People change for the worse in crowds, I’ve found.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed it. They simply lose something of themselves: their initiative, their decision-making skills, their ability to hear and see beyond the reactions of the others around them.
More than once, in Eskew, I have tried to politely move through a packed subway carriage to reach the doors for my stop...only to be faced with a sea of backs. Every other commuter facing away from me, their faces hidden from me. Still and silent, refusing to acknowledge my existence, no matter how loud I scream.
And then there’s that peculiar phenomenon on a rainy day where a dozen or more suited men and women will gather around a single seated vagrant at a street corner and, in quiet unison, raise their umbrellas and bring them down with a hard wet thwack, again and again and again, until the blood runs -
I suppose what I’m trying to say is this. I do not believe people to be cattle.
But I believe this city has the power to make us so. It knows how adaptable we are, more than we ever could.
There’s a busy crossroads at the bottom of the Chaplain’s Hill, just a few minutes from the office of the newspapers where I work.
Every morning, I wait to cross; as the traffic comes from north and south, from west and east, and then stops entirely, and I step out into the road.
And I am so very frightened that one day I will have drifted, through repetition and exhaustion, just close enough to sleep, so that when the lights change unexpectedly, from west to east, then north to south, I am not watching for the danger but stepping automatically out into the road into the path of a looming truck or hooting, mocking scooter, torn to pieces in a savage instant.
For now, at least, I hope I am just awake enough.
My name is David Ward. I am in Eskew.
On Monday morning, my editor comes up to see me on the fourteenth floor of the Eskew Tribunal - and asks me to visit a murderer.
The man has just this week been convicted for the butchery of his wife and two daughters in the most upsetting manner you can possibly imagine. Now every hack and ghostwriter in the city is putting out feelers to see if he’s keen to find a media partner - but the Tribunal alone has been able to secure an interview.
The killer, according to his lawyers, had an especially rough and traumatic childhood. My editor feels that this would be the most appropriate angle to consider.
‘There’s something there,’ he insists. ‘About cycles of hurt, an inheritance of violence...it’d go down well.’
It certainly sounds like a change of pace, but it’s pouring with rain outside, I have a full packet of chocolate biscuits, and I’ve positioned myself close to the radiator.
‘Sounds like a job for the crime desk,’ I tell him.
My editor shakes his head.
‘They’re not here today,’ he tells me. ‘And I don’t think they’ll be coming in tomorrow. There’s something going around.’
He makes a clawing motion with his hands, and gives me a look as if I’m supposed to know what that means.
I tell him I’ll head out immediately.
He adds, as I’m leaving, that it would be quite the coup if we could find out where the rest of the remains have been stashed.
On the nineteenth floor of the Coldfriars Hospital, in a private room watched by two uniformed guards and, quite securely, shackled to the rails of the bed by all four limbs, lies the man I’m looking for.
If you can call him a man any longer.
I busy myself in taking a seat, quite unable to look him in the eye, and with an inappropriate degree of false chumminess introduce myself and the publication I’m approaching him on behalf of.
The man in the bed says,
‘What’s your angle?’
I tell him that my only angle is his angle; that I have been a supporter of his since the beginning of the trial, and I strongly intend to give him all of the support he needs to explain his side of the story. To share the humanity behind the crime.
He gives a sort of shaky laugh, settles back in the bed, and tells me that humanity has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
‘Then we can talk about that,’ I insist, over-eagerly. ‘This can be your manifesto. An appendix to the central body of your work.’
The man in the bed tells me he’d like a soda.
Well, I think, there’s nothing wrong with that, and I leave him alone for a while, losing myself in the echoing and empty corridors in search of a vending machine.
When I return, I make to hand the can to him, and he only chuckles roughly and lifts his arms, waving in surrender. His hands barely make it halfway to what I suppose I should describe as his face.
‘You’ll have to help me with that,’ he says.
Well, I don’t like the idea, but cooperation is the cornerstone of society, and so I inch across to stand over him, open up the soda can with a carbonated hiss, and tilt it towards the black slit of his mouth.
I can hear it gurgling in the back of his throat as he drinks, and drains. His eyes meet mine, and he nods, to show he’s done.
I lower the can.
And his fingers close around my wrist.
His grip is tight. His skin is so cold it bites.
And then, before I even have a chance to cry out, he releases me and drops his hand, swiftly and almost bashfully. As if he just wanted to prove to himself - or to me - that he could do it.
‘Well,’ the man in the bed asks me. ‘What did you want me to say?’
My dictaphone is on the table between us.
The man in the bed watches me. He seems content to let me flail about in trying to initiate the beginnings of an interview.
I ask him about his wife. He stares at me.
I ask him about his two beautiful daughters, and instantly I wonder if that’s a mistake, calling them beautiful. But he stares at me.
I ask him about his childhood, and his eye twitches once.
I offer up a fragment from my own childhood, a trick I remember from old detective shows on TV; something about my mother and a song she used to sing to herself as she ran the bath. The welcoming, gushing roar of the taps drifting through the corridors. The hot towel waiting for me when I stepped back out of the water.
Comfort. And safety.
I tell him that even as a grown man, when I feel truly afraid, truly alone, as if I no longer have friends in this world or the next, I think back to that noise. That warmth. That feeling.
The man in the bed is silent and very still.
Then he begins to speak.
He tells me about the blue front door of his childhood flat. Faded blue, with two locks and a chain, and a spiral of frosted glass in four separate panes.
Before his mother left, when he was eight years old, the man in the bed remembers a single, vivid night.
A night when he saw the glass blur and heard the rough, arhythmical knock that meant his father had been drinking.
And he was already at the door, his hand closing over the chain, pulling it free to let his father inside, when he heard the frantic pounding of his mother’s feet on the stairs.
And he turned and looked up to see her, dressed in a coat, with her packed suitcase in one hand, and his own smaller holiday bag in another, and her eyes were full of desperation as she whispered, just a second too late,
‘Don’t let him in.’
He blames himself.
If he’d just waited a little longer, maybe kept his hand on the chain so that his father couldn’t barge through into the hallway, staring first in disbelief and then a rising fury at the sight of his mother, packed and ready to leave…
...if he’d only kept that door closed a moment longer, she might have been able to take him with her.
At first, the man in the bed insists that he doesn’t want to dwell on what came next, in the years when he was living alone with his father.
But it’s not that easy, and he isn’t that good at hiding his pain.
I listen to his ensuing catalogue of humiliations and hurt. A father who came home through the front door to shriek at him, strike him with the back of his hand, scorn and sneer at him, on the nights when the man had been drinking, or suffered himself at work, or struck out with a girl.
Beer cans hurled at the wall. Kicks aimed at the boy’s face. Insults that he was forced to repeat over and over, agreeing with them, accepting their diagnosis.
My editor will be delighted.
The hardest thing to live with during those years, he tells me, was hope. A single, desperate hope that one day his mother would come back and take him with her.
A fraying hope, eaten away at every evening when the blurred shape appeared at the front door. Renewed, in his quietest sobbing moments alone in his bedroom when there was quite simply nothing else to hold onto.
One day she will come. One day there will be a knock at that door, and she’ll be standing there, just as she was when she left.
And how quickly his hope turned to faith, a searching and exploratory faith in any god that might deliver up to him his wish, his desire, his lifeline. Long nights of prayer beside his bed, to the powers of the churches and the deities of the Lower Town.
Please let her come. Let her come to take me away from this.
He was twelve years old when his prayer was finally heard.
A cold, bright, clear morning in Eskew.
He remembers coming downstairs, ready to make breakfast and sit alone with his comic books, to the unfamiliar and perplexing sight of his father, clattering shamefacedly about with the dishes in the sink, saying to him in a voice that was all at once nervous and sulky,
‘Pack your things. Your mother’s coming to pick you up.’
He simply stood there, blank and staring, refusing to process the words, until his father turned around and snapped,
‘Didn’t you hear me? She’s coming to get you, and she’ll be here soon. Go and pack.’
And then all at once he was running up to his bedroom, pulling his bag out from under the bed, and stuffing objects into it as he found them.
A few token clothes. A toothbrush from the bathroom. Some drawings he’d made last year which he’d always wanted to show her. A book she’d given him when he was six.
The bag wasn’t even full, not even half full, when he zipped it up, because his mother was coming to get him and he didn’t need anything else, and all at once the smile broke out of him like a sunrise.
He slung the bag over his shoulder and ran to take up a position halfway down the stairs, facing the blue front door and the archway of frosted glass panes, paying no attention whatsoever to his father who was anxiously tidying away the beer cans and adjusting the carpets and trying to give the false sense of a home that was happy, and clean, and safe.
He waited. And waited. Willing the glass to change, to produce the sudden blur of a shape standing behind it, the first sign that his mother had arrived.
And it was beginning to occur to him that perhaps this was a new prank, a game invented by his father to torment him by pretending that his mother was coming to pick him up, and the smile was beginning to droop from his face…
...when suddenly darkness moved behind the frosted glass, and a knock came at the door.
It was an odd sound, like any he’d heard the wood make before.
Hollow, and dull, and empty.
He got to his feet, hardly daring to step up to the door and see her for himself, and the knock came again.
‘I’ll get it,’ he cried aloud, because this was his moment and he didn’t want to share it with his father. ‘I’ll get it, I’ll get it, don’t worry-’
And he went to the door and pulled aside the chain, and turned the handle to open it wide.
And stood there, staring up at the thing that was not his mother.
Its face was wide, and white, and clownish, as if drawn in chalk. Its eyes were black and round and horribly empty even as they stared down at him, and its mouth was set in a grin that never moved.
Like a painting, he tells me. Like a sketch upon the surface of the air, a mocking caricature of a human skull.
It was wearing his mother’s dress, the same dress she wore the night when she left, and in its long-fingered hand it held his mother’s face like a purse, empty and eyeless and drooping, a mask of skin.
Its face seemed to fill the sky.
He felt his father come up behind him, placing a restraining hand on his shoulder, and say aloud, calmly,
‘You’re late. You said ten-thirty and it’s closer to eleven.’
The thing that was not his mother did not move. Its expression did not change. It did not stop staring down at him.
And yet his father continued, as if to an inaudible reply,
‘Well, he’ll be glad to see the back of me, I’m sure - and I’ll have a lot less trouble on my hands as well.’
The thing that was not his mother did not move. It simply waited for him in silencs.
He felt his father’s palm on his back, pushing him forward.
‘Go on, then,’ his father said. ‘Don’t keep your mother waiting.’
And as he looked up into that monstrous, chalky, grinning face, he began to quiver and shake and cry, turning back, burying himself into his father’s stomach, sobbing,
‘No. No. Don’t let her take me. Don’t let her take me.’
His father, surprised, tried to prise him loose, saying in a voice that was unexpectedly soft and shocked,
‘Don’t be ridiculous, boy. She’s going to look after you. What are you crying for?’
And he shook his head and cried and shivered, clinging to his father’s reassuring sweaty shirt, refusing to look back at the thing that was not his mother, begging him not to force him to go with it, until finally, his father said, apologetically,
‘Well, if he really doesn’t want to go...I suppose we can’t force him.’
And then the door closed, and the darkness was no longer visible in the frosted glass, and he was alone with his father again.
The man in the bed stares at me.
‘What do you make of that?’ he asks. ‘Do you think I was dreaming? Was it really my mother standing there, and I was just deluded...or was it something else?’
I have lived in Eskew for too long to be a sceptic. But I am also very aware that I have drifted into the periphery of something that makes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle...and in such circumstances, it’s always better not to draw attention to yourself.
I tell him, gently, that it’s probably my fault for introducing the topic of his childhood, but it seems as if we’ve strayed away from the issue of the murders.
That’s exactly the thing, he tells me. This is the only way he has of explaining it.
Because it was only decades later, with his father safely put to rest on Cemetery Hill, when he was living out in the grey suburbs with a wife who loved him and two daughters who he’d do anything for, caught in the trap of middle-aged comfort and that he began to wonder, once again…
...what would have happened to him, if he’d gone with her?
And he begins to ache with regret and shame that he did not have the courage to reach out and take the hand of the thing that was not his mother, and go with her to whatever journey was being offered to him.
His eyes fall. His fingers clench into fists.
‘That was my next mistake,’ he tells me. ‘I have made so many dreadful mistakes.’
He remembers working late, one night alone in his office, quietly dreading the journey home to his kind and caring family, the inevitable conclusion of a life that had begun with horror and achieved only the success of making itself ordinary-
...when the frosted glass windows looking out onto the divisional floor shifted into blackness, and he heard someone knocking at the door.
He stayed at his desk, quite frozen, for some time. Wondering if he’d just misheard the creaking of the floors or the pattering of the radiators, if the darkness had not shifted behind the frosted glass but had been there all along, willing up the rational capacity to dismiss what he had just seen and heard and return to his computer screen-
-when the knock came again.
He got to his feet.
Stood at the door, trying to listen. Unable to say the words: ‘go away’...or ‘come in.’
Finally, knowing in his heart that he was trapped and alone and had nowhere to turn except for the inescapable reality of the door and whatever was standing behind it, his fingers closed on the handle.
He opened the door.
The floor was empty. Nothing was standing there.
And he began to laugh, with a kind of scornful relief at himself for falling into a blind panic so quickly, and yet he left the door ajar as he went back to his desk to pack away his things for the long drive home, to make sure he could see if there was anything coming.
He kept checking in his own rearview mirror all of the way home, spooked and shivering, fixing his mind on the reassuring certainty of his family, waiting for him at home, the simple decency of a cooked meal and affection and laughter.
It was as he pulled into his driveway that he stopped thinking about anything at all, because at once he could see that his front door was wide open and the light within was shining brightly over an empty hallway.
He stepped out of the car.
Walked the few feet to the mat which read, ‘WELCOME’.
Stepped into his house, calling his wife’s name as he stepped into the deserted kitchen.
Calling his daughter’s names as he walked into the living room, and saw the open patio door, leading out into their little garden.
Saw the clothesline, bedsheets and socks hanging in the darkness, billowing like phantoms in the wind.
His wife’s face. His daughters’ faces, pegged and eyeless and empty, hung there amongst the washing.
I stop recording.
‘You’re saying you didn’t kill them,’ I venture. ‘You’re saying that you’re innocent.’
He shakes his head violently.
‘Whatever happened to my family,’ he insists, ‘I was the cause of. I have no doubt about that.’
He had been offered two chances to leave, and had been unable to take either of them.
This, as he’d tried to explain to his lawyer, had been why he hadn’t called the police, or an ambulance. Why he’d walked back into the kitchen, slid a knife from the rack, and provided tangible evidence to whoever might be watching that he was ready to make things right.
He stares at me, wild-eyed and delighted through the protective gauze of his mask.
‘They’ll be coming to get me soon enough,’ he says. ‘I don’t mind however long they make me wait. I’ve prepared myself. I’m ready to go with them now.’
I’m home now, alone in my apartment with the front door locked and bolted, and I can’t stop thinking about something.
When I was younger, and in London, I never gave much thought to my mother.
Sometimes I used to dream that she’d die soon, of some petty embolism or in a car accident, and finally I’d have a way to explain myself.
‘That’s just the way David is, they’d say - and in my heart I’d be able to agree with their diagnosis. It’s because his mother died.’
I used to dream of cataclysmic events like these. The loss of both legs. A sudden blindness. Some awful and unique tragedy that would be a way to make sense of me.
But now I am in Eskew, and I understand there’s nothing to be explained, I dream of my mother.
Singing under her breath at the kitchen sink, her back turned to me, the taps running and the boiler roaring with giddy laughter to welcome me home.
This feels like a warning.
As if the city wants me to understand there’s no escape.
And that if I should believe that I’ve found a way out, and I should turn a door handle to see my own familiar flat, and my mother there with her back turned to me humming, and chanting, her fingers buried in the water of two roaring taps…
...well, then she may turn to reveal a face that is not hers, but chalk-white and empty and grinning, and I will know that I am still in Eskew.
All of this, as ever, is most likely vanity, a belief that this world appears differently to me as it does to others, a reality I’m confronted with when I take my finished article to my editor and he tells me that it’s all useless, as the man tossed himself down a concrete stairwell last night and the papers no longer have use for any of it.
Nevertheless...I think I might have to be more careful about how I speak to you.
Be with you again next week.