I have escaped…
...in a sense.
My apartment is no longer mine. My possessions are long gone. Any other objects or connections that may at one time have belonged to me must, I assume, have been passed on to my successor.
I can hear him from the lit places beyond the darkness of my crawlspace, calling imperiously to his children and sparring wittily with his partner.
They all sound happy.
He sounds better at this than I ever was.
He’s a fool to announce his plans out loud, though, not here, not in Eskew, because I can hear him responding to the complaints about the hideous scratching from beyond the walls with at first denial, then scepticism, and finally a grudging agreement to call in the fumigators.
By the time they come, before they even have a chance to put up their polythene walls to entrap me, before the gas makes its hissing entrance into the dark and cramped places where I reside, I have found my exit; prised back the boards, scratched a path through the plaster, scurried out into a bedroom and a hall that I do not recognise, darting between their legs as they cry out and swat at me, their pesticidal masks glinting ferociously like anteaters snouts, through the open window and scuttling down the wall and into the streets of Eskew.
When I was a child and in London, I’d walk to school past an old, unkempt churchyard; just a low stone wall and a grassy sanctuary of mossy stones and monuments, its boundaries pushing back against the terraces on all sides. A clear, empty, gentle place.
At the far end of the churchyard, hidden behind the corner beyond the chapel itself, stood a heavy, long monument, almost a sarcophagus, a memoriam to a faded name. And the shadows behind the monument were cool, and sheltered from the wind and the rain.
If everything falls apart, I’d tell myself, if I find myself with no home and no place to go, I’ll come here, and claim my hidden space behind the sarcophagus, and be safe.
Here in Eskew it isn’t quite as simple.
I can’t seem to find my way back to anything.
I must have tried to reach Allegra’s apartment on foot a hundred times. Travelling by landmarks, repeating the name of the street under my breath so I don’t forget it.
But my old haunts, the places where they knew me, no longer seem to be quite where I thought they were. The streets are winding in new directions, planting unfamiliar signs and shop fronts and faces that do not know me with every step I take.
Taxis refuse to take me. Maps don’t show nearly enough, or else the tacky fonts resolve themselves into phrases and insults that explicitly question my sanity.
And every corner I stumble upon that might be inhabitable for an evening, every nook of space between the jutting walls of implacable concrete and brick and glass, is already occupied by bodies.
Or...not bodies, I suppose, not necessarily bodies.
Thick coats, and bobble-hats, and sleeping bags, surrounded by the debris of a life without home. Their backs turned to me. Whatever’s beneath...ebbing, and stirring in fitful sleep, and if I step too close and murmur,
Then the coat begins to stir and struggle and a hand slips out from beneath the quilting and another hand tugging sleepily at the woollen hat, and all of a sudden there are too many hands reaching out from beneath the coat, grimy hands on starvation-thin arms that crook at the elbows but just keep going and going, like a daddy long-legs picking its way out across a bedroom ceiling, rearing up to pursue me-
Food is plentiful out here, at least.
Outside the restaurants and markets and hotels are wheeliebins crammed with unopened packets of biscuits, discarded tins, entire rotisserie chickens, their skin heavy with debris.
I do not understand why the city would produce so much only to throw it away; perhaps there are those amongst us who only eat when there are others there to watch.
This carelessness is a blessing, as the walking citizens of Eskew rarely look down at me to toss a few coins into my cup.
Somedays, a passer-by will show charity when I am sullenly ignoring them, not looking up, not caring, cursing them all.
Somedays, they will all fail to turn their heads even when I’m begging them, please, to help me, just to give me directions or let me use their phone or tell me where I can find help.
It isn’t the randomness that distresses me, it’s the sense of weightlessness, the feeling that no matter what I do or what I say, I can no longer have any tangible impact upon the walking world of the pavement before me.
But even when you’ve found yourself an empty corner for the night and a bite to eat, sheltered from the wind and the rain by the towering heights of the scrapers and halls that rise over every street...well, then you have to worry about the men who come in twos.
Sometimes they come in police uniforms, stepping out of a battered Eskovian vehicle.
Sometimes they come staggering down the street late at night or early in the morning, laughing uproariously at the sight of you, coming to stand over you and screaming into your face until you acknowledge that yes, they’ve woken you, you’re aware of how tall and powerful they are and how feeble you are beneath them, sloshing vodka into your eyes if you don’t react quickly enough or you stare back too hard.
Their faces are different each time, ugly sneers or vague drunken fury or detached, scientific curiosity, but their kicks land just the same way against your ribs.
I am dimly aware that, back in my apartment, I once had methods for dealing with problems such as this; money, and phones, and debit cards. The skeleton keys of any civilised existence.
I hope Eskew has passed them on to someone who needs them.
These days my pockets are empty, and that carries a weight all of its own.
Tonight the men who come in twos are in uniform, and their violence is legitimate, and they are dogged in their pursuit. As I hear them approach I get up from one hiding spot and stumble down the street, knocking into passers-by, as they stroll after me in perfect lock-step, calling out,
‘Move along. Move along.’
I turn corners and negotiate paths up and down the winding stairs. I pivot back on myself, feeling my way through pitch-black and impossibly thin alleyways.
But the policemen are still after me, always just a little way behind me, their laughter like babbling water in the air as they cry,
‘Move along, now. Move along.’
They’ll drive me into the river, I think, in a sudden panic. They’ll follow me into the sea.
This street is pocked with holes: little stone archways, framing elegant wooden doors.
I slip into one. Try the handle.
Move on. Try the next handle.
It has to be like this, there’s no other explanation, there has to be somewhere in this godforsaken city that lured me in twelve years ago that will accept me now, that will take me in-
-but the third handle doesn’t yield, and neither does the fourth, and the two policemen are getting closer and closer.
I duck into the fifth doorway, and snatch at the doorknob, hidden in shadows- and the sensation is so horribly wrong, so completely alien, that I start away from it in revulsion before I realise what I’m looking at.
The doorknob is a hand.
A carved, wooden hand, its fingers outstretched as if to shake.
But it offers no resistance to my touch, and the door itself swings ajar, caving in to the darkness behind it.
Anywhere is better than here.
That’s what I told myself, the first time I found myself without a home- although that time was by choice.
I duck into the darkness of the interior, and close the peculiar door shut behind me.
There is light in here, that’s the first surprising thing.
Soft, radiant blue light spiralling down from the glass cupola above, raising silent and gentle whirlwinds of dust up into the air.
The second surprising thing is the puppets upon their shelves.
Wooden puppets, their stubs of arms hanging limply from their shoulders, their stubs of feet dangling from their stubs of torsos. Their faces would be stubs as well, if not for the nasty little faces painted in.
There are police puppets and doctor puppets and army puppets and ballerina puppets and child puppets loomed over by impossibly-tall unhappy-looking puppets, all kinds of puppets, a city of puppets, an audience of puppets.
I have seen these before, in the tourist traps and curio shops. I think there must be some local tradition or folklore behind them, because otherwise I cannot imagine any reason why they’d possibly exist, or why anyone would buy them.
They’re crude and stupid and horrible, little gurning faces in little picked-out uniforms, with blobs of white paint for eyes beneath blobs of black paint for pupils.
They are not staring at me, because they are incapable of staring, so clearly artificial and false and ugly that their eyes are not eyes at all but so vividly something else.
I can hear voices on the other side of the door. I have been followed.
I hurry on, past the towering shelves of puppets, deeper into the toy shop.
Somewhere past the aisles of distressingly-carved rocking horses and feral-looking stuffed dogs sitting back on their haunches, I begin to feel a little better about my situation.
I am somewhere, at least. Somewhere with walls, and a ceiling, and rules.
Perhaps they’re looking for an assistant. I could sell these horrible puppets, make small talk with the parents, ruffle the hair of the presumably adorable children who’d come in here looking for toys. Perhaps this could be the moment when I finally discover a place for myself.
I come to a counter - and a dead stop.
There’s a man standing to attention behind the counter, his face cast entirely in shadow, gazing out across the city of toys. His beard is long and thick and angular, a real hussar’s beard, like something out of time.
I cringe back - then awkwardly say something like,
‘Hello,’ but he doesn’t reply.
I try again with,
‘I just needed to get out of the cold and the rain,’ but he ignores me.
Perhaps he’s already called for the police.
I tell him that I can get him money, that I’ve just had a run of bad luck and a few rough nights, that I just have to sleep and eat and get my head together and then I can track down Allegra or visit my employers, if I can find where their offices have disappeared to, and I can make all of this right.
I tell him that he doesn’t need to ignore me like that, he could at least have the decency to look at me.
I tell him that he’s a heartless man, a cruel, thoughtless man, safe in his comfort while he ignores my pain.
I tell him to hell with him, and I lunge forward across the counter to grab him by his hussar’s beard - and as I take it in my hands, his face comes away with it.
I think I shriek.
The colossal puppet dances, reverberating with the aftershocks of my assault, its wooden limbs clacking against its wooden body.
I drop the bearded mask on the counter, and begin to laugh, a little nervily, at my own stupidity.
A moment later, I fall silent - because the door bangs shut across the shop floor, and I can hear the murmuring voices of the two policemen, echoing in the stillness.
They must have heard me.
Behind the counter, there’s an open threshold, and a stairwell leading upwards.
I slip around the wooden surface as carefully as I can, past the enormous soldier puppet, and begin my climb.
There’s no bed up here, no boiler or utilities, no sign that anyone has, in fact, been living here.
Just bare walls and empty wooden floors that creak dangerously with every step as I pass through the corridors.
At the far end of the farthest room, I find myself at a sudden dead end.
I’m standing in an empty windowless space, a non-room.
There’s a mirror leant against the far wall.
Not in the corner, not screwed into the wall itself, but propped against the wall, as if it had just been left there halfway on its journey to somewhere else, and never recovered.
I halt, uncertainly, in front of it, not really knowing where I can flee to from here.
My reflection halts as well.
We eye each other uneasily.
It’s a perfectly normal thing, to have some measure of distrust towards your own reflection. A sense of conspiracy, as you stare into your own grinning face, but behind that, the slight suspicion that your other half may be smiling for its own separate reasons.
I don’t feel that, gazing into the mirror in the empty room over the toyshop.
The silhouetted thing in the mirror does not look anything like me.
It’s shrunken. Stooped. Its hands clinging like claws to its own ragged coat, as if trying to keep everything - newspaper padding and entrails and all - from falling out.
We watch each other, warily for a moment, and then turn our backs on one another.
The silhouetted thing in the mirror does not look anything like me. Its face is haggard, lean, the cheekbones cutting through wan and weary skin. Its eyes look as if they’ve given up.
Its shoulders are hunched and high in its ragged coat, giving the impression that it’s taller than I believe myself to be, towering over the floor, its head almost brushing the ceiling.
We watch each other, warily for a moment, and then turn our backs on one another.
Strange to think.
But then at times like these, I find, it’s better not to allow yourself to think.
Strange to think.
To be awake like this, I mean.
I never seem to think.
I never seem to be alive to what this city is. To its true face.
I could be so much more, if I only let myself change with it
As I patter down the stairs as I swoop down the corridors and halls as I change, I can hear-
I can hear the policemen, muttering below my feet.
There’s a clatter, as if they’re sifting through the puppets, knocking the horrid little things from their shelves in an effort to find me.
I don’t really know what will happen when they do this time. I’m trespassing.
I may not get away with a few kicks to the ribs, a few insults, a demand that I move on.
Perhaps they’ll take me down to the old station, in the Angel’s Quarter. Process me. Put me in a cell with the other people the city has rejected.
Perhaps they’ll give me a phone call. That would be something. I don’t know what Allegra would make of all of this.
Or has the city taken her away from me as well?
- the policemen, muttering beneath me as I cling like film to the glass of the ceiling.
They don’t hear me as I descend, the wings of my coat billowing, my mouth widening and widening. They are so small, so breakable.
I don’t know why I was ever afraid of them.
There’s a clunk from downstairs. A sudden intake of breath, and a louder sound, as if something has fallen over.
A tearing noise, like a sheet being divided in two.
I listen, and listen, but there’s nothing else.
There’s nothing else. Nothing but flesh, and flesh is clay, and clay is shape, and shape will be remoulded or it will be broken.
They tear like cloth beneath my fingers. They do not scream. They submit to change, as change comes upon them.
I wait for a few moments longer, and then what seems like an hour, but there’s absolute silence and nothing else.
There’s no remedy, no alternative; I venture, slowly, back down the stairs, into the toy shop, to see if my route for escape is clear.
My pursuers are nowhere to be seen.
The shelves have been wrecked; wooden puppets dangle helplessly over precipices or lie discarded on the floor.
In the very centre of the room, there’s something strange.
Two of the puppets are in pieces.
The string that holds their fragile wooden limbs together has been severed or shredded; the pieces of their bodies, distinct from one another, have been neatly arranged into a whimsical pattern of legs upon head upon arms upon torso.
They’re both painted in the uniforms of policemen.
I begin to suddenly feel deeply uneasy.
The door is still ajar, leading back into the street.
I turn, and run, my shadow dancing behind me, bathed in the light of the peculiar shop.
Policemen, no longer. Men, no longer.
Everything can be rearranged. Everything can be given new purpose, new bones, new shape.
My shadow and I flee into the city, together.
After that night, I’m no longer harassed upon the street when I’m trying to sleep.
Sleep is no longer needed, after the night.
It is so freeing to be rid of such things. To do away with limitations of mind and shape and animal need.
To be at one with the city.
Something else happens, instead.
It is not uncommon for me to stir from my berth under the railway arches or in some hidden alcove before dawn, and find a new broken wooden puppet laid on the stones before me like an offering.
Or two of them, the pieces rearranged and reassembled.
Policemen. Businesswomen. Children.
The expressions painted onto the puppets’ faces are often curiously dire, just a slap of an unhappy upside-down smile upon their mouths, or eyes that are painted too wide, or sometimes no eyes at all.
Nobody comes to offer me a few coins or a sandwich any more, either.
Nobody pays me any attention at all.
The newspapers speak of a different world; political scandals, sports matches, some strange new disappearances of people who walk down rough alleyways or stay out too late at night while drinking.
None of it is relevant. None of it has any meaning.
All of it makes for padding that goes into the sleeves and lining of my coat, into the toes of my boots, making precious warmth until the rain seeps through and it rots and melts like skin and I have to replace it.
This is change, then. All that Eskew’s ever had for me, is change.
This is change, then. And what are we, without change?
I glory in each broken body, each new disassembling. I dance and fly into the night, over the rooftops, under the streets, finding new shapes to take apart, new pieces to put together.
I do not fear the city. Shadows only appear to have form from a certain perspective, and this has always been a world of shadows.
Be with you again soon.
Be with you again soon.