I want to talk about the postmen.
Or perhaps that should be the milkmaids, or deliveryfolk - to be perfectly honest with you, I can’t tell you anything about the identity of the people who come to my door in the darkness, just before I wake up, and place objects upon the doorstep for me to find.
They don’t seem to have any schedule. Nor is there a van as far as I can tell, or a float, that wakes me from my sleep as it comes roaring down the street. Whenever I get up in the early hours of the morning and come to the front door, no matter how early or how late, they seem to have just arrived seconds before, the old-fashioned glass milk bottles teetering on the step, the letters thudding through my letterbox with sudden speed and violence, making me flinch.
I assume it’s milk that’s in the bottles.
Whatever this arrangement is, I am of course eager to honour it. It would be insulting to the people who come to my door if I were to leave the bottles outside day after day, or refuse to accept the post. It would likely cause all kinds of trouble.
And so every morning I take the bottles inside, carefully dispose of their frothy white contents by pouring it down the sink, and clean out the empties to leave them outside, on the step, for whoever it is to come and pick them up. I take the letters - mostly inexplicable, in their contents, some form of spam or advertising written in a scrawled hand or sketched out in peculiar pictographs - I tear up the corner that gives my name and my address as David Ward, 11 Gatsplaz, The Stranger’s Quarter, Eskew - and I fill up a heavy black rubbish sack that is then left outside on the step for the people who come at night, who seem to move rather more heavily and breathily, and make tearing, ripping, catastrophically unpleasant sounds as they do whatever they do to dispose of my garbage.
This is the most important lesson that Eskew has taught me.
It’s better to go along with things, generally speaking. It’s better to make yourself part of the pattern, rather than fighting against it.
Thinking back, this assumption, as practical and even crafty as it sounds, is quite possibly the cause of my downfall.
Let me tell you about the packages.
I have met those foreigners in Eskew who claim, somewhat unconvincingly, that they receive regular care packages from their families back home. Jars of chocolate spread, or proper English tea, or packeted noodles. You can’t beat it, you just can’t.
There’s always a strange and desperate smile upon their faces as they speak, and I’m left wondering if they’re lying to themselves or only to me, but I join in with their reminiscing anyway and agree that there’s just no substitute, there’s no place like home and there’s no thing like the real thing.
So what I’m trying to say is that when I open my front door and see the thick brown package sitting on my step, carefully wrapped, its edges taped over again and again, I know immediately that there must have been a mistake, that nobody I know has sent anything to me, even before I stoop to examine its label.
The recipient is unnamed.
The label just says, in an excitable and italicised hand,
The Stranger’s Quarter
The apartment above mine is 12 Gatsplaz, the apartment beneath mine 10 Gatsplaz.
There is no 11a Gatsplaz, nor has there ever been one, to the best of my knowledge.
But I don’t want to interrupt the pattern by rejecting the offering, and so I take the package faithfully inside and drop it into my broom cupboard behind the kitchen door, amongst the vacuum cleaners and abandoned coats, and close the door behind it.
The following morning, I am not entirely surprised to find three brown packages neatly piled one on top of each other, like a Mayan pyramid in miniature, all of them addressed in the same frantic, angled handwriting, to the same address.
That’s fine. I expected this, and more; it’s a storm I can weather. Eskew’s tricks are old hat to me now; there will be more packages, and more packages, a succession of brown paper rising like a tide, tempting me to open one, just one, and see what’s inside, no doubt something horrible and grasping, an oily hand reaching for mine from out of the wrapping -
-but I will not. I will remain calm. I will let the pattern play itself out.
I’ve lived through worse than this.
I scoop up the parcels and carry them through to the kitchen, placing my fingers around the door of the broom closet-
-and it sticks.
It doesn’t stick; rather, it’s been locked from the inside. There’s a thick metal bolt clearly visible in the crack of light emanating from between the door and the frame, although there’s no keyhole as far as I can see - on my side of the closet door, at least.
There’s a crack of light emanating from between the door and the frame, but I do not ever recall changing a lightbulb inside the broom closet, or yanking a cord, or flicking a switch.
It’s always been dark in there, up until now.
I take a step back, my arms brimming with brown paper, and stare.
And it’s only then that I notice the scratches across the door.
Two straight lines, carved with a knife or talon into the wood. And a sort of squiggled sphere, a circle that crosses messily at its ends, the lines overlapping and ending.
It seems like gibberish at first, until I consider that I’m looking at an uncomprehending recreation of meaningful symbols, a child or an animal’s crude efforts at mimickry.
It’s supposed to read,
And as I stoop closer to the crack of light, trying to get any sense at all of what might be going on inside, I feel the floorboards creak beneath the weight of something astonishingly heavy, on the other side of the door.
A shadow passes through the light.
And a single scrap of paper wafts gently through the crack, settling on the floor between my feet.
In the same unsettlingly crooked and childish hand, someone has written,
Leaf dlifferies by partment door.
I take a step back, still clutching the packages, and another step, as if to flee, and then the door rattles and quivers as if beneath the stamping weight of something colossal and raging, a silent roar of sheer bestial power, and then a moment later a second scrap of paper floats through to me beneath the doorframe.
I hesitate, then scurry back forwards and stoop to examine it.
It reads, in a louder, angrier hand,
LEAF DLIFFERIES BY PARTMENT DOOR
I do as it says, then retreat back from the kitchen as quickly as I can.
This is how the Tenant’s occupancy of my apartment begins.
He is always audible, whoever he is, his footsteps - if they are footsteps - causing the entire floor of the apartment to tremble, making the glassware and china judder violently upon the shelves, resulting in brief flashes of darkness as the living room lightbulb swings dementedly back and forth on its wire, threatening to smash itself in against the ceiling.
I do not know if these noises are an indication of the Tenant’s size or merely the force with which he walks.
When I upset him, which is often, the entire room shakes as if rippling from the violent, impossibly throaty moans of anger that emanate from behind the wall, a death-rattle of a voice howling in a language I do not understand, and the door to 11a is battered by some incredible and monstrous force, and a new note slips out from under the crack.
I don’t understand how the Tenant can know that I have the television on, or that I’m boiling pasta, or that I’m standing in silence facing the door to his apartment, but soon I learn to stop doing the things that upset him.
The smell comes on the third day, a rancid smell of rotten fruit, a buzzing rancid rotten smell that swarms your nostrils and makes you retch.
Like anything else, you just have to learn to live with it, there’s really no alternative.
Later that week, when Allegra calls me and asks me whether we should have dinner tonight at mine, I’m caught by a sudden frantic shame at being overpowered like this - and a fear of exposing her to whatever my apartment has become.
I tell her,
‘No, no, let’s eat out tonight.’
When I return that evening, my upstairs neighbour and my downstairs neighbour are both waiting for me in the threshold, their tilted faces taut in excited anticipation of outrage.
The upstairs neighbour is called Arkady, and for the past three months he’s been here for as long as I can remember.
I don’t recall the name of the downstairs neighbour, who has too many cats and sings to them on hot summer nights with the window open.
He works in an accountancy firm; she toils away in one of the non-descript factories littering the old Eskovian waterfront, that are always furiously busy in the construction or destruction of something that is delivered and removed in the same nameless white lorries every day.
We have nothing to say to one another, except when we come together to complain about each other’s pitiful domestic sins.
‘It’s the noise,’ my upstairs neighbour says.
‘And the smell,’ my downstairs neighbour adds.
‘It’s the noise,’ my upstairs neighbour says, correcting himself with a respectful bob of his head, ‘and it’s the smell. What are you up to in there? Whatever you’re up to, I hope you have a permit.’
I unlock the door, wearily and a little drunkenly, and allow them to follow me in.
‘It was cleaner when the last people lived here,’ my downstairs neighbour says.
My upstairs neighbour simply looks around, his nostrils flaring, as if taking a long slow draught of something deeply toxic.
‘What’s this, then?’ he snaps, pointing a finger into the depths of the apartment. ‘You been sub-letting, or what?’
I begin to wearily answer that, of course, I am not sub-letting anything...when I see what he’s pointing at.
11a has advanced.
It now occupies both cupboard and kitchen, the door firmly closed, the four scratches newly carved into its wood.
‘Without a permit,’ my downstairs neighbour chants mock-ruefully, from my elbow. ‘Without a permit.’
‘What are you up to in here?’ my upstairs neighbour snaps. ‘Illegal renting? The authorities will need to hear about this.’
I draw myself up to declare that I am not sub-letting to anyone, that four scratches on a door don’t mean anything at all, and besides they have no right to even be in here...when the Tenant moves, or growls, or snores.
The sound is, as ever, entirely inarticulate, a moan of anguished animal fury echoing from the other side of the door, but it makes the glasses rattle and the ground shakes and a single framed photograph of Allegra and myself falls to the floor, topples, shatters.
My upstairs neighbour looks triumphant.
‘I knew it,’ he says. ‘That was something mechanical. And all those packages arriving, day and night...you’re building something in there, aren’t you? What in the devil’s name are you building, Ward?’
I stare him down and say, as firmly as I can,
‘It isn’t me. None of this is me. It’s the Tenant.’
Something in my tone makes him flinch, but the downstairs neighbour just cries out,
‘Well, I’ll take it up with him, then.’
She places her hand upon the knob - and the door opens up for her.
Not in the conventional sense. Nothing unlocks. Nothing swings to one side.
But the wood eases back into the firmament, and something comes forward to take its place.
There’s a rippling, greasy veil of form or flesh clinging from the top of the frame to the bottom, and something is moving, indistinctly and horribly, behind it.
Whatever the Tenant is, it doesn’t look anything like I pictured.
It looks stick-thin, almost a black stick-figure, flickering in and out of focus like it’s crept out of an ancient animation, capering comically and horribly across the floor and ceiling and walls.
The downstairs neighbour is gazing into the veil. Staring right at it, entranced with wonder, as if she can see something I can’t.
‘Oh,’ is all she says. ‘Oh, I didn’t realise-‘
-and she steps forward, into the maw of it, and is lost.
Now there are two capering figures on the other side of the veil.
My upstairs neighbour is trembling, with excitement or with fear. He turns to look at me.
‘You should have said,’ he tells me, in a voice that’s filled with awe. ‘You should have said.’
Then he steps through into 11a, and the door is already closing in over him as he ducks through, and then it is closed again and will not open, no matter how much I rattle the knob.
I go to fetch a hammer from the toolbox beneath the bathroom sink, and batter ferociously at the door, but the wood does not yield an inch.
This isn’t the end of the world. It’s a pity to lose my glasses, and mugs, and cutlery and plates, and the sink and the boiler, but none of these things are necessary to live a happy and comfortable existence.
I simply need to make some adjustments.
As I lie down in my bed, in my increasingly limited apartment space, I begin to feel the Tenant’s moaning roar again, juddering my mattress springs and making the windowpane shiver in its frame.
It sounds as if there’s more of him now.
It really doesn’t matter that, by the time the dawn comes, apartment 11a has expanded to swallow my living room and my bathroom.
The television was a distraction, and the water from the shower was never that hot, and I can buy a replacement toothbrush.
I can sit on my bed, whenever I want to.
I can urinate in a bucket, and I can get the requisite air and sunlight through the window, as I please.
It’s painful to have to stare at those three hideous scratches, hour after hour, but life is nothing without a little discomfort.
I have four missed calls from Allegra. I don’t really want to confess to her that my apartment has been taken from me; that I’m reduced to living out of a single room; that I have been unable to confront the force responsible for my increasing discomfort.
More pressingly, I also suspect that I cannot leave the room to go and visit her, since it seems more than probable that when I do so, the Tenant will swallow my bedroom, too, and I will be left with nothing.
I sit on the bed, facing the door with monkish concentration.
Hours pass. From behind the door, the Tenant - perhaps now Tenants - creak and growl, moving from side to side as if stalking the bounds of their territory.
At around midnight I realise that there is a cereal bar in my jacket pocket, one with the little raisins in it, and I devour it in triumph like a dying man reprieved.
The Tenants are still making noise at two or three, so I get to my feet and rap imperiously on the adjoining wall, yelling something deranged and sleep-deprived like,
‘Some of us have work in the morning, you bastards!’
‘I live here too! Can’t you understand that? This is my apartment! I live here too!’
There’s a sudden, severe silence, and all at once it dawns on me that perhaps I’ve found the key to the pattern, a method of dealing with my troublesome lodgers, once and for all-
-and then a slip of paper flicks across to me from underneath the door.
I stoop, slowly, to examine it.
Before I’ve even had a chance to take that in, another slip of paper is thrust beneath the gap, and a third, and a fourth.
MAKE ROOM. MAKE ROOM. MAKE ROOM.
And a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, the paper scraps snapping at the floorboards at incredible, mechanical speed, until they’re swelling like a tide around my ankles-
-and quite suddenly, they stop, and there’s silence once again-
-and then the wall begins to move.
Grinding forward against the floor and ceiling, slowly but unstoppably, the scratches across the door of 11a grinning malevolently at me as I scramble back onto the bed.
I watch in horror for a moment before snatching up the hammer and battering away at the wall of the apartment, chiselling and tearing at the plaster until it falls away, prising with my hands at the boards-
-rolling and struggling my way through into the safety of the crawlspace as the last wall of my apartment careens forward into the bed, the mattress springs bursting joyously out into the air as the mattress folds and the frame shatters-
-And wall meets wall, and I can no longer see anything at all.
Life goes on.
And in fact I honestly believe it should be seen as a celebration, proof of our human ability to survive in even the most adverse circumstances, that I am able to survive so long in the darkness of the crawlspace.
I am an exemplar of grit and endurance, moving at a crouch with my knees around my chest, feeling in the pitch blackness past the jagged splinters of wood and outstretched nails, crawling around and around the half-rectangular space that has become my home.
Sleeping is easy, since moving anywhere is exhausting and there is no light anywhere in my reformatted apartment.
Eating proves more difficult, but after some time in the dark I discover other survivors, such as myself, and after many an epic battle, struggling to keep hold of their writhing furry or chitinous bodies and tear something free with the hook end of my hammer, I out-survive them.
It’s some days or nights later, when I’ve devised a solution to the water problem - battering at the pipe that feeds into the kitchen taps with my hammer until it bursts and water gushes gloriously forth for me to catch in my mouth, gurgling and swallowing until someone in the apartment realises what’s happening and turns the valve off-
-it’s then that I realise I have become an intruder to the Tenant, a crawling nuisance lurking on the edges of his space, as he once was to me.
It’s a part I play with relish.
For days I haunt him, banging upon the walls, moaning and howling as he moaned and howled at me, dancing my way back and forth to ensure that the sound is coming from every side, that he feels trapped just as I felt trapped, that he knows I won’t be driven away.
For his part, he goes strangely silent, or speaks only in hushed whispers that suggest a sudden fear.
Come in after me, I whisper, from the secret darkness that surrounds his life, come in after me, but he never does.
Sometimes I think I hear the television, or the kettle boiling upon the stove, or children playing in the corridors.
My neighbours have found their way into this space as well, although they no longer speak much and they do not eat, save to gnaw thoughtlessly at each other’s limbs as if fulfilling a comforting old ritual that has long ceased to be of any use.
They have grown thin, and skeletal, stick-figures of black chalk lurching out of the darkness with their heads tilted towards the interior.
They crawl, just as I crawl, circling the apartment, looking for a way back in.
I avoid them as much as I can, but there is no way of separating the confines of territory, and it’s much easier to lie still and let them crawl over you, their long and stringy hair running across your neck and face.
Life goes on here.