London Short Fiction: Sirens Of The Tideway

By Londonist Last edited 113 months ago
London Short Fiction: Sirens Of The Tideway


Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This time, Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.

Sirens Of The Tideway

Through the chopper's window PC Dave Witham watched the headlights of the A321 pulse along the northern bank of the Thames.

"Should be a quiet night." He said. Mark, the EC 145's pilot, nodded in response.

They whirred over the South Bank and past the luminous clock face of the London Eye. As they gained altitude, the threads of streets tangled into a ragged lacework, stretching out to the horizon where the lights bled into the night sky. The view from the window was pretty, but full of illusions. Dave looked at the same view on the thermal imager, in all its monochrome reliability.

The radio crackled.

"Here's your quiet one. Building site, Walthamstow."

The postcodes and boroughs rolled out beneath them. Away from the centre, parks and reservoirs rent holes in the taut lattice of roads.

They circled the building site. The thermal imager showed nothing except a few scurrying rats. Dave turned on the searchlight. It was impossible to tell whether the site was half way through construction or demolition. Cement flesh clung to multiple ironwork skeletons. Dave saw something move on the tallest one.

"There! There! Two females."


"Yeah. White hoodies, can't see much else."

Dave radioed his observations to the ground units and watched as the two figures climbed the structure. As an escape strategy, it was doomed to fail, but he admired their spirit. They didn't react to the chopper overhead. Dave angled the searchlight into one of the women's faces. She looked up without flinching, her features blasted by the 13 million candlelight beam. The corners of her mouth twitched into a smile.

He watched the officers on the ground circling the base of the building. The women reached the top and straddled the ring beam, 15 storeys up. After 10 minutes the ground units concluded that there was nothing there except some loose tarps.

Dave guided the searchlight back onto the top of the building. They were gone. He turned to Mark.

"You saw them though?"

"Nah, but then I was on the controls."

They flew over the site again, flooding each of the unbuilt towers with light. They did not find anyone. Nothing had been taken, but the security guard was certain he had seen two intruders climb the half finished tower. Dave switched on the thermal imager to check it was still functional. Around the site the streets were animated with the glow of moving vehicles and the occasional pedestrian. On the site there was nothing but the dull grey of empty buildings.

"Funny one, that. They didn't try to hide — it was like they wanted me to follow them."

Mark was silent and rubbed one of the monitors on the dashboard with his cuff.

More calls followed: to Haringey to track a suspected burglar who had already been apprehended by the time they arrived; the usual rave in Hackney, crowds of revellers on the roof of an old warehouse who greeted the chopper as though it had come from another planet. Their presence did little to calm the situation.

Flying south to a fire in Battersea, they passed the power station whose brickwork face held court over its surroundings. The fire was in an office by the river. Flames balled out and sent dense black clouds of smoke into the sky.

They followed a moped which had been seen shortly before the blaze and was heading south on the A23, through Brixton and along Tooting Bec Common.

"They're dumping it." Dave watched two figures running onto the Common. His stomach dropped as he recognised the two women from earlier: two flecks of white running towards the railway line.

He turned the search light onto the tracks which glimmered under the beam. The women approached the railway. As they stepped onto the tracks, they were illuminated by two headlights heading south which almost matched the searchlight for brightness.

"Oh, shit." Dave watched the train pass without slowing and continue under Tooting Bec Road.

The ground units found nothing in the woods to the East of the Lido, or on the train tracks themselves. The driver did not report seeing anyone near the tracks and was certain he had not collided with any pedestrians.

"You saw them?" Dave asked as they flew away from the abandoned search. The instant coffee he had drunk before the shift echoed in his mouth.

"Yeah." Mark looked straight ahead. "Yeah, I did."

It was 4.03 am, an hour before the end of the shift, when they were called to the Isle of Dogs. It was late. They had 30, maybe 45 minutes flying time left in the tanks.

In contrast to the solid warehouses and dock buildings, the Thames was unruly, writhing and giggling under the lights of the chopper as they touched the water.

"There's something on the river." Mark said.

Dave rubbed his eyes and passed his palm over his nose and mouth. His face was greasy and rubbery. He looked down at the river and blinked. A small, apparently unpowered raft was floating down the river.

As it came directly underneath, Dave could just make out its two passengers. He grasped at his seat belt, seeking reassurance. His hand felt alien to him.

"Mark, it's them. The women from before."

"Your two little white riding hoods."

The radio buzzed. Dave clicked it off without looking away from the tiny craft.

He turned off the searchlight and the GPS. The raft was still visible in the moonlight, the women's white tops billowing like flags.

The city froze behind them. The only sound was the whirr of the blades which kept the two men afloat down the Thames, through Kent and past Canvey Island. The chopper carried on behind the raft as it picked up speed into the Channel.

As the helicopter's engine finally cut out and it tumbled into the sea, four eyes watched as it was swallowed by the water and sunk, soundlessly.

Copyright, Emily Williams, 2014. Image by Kris Wood, via the Londonist Flickr pool.

We’re still after your stories based on London at Night, which you should send to [email protected]. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.

Previously in this series

London at Night


London razed

Transport tales


  • Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
  • Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
  • Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.



  • The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
  • The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.


  • Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
  • A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
  • Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
  • Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
  • The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
  • St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
  • First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
  • Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
  • NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.

Other tales

Last Updated 30 November 2014