A fairytale in real time
Alex Gaston had swiped through tinder for 25 minutes before deciding to just watch some porn instead. He couldn’t be bothered to start up another conversation - one which would undoubtedly lead nowhere - and decided a quick hit of dopamine was much easier to find elsewhere. Feeling grubby but sleepy, Alex set his alarm for 7.30am and tried not to think about work.
7.30am - alarm. 7.40am - shower. 7.50am - get dressed. 8am - walk to the tube station. 8.07am - get on the train. 8.35am - breakfast from Pret. 8.50am - sit down at the desk.
This routine had been firmly established by Alex after moving to London six years previous. He’d got a fairly decent but boring job in IT security at a bank, but he was surrounded by quiet, nerdy blokes and despite having a laugh most days, he hadn’t made any good friends.
At home, his life was almost all online and in general Alex avidly avoided anything that involved human contact, ordering takeaways online and always using the supermarket self-service tills, always sure it was better to do it himself and not face awkward chit-chat at the checkout.
Somehow self-service had become the norm for his love life, too though.
5.30pm - shut down the computer. 5.52pm - catch the train. 6.12pm - buy dinner from Tesco Express. 6.35pm - watch The Big Bang Theory repeats while eating dinner. 7pm - Netflix and Twitter. 9.42pm - Tinder. 10pm - Pornhub. 10.15pm - brush teeth and scroll through Facebook until sleep arrived.
Despite Alex carrying out the same old morning routine, something felt different on the Tube to work the next day. Everything seemed the same - swathes of dark suits, headphones and newsprint. But as he paused his podcast to get off the train he heard whistling, then singing somewhere further down the carriage. He felt like he’d picked up a bit of ‘hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go’ on the platform… but he decided it was probably someone recording it for a joke, thinking nothing more of it.
But other odd things kept happening. Alex normally saw a few squirrels on his way to work through the park, picking through the discarded fried chicken boxes and crisp packets, and thought nothing of it. But this morning they were quicker, brighter, they almost seemed to be chattering to each other about their food-finding conquests.
On his way back through the park that evening, Alex had seen some large, brightly coloured mushrooms, much like in old cartoon drawings of the woods, all red and spotty and perfect for dainty creatures to dangle from. He shook his head. They were probably some sort of art installation, “Always stuff going on like that round here,” he thought, and carried on along his way.
When he got home, Alex switched on the TV and caught the tail end of the news. Like he thought, there was some kind of performance art thing going on in central London - there were Snow White and Cinderella characters, complete with woodland creatures and dwarves, doing some sort of flashmob on Oxford Circus, holding up all the traffic. Absolute nut cases, he thought, spooning cheesy beans into his mouth.
The next day was the same in the park - in fact even more mushrooms had sprouted up - but no one else had seemed to notice, blank expressions greeted him all round as the suited and plugged in crowd headed though the park.
But when Alex got to work there was uproar. Absolute chaos had engulfed the office. People were running around, shouting, he kept hearing things like ‘how could this happen?’ He placed his coat and bag on his fraying desk chair and joined a small crowd stood around a TV broadcasting breaking news.
The prim presenter seemed as confused as anyone. ‘Goblins raid Bank of England' scrolled along the bottom of the screen. “Goblins?” Thought Alex, really bemused. He’d heard of all kinds of hacking groups, but not one called The Goblins. Sounded European.
Alex turned to his colleague. “I’ve never heard of The Goblins - they based in Luxembourg or something?” The bloke next door pulled an indignant face and turned back to face the TV. Alex looked up at the screen, nervous, stroking the hairs on his chin. Someone had leaked the CCTV from the safe. A team of tiny men with wizened faces wearing waistcoats were throwing piles of gold bars into wheelbarrows. “It appears the men - or whatever they are - may have used the disused underground network to escape…”
Alex could hardly take in what he was hearing. Actual goblins had raided the bank. By the looks of the panic in the office they must have raided his bank, too. He reckoned they’d raided all the banks in London - but he couldn’t work out what that meant.
He headed to the water cooler to have a think. He’d always been focused on protecting people’s money from his computer - threats from shadowy criminal forces from an underground network of clever international miscreants - which sounded fictional enough, the stuff of action films - not a group of mythical villains. He had a sip of water and watched the chaos ensue. It was so surreal - like a bad trip or a lucid, drunken dream.
Deciding nothing could be done today, Alex headed for the exit. He might get a reprimand but who would notice he wasn’t there? He took a lap around the park - nothing but sirens and panic could be heard in the City - then headed off down Canary Wharf to his tube station, writing off the day.
As he walked the long way back by the waterfront, Alex saw a crowd of people watching something splashing in the water. He prayed someone hadn’t thrown themselves in the quay in a panic - he hadn’t swum in years and wouldn’t be rescuing anyone. But when he saw what all the commotion was about he almost wished someone had thrown themselves in instead.
He saw just a glint as first - just a flash of pink ripple through the water. Then gold, and green, and blue, then flesh. Then hair. So much hair. Just like the stories - the mermaids came up and sang some sweet notes before drifting to the bottom again. Much like the sailors of old, the bankers of today were mesmerised by these metallic creatures, and stood agog at the side of the quay.
It was all too much for Alex. He stood paralysed on the quayside. “This can’t be really happening”, he said to himself. “Maybe it’s like the Olympic opening ceremony, all a trick. Not the Queen actually parachuting in…”
He took the tube back home, dodging dwarves and princes and knights on white horses and witches on broomsticks cackling in the sky. When he was safe in his flat he turned off his phone, buried his head under his covers, and hoped everything was back to normal by the time he woke up.
Alex wasn’t sure what time it was when he emerged from under his duvet, groggy at first, until he remembered the events of the previous day with a start - how London had become overrun with story-book characters.
He looked at his phone - but it was off. He plugged his charger in - but there was no electricity. “I wonder if I’ve slept a hundred years,” he joked to himself. There was no power anywhere in his flat, so he was kind of stuck as to what to do. He wanted to phone his mum - they hadn’t spoken since her birthday - but the lines were down - so he decided to go out for a walk and see if any of the pubs had power, maybe he could have a pint and watch the news from there.
As he headed outside, Alex looked up at the buildings - all the modern cladding and plastering was falling off and huge towers of ivy and climbing flowers were covering all the buildings.
Alex took in the city streets - some of them were now cobbled and many of them were just mud where tarmac and bus lanes once stood, and all the cars had vanished overnight, He needed a sign he wasn’t in need of serious psychological help. He did something he’d never done in London. He spoke to a passerby. “Is… this really happening?” He tentatively asked a man in his mid forties, red chinos and peacoat. “I believe so,” replied the man, hesitantly, in his clipped Chelsea accent, before scurrying away.
When day turned to nightfall Alex headed back to his flat. He’d seen so much. It was another world. He hadn’t spent so long exploring the streets for such a long time, he was tired and needed some food, but had no idea where to start finding some.
Rounding the corner to his street, the small shabby park in the square near his flat was lit up with a huge fire. It smelled wonderful. There was a large makeshift marque in the middle, with people helping themselves to cider from barrels. Several hogs were roasting on spits and people were chewing on crackling and apple sauce, loading it into their mouths with their fingers.
Lost and dumbfounded, completely depleted by trying to making sense of events, Alex decided he just had to go with it. For now, whatever magical spell had been put onto the city meant Tesco Express was no more - his microwave would not work on willpower alone.
Sat on a bench with his supper, Alex decided to dare to make eye contact with those around him, who were also shyly trying to make a connection, their eyes set alight by the reflection of the flames.
Someone gently sat on the bench next to Alex. She was around 25, long dark hair, the kind of girl he’d hoped to stumble on while flicking through Tinder. But starting conversation wasn’t easy for him in real life. Luckily, she made the first move. She smiled, gestured to the craziness around them, and said: “Hi, I’m Isabella, but my friends call me Belle.”