“68th floor” with a short pause between the words in an English accent, the elevator announces with a calming woman’s voice. Exiting left out of the elevator I’m instructed to take another left and find an ascending stairway to the 69th floor. The attendant turns back and says “enjoy your time here, sir. The city lies just up those steps.” For a few seconds I hear beautifully orchestrated, ethereal music but it fades away under the voices and echoes atop the illuminated path to the sky.
The dark horizon and bright lights of a world-class metropolis sprawl then slowly fall when I reach the top of the stairs. I have to pause to take in such an amazing and vast view of the southwest part of the city. I see myself in the glass ahead but everyone else is a walking shadow. From where I’m standing, this world is a bit surreal and haunting. In the eyes of those shadows, the city glints. Voices and laughter radiate from black bodied silhouettes that float past the glowing lights beyond and below.
Passing through the doorway, echoes of awe and amusement fill the darkness. The room is intimate and what light there is glimmers in a soft purple that emanates and gleams off the glass all around. Turning the left corner a blonde woman working a small bar is selling flutes of champagne. With a naturally sleepy look, her head slightly tilted back and to the left, she smiles at me. She’s standing before one of the lights and appears beautifully fairylike as her icy blue eyes have become purple. I’m too tired to drink champagne, especially alone. Regardless she does not offer me to purchase any. Perhaps they’re sold in pairs and too bad for her I’m just one of kind.
It’s still too dark to make out most of the people who appear only in the flash of a camera. Smiling faces flare for split seconds all over at random then fade back to colorless, black figures once again. What I’m able to see in the flashes of camera fire, are happy English people young and old lining the windows. Well dressed couples in each others warm embrace, walking arm and arm, holding their champagne flutes give this observation room an air of romance. A photographer makes his way around asking couples if they’d like a commemorative photograph taken they can purchase on the ground level upon exiting. When he comes to me I’m simply passed by without offer. I appear to be the only single person here so after a slow lap, I’ll vanish. I don’t exactly feel like I don’t belong but I’d rather be alone. I’ll find another place to be and keep moving as I’ve found that I have a knack for finding solitude among millions.
Scaling the stairs to the 72nd floor is a slow and labored battle. I’m losing the lift in my legs and feeling the fatigue of an overzealous itinerary that began at dawn. It’s been an extremely long day spent mostly in the cold, trekking for hours, taking the Tube all over the city and now I’m running on fumes. My eyes burn, my stomach empty, my feet hurt and my mind is depleted of anything more than remembering the way back to the hotel. Tired or not I’m here and will enjoy my time in this shard shaped building that dominates the London skyline. One last push to the top.
Like a rise into the clouds, the same heavenly music I heard before surrounds me with each step into to the sky; music perfectly suited for my time above the world. The higher I march, the brighter the light and the colder my bones. Opening the door, the altitude and temperature make short work of the three layers of clothes I’m wearing. After some wandering I find that people look human again and there are far fewer than in the observation room on the 69th floor. At first there were maybe a dozen people but they only lasted to take a few pictures then retreated back to the heat below. Alone at last and again.
Reaching for my GoPro, my hands immediately feel the sting of an English December. I’ve found the perfect spot and after only a few minutes of setting up the camera, my hands are on fire from the freeze. Visions of that boat ride, the one and only time my hands have ever been colder, flash into my head. It’s not helping my fading concentration and withering stamina. The end is approaching. Exhausted and freezing all I can do is take a deep breath and soldier on. One more smile for the camera.
So here I stand shaking in a cold corner of the heavens looking down at east London from The Shard. The view and an atmosphere such as this make acclimating to the oftentimes punishing life of a traveler much easier. The cold and fatigue are assuaged when I realize that I’m literally the only person in the entire world with this view. The ethereal music falling upon me calms the mind and takes my cares away in the breeze overhead. Thinking about my life that will be and the day that was. Thirteen straight hours of pushing through. Thirteen straight hours of culture. One experience to recognize a life to be grateful for.
Even though I always tell myself I’ll return, I know this could be the last time I ever walk this city and the last time I gaze over Tower Bridge. Down there in the darkness I see myself from earlier in the day moving through the frozen shade wishing I was in the afternoon sun on the other side of the Thames. When I was finally facing west and feeling the warmth of the sun again, knowing from experience that days of travel are like matches, they burn all too quickly, I would often look to the top of The Shard wondering where I’d be in a few short hours when the match died out and night fell on London.