Gifts From Above
A year after its London launch, Amazon's fleet of airborne drones provides lightening-fast delivery of lightweight items to the Capital's affluent, home-bound shoppers, at a premium price. While – as Barcelona Metcalfe reports – the semi-autonomous quad-copters also provide rich pickings for a few resourceful members of London's teenage poor.
One evening last week, along with my photographer, George, I met Shannon (not her real name) on the north side of the Broadchalk Hill Estate. From our meeting point we could see shadowy figures in front of one of the twelve tower-blocks, dancing around a sofa not long set alight.
By a series of walkways and flights of stairs, Shannon – who gave her age as nineteen, although she looked closer to fifteen – took us to the roof of one of the towers; where we were introduced to Fly.
Wearing a tattered Manchester United home shirt – current seven or eight seasons ago - and a pair of baggy combat trousers that were two sizes too big, Fly jogged over to meet us as we emerged on to the roof from a maintenance door.
It could not have been much above freezing and the boy's arms were tinged blue; but he didn't seem to notice, no sign of a shiver in his voice.
“This them who want to see us take one down?” he asked Shannon.
She giggled and nodded; tongued-tied in the presence of Fly.
Shannon stayed by the maintenance door, with two other teenage girls who had come up onto the roof to watch. I stood with Fly – and George - his shaved-head no higher than my shoulder, staring into the fading light of the late evening sky.
I ask about his family, but if there was one he didn't seem interested in talking about them. It's possible that he did have a mother living somewhere nearby; but I'm not certain I heard him correctly.
He told us he would be sixteen next month, he looked no older than twelve. I asked him about school, but that only made him laugh.
Down below on the estate we heard a police siren, Fly laughed at my expression, “They're not comin' for us. Yet.”
Then suddenly he was alert, peering East into the night sky, “There! See it?”
Frankly I didn't (and neither did George). But I could see that Fly did. His eyes never leaving a point in the sky I was still unable to locate, he advanced slowly across the roof. Pulling something from the back pocket of his baggy trousers, he turned quickly back to face me.
“See it now?” he shouted, then turned around again, readying himself.
I am not permitted to disclose how Fly brought down the craft. But only moments after I had spotted it, the thirty kilo quad-copter was lying wrecked before us on the rooftop.
I was readying to ask what happened next; but Fly was already demonstrating. Levering the quad-copter onto its side, he pried open the belly with a small crowbar.
In less than a minute small, brown cardboard parcels - Amazon-logos emblazoned on all sides - were piling at his feet. Whistling and giggling to himself as he cut them open, like any kid on Christmas morning he discarded the contents of some, moving straight on to the next. While the contents of others were stuffed into his rucksack, accompanied by a little laugh or a muttered price.
We heard another siren, this time even I could tell it was close by. Fly tensed and for a moment looked just like any other twelve year old boy might; then he grinned at me and stood.
“Gotta go. You be OK?”. I nodded; amazed as his bravado; George could not help but laugh.
And he was gone, sprinting across the roof top shouting something inaudible – to me at least – at Shannon as he went. The girls disappeared through the maintenance exit from which we had earlier emerged; Fly headed in the opposite direction, to a similar exit on the far side of the roof.
The girls had been dispatched to lead the police away from Fly – Successfully - A fact I learned later that night, having spoken at the scene with the Met's Chief Superintendent Peter Briscoe.
As we surveyed the wreckage together and I confirmed the method used to bring down the semi-autonomous craft, Superintendent Briscoe shook his head.
“Fourth of these big units this week” he told me, “It would be cheaper and easier to fly around dropping gift cards”.