We are attending a funeral.
Neither Allegra nor I can be precisely certain who’s died, nor is the nature of our relationship with them clear.
But it was unspeakably tragic, we both agree, a real loss, especially in one so young or so talented or leaving behind so very many children.
The mourning clothes are already hanging in my cupboard, neatly ironed and wrapped in rustling laundry plastic, ready to be worn.
As we dress, there’s that curious sense of inappropriate giddiness that’s specific to a funeral; the childish excitement of a day spent wearing all black and meeting new people and committing to the peculiar, silent ceremony of it all. The quiet fear that we might not be feeling as much, or as deeply, as we ought to be - are we psychopaths? Is everyone a psychopath? Does grief exist at all, and do we know anyone whose absence might truly cause us to feel it?
I cook bacon and eggs for breakfast, and the bacon is just crisp enough.
We get off the tram near the base of the hill, sheltering under our umbrellas, and begin the slippery and winding climb through the crumbling tenements until we’re out in the open air, walking amongst the quiet dead, and heading towards the church standing alone amongst the silver birch trees.
The Anglerman’s Cemetery has been artfully composed using fragments of coral, old sea shells, and other detritus of the ocean floor, presumably to honour the fishermen who were once buried here.
It gives the space an oddly ruinous, primeval feeling, as if these walls and tombs had somehow lurched up from the depths of the sea itself, a very long time ago.
The other mourners look just like us; gathered around the entrance to the chapel, in black beneath black umbrellas - must an umbrella be in mourning? - anxiously shaking each other’s hands and expressing condolences and telling each other how unspeakably tragic it is to lose someone so youthful, or ambitious, or contented.
There are some Eskovian funeral traditions I still don’t understand.
I know that there are some societies that bury the worst of their dead face-down, or with an elder stake through their heart, to prevent them from rising.
I’ve never heard of a city that buries its dead in concrete before.
And as for the tradition of the open casket, it seems macabre enough during the ceremony, but even stranger when the deceased is carried in her coffin up the cemetery hill, with her hair whipping about in the wind and her eyes wide open as she smiles at each of us in turn and instructs us to bury her, bury her deep.
We do our best to ignore her, although it becomes difficult once we’re crammed into the church and she begins joining in with all of our hymns.
Afterwards, the pall-bearers stoop to lift her casket, some of them visibly sobbing with emotion as they carry her out down the aisle and through the threshold, as the dead woman tells us, softly and happily,
‘Bury me. Bury me deep.’
It’s when we’re gathered over the open grave beneath our umbrellas that whatever has gone wrong here starts to spread. Several pairs of mourners begin breaking off from the grave to form their own funerals elsewhere in the cemetery, one mourner grabbing a shovel and hefting dirt onto the body and face of the other mourner, who lies flat on a patch of unoccupied grass and blissfully repeats the familiar refrain,
‘Bury me. Bury me deep.’
And then all at once the remaining mourners, and the priest himself, are overwhelmed by the furiousness of their need to be buried, and they’re kicking off their shoes and leaping into the open grave, lying across one another, kicking and scratching as they vie for space-
Allegra and I leave them to it.
On the crest of the hill, in an empty garden of graves creeping with coral and wet lichen, we find ourselves a place to sit and pass her hip-flask filled with schnapps back and forth between us, staring out over the magnitude of Eskew.
‘We should drive out to the flats outside the city,’ Allegra says, softly. ‘On a weekend. Whenever we can make time. You never know, there might be something out there.’
I say nothing.
I’m trying to turn my gaze towards the great ruined dome and needle-spire of the cathedral, overlooking the river, standing at the highest point of Eskew.
From the corner of my eye, it looks like a half-eaten hard boiled egg, or a face that’s been caved in: something vague and fleshy and spoilt.
But when I try to look directly at it, my eyes seem to stray right past it, until I’m looking into the empty sky on the other side of the broken dome.
The guide-books and maps mark it only with a single anonymous X. It’s never described, and never explained.
From this distance, you could almost reach out and touch it.
Beside me, Allegra sweeps back her hair. Her eyes are on the cathedral too now.
‘I think I want to tell you,’ she says, hesitantly, ‘I think I want to tell you the story of how I came here.’
It begins on a train.
Your friends are sleeping beside you and across from you in the cramped compartment, their enormous rucksacks piled around their knees, their earbuds emitting a jangly, soft cacophony of clashing musical genres.
You are watching the grey countryside flashing past you through the window.
You are supremely disappointed in this continent, in the grand and famous cities you’ve stopped in at, the grim monotony of the halls and galleries and cathedrals, the relentless similarity of the raves you’ve attended and the drugs you’ve taken and the local boys who’ve leered at you with easy confidence and the local men who’ve leered at you with something like hatred.
It almost feels as if all cities are the same city.
As if beneath the tourists’ noticeboards and the restaurants and deep, meaningful local histories, there’s something else, half-submerged and universal, threading its way malevolently from place to place, already waiting for you as soon as you arrive.
Your friends don’t understand what you’re talking about. They laugh and call you homesick, or parochial, and as you shake your head and try to explain that your home is infested with the same sickness as well, they all gaze patiently at you, the friend you once slept with and have grown to despise, the wealthy friend who refuses to speak a single word of any other language who you are trying so hard not to despise, the calm and cool friend who fits in wherever you go, charming waiters and getting the very best prices from hosteliers, who you strongly suspect has grown to despise you for your strangeness, your coldness, your lack of ease in any place or amongst any people.
You are so very disappointed in your friends, as well; in the unfulfilled promise of them.
They give you funny looks, you’re certain. You suspect that they’ve begun to whisper about you behind your back, as well.
You thought travelling with them would make you feel as if you had a family. Instead, you’re alone in a crowd of four.
All at once, the train slows, and stalls.
An indecipherable crackle of a voice speaks in multiple languages over the tannoy. The driver is changing, or something is changing, and you’ll be held here for a short while.
Your friends do not wake up. The view outside your window is curiously blank; a grey hedge, a grey field, a single withered tree half-concealed in wet morning mist.
You feel as if it’s a view you’ve been watching over and over again, as if the train has somehow failed to progress over the past seventeen hours, but has locked itself into the same dreary, repeating loop of faceless countryside.
You get to your feet, hesitating slightly before leaving your rucksack in the compartment with the three slumbering bodies.
It isn’t that you aren’t frightened about thieves, on this lonely train, in this uncharted territory. It’s more that you want to create the feeling that you’re shedding the skin of this awful, endless trip, leaving behind everything associated with it, if only briefly.
The train is shuddering beneath you at intervals, hot and thick and mechanical, like it’s struggling for breath.
You step out of the compartment, into the deserted corridor, and at the very end you come to the heavy automatic door, and when you press the flashing light-up button the door moans and grinds before swinging slowly to one side, permitting a wheeze of freezing air to enter.
You pass through the threshold.
The concrete platform is long, stretching out beyond both the front and rear of the train, making a mockery of the rickety waystation office that perches in the very centre.
Nobody else seems to have left the train.
The waystation, as you walk your way around it, has three doors, each painted in green. Enquiries, Waiting Room, and a single unisex toilet.
All of them are locked with a heavy padlock and chain.
There’s an electronic arrivals board underhanging the waystation roof, but it appears to be busted; the destinations keep mutating, shifting back and forth through nonsensical arrangements of semi-recognisable letters and numbers and symbols that make no sense at all.
You also find a vending machine, but the packeted foods and canned drinks inside the greasy glass look curiously unappetising, their logos and names composed more of twisting shapes than words, as if they’d been designed by algorithm and not by any kind of human intercession.
As you turn back, you realise - there’s a man standing at the end of the platform.
A figure, at this distance, rather than a man. Dressed all in black, as if for a funeral, and tilting a black umbrella aloft to the empty sky.
You approach him, carefully moving alongside the stationary train, trying to catch his eye.
He keeps staring blankly forward, an empty grin upon his face, which is wrinkled beneath an old-fashioned bowler hat, his eyes alive and bright and glinting, not so much the lined face of an older man as a face that seems to have been contorted and massaged into its current shape by some unknown force of nature.
‘Hello…?’ you begin.
Then, ‘Excuse me?’
Then, ‘I’m sorry for my bad words, please, do you speak Italian or English?’
You address him in every language you know, and with every kind of politeness that you know, but he won’t turn to look at you.
You feel as if he’s insulting you. Or trying to frighten you, by refusing to acknowledge your presence.
The train whistle blows, and that’s your excuse to let this go.
You turn and stalk away, offering beneath your breath in your own tongue,
‘It isn’t even raining, stupid.’
From behind you, the man says,
‘It’s raining where I am.’
You stop. Glance back.
The man’s grin is sharper. His face harder to focus upon clearly.
‘It’s raining where I am,’ the man says, without moving his lips. ‘Soon it’ll be raining where you are, too.’
Then he turns, sharply, and holds the umbrella outstretched as if he wants you to take it.
That’s enough for you.
You stalk away across the platform to the very nearest carriage door, hammer your fist against the button, and haul yourself up into the train as soon as it opens.
As the engines roar into life and the platform begins to grind away past the carriage windows, you catch a brief glimpse of the umbrella, still held aloft, and a vague and grinning figure beneath it.
You move through the identical and deserted corridors of the train until you find your compartment and stagger inside.
Your friends are all still sleeping, their music still playing, their heads tilted affectionately against each other’s shoulders.
As you take your place on the empty seat across from them, you begin to think about how you could recast your strange encounter upon the platform, telling it as a funny traveller’s story - oh my God, you guys, the weirdest old man I just ran into on the platform, a real old-world eccentric, and I totally thought I was about to be murdered-
-but the words curdle even as you silently assemble them in your head, and you feel suddenly certain that they would not understand.
It is beginning to rain now. Thin needles of water spatter the compartment window, at an angle.
Perhaps you don’t have to spend the next three weeks with them. Perhaps you can exchange your tickets, take a different route, strike out on your own.
Perhaps, without them, the destination will be different.
You sit in silence for a moment, and then lean forward to rummage in your rucksack.
You open up the hood of the bag, and then the special zipped-up compartment where your tickets, and your passport, and your money reside.
The rain hardens, and builds.
At first you think you’ve made a mistake.
At first you think you’ve chosen someone else’s rucksack, but, no, this is your rucksack with the blue hood and the bottle of Coke in the side pocket and your clothes neatly folded inside.
This is your rucksack with the special zipped-up compartment that’s packed tightly with the stuffing of ripped-up banknotes, of torn train tickets, of your passport, in shreds, a mere scrap of your eyes and cheeks staring up at you from the chaff that was so important, that had so much value, but is now...paper.
You leap to your feet, and shout a single frantic syllable.
Your friends do not stir from their sleep. And they look so comfortable, so blissful, as if they’ve earnt this rest, and you almost start to imagine that you can see their lips curling into malicious grins, that they’re awake after all, only pretending to sleep, watching to see you discover their hilarious prank, and once they’ve all had a good laugh, you’re certain, they’ll get up at your stop and leave you behind, continuing on their marvellous adventure without you.
You stand over them: murderous, furious, utterly paralysed, trembling with your fists clenched.
When you speak, at last, it’s a hiss that only you can hear:
‘How could you...how could you...how could you…’
They don’t wake up. The one you once slept with is snoring convulsively.
And that’s when you decide to take action while you can, strike back against the two girls and one boy who you’d thought cared about you.
You’ll take their money, take their tickets, and leave them behind. If they thought they could abandon you...they’re about to be outsmarted.
They won’t catch you. They won’t ever catch you.
You crouch down, reaching for the nearest rucksack, and unzip it.
It’s full of water.
The clothes stuffed messily inside are sodden, wet right through, as if the rain has been pouring into the rucksack itself, and where the linen has been soaked, it’s somehow gone wrong, contorting and merging, forming a many-armed mangled beast of jeans and jumper and socks.
You stare at it, bemusedly.
‘What the hell,’ a voice says from above you. ‘Allegra, what the hell are you doing?’
Your friend stares down at you. His tone is hard, and accusatory, and as he gets to his feet, your other two friends stir, opening their eyes dozily as he snatches the mass of spoiled cloth from you and holds it aloft.
‘It’s...it’s ruined,’ he whispers. ‘What did you do, Allegra?’
The others are on their feet, standing beside him.
‘She looks crazy,’ one of your friends says.
‘She doesn’t look right,’ another of your friends says. ‘What were you doing to his bag, Allegra?’
‘My bag, too,’ the other of your friends says. She’s stooping over it, tugging at the drawstring. ‘Everything’s soaked. Everything’s stuck together. Is this some kind of joke?’
‘She doesn’t look like it’s some kind of joke,’ one of your friends says. ‘She looks like she meant it.’
You begin to protest, stammering out the first words of either a counter-accusation (that your bag was attacked first, that one of them ruined your tickets, your identity, your everything) or else a distraction (that someone else must surely be responsible for all of this, that we’re all victims and united as victims)...
...but the tannoy buzzes and a voice calls out something obscure and a little peculiar about your destination, and your words are swallowed.
Your friends stand over you, picking through their ruined clothes, talking at you and about you.
We should never have let her come.
I don’t understand. I just don’t understand why.
There’s something the matter with you, Allegra.
And the driving rain thickens and solidifies into a roar of sound and the countryside sweeps into the blackness of a tunnel, and you yell out,
‘I hate you, I hate you all, you’re all the same, you’re not human- I wish I was alone here.’
Your friends are staring down at you, their faces curiously illuminated by the carriage lights, surrounded by darkness.
The sound of the rain, strangely, has not ceased.
It’s become such a persistent, even comfortable sound that it takes you a moment to register that it should no longer be audible...nor should the first droplets be falling upon your shoe and your shoulders and streaming down your face.
It’s raining inside the compartment.
You look back up into your friends’ faces, hoping for a shared moment of bafflement or confusion, some small signal that, in this, at least, you’re all seeing and hearing the very same things.
You don’t get it.
Your friends’ expressions do not alter. Their eyes remain fixed furiously upon yours, as if to say that this, too, is all your fault, all of this is your fault, as the raindrops spatter their faces and their skin ripples and splits beneath each stroke of water, their shoulders falling into one another, their heads caving into their necks and throats, converging into a single pear-drop mass of flesh and yawning, widening faces, and then a puddle that’s thick and spreading like an awful ruddy-pink glacier pocked with nails and teeth and glaring eyes, moving fast towards your boots until you yell out and lunge backwards, up onto the safety of the compartment seat.
Your friends merge and liquefy, becoming one another, becoming something else, becoming the rain that floods the carpeted floor of the carriage, leaving behind their soaked and drifting clothes, their boots that stand alone and unoccupied in the water like the stumps of petrified trees.
You remain up there, clinging to your perch, mewling and gasping, whispering their names as a plea not so much to them as to whatever might have taken them away from you.
The rain persists, fleeting down your face and damping your hair over your shoulders without further consequence.
You don’t begin to wonder then whether ou might have been chosen by something, or for something. You don’t permit yourself any smug notions that you were allowed to pass through...something unharmed.
There’s only the awful lack of comprehension, the monstrous humiliation of being a newborn again, exposed to something that you cannot understand and that cannot be fathomed...and the guilt that whatever happened to your friends, it could not happen to you as well.
Presently, the tannoy sounds again, to announce your destination.
It’s the first time you hear that word.
The train is beginning to slow, and suddenly there’s light in the window, and the broadening metal wall of a tunnel framed by wires, and a thick poster that rolls into view, featuring the beaming face of a woman, spooning something that looks like yoghurt into her mouth.
The words above her head are in English, but do not make sense together.
The rain seems to have stopped.
You can’t remember how long you remain crouched there on the seat, but you do remember the sudden giggling fit of laughter that spreads over you as you realise that you cannot stay like this forever, that nobody is going to come for you and resolve the situation, that sooner or later you must get up and walk through the swirling water of your friends to see what’s waiting for you out there.
You laugh, and laugh, and shout things like,
‘Fine, then, all right, screw it,’ and remain on the seat for one moment longer, just another moment, until finally enough is enough and you slap your thighs and scramble to your feet, grabbing your rucksack and splashing through the horrid water out into the corridor, to the heavy automatic doors of the carriage.
The lit-up button works, just as before.
The door opens; and you stagger out, dropping feebly onto your knees upon a platform that’s filled with umbrella men.
Their identical faces blank and grinning; their hats tilted back against their shining white foreheads. Their umbrellas glinting and mechanical, hinged-spider legs supporting a web of black canvas.
You step back, tottering weakly, but then they’re already on you and past you, filing sleekly and uniformly into the carriage like flowing water, one after the other, an impossible procession of silent umbrella men packing themselves into the train, faster and faster, and as the last one slips on the whistle blows and the automatic door slams and the train is reversing back out of the platform, impossibly fast and unstoppable, whirling away and, in a heartbeat, gone entirely.
You remain where you are, kneeling and sobbing on the empty platform.
Caught up in the draught of the rushing train, a single broken black umbrella dances and hops across the concrete towards you, coming to a skidding halt just a few feet before you.
It feels like an invitation.
In the days to come, other things will be provided for you; a job and a flat and friends to call your own.
But you’ll never forget that first morning, here in the underground tunnels of the Central Station, in Eskew.
The funeral has just about wrapped up.
Those still desperate to be buried have found themselves a plot in the Anglerman’s Cemetery, or else claimed one of the older graves for themselves, lying flat in position with the soil caking their beaming faces.
The priest has given up, or fled, or buried himself.
Allegra turns very slightly from the city, glittering before us.
I know her eyes are on me, but I don’t know what she expects me to say. I think she wants me to tell my own story, to explain how I came to be here and the broken little man I am now, to share with her who I knew and what I loved…
...but what is all of that, in the face of Eskew? How could I speak of such things, without infecting them with everything that my life has become?
After a moment, she gets to her feet.
‘I understand if you can’t talk about this yet,’ she says. ‘Really, I do. But I trust you, David. And if you wait too long to trust me, this place is going to warp you, or warp me, and it’ll be too late for either of us. So please...don’t wait too long.’
She leaves me then, alone on the grass of the hill, sitting beneath a rain so gentle and indistinct that you could almost convince yourself it was about to end.
Be with you again soon.