But what do I know, really?
I have read the single sheet of paper, procured through my old Grey Room colleagues at quite incredible expense, blacked out with so many bars of oily ink that it’s hard to get any sense from it beyond the abstract.
I know - if this one flimsy sheet is to be believed - that in the month of [redacted], you, the subject, were conspiring with [redacted] in some kind of plot against the governing body of [redacted] [redacted], that at the hour of [redacted] there was an assault upon [redacted], that a [redacted] number of conspirators were killed, that a [redacted] number of prisoners were taken.
Censorship tells its own stories. I can tell from the tiny square of black ink just how few were taken alive, and I can intuit what likely happened to them next.
I know that you, the subject, were found [redacted] yards from the scene, having presumably crawled, and that you were pronounced dead, either before or after they murdered you.
I have read that letter a hundred times. I have discarded it, vowed to keep it permanently folded and closed and unread in the corner of the lowest drawer of my desk a hundred times more.
The problem, my love, is that I can’t sustain the fact of your death.
I can convince myself that it’s true, force myself to picture your rotting, ruined face dumped in a mass grave somewhere out in the world…
...and then my phone buzzes and I’m still expecting an unexpected message from you, telling me which corner of the globe you’ve holed up in, the foods you’re eating, the card-players you’re outwitting.
I’m walking down the street and I realise I’m waiting for you to step out from out of the wings, from behind a column, to step out of a taxi, grinning and winking, just as you were before.
I don’t think this is grief, or loss, or coping. I simply don’t know if I believe in the permanence of the world as presented to me.
I don’t think I can trust any of this like I trusted you.
I dream, and I dream of your face, crawling with worms and split by a single bullet-hole that cracks and widens, spreading outwards in bloody streets and fleshy towers, rising up from out of the dust, gorgeous and vile and unstoppable-
I jolt awake in the passenger seat of Professor Henley’s battered, musty-smelling Volvo.
He gives me a strange look, almost an angry one.
‘Just dozing,’ I tell him, but he doesn’t reply.
The windscreen-wipers are squeaking asymmetrically back and forth, although it isn’t raining and there’s no condensation on the glass as far as I can see.
We’re parked on the roadside. Perhaps 500 metres away stands a concrete overpass, a half-finished bridge casting a single square of the carriageway into darkness.
‘There’s a better view from up on the hill,’ Professor Henley says, shortly, and gets out of the car.
We crouch in the heather all morning, passing the binoculars back and forth and sipping on coffee that grows increasingly cold and unpleasant as the hours draw on.
There is nothing remarkable about the overpass, save for its futility.
Every couple of hours, a lone van or motorcyclist roars along the empty road, vanishes for a second beneath the pass, and emerges again, its engines echoing in the stillness behind it, as it shrinks smaller and smaller into the far eastern horizon.
Professor Henley does not seem perturbed.
‘If this is the place, you’ll be able to see it in the shadows,’ he tells me, repeatedly. ‘You’ve got to watch for the shadows in the threshold, how they move, how they change…’
On the second day, I bring sandwiches and a small hip-flask, and a canvas tent to shelter us from the winds that blow across the plain.
This is, if the rumours are true, a place where people go missing.
On the third day, my companion asks me why I want to enter the city.
The question stops me dead. I have never once, up to this point, openly considered the possibility that I do want that.
But anything less now seems, it’s true, impossible; how could I back away from this? How could I dream of stepping away now that I’m so close?
Professor Henley watches me, a little smugly, from the depths of his anorak.
‘I was asked to find someone,’ I tell him, eventually. ‘A boy - the one who drew those sketches in the notebook. His mother was experiencing...peculiar things. I think she wanted me to bring him home.’
‘Is he still alive?’ Professor Henley asks.
‘Doubtful,’ I admit.
‘How much is she paying you for this rescue mission?’
I don’t answer that, and he snorts at me.
‘To seek out something hidden and dangerous or no reward, against all logic, throwing everything aside,’ he says, shaking his head, ‘That sounds like either an act of ultimate love or ultimate desperation.’
‘Perhaps it’s both,’ I tell him.
On the fourth day, we toss projectiles back and forth into the darkness beneath the overpass.
Sometimes our throws fall short. At other times our rotten branches and dented cans go skidding out into the road on the other side of the darkness.
‘What about you?’ I call out, after an hour of silent throwing and fetching. ‘Why do you want to get in?’
Professor Henley considers. Then he tosses a faded tennis ball as hard as he can.
‘When I was small,’ he said, ‘I had a haunted attic.’
I lower my stick and stare at him.
‘Funny,’ he adds, ‘I brought this up at a funeral decades later, and nobody had any idea what I was talking about, but I was quite certain that we’d all experienced it as a family. Perhaps most people shrug these things off.
It was a small, cramped attic, a two-feet by five-feet space of darkness and bent TV aerials and boxes with a hatch that could be opened up, if you stood on your tiptoes, and a metal ladder that extended down to the landing. Rat-a-tat-tat.
It began simply. We’d wake up in the morning, come out of our respective rooms, and the attic hatch would be open, and the ladder would have extended itself.
Dad would reach up and mutter something about the hinges, and he’d roll the ladder back up into the darkness.
But in the morning, the ladder would be back down, and the attic open.
My older sister thought that there was something living in the attic, some grotesque family of troglodytes with stringy hair and long nails, who were creeping down at night and climbing into bed with us and whispering bad thoughts to us as we slept.
Personally, I suspected the truth was rather different, and rather more disturbing; the attic wanted me to enter it.
Of the four of us, I was the only one who could not reach the attic door even with the aid of the chair. Of the four of us, I was the one whose bedroom was closest to the attic door, which faced the foot of my bed.
I was the only one small enough to fit inside without difficulty.
And, by the third week of the haunting, I was the only one who was woken, late at night, by the soft and soothing sound of the door swinging open and the ladder descending.
I don’t think I ever decided what was up there. But I understood instinctually, on the level that children comprehend such things, that if I stepped out of my bed at night, walked barefoot into the corridor, and climbed the ladder into the darkness above, I would be changed, or consumed, or transmuted...and I would not be coming back down again.
On the fourteenth week, I made my decision.
I waited until my family was sleeping, for the hands on my Mickey Mouse clock to pass midnight...and then I slipped out from under the covers, opened my door, and walked onto the landing.
The attic door was closed.
But then, with a gentle click, it unlatched, gravity swinging the lid violently down to hang like a victim from a noose, and I was staring up into the void of the darkness above, and the ladder descended to meet me.
Professor Henley stares out across the empty landscape.
‘That must have been fifty years ago or more,’ he says, ‘but I don’t think any horror waiting for me up there could have been worse than that moment...standing on the very precipice of something, gazing right into its maw with both eyes, unable to enter, unable to step away, until I thought I heard my father shift in his bedroom across the landing, and I crept back into my room and hid beneath the sheets, quaking and quivering.
That house was demolished back in 1983. I drove past the rubble, just to make sure. But that didn’t cure me, you understand? I still hear that sound, that rat-a-tat-tat, on sleepless nights.
A single missed opportunity has been calling out to me my whole life, and every waking moment since, I’ve felt unfinished.
I should have gone up there. I should have faced my destiny with open arms and open eyes, because even if you step away from it...its shadow never leaves you.
Perhaps in the darkness of this place, this other world that embraces the lonely and the lost, I’ll find the darkness of the attic.’
I throw the stick.
It passes into shadow, and rattles out the other side - just like all the others.
The longing to be destroyed, I think, is also a longing for resolution; for certainty, at the expense of transient flesh.
I wonder if you felt that certainty, as you crawled away from the noise and the screaming, as you felt the cold stub-barrel of a rifle press against the back of your head, as you heard laughter or curses and stared out into the night one last time.
‘And how long,’ Professor Henley says, very softly and with great bitterness, ‘how long has the city been calling out to you, my dear?’
I stop dead.
I’m not sure what to tell him. That I’ve been dreaming of splintered streets and rows of houses rising through skin like bone, every night I’ve spent in his company?
That I’ve felt something tugging at me, some inescapable draw, ever since I stepped into David’s bedroom?
That something’s been missing for a very long time before that.
I think something has always been missing, even before I knew it was you.
On the fifth day, we bring a dog, a wiry mongrel that would otherwise have been put down, and Professor Henley sets its cage down in the road with the door facing the overpass.
There are three hunks of scented, stinking meat lying in the mud beneath the threshold.
The cage door opens, and the dog trots cheerfully out to sniff at the tarmac, ignoring us entirely.
It urinates, idly, then trots a couple of steps in meandering pursuit of a bluebottle before it catches the scent of the bait in the wind.
It sniffs, turning its head towards the overpass.
I half-expect it to bolt, or rear back on its hind legs and howl.
Instead it pauses, licking its tongue across its lips and snout, and then trots unhurriedly down the road and beneath the bridge.
That’s when the shadows change.
Shifting imperceptibly from one side of the bleak concrete wall to the other, as if the sun has skipped a beat.
For an instant, I think I can hear rain smattering on the tarmac.
Beside me, I hear Professor Henley shout,
‘It’s there! It is there!’ and then he’s lurching forward, half-walking and half-running, his binoculars swinging violently from his chest as he dashes beneath the bridge.
I don’t follow him. I realise only later that I’m flinching back involuntarily, as if I’m expecting a bomb to go off.
He runs into the darkness beneath the overpass, his feet splashing in the mud, the dog skittering anxiously away from him and around him - and his arms are outstretched, as if he’s waiting to be embraced.
The shadows lurch, and skip - and pass over him as he runs.
The sound of rain dissipates.
And Professor Henley has come to a halt, quite still in the sunlight just on the other side of the bridge, his back turned to me, his shoulders bowed.
I approach, carefully.
As I get closer, the shadows beneath the bridge begin to broil again, merging and forming into something different and new, the noise of the rain rising and pounding, sudden dampness trickling down my cheeks and my jacket-
-but I skirt around the overpass, stepping into the gorse and over the tarmac road to one side, and the noise quietens once more, and it has never been raining.
‘Professor,’ I say, as gently as I can.
He’s shivering, his eyes wide and hollow, his fists clenched into tight balls. The dog dances happily back and forth around his ankles, treating this all as some hugely entertaining game.
‘Professor,’ I repeat.
He doesn’t look at me.
‘Why not me?’ he says softly. ‘Why does it want you, and not me? It haunts me...it follows me wherever I go...it takes everything from me. But it won’t let me in.’
His shoulders begin to quake. He’s sobbing, silently and violently, choking out the words,
‘Why not me? Why not me? Why not me?’
I lay a hand on his shoulder, which he seems to take as a sympathetic or at least a steadying gesture - and we stand there together in the quiet, gazing out over the wasted countryside.
The following morning, I wake on the sofa of the Professor’s rancid apartment to find that I’ve been abandoned.
A small stack of local money has been left for me, along with a compass, a water flask, and the keys to the car. The dog, too, has gone.
The scrawled note on the table has a particular air of finality to it.
It reads, simply,
May each of us find the one thing we’re looking for.
I sit at the table and think about that for a while.
Then I set a fire in the stove and go about burning the tapes and papers.
It’s past midday by the time I park the car in the deserted road, in front of the overpass.
There are seven heavy cans of white paint in the trunk.
I take one out, hang it from the back of the car with a bungee cord, and pierce the base with my penknife.
The paint oozes out, forming a thick white trail behind the car.
When I had the idea, I was thinking of Ariadne in the labyrinth, creating a path through dangerous and impossible spaces with nothing more than a roll of twine.
I have no idea if it will do any good.
Also in the trunk is a hunting rifle, second-hand but clean and functional, purchased at no great expense from a shabby purveyor of the semi-legal.
I am certain that this will *not* do any good, but I feel comforted knowing that it’s there.
I get back inside the car, and place both my hands on the engine.
The bridge stands before me, strangely tall and towering, the shadows flickering and twisting.
Behind me, in the rear-view mirror, is...nothing. The plains. The cities. The lives without purpose, the world that wiped you from its surface.
It’s beginning to rain.
Carefully, with one shaking hand, I reach up and turn the wipers on.
I press my foot against the accelerator.
And I drive.