I’ve stopped hanging pictures on the walls of my apartment in Eskew.
There’s a good reason for that.
In spite of everything, I do still possess a small collection of images depicting my life before this city. Saved to my phone, loose in the Cloud. I can email them to you, and you might even receive them.
But whenever I attempt to print them here, to have them printed, to turn them into something solid, they come out wrong.
The faces of my loved ones have been transplanted into their torsos. The curves of the landscape turn jagged and sharp. Dark figures and darker limbs intrude upon the background and edges.
It’s as if a hostage video has been assembled of my own history.
And, in fact, it feels like a conscious and calculated threat. An act of violence against the person I used to be,
On rainy nights - and every night is a rainy night, and it falls hard and perpetual here in Eskew, drowning the gutters and driving the stray dogs into the sewer tunnels - on especially rainy nights I sit alone in this place, the glowing orange box of my phone screen alive in my trembling hands like fire, and I flick through the stories of my old life, the faces I remember. Just to be certain that I do remember.
I think I was a better man then. Perhaps.
Wherever you are, all of you, whichever adventures you’ve embarked upon across the world, I hope you’re happy, and well-fed, and fulfilled.
As for me?
I am in Eskew.
During last week’s episode, if you recall, I spoke about airports. This week, I want to talk about art.
Because the more that I wander the streets of Eskew, the more I come to realise that it’s a city littered with art: unmoored and untethered, freed from its frames, art that’s been loosed upon the streets and the manhole covers and the sea of derelict concrete towers.
I’ve tried to sketch out some of the strangest graffiti I’ve seen while out walking, although I simply don’t think I can do justice to it; often, it isn’t written in Eskovian or even the Latin alphabet at all. It has a pictographic quality to it, expressing itself entirely in symbols and screaming faces delivered in an astonishing spectrum of colour.
I’ll try and get some pictures for you soon.
More recently I’ve begun to notice that someone - perhaps the interior department - is fighting back against the graffiti. I walk past a wall that’s been sprayed with yellow staring eyes within whirling spirals one morning, only to stop by the same place the next day and find that the entire structure has been reduced to rubble.
In fact, the pattern becomes so consistent - the eyes appear one night and the building is demolished the next - that it almost begins to feel as if the graffiti is marking the spot for destruction.
Do these symbols have a particular significance, I begin to wonder? Are they gang signs or some other seedy indicator that the interior department wishes to cover up?
We know that the superstitious Eskovian mob - the Nine-Fingered Hand is the direct translation - have been stepping up their trade in drug-dealing and human-trafficking, extending their reach beyond the Lower Town and the suburbs. Does this signify something of that nature?
I ask around.
The police are not forthcoming, and the answers I receive from my contacts close to the criminal world of Eskew lead to nothing but further confusion. But by sheer chance, my detective work causes me, for the first time since I came here, to take note of the spiny and colossal temple that is the Commemoration Gallery.
The Commemoration Gallery has not yet opened; given recent events, I’m unsure if it ever will.
It stands at the very top of the Hound’s Hill, towering over the naff traditional shops and sullen stone archways; a sheer and angular prism of white plaster and mirrored glass.
The gallery’s doors open out onto a small paved garden, delicate in its details and its pristine lawn, itself lined with empty statuary pedestals - a detail which never fails to give the impression that the art has already broken free of its own prison.
From out here, you can catch a glimpse of the interior; just faintly, all white walls at peculiar angles and fractal light falling from above.
What exactly the Commemoration Gallery is commemorating has never been made clear to me. In fact, recent details about it are few and far between. A glossy website is still online, but reads as if it hasn’t been updated in about a year and a half - in a prominent position on the homepage, a press release boasts of an upcoming opening gala that should have taken place some time last winter. Go back beyond that, and the stories multiply - rumours of famous artists bringing their collections in the spring. Plans for a further expansion in the summer. A few hints of trouble with a release that acknowledges ongoing walk-outs from members of the construction team.
But at a certain point, the hype and information spilling forth from the walls of the Commemoration Gallery simply dies. And dies quickly.
There’s very little else.
One brief news snippet from last year’s Eskew Tribunal, stating that a couple of teenagers tried to break in, and were injured in the process.
No names. No description of their injuries, which is uncharacteristic for a city that revels in damage and deformity so long as it’s happening to somebody else.
With renewed energy and a sense of purpose, I begin to ask questions.
A casual word to my colleagues in the Crime team of the Tribunal, on the twelfth floor. A brief session of gossip with my landlady on the stairwell. A query to my pharmacist, as I collect this week’s dose of risperidone.
They all stare at me when I mention the gallery, as if I’ve got a word wrong in my translation. As if I’ve cited something that doesn’t exist in their reckoning of the city.
I’m not perturbed. That’s just the way Eskew reacts to external stimuli, the ripples of my enquiry spreading out across black water until, finally, they hit something solid - and send the ripples back.
A couple of weeks later, in the Queen and Crown, I find the answers I’ve been looking for about the Commemoration Gallery.
The Queen and Crown sits on one side of the Endless Square, within the very highest environs of the city, Squat and comfortable-looking, with exposed oak beams across its windows that are entirely false, like a spider’s web that’s been placed here to snare the innumerable swarming tourists.
It was not, I have recently discovered, established by an English landlord, nor does it commemorate any English queen.
Nobody seems entirely willing to explain which Queen the name refers to, but at any rate, English-speaking expatriates swarm like flies to the faded couches of this oak-panelled bar every night of the week.
Some of us claim to have come here willingly, praising this steep and treacherous city as the next stage in our great personal adventure. Others admit openly to being trapped by circumstance.
We’re a desperate crowd in the Queen and Crown: too proud to master the language, too frightened to walk the streets, too lonely to stay at home.
Everyone is angling for someone to find them work, for someone to buy the next round, for someone to listen to them.
Fog-headed, middle-aged, perpetually-drunken men and women, spouting paranoid tales of the narrowly-avoided and the barely-glimpsed, all of which sound absurd to anyone who listens to them.
You come here, and pretend to listen, and wait for your conversational partner to pause for breath, and then you take up the reins and talk out your lungs until both of you are too drunk to keep talking.
I’m often here, you’ll find, once you arrive.
I have upon occasion watched the young man who sits at the bar every night until closing time, drinking pints of lager left-handed in a continuous stream while keeping his right hand firmly in his tatty jacket pocket.
His hair is unwashed. His beard is lengthy. He smells of something rotten, and the air around him writhes.
I have imagined, yes, what might have happened to reduce this man of about my age to such a condition of obvious mental and physical degradation.
But nevertheless it comes as quite a shock to learn that this wretch, once upon a time, was chief architect for the Commemoration Gallery.
I introduce myself. And I tell him that I’m interested in hearing more about his great unfinished project.
His startling blue eyes meet mine for an instant.
And then he turns back to the bar, busies himself in the purchase of another gassy left-handed pint of lager, and begins to explore his conversational options once it becomes clear that I’m not going away.
It was work he fell into by chance, he tells me.
He was picking up the job from an earlier architect, and can’t really claim the work as his own.
The whole project has fallen into disarray anyhow, and he’d rather not talk about it. So anyway, what do you do?
I tell him I’ve read about the teenagers who injured themselves breaking in.
Ah, he says quietly. That.
We both watch each other in silence, with suspicion and politeness.
I imagine the architect is wondering if I’m a journalist looking to make a scandal out of this.
I’m wondering if he’s real at all, or simply a shape this city has conjured up to embody the Gallery and put a stop to my questions.
I do the sensible thing and offer to buy us both a drink.
An hour or two later, tucked away in a ragged lover’s booth, we’re talking openly. I insist that I am not a journalist, but simply curious about the gallery, and an admirer of its design, and have no intention of recording anything he tells me for posterity.
The architect says, throatily,
‘It is beautiful. That was the one thing we could all agree on. All of us kept saying...isn’t it a pity we have to fill this place? It looks like a temple.’ He shrugs and adds, ‘Maybe that was what jinxed the project.’
I make an affirmative noise.
‘It really was another architect’s work,’ he says. ‘The Board told me I should have been able to fix it, but I don’t see how. I told them, whatever went rotten was rotten from the lowest foundation.’
‘And you had to pick up a lot of trouble yourself,’ I offer. ‘With the walk-outs from the construction team, and so on.’
‘Right,’ the architect says, and stares at his drink. ‘Those.’
I knew there must have been a story here; something worth hearing about. The Commemoration Gallery, looming at the top of its hill, is waiting for me like a stone bust beneath a dirt sheet, its shape familiar, its details yet to be exposed.
We continue to drink.
Before long, it becomes clear that the architect feels with great passion that he was sent to Eskew as some form of punishment, although the exact details of his crimes escape him.
When the suited men from the Orion Building Concern came to enlist him as replacement architect for the Commemoration Gallery, it’s equally clear that he saw the task as an opportunity to prove himself; an act of redemption for his superiors watching from abroad.
I suspect that, based upon whatever transpired between him and the gallery, he no longer possesses such hopes for himself.
We continue to drink.
It’s close to midnight and the bar is beginning to empty when the architect puts his pint to one side and tells me that he wants to show me what happened to the Commemoration Gallery.
He wants to share it with me.
This, of course, is exactly what I want to hear.
He swears me to secrecy. We exchange promises, shake hands - his left hand, his right hand remaining stiffly in his jacket pocket this entire time. I will not tell another soul about anything I witness tonight.
It’s not so simple, he explains.
Not so simple, which is why it’s better if he shows me.
I agree to everything.
By the time we’re walking up the cobbled pavement of the Hound’s Hill, both of us are silent. Perhaps even close to sober.
Our excitement has been replaced with the single-minded focus of schoolkids, lost in play.
We march in single file, gazing up at the great white block of the Commemoration Gallery set against the stars, like a bank vault waiting to be cracked open.
With every step, it looms higher over us.
We reach the iron gate and the delicate entrance garden with its empty pedestals.
The architect hops nimbly over the hedge without looking back.
Clumsily, stepping on something frail and thorny that shrinks from my foot, I follow.
The architect stands at the glass doors, the fingers of his left hand hovering over a discreet steel panel - and then enters a four-digit single code, at speed. It’s a comfortable motion, as if perfected over long years of muscle memory.
The Gallery opens itself up to us.
And all at once I know what the architect meant, when he spoke of it as a temple.
Like taking a step into the polished depths of some cavern shrine, shaped and crafted by the rough erosion of the waves. Untouched by human hands.
Sacred, undisturbed and undisturbable. Just imagine it.
Blank white floors bleeding into blank white walls into blank white ceilings. The lights above the gaping emptiness of the lobby, glowing and blazing, sending reflections out across the void in contorted shapes and shifting motions.
Perfect, at first, so perfect that you’re afraid to blemish it with your own shadow, your own echoing footsteps.
And then, gradually, it becomes overwhelming, dizzying in its absolute emptiness, a space and shape without anything to anchor you within it. Only the next frame of a doorway, and the next frame of a doorway, to prevent you from becoming lost in the void.
I stumble, and the architect catches me by the arm.
‘I know,’ he says, with a touch of pride to his voice. ‘It’s too much.’
We find a bench, one of those long gallery benches where visitors will stop to stare at the walls or check their phones, and I sit there, staring at the white floor, trying to regain a sense of myself.
The architect stands over me, looking this way and that.
‘When you’ve recovered,’ he says, ‘I’d like us to go further in. If you’re willing to take the risk.’
‘There’s no risk to me,’ I tell him. ‘I can outrun the police if we need to.’
He smiles weakly at me and turns away, and it’s quite obvious he meant something else that he’s just too polite or nervous to spell out to me.
It does not yet occur to me that I might have made a mistake.
I get to my feet and join him, staring up at a small and undistinguished flight of stairs to the right of the lobby, leading up to another blank white room, another curious void.
‘I did say I was going to show you something,’ the architect says, and he reaches into the pocket of his coat.
I stand there, helpless and stupid, waiting for him to pull out a serrated butcher knife and disembowel me, but instead he produces a crumpled receipt and scrunches it tightly into a ball.
‘Observe,’ he says, and throws it through the doorway.
It bounces twice on the other side of the threshold, as per the usual laws of physics, and skids away across the floor until it’s out of sight.
‘Gosh,’ I say, a little uncertainly, trying to sound impressed.
The architect ignores me.
‘We’re going to walk up into that room,’ he says, pointing a quivering finger up the stairs, ‘and see things for ourselves. That’s the next step. But I need you to follow my lead, and stay with me. Don’t drift away.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ I tell him, lying through my smile.
I follow him up the white steps, our footsteps smacking against painted wood.
One, two, three, four, five.
As we approach the threshold, at the very last second, he grabs hold of my sleeve and clutches it tightly- then steps through.
I stumble through the doorway - and catch myself.
We are in the room; narrow and L-shaped, turning the corner to somewhere just out of sight. White walls. White floor. Light pooling in from somewhere uncertain beyond the polished glass of the ceiling.
Everything is exactly as it should be.
...except the paper ball is nowhere to be seen.
I glance around at the edges of the room, looking for somewhere it might have rolled to, but there’s nothing in here. Nothing but us.
The architect is watching me closely - and as soon as he sees my confusion, he rolls his eyes and emits a hard, wolfish laugh.
‘It’s gone,’ he says. ‘It isn’t in this version of the room. It’ll be somewhere, don’t you worry. Perhaps we’ll even stumble onto it later.’
‘Right,’ I say - and I turn to leave.
You develop a sense of pragmatic caution, once you’ve been living in Eskew for a while.
You understand that there are certain streets which - on a particular morning, or in particular weather - you’d be better off not walking down.
You know that when you hear a certain sound - whether it’s someone calling out your name or the feverish rhythm of a child’s rattle or something cold and mechanical - it’s best not to look up from your phone.
But this is a city that demands your attention; that wants nothing more than to reveal itself to you, over and over, and there are times when it will loom up in your face, in the wild eyes of a homeless busker or a snarling policeman or an oncoming train...and there’s nothing you can do but stand there and pray, and wait for it to be over.
In this case, as I turn to leave the strange room and the stranger man behind, I’m confronted not with a doorway - but with a plain white plaster wall.
‘Careful,’ the architect says, and begins to chuckle gently under his breath. ‘Don’t touch it.’
I lower my hand - which was, in fact, rising up of its own accord to press against the impossibility of the wall - and take a step back.
‘That’s a different lobby down there,’ the architect tells me. ‘A different, ah, version of the lobby. I guess we never built this room in that version. So the wall exists in that lobby...but not in this room. It’s an important distinction.’
He removes his right arm from his pocket, and silently holds up a fingerless hand in salute that is neatly severed across the palm, just beneath the loveline. There’s only a waggling stump left to resemble the thumb.
I stare at him, hopeless, and wait for him to explain.
There will be rules to this. No matter how cruel or submerged in the grotesqueries of the mechanism, I have never known there not to be rules.
Even when there’s nothing else to cling to.
The architect tells me that the Commemoration Gallery is mostly safe, so long as you take a few precautions.
No matter how the rooms change - and they do change, every time you walk through one of its welcoming white thresholds - the basic structure of the thing, the foundational integrity, remains the same.
So it’s safe to walk here, so long as you keep to the corridors and the rooms that feed back into each other, like a living system.
Don’t walk into a dead-end room, somewhere superfluous with just a single doorway that may cut you off unexpectedly, leaving you stranded in an empty cell with four walls and no exit.
One construction worker made this mistake early on during the project, and every so often as you walked from room to room, you’d be able to hear him, intermittently, crying out for help that would never come.
‘Hence the walk-outs,’ the architect ells me, ‘and of course the Orion Building Concern, the bosses, they laid it all on my shoulders. They didn’t care what happened so long as the project was completed on time. You can’t imagine, early on, how it drove me mad to be inspecting a room that I’d laid out to be twenty feet by twelve feet, to be walking its dimensions and knowing just from the sight of it that it was more like thirty feet by fifteen, or twenty by twenty...I thought I was making mistakes.’
I ask him about the original architect, the person responsible for the Commemoration Gallery, and he gives me a desperate shrug.
‘I never met her,’ he says. ‘That’s what tears me up more than anything, you know? She was gone by the time I arrived, and nobody was willing to talk to me about her. So I’ll never know if the Gallery was her design, her deliberate design, or if it simply happened to her. If she made a mistake, just a single mistake, and then it started reproducing.’
His knees seem to sag.
‘What happened to the kids…’ he says, softly. ‘That’s what changed everything.’
He slips his maimed hand back into his pocket, and I have a sudden mental image of some rowdy teenagers barrelling through these white corridors, into an empty threshold that quite suddenly became a wall.
Perfectly sliced fingers, and legs, and faces, falling neatly onto the ground in an otherwise unoccupied room.
‘After that,’ the architect says, ‘things started changing for me. They closed the project down. I couldn’t find work anywhere. I couldn’t even reach my landlady on the phone, to try and convince her to-’
He sniffs; wipes his nose on the sleeve of his filthy jacket.
‘I’d like to show you one more aspect of the Gallery,’ he says. ‘One more exhibit. If you’ll trust me in this.’
I can’t remember how many rooms we walk, how many blank corridors we find ourselves standing in.
Soon you lose your sense of location entirely, and the only object keeping you grounded in any kind of place, in any kind of reality, is the hunched back of the architect, that filthy grey jacket, as he stalks ahead of you.
It’s not even clear when he’s advancing deeper into the Gallery because he genuinely knows where he’s going, and when he’s simply adjusting for some unseen circumstance, a room or a wall which has suddenly appeared in a place where it shouldn’t be.
Once or twice I come across a startling blemish on the blank white walls, a shocking line of black chalk or charcoal scraped across the surface, and it’s oddly reassuring.
The architect, or someone else, has been making a practical effort to make sense of this place.
And then quite suddenly we’re at a corridor that ends in a blue door, and nothing else.
The architect turns to me.
‘Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘This place never changes. I suppose you could call it the heart of the Gallery.’
He turns the handle, and steps inside without looking back.
The electric light flickers, and ignites.
And suddenly I realise why the architect was able to walk here with such confidence; why he punched in the code to the doors without thinking.
Someone has made a makeshift home for themselves in the cramped confines of this workroom. Empty cans of tuna or beans are scattered around the shelves. A few tatty books sit upon the desk.
The floor is a labyrinth of blueprints.
Hundreds of blueprints, colossal and thick, as imposing as the Gallery itself. Piled on top of one another, laid flat, scrumpled into thick and inky balls. At the far end of the room, stacks upon stacks of them have been heaped to create a kind of crude, animalistic mattress.
I’m sure if I were to examine them more closely, the differences would stand out, the quirks and additions in each new reproduction of the Commemoration Gallery would clarify themselves - but at this distance, they’re all repeating the same basic shape, the same colossal pattern.
The architect gives me a sheepish grin.
‘This probably won’t surprise you,’ he says. ‘But when I first came to the Gallery, the planner’s workroom was filled with blueprints - just like this. And I assumed the chaos was part and parcel of why the project had been delayed. So I scooped these up, and I took them outside and burnt them.’
I watch his face.
‘The rooms burnt,’ the architect says, ‘in some versions of the Gallery. And the workers in those rooms, well, they burnt with it. But the very next morning, there were fresh blueprints in my office, and we were walking into freshly-painted and white-plastered corridors, just the same as before.’
‘Since then,’ he says, ‘I just let them come. New blueprints, every day. New versions of the gallery. Whatever’s happening, it’s still spreading, still multiplying.’
I venture an opinion that the Orion Building Concern might simply have demolished the entire building.
The architect grins wryly and tells me,
‘That’s their concern, I suppose. Anyway, you’ve seen it all now.’
He goes to the desk, and sits heavily in his chair with a sigh of mingled exhaustion and relief. It’s as if, now that he’s shared the depths of the Commemoration Gallery’s impossibility with me, he no longer feels much of an urge to discuss the problem any further.
I stoop to the floor, and examine the blueprints.
Each one is, in its own way, subtly different. Sometimes in a single measurement. Sometimes in the slant of a wall, or a flight of steps, or an entirely new wing.
Something catches my eye.
I reach out, and pull a single, enormous blueprint out from deep in the pile of its countless others.
This one is no radically different from any of the alternatives, except for one key element.
In the empty centre of the lobby, someone has drawn a figure in what appears to be charcoal or black chalk.
In its most essential dimensions, it resembles a human, or an approximation of a human. Its body is crudely drawn, with four fingerless, black jointed limbs that might be arms or might be legs.
But its face is almost too detailed, too precise and vivid in its eyes that stare out of the image and its flaring nostrils and its gaping, grinning mouth, as if two completely different pictures had been stitched together.
I almost drop the blueprint.
‘Hey,’ I call out, urgently. ‘Hey, come and take a look at this.’
The architect gets up and comes across to stare over my shoulder.
Silence. We watch the figure upon the blueprint.
After a while, the architect laughs, and says, a little too loudly, as if he’s trying to shrug something off,
‘I mean, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? If it was to scale, it’d almost be big enough to fill the room. And the blueprint is top-down, which means it’d be standing on its side.’
Slowly, I reply,
‘Maybe it’s meant to be crawling.’
We fall silent again, for a time, lost in the image.
‘I’ve never seen that blueprint before,’ the architect says, finally. ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before.’
‘You said that the Gallery’s always changing,’ I tell him. ‘So there’s no reason why it shouldn’t create something new, is there?’
We watch each other. The unspoken question between us: but why tonight?
‘I think we should leave,’ the architect says.
We both stare down at the drawing of the lobby, and the promise of the great glass doors, the outside world, at its edge.
‘Are there fire escapes?’ I ask, although I suspect I already know the answer.
The architect laughs.
‘Sometimes there are,’ he says. ‘And sometimes there aren’t. No - if we want to be certain of getting out of here, we need to leave through the front doors. The front doors are always there - in every version I’ve seen, in every version I’ve walked through. But if that thing is waiting for us in the lobby...’
An idea occurs to me. And suddenly I begin to feel a great deal more confident in our chances.
There’s a pattern to this, of course. Like anything else in Eskew, no matter how horrible, if there’s a pattern, it can be manipulated.
‘Can you bring us back the way we came?’ I ask the architect. ‘To that first room?’
‘It really depends on the walls,’ he says, ‘but...yes, I think so. That’s the thing about the Gallery, so long as you’re careful - if an entrance isn’t there, you just have to circle back and try again.’
This is exactly what I wanted to hear.
Because, of course, even if there is something waiting for us in the lobby, something resembling the figure drawn in charcoal, it’s only ever going to appear in a single version of the lobby. Only one of these countless blueprints needs to be avoided.
If we can move through the Gallery in safety, if we can arrive back at the room where we started, then it’s just a matter of crossing the gaping mouth of the lobby and reaching the doors.
In the blueprint I’m holding, the lobby occupied by the charcoal figure has four steps leading up to the small room where we began.
There were five steps, when I walked it.
If there are five steps when we return, or six steps or three steps, we’ll know it’s safe to cross.
Before we set out, the architect confesses something to me.
He is sorry to have brought me here, sorry to have pulled me so thoughtlessly into danger, but when I began to ask him questions about the Gallery, and kept asking him questions, he found himself quite unable to stop. He needed to let all of this spill out, his hidden world of hideous impossibilities, to show another human being exactly what he was going through - there was no way he could have kept it to himself any longer.
I tell him that I forgive him, which isn’t strictly true - but I do, at least, understand him.
I know what it’s like to have a headful of horrors, and to need to share them, no matter what the consequences.
He extends his maimed hand for me to shake, and for a moment in my grasp it feels curiously firm and whole.
We walk, and keep walking.
We peer into every new room or corridor as if expecting to see a face leering back at us, something black and long-limbed rising from out of the shadowless white void - but there’s nothing. Always nothing.
We do not encounter those thick black charcoal scores across the walls in any of the rooms we visit, and when I mention them to the architect he simply shrugs, which causes me to wonder if perhaps I simply imagined them.
Occasionally we come up against a blank surface, and the architect’s nerves are beginning to fray, because he starts to curse and mutter beneath his breath, turning rapidly from each new empty wall, walking so quickly that I have to jog just to keep up with him-
And then we find ourselves, quite suddenly, in a room that I’d be unlikely to recognise, since its dimensions and blank white complexion are so similar to so many endless rooms - if it were not for the scrunched-up ball of paper that rests in the very centre of the floor.
The doorway to the lobby is open. Through the threshold, down a short flight of stairs and across the stretching floor, the glass entrance doors of the gallery are visible.
The architect and I gather on either side of the door, and peer carefully down through it.
Four steps are visible.
‘It’s safe,’ I exclaim, in absolute relief. My legs are trembling. ‘It’s another version of the gallery, it’s safe to go down.’
The architect shakes his head. ‘There could be a fifth step,’ he objects. ‘You can’t see properly from up here - it’s the angle. I think we should circle back around and try again.’
It should be obvious to anyone that there are, in fact, four steps ahead of us, and I begin to suspect that the architect has lost his courage entirely - as well as his wits, since the longer we take in circling back around, the more likely we are, statistically speaking, to encounter the charcoal figure that appears on the blueprint.
‘This is our chance,’ I tell him. ‘We might not get this opportunity again so easily. We need to take it.’
But he simply shakes his head and mutters and quivers, until finally I say,
‘All right. I’ll go ahead and count the steps, and yell up to you if it’s safe - but I’m not staying here, and I’m not circling back around unless I know I have to.’
The architect stares at me for a moment - and then nods, reluctantly.
I ask him if I’ll need the door code to get back out, and he tells me it’s 1-1-1-7.
‘Fine,’ I snap - and turn, and stalk forward through the doorway into the lobby.
My legs shiver and buckle on the first step, and I almost turn and run back around into what might be a different doorway or a blank wall or something else entirely - but the engines of my body kick in thoughtlessly and I continue my descent.
A second step.
A third step.
A fourth step.
And then I hit the floor, and cry out over my shoulder, ‘Four steps! Four steps!’ as I stride across the lobby towards the glass doors and the tiny blinking box on the wall beside them that grows bigger with every step-
-and it’s only as I’m almost on them, and I can see the path that runs up through the little green garden into the street, that quite suddenly I realise how very unscientific I’ve been.
I assumed that the charcoal figure might be waiting for us in a single version of the Commemoration Gallery.
But if we can walk between different reproductions, if we can duck through doorways and emerge into different versions of the same basic reality...then really, why shouldn’t it be able to do the same?
I don’t turn around. I think I might shout the architect’s name, but perhaps it only emerges from the corners of my mouth in a single breathless whisper.
I do run for the doors, skidding up against the wall, hammering at the code box with sweaty fingers, 1-1-1-7, until the blinking light flashes green and the glass door clicks open-
-and it’s there, in the reflection, that I see the blank white walls of the Commemoration Gallery churning with sudden blackness and motion, something spreading like ink or rolling like charcoal across the empty firmament of the void, resolving into something gigantic and insectoid and a grinning round face and limbs that rise and fall like the arms of a marionette, like daggers-
-and beneath it, the architect, standing quite still, his back turned to me. Gazing up at the spreading cloud of black hairy limbs and clownish white face and widening grin, as if he’s lost in appreciation for some wondrous new work of art.
There are no screams. No sounds of a struggle.
Only silence, and of course when the glass doors close behind me and I turn back, it shouldn’t surprise me that I’m looking in at the lobby of a gallery that is pure, and whitewashed, and empty.
I run all of the way back to the Queen and Crown after that, and beg the irritated barman to let me have just one final drink, although it’s now close to midnight just as it was when the evening began, and he’s busy closing up.
I sit in the booth, where we had once sat together, and I wonder at the towering figure of black chalk; chiefly, how it could be that even as it fell upon the architect, limbs twisting and flurrying around him like a sculptor working at a new lump of unshaped stone…
...it could still be staring into my eyes the entire time through the reflection of the glass doors, with the same composed and stable grin that seemed impossibly wide.
And then I remember the old joke about the painting with the eyes that seem to follow you around the room, and I laugh, and laugh, while the barman glares at me.
When you come to Eskew, you’ll understand; it’s always better for your health, in the long run, if you can find a way to give yourself a punchline.
That’s about all we have time for.
Some of you have emailed me since the last episode, asking questions about the disappearance of someone called the correspondence editor, and even making vaguely accusatory insinuations in my direction.
Let me clarify something for you.
I share Eskew, my experiences of Eskew, in the hopes of forgetting what’s happened to me.
I do not want to reconsider the events which I may have raised with you at the time, which are now as vague and distant to me as my life before I came to this city, and I have no interest in reading the letter which may or may not be in the pocket of my coat.
When I find it, I’ll burn it.
In our next episode, I intend to discuss the native flora of Eskew, and in particular the strange goings-on at the Botanical Garden.
In the meantime, please do tell your friends about this city. Perhaps you’ll even consider coming to visit.
Speak with you again soon.