confused, for weeks. His assailant could help him get back to his normal life if only he would listen. He’d asked this of his assailant, but the request had made him more agitated. The man had approached him passively, pleadingly, but it was a mistake. His assailant saw the approach as an act of aggression and the two of them fought.

Five minutes and six seconds later, the assailant had reached the opposite bank of the Thames. He descended a set of steps to his left, passing the famous aged green-ceramic Southbank Lion statue before doubling back under the bridge, the officers in close pursuit. As he raced through the underpass, the officers momentarily lost sight of him, but there was nowhere else he could run. One officer followed him down the same steps to the left, while the other crossed the street and descended the steps to the right of the bridge, hoping to pen him in from both sides. When the second officer reached the bottom of the steps, she expected to find the man running towards her, with her colleague close behind. Instead, the two officers were alone, regarding each other with confused looks. They spun around to check that the assailant hadn’t somehow doubled back or changed direction, but the riverbank and underpass were clear. They looked over the low wall into the flowing river below, but neither had heard a splash and they saw no one in the water.

One minute and thirty-seven seconds earlier, the man had stood high above the rooftops, looking over London’s night sky. He’d begun to lose hope that he would ever get home. It was an unseasonably warm evening, but he suddenly felt a chill breeze break against the back of his neck. He turned, and in the dim light of the belfry he could make out a disturbance in the air: a strange spherical ripple. Something like a heat haze, only cold. When he passed his hand through the undulating air around this phenomenon, his fingers became instantly cold. This sphere seemed to have its own microclimate, and goosebumps covered his flesh. Without warning the man’s assailant suddenly materialised in front of him as if from nowhere.

Five minutes and fourteen seconds later, under the Westminster Bridge, the dead man’s assailant had apparently vanished into thin air.

The Timepiece and the Girl Who Went Astray © Oliver R Simmonds 2021