Me again. I just got off my flight.
I don’t know where you are. I do know your work takes you to every country on the planet. So perhaps you’re standing in this dingy, brown-panelled airport, quite by chance.
Perhaps I’ll spot you, quite by chance . You’ll be standing in the lounge, gazing out of the windows, your face reflected darkly in bright glass, and I’ll run across to meet you, and as you turn you’ll say to me…
...I don’t know. Something that reconnects us. Something that explains away the fact that you haven’t called, or texted, in seventeen weeks. Something that returns me to the place where it was just you, and me, together and united against a hostile world.
Something comforting, and kind, and explicable, that I can hold on to.
As I was saying.
I was telling you that I’d agreed - more than a little foolishly - to help a grieving mother find her long-vanished son who is most certainly dead.
And now, the following morning I find myself staring once again at a frankly bizarre YouTube video, and I can no longer trust the walls of my apartment to stay in one place.
I feel as if I might be going insane. And there’s a word in my head, spinning around and around, and I don’t know what it means.
The first step I take, right after a strong cup of coffee, is to call the person responsible for infecting me with all of this.
The landline phone rings twice; and then Mrs Ward picks up.
There’s a shrill hum around the edges of her voice, making it difficult to catch every word - but I can still hear the split second of excitement in her tone before I speak.
A split second of possibility, if not probability, that I might be David.
‘It’s me,’ I tell her, and you can hear the disappointment creep into the silence.
‘Are you dropping the case?’ she asks. ‘I’ll understand if you are. I just didn’t want to-‘
‘I’m not dropping anything,’ I say. ‘But I saw a word on the back of David’s door...I wondered if it was a reference to someone he knew, or a place where he’d been. Just one word.
I feel suddenly transgressive, even guilty, for saying the word out loud, as if I’m betraying someone’s secret, but then she begins to repeat it.
‘Eskew. Eskew. Eskew. It’s funny - I’ve never seen that written anywhere in David’s room, but I feel as if I might have heard it...perhaps in one of his sketchbooks?’
Sketchbooks? I ask.
‘Oh,’ she says, a little defensively. ‘David had a hard time when he was younger. They asked him to keep sketchbooks, to channel his creativity. He was always drawing maps.’
‘Of made-up places,’ she says. ‘You know. Fantasied.’
I tell her that I’d be very interested to see these sketchbooks, and she goes to fetch them from the attic.
I wait, listening to the shocking noise of the static, staring at the fresh paint across my bedroom door.
I begin to think that I’ve been forgotten, when the phone clunks and hisses and Mrs Ward tells me,
‘Such a pity. The moths must have got to them. The pages...they’re all filled with holes.’
I sit, and drink my coffee, and watch the YouTube video again.
On a second viewing, it feels subtly different- or perhaps I’m just picking up on signs I was too oblivious to notice before.
The young man is clearly presenting to a board-room filled with people. Whatever is playing out on his projector screen is an illustration or example of his technique.
And the screen judders occasionally, at a very slight angle, as if this is being filmed by someone who should not be filming.
Then the presentation ends - and the host is startled, even horrified, by the reaction he’s caused.
There’s something else, too.
After the final slide, in the very corner of the projector screen, and half-concealed by the presenter’s wildly waving hands, is a logo or watermark.
You’re going to tell me I’ve forgotten everything we were taught together. You’ll mock me for my excellent detective work - noticing the critical detail after the video has spent just eight hours in my possession.
Well, I’ve changed with the years. Perhaps I have grown slower, and duller, since you knew me - just as I hope you’ve grown.
And it’s the strangest thing, because the logo is one you may remember too.
The Orion Building Concern.
Do you remember the Orion Building Concern?
Did they make an impression on you back then, as they did on me, or was it just another rich old man praising you for your willingness to put your own life and morals at deadly risk for the benefit of the other rich old men who claimed to be representative of our adopted country?
You’d already made up your mind to quit the programme by then. I...was still on the fence.
I needed a cause to strive towards, more than you.
I think I still do.
Back then, the Concern was simply called Orion, and they were the government’s secret architects of war.
It was an aspect to invasion that I’d simply never considered.
That you can attack a city, bomb its palaces and homes, and then rebuild it according to specifications that suit your needs, to the tiniest detail.
Alleyways leading up to the seat of government that go nowhere and stray into dead ends.
Communal meeting places where your voices echo into nonsense and you don’t like to linger for too long.
Their spokesman - what was he called? Doctor something. Doctor Henley or Doctor Hancock.
He spoke proudly of something called a weaponised environment, and urged us to keep Orion’s work in mind during our long and surely profitable careers.
These places have been with us since the beginning of time, he said. So-called haunted houses.
The rooms where we step inside, and shiver, and quite impulsively we can’t wait to get out, because something - the dimensions, the acoustics - is so horribly wrong to us that we cannot bear to exist within it.
We can build a cell consisting of exactly the right length and width and angles to elicit a response of horror and absolute despair in its inhabitant.
Why does it never occur to us that the same might be possible in the construction of a street…or a village...or a town?
I think that might have been the moment I realised that the great project of foreign affairs was not for me.
That was when I knew I’d rather be just another dope within society, manipulated by invisible forces, by carefully-built laws and walls and ceilings, than a low-level manipulator standing outside of it and clinging to my superior, cynical knowledge.
I think I came to meet you in the staff cafe and made some bold statement about the choice we all have to make, between being the puppet or the puppeteer.
And that was when you told me you were getting out.
You weren’t ready to ask me to come with you. Not quite yet.
But that was when I first began to suspect that I had it in me to love you.
I still have contacts in the Grey Room - one or two. Does that surprise you?
I was always a little clumsier than you...or perhaps a little more trusting.
I fetch the black phone book down from its shelf, to arrange a meeting with the woman I’ll call J, who conducts crisis communications - call it damage control - for the Grey Room.
I open up the hard cover, and that’s when I see the holes in the paper, perfectly circular and ranging from the miniscule to the size of a fingerprint, drilling down from top to bottom.
The phonebook is scarred. Infected.
I take down another book, and another, and each one has been eaten away, filled with a warren of searching tunnels.
It’s the moths, I tell myself. The moths have got to everything.
Two days later, J comes to meet me in a cafe just off the South Bank.
She’s dressed like a student; baggy top and large glasses, her hair mussed. Just chic enough to be an outfit choice, just careful enough to be a disguise.
She looks pissed; perhaps at the situation, more than at me.
It took some persuading to make her agree to meet with me; outright blackmail to persuade her to talk to me about the Orion Building Concern.
It comes as a surprise, then, that I don’t need to get her drunk to get her talking, now that we’re face to face.
Perhaps she believes my story that this is all coming out in a Guardian expose in three weeks’ time. Perhaps she’s just lonely here in the city, and desperate to share her burden with someone.
‘I thought we’d shaken the Orion stink,’ she tells me, once we have our coffees. ‘You know how you watch a lie get buried, and you know in your heart that it’s going to be found out some day...but as time passes, the details just slip away from you? And it’s always when you’ve finally forgotten that your fear is proven right.’
‘There’s no scandal,’ I tell her. ‘Not yet, anyway. It’s only me...and you know I possess a great deal of personal discretion.’
J gives me a long, appraising look.
‘About three years after you left the programme,’ she says. ‘When was that - 2013? That was when they finally gave Orion what they’d been asking for. Their very own testing environment.’
She sips her latte.
‘A patch of land a few miles wide,’ she tells me, ‘out in the Scottish Highlands somewhere. That was where they built their village.
A village where the dimensions, the angles, the echoes of every sound, were supposed to make it so you couldn’t stand to be there. They called it Banwell. Just one of those silly place names, it didn’t mean anything.’
It did mean something, I think. Banwell translates to Poison Water.
J gives me a suddenly worried look.
‘And that was when they started bussing people in,’ she says, picking over her words with caution. ‘Gave everyone a home, and a job. Criminals, some of them, but...families, as well. Roma. People from Yarl’s Wood. The undocumented.’
And I feel a great and savage coldness rising up in me.
Of course they did.
The bastards, of course they did.
J says, with a sudden unnerving calm,
‘You have to understand, they thought that at worst the test subjects would just come running back out, screaming their heads off. And in a best-case scenario, well, it turns out the environment has no impact on them, and everyone can stay.’
‘What happened to the people?’ I ask. My voice is hoarse.
J shakes her head.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I promise- if I knew, I’d tell you. We have tapes of the first few days. Just people, in the town, going about their business. Children playing.
‘And then at a certain point, the security footage just went dead.
We could still see the people in Banwell, through our lenses, on the satellite footage. They were standing up, in the streets and in the gardens, but they weren’t moving around any more.
‘And then...gradually...there were fewer and fewer of them. The observers didn’t even notice at first. It was always out of the corner of your eye, on the edge of the photograph. Men. Women. Children. Vanishing. Until we couldn’t see anything but street lamps and empty pavements.
I watch my old comrade very carefully.
‘So they sent people in,’ I prompt her.
She reaches for her latte. Her hand is shaking.
‘A few trackers at first,’ she says. ‘Then a squad of Royal Marines who’d been stationed nearby. Then...then more troops, jeepfuls of troops...and they all went in, but they never came back out.
‘Eventually they got the message and stopped sending people. I think they tried using pigeons, briefly. Dogs with tracking collars. They entered the town, then the collars stopped moving. I’m not sure the dogs were still attached to them, frankly.’
J drains her latte like it’s vodka.
‘Anyway,’ she concludes, ‘that was the end of the project. Four weeks later, we were told to produce a press statement declaring that all government and military contracts with Orion had been declared void, effective immediately.’
‘And the town - Banwell - was wiped off the map,’ I presumr.
‘As far as I know,’ she says. ‘It takes a lot to put these bastards off their supper, Riyo. You know that as well as anyone. But whatever happened at Banwell...it shocked them.’
She seems to have a sudden, unpleasant thought.
‘I can trust you with this, can’t I, Riyo?’ she asks. ‘No leaked sources when this hits the papers, no trail leading back to me. You’re one of us, after all.’
The strange thing is, she actually seems to mean it.
I try to call Mrs Ward next.
I want to tell her that she was right to contact me. That something bizarre and orchestrated has been happening to her, might have happened to her son…
...even if I still don’t fully understand what it is. Even if it doesn’t make sense yet.
There’s vindication in that, for a lonely woman in a careless city, looking for something to cling to.
Her phone goes to voicemail twice.
Nothing for it. I hail a taxi.
I remember when we were first together, you asked me about my name.
Riyo, I said, means dream. Because when I was born, I wouldn’t open my eyes. I wouldn’t cry. I was healthy, just...self-contained.
As if I was reluctant to join the real world, my mother told me, and set my life in motion.
You, rather sweetly, said that the name was appropriate for someone who looked like a dream come to life.
You could be quite cute, back then.
I feel as if I’m slipping into a dream. And I’m not quite sure if this ends with me waking up.
This is not my home. This city, this country, this place of fake towns and bloody experiments...has never been my home.
But if I’m not with you, I don’t know where home is supposed to be.
The lift is dark, and immobile.
I run up the tenement staircase to Mrs Ward’s flat on the fourteenth floor.
I walk the concrete stairwell, turning my narrative over in my head, trying to think of a way I can explain this to her.
And I stop. Because I’m looking at something so awful and bizarre that I simply can’t get my head around it.
Mrs Ward’s door is pocked with holes. Gnawing, imperfectly-circular holes, large and small. Like something’s eaten away at it.
It’s the moths, I think stupidly. The moths get to everything - and I almost laugh aloud in my confusion.
The lock has been eaten away; the door opens without resistance, onto a hallway that’s only partly there, because the moths have got to the walls, and the floor, and the ceiling, and water is sluicing down from above and pooling out into the holes in the carpet.
I walk, slowly, splashing with every step.
The moths have got to the kitchen. There’s a nasty smell of gas, and the fridge door hangs ajar, scored with gruesome round holes.
The moths have got to Mrs Ward.
The holes - or perhaps I should think of them as tunnels - pass through her spine, her limbs, her face. One eye has gone entirely, an empty doorway of flesh. Light is shimmering through from the back of her head.
Her lower jaw has disappeared into her throat, where it meets and merges with other tributary tunnels passing up through her ribs and shoulders and back.
She’s sitting at the kitchen table . One palm rests on the plastic; both surfaces holed out by a single circle.
It feels, in the strangest way, as if I’m looking at a map; a three-dimensional model. A woman who’s become a hive.
It takes me about thirty seconds to find David’s sketchbooks, a stack of Moleskine notebooks in a carrier bag, and sweep them up into my satchel.
A minute or two more to get back to the ground floor, turn the corner, and leave the apartment behind.
I have a couple of hours before the residents in the flats surrounding Mrs Ward’s come home to discover the tunnels.
Perhaps a day for the police to go through her phone records, and see our correspondence.
It’s possible that they’d believe me. If this goes no further than the Metropolitan police, I can show them I was with J all afternoon.
But if this gets back to the Grey Room...I’d rather not find out what happens next.
That was when I realised it was time to follow in your footsteps, my love - and leave the UK behind for good.
I’m out of time. I’ll call you again soon.
I’ll *be* with you again soon.