I want to thank you all for being so kind to me.
It’s incredible how, when you imagine yourself to be alone, the world can provide you with a sudden, unambiguous signal that there are people all around you.
Your emails, coming in their dozens all at once within seconds of each other and containing the same kinds of supportive messaging, even in many cases the same exact wording, felt like real serendipity.
It’s good to know that you’re being listened to.
Upon your advice, I’ve started seeing a psychiatrist.
I’ve never done anything like this before, and I have to admit it’s an exhilarating experience for me. She asks me questions about myself. I invent compelling answers. It feels a little like a dance. Desperately fast and graceful improvisation carried out to a set and certain rhythm.
There are still some aspects that I haven’t figured out yet.
For example, I still don’t understand the purpose of the second psychiatrist, the one who stands in the very corner of the room with his back turned to me, his extraordinarily long and moon-like face a silhouette against the darkness. Motionless as far as I can tell but forever emitting a scratchy and unpleasant sound, as if he’s writing with an old pen on rough paper.
I can only assume that he’s intended as some kind of test of my faculties, some effort to rattle me. I try my very hardest not to glance up in his direction or acknowledge his presence for the duration of the hour.
It’s challenging. The scratching noise emitted by the second psychiatrist is noisy, and intense, swelling above the soothing voice of the first psychiatrist.
It’s as if there’s something buried in the darkness of his mouth and chin that’s making the noises for him. Something chitinous, and hairy, and itching.
It sounds a little like laughter.
I don’t think it’s laughter.
If I stand up now, I think. the light may shift across his chin, and I may be able to get a sense of what’s making the noise in the place where the second psychiatrist’s mouth should be.
But if I stand up now, that’s as good as acknowledgement that I can see the second psychiatrist, and then I’ll have failed the test - and what becomes of me then?
Instead, I sit politely, and answer the first psychiatrist’s question.
And of course then there’s another question, just as soon as I’ve delivered the answer to the last question, and I have no chance to stand up and see the second psychiatrist’s face, because I’m too busy filling my world with meaningless noises that express meaningful feelings that belong to the David who is sitting in the chair in front of me, meek and explicable and just trying his best to help their enquiries along until the clock’s hand hits the hour and everything begins again-
It’s helping, anyway. I’m certain of that. Whatever is happening, it must be helping me. It wouldn’t be happening to me otherwise.
The first psychiatrist is encouraging me to continue these recordings, which came as a bit of a surprise.
She says that expression of the self contributes to realisation of the self, and that I can free myself from my confusions and preoccupations about the city and my place within it, by speaking and writing as honestly about it all as I can.
I’m not sure I agree with that. It feels as if I’m spreading something. Like I’m coughing on the Metro, spluttering my sickness onto seats and rails.
Not curing myself of it, merely failing to contain it.
But I’m not sure I can stop.
My name is David Ward, and I am doing much better now, thank you.
Let me begin by telling you about the old railway bridge.
It’s just down the hill from me, hidden away beneath derelicts and brick terraces, overlooking a black line of tracks and tangled gorse that cuts through the heart of the city unseen.
There are certain places, I think, that are born as ruins.
Certainly, nobody seems to know when the line beneath the railway bridge was last operational, and in all my years of living in Eskew, I’ve never seen the light of a train or felt the foundations shake.
And yet there are broad pillars running alongside the bridge, broken stacks and arches, as if it’s been established on the wreckage of some older bridge that’s simply been lost to time, or to the snapping wind that flows right through the scar of the line to cut at your face as you walk.
I walk this way every morning in darkness, and in darkness I return. Two tall black cast-iron lampposts mark time and distance, evenly spaced in the centre of the bridge.
Like a doorway.
Nobody looks at anybody on the railway bridge. Nobody raises their heads. The city seems sullen and lonely on mornings like these.
Especially this wet and horrid morning, when the streets are empty, when the bridge is empty, and my mind is every bit as abandoned, because I cannot recall for the life of me why I’m going into work.
But then, as I’m halfway across the bridge, directly between the twin radiances of the cast-iron lampposts, I could swear that I hear a voice, purring in my ear.
I stop dead in my tracks.
It’s a soft voice, calming and resonant, the sort of voice you might hear in a radio broadcast or an advert for creamy yoghurt.
Jump, says the voice. You will not be missed in the office. You will not be noticed when you return home. What’s keeping you here? What’s driving you on?
Put like that, the point is so inarguable that I find myself striding forwards to the edge of the bridge, my palms on the brick verge, ready to leap over it into infinity, when I remember that I do not want to jump at all, that they’re expecting me at work, where I have a ten o’clock meeting.
I retreat from the verge.
Jump, the voice says, but quieter now. This city’s too crowded anyway. You’ve read your Thomas Malthus, you understand the horrors of overpopulation more than anyone. Jump.
Your sensations are nothing but nightmare, your experiences ranging from the lurid to the absurd to the frightening. Your achievements are pitiful, your relationships highly suspect even if they do exist at all, and you have no desire to leave a legacy behind in this sickness of a life.
You are a whisper upon the windowsill. So jump.
I turn and walk quickly away across the bridge and into the road on the other side.
Jump, the voice says, fainter and fainter, before vanishing entirely. Why won’t you jump? Jump. Jump. Jump.
That evening, I’m returning home from work across the empty bridge, passing beneath the comforting Victorian lights, when I hear the voice again.
Jump, it says.
I pull my coat tightly around me, and keep walking.
Jump, the voice says. Don’t you wonder why the bridge is empty? Everyone else has begun to jump, all across the city. Do you really want to be left in this awful place alone? Do you really want to stand against the overall consensus, out of nothing more than obstinacy?
There’s a place down here with us, a place beneath the railway bridge that’s unlike any
Look. We can show you.
And then I see the middle-aged man wandering down the bridge towards me, passing through the spotlights of the cast-iron lampposts. He’s pushing an orange pram, a small boy of about five or six balancing on the push-board behind it.
The father gives me a cheerful nod as he rolls on up to the parapet, picks up his son in both hands with a mild grunt of exertion, and tosses him over the side of the bridge into the darkness.
Next comes the orange pram, and he struggles with the weight of it, rattling its wheels and fumbling with its handlebars as whatever’s inside begins to scream, and scream, and scream.
Once it’s tipped over the edge, the man turns back to me, nods and smiles once more, and then leaps over the parapet himself, without a word.
And suddenly I’m alone on the railway bridge once again.
See? The voice whispers in my ear. See what we mean now? There’s nothing to it, nothing at all. Come on, don’t be such a baby.
I shake my head furiously, plug my headphones back into my ears to drown out the laughter of the voice, and keep walking.
The following morning, I very carefully take a different route, skirting right around the railway line that cuts beneath the streets, and so I am mildly surprised to find myself once again walking down the ruined bridge, beneath the black cast-iron lampposts.
Jump, the voice tells me.
We’ve got your beloved four-year-old daughter down here with us, drowning in the water or playing on the tracks or falling to a certain death against the hard gravel below. Jump, and you can save her, and be forgiven for all of your sins.
Look - that’s her blue silk ribbon, bloodied and torn, dangling from the lamppost.
I am standing on the parapet, my coat abandoned behind me, ready to jump down into the darkness and save her, when I suddenly remember that I do not have a beloved four-year-old daughter, and the bloodied blue ribbon must belong to some other unrelated four-year-old child who is not my responsibility.
I look down, into the unfathomable darkness of the railway line, and for a moment I think that I can see the white spheres of the lampposts, round and bright, gazing back up at me, refracting and dividing into a dozen, a hundred, a thousand lights.
They look like eyes. Like a multitude of eyes.
Nice try, I say aloud.
Perhaps it’s a mistake, acknowledging them like that, because all at once I can no longer think of them as merely a voice, but as something tangible, and many-limbed, and moving.
I get back down, as carefully as I can, and continue on my way.
The Things Beneath The Bridge chitter and snarl, calling out to me in a single, unified, sonorous voice,
Where do you think you’re going? Where, exactly, do you think you’re going?
During the rest of my commute, I focus intently on ordinary things, on timesheets and football results with the help of a rapidly draining phone battery, and by the time I reach my destination, I almost feel normal again.
This proves to be a mistake.
Because when I reach the offices of the Eskew Tribunal, it’s obvious that something has leaked out of its usual place.
My daughter’s bloodied silk bow is sitting upon the empty desk of the receptionist, and the receptionist’s shoes are still rocking upon the desk, and I have a sudden overwhelming urge to jump over the desk into the oily darkness beneath the railway bridge that lies far beneath it on the other side.
Here you go, the voice says. Time to jump.
I catch myself, breathing heavily, and turn away.
Obviously I am being tested.
I fully understand that. I am being tested, and the best possible thing I can do is to get my head down, commit to the normality and banality of an honest day’s work, and wait for this particular nightmare to pass me by.
I reach the lift doors and hammer at the buttons until they open.
There’s a motion behind me; the sense of something scuttling from corner to corner.
And suddenly the lobby beneath my feet is the railway bridge, and the lift floor is the void of yawning blackness that is the place beneath the railway bridge.
Jump, a voice tells me, invitingly.
The stairs are also the railway bridge, but they’re solid enough if I just don’t look back at what they’re shifting into behind me, the sudden darkness of the place beneath the railway bridge.
And then I’m at my desk on the fourteenth floor, typing something that doesn’t matter so long as it keeps me typing until the clock strikes five, keeps me doing anything but hurling me from the side of the railway bridge that even now, I am standing helplessly upon, halfway between two tall black lampposts, their spherical lanterns burning into my back like eyes or like twin suns.
I can hear the Things giggling, somewhere over my shoulder.
I think everything might be the railway bridge.
The next day it’s worse.
Somehow, my apartment has been infected, and I wake to a wife who I don’t remember meeting and three adorable children who rush in to cuddle me on the marital bed between two glowing, cast-iron lampposts, pleading with me,
Can you jump, Daddy? Please, today, can you jump?
My wife runs a hand lovingly down my back and agrees with my children in the same voice of sympathy and understanding,
Really, my darling. I think it’s time to jump.
Work, when I get there, is no better.
The Things Beneath The Bridge have openly taken over the office, scattering the papersheets, turning the lights on and off so I can’t focus on any of my work, crooning at me that I’ve put this off for far too long.
My colleagues sit at their desks, perfectly still and silent, with their palms placed neatly down against the wood, staring directly forward, pretending they can’t hear any of it.
I, of course, do exactly the same.
At around ten o’clock, I hear the voice of the senior editor from somewhere behind me.
Come into my office for a moment, he says.
My colleagues all look up from their computers and gaze at me with white-hot spherical lantern eyes, and the phrase is emitted from their open mouths in a single voice,
Come into my office for a moment.
The carpet between us drops off to either side.
The distance is further than I remember, and my colleagues stand in unison, lining the route like a guard of honour or like motionless, cast-iron lampposts.
I nod, helplessly, getting to my feet, and walk it, just as I’ve walked a thousand miles or more of railway bridge this morning, to take a seat behind a glass.
It’s bright in the senior editor’s office. Hot on the skin, like you’re standing too close to a naked light bulb.
There are no shadows here any more.
The senior editor is strolling up and down in front of the window, humming merrily to himself and apparently in a fantastic mood.
It takes a great deal of effort for me not to notice that one of the Things Beneath The Bridge is wearing his face.
The door behind me is no longer a door.
The senior editor tells me how proud he is of me. How he’s watched my burgeoning journalistic career with interest, and increasingly, admiration. That he’ll be sorry to see me go, but he just knows that I’ll find success at my new posting in the darkness at the bottom of the railway bridge.
Behind me, stood at the glass, my colleagues stand with their mouths opening and closing in unison, echoing every word he says.
The senior editor pushes the contract across the desk for me to sign, and tells me that I’d better hurry, because it’s already time for me to be on my way.
He gestures to the window behind him, which is, I realise with a growing sense of exhaustion and despondency, wide open and composed entirely of the old ruined red brick of the railway bridge.
I’m not sure I can ignore this any longer.
I begin to quake and tremble in the chair in front of him, clasping my head in my hands, begging him.
Please, sir - are you here on behalf of the city? Is that why you’re doing this? Have I somehow failed to behave appropriately here in Eskew, have I failed some kind of test?
Please, sir. I need you to accept that I am grateful to be here, and will cause no further trouble of any kind, least of all with the recordings, and that there’s no need to continue with any of this, none whatsoever. Can you understand that?
I don’t understand how I’ve transgressed. But I know that there must be some kind of order behind this, an action for a reaction, a crime to fit the punishment, and so I beg Eskew for forgiveness.
The senior editor gazes at me uncomprehendingly, and tells me he doesn’t understand, that he’d have killed for a position like this when he was my age, and there’s no sense in getting sentimental, since after all, we all need a change of scene.
His face is slipping. The white skin dropping away from the eyeholes and the black maw of the mouth.
You can almost see what’s underneath.
My face is slipping.
Well, the senior editor says, in a voice that is not his. If he doesn’t want to go, I suppose we can’t force him.
The room seems to dim. Grows dingy in the midday light.
He gets to his feet, his reflection visible in the glass behind him, and extends a hand for me to shake.
Just so you know, he says in a confiding voice, I think you’re probably going to regret this.
And then I’m standing outside the Tribunal offices, on an empty street, clutching my papers and belongings in a meagre satchel, and I have the unambiguous sense that I’ve somehow been fired. Expelled from the garden, as it were.
If there was a test here, I’ve failed it.
If something was trying to speak to me, it’s abandoned its communications.
I tilt my head, flinching against the rain, to gaze up at the lampposts watching over me, making spotlights in the shadows.
They’re concrete, and grey, and ordinary.
I begin to smile, and then to laugh with relief, cackling and prancing in the puddles, rejoicing in the silence of my head and the absence of many-legged things skittering in the corners of my vision, when the light begins to dim.
The lamps, all around me, are going out.
I turn, and the doorway of the Eskew Tribunal curves up far above my head, black and empty and arching like a spine.
I take a step back, my foot slipping in the wet gravel, and the orange pram strikes the pavement ahead of me, splintering and twisting with the force of impact, a horrid wreck of canvas and iron and bone.
The father hits the ground next.
I begin to walk.
Next comes the receptionist, shoeless, her undamaged bare feet protruding from the puddle that’s the rest of her.
My colleagues, indistinguishable in their grey suits and scarves, one after the other.
The senior editor. My wife. My children.
They fall. They meet the ground. They become difficult to recognise.
And the further I walk, the more the streets twist and contort themselves into the chaos of one another, a dozen pathways transfiguring into a single empty road, and tracks leading me onwards into the abyss.
I am in the darkness beneath the railway bridge.
I never had any hope of ending up anywhere else.
I walk the tracks, in silence and quite alone, as bodies fall like rotten apples into the concrete, like a guard of honour, like discarded skins - from the illuminated places far above my head.
I will not go back to work.
Whatever was beneath the railway bridge, whatever I carried with me from that place, has clearly spread like mould to certain districts of the city.
Black cast-iron lampposts have sprouted on particular streets, and I take it as a warning sign, a boundary, crossing these places off from the crude map that I pin to the wall of my apartment’s living room.
I will not go back to work.
I don’t even think there’ll be a building there any more. Just an archway, in darkness.
The first psychiatrist tells me that these delusions are of my making and not the city’s, and that I’ve simply been isolated with my thoughts for too long.
The second psychiatrist remains silent, his unseen mandibles itching in the shadows of the corner of the room.
I suspect he may be on my side.
I can see my inbox lighting up as I record this. Messages from my listeners.
So kind of you.
All the same subject line. All the same message.
I don’t know if you can hear me. If you can do anything other than take on shapes, and mimic, and distort.
I don’t even know if you’re even paying attention to me, but I’ll say it all the same.
You will not make me despair; consume myself, destroy myself. You’ve done just the opposite. You’ve given me hope.
I will, I promise you, find a way out of this place.
Be with you again soon.