It’s a new beginning.
I get up early. Switch the kettle on and listen to the hiss as it rises, merging with the gentle susurrus of the rain pattering down on the roof.
It takes me some time to remember how the ironing board actually works, but eventually I have a smoothed-out pair of trousers and a relatively uncreased white shirt.
Allegra rises from bed. She takes one look at me, and begins to laugh, and laugh. I’m not sure she’s ever seen me looking so smart.
The streets of Eskew are quiet at this time, other than for the occasional rattle of a passengerless tram passing me on the hill.
The walls around here are mottled with fresh graffiti, perhaps a gang signature or new piece of slang.
REM. In red, in yellow, in white.
I’m not sure what it means.
I cross over the river by the Makepeace Bridge, passing between the statues.
There’s an old rhyme my mother used to teach mewhen I was small. Just a sort of nonsense chant from one of her old books.
I find myself, for whatever reason, humming it gently to myself.
Weatherby George Dupree
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.
James James Said to his Mother,
"Mother," he said, said he;
"You must never go down
to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me."
Put on a golden gown.
James James Morrison's Mother
Drove to the end of the town.
James James Morrison's Mother
Said to herself, said she:
"I can get right down
to the end of the town
and be back in time for tea."
Hasn't been heard of since.
King John said he was sorry,
So did the Queen and Prince.
rode in and leaned down
And said to a man he knew:
If people go down to the end of the town, well,
what can anyone do?"
I always loved that rhyme, although it sent shivers up my back whenever I heard it. Like so many beloved childhood things, it was strange and macabre and its power was in the fact that so much of it was inexplicable.
What happened to James James Morrison’s mother? Where did she go? What did she do to deserve it? Why was the child so prophetically insistent that she stay with him at all times?
Was it his fault, what happened?
People don’t just go missing, I’d insist to my own mother, tucked up in bed as she was reading it to me. They have to go somewhere.
That, of course, isn’t exactly true.
On the other side of the river, I arrive at the great glass offices of the Orion Building Concern. My new place of work.
From his place in a great empty white lobby of twisted statues and flickering screens, the receptionist gives me a suspicious look. Perhaps I don’t look quite as smart as I assumed.
“Hi,” I begin. “My name is David Ward...and I am in the Communications and Marketing team.”
On my first morning, my supervisor and my supervisor's supervisor sit me down and make their introductions. They're delighted to have me joining them, they tell me.
“So delighted,” my supervisor's supervisor says.
I'll be a breath of fresh air, they're certain. I'll fit right in, they're sure of that.
My supervisor's supervisor says that perhaps I should begin with the Fitzsimmons Project.
My supervisor nods fervently.
“Yes,” she says. “The Fitzsimmons Project.”
“The Fitzsimmons Project,” my supervisor's supervisor explains, “has been stuck in limbo for some time. It's-”
He makes a gesture with his hands.
“Challenging,” says my supervisor.
“It's given us some trouble,” says my supervisor's supervisor. “But we really think it could be a quality product, in time.”
“It's just got a bit stuck,” concedes my supervisor. “There've been some complications. Perhaps a fresh pair of eyes…”
“A new steering hand at the tiller,” my supervisor's supervisor interjects.
“...could do a great deal of good.”
I answer that I'd be happy to help however I can.
“Great,” my supervisor says. We'll put in a kick-off meeting for tomorrow. “You can meet the team, talk things through, and hopefully you'll be able to get some insight into how we can take this forward, ASAP.”
I leave the meeting feeling rather pleased with myself, and delighted that they apparently have so much confidence in me.
The following morning, there's a meeting in my calendar, titled simply 'Fitzsimmons Project kick off', in Conference Room C.
And then there's a recurring meeting, titled 'Fitzsimmons Project catch-up', set for every week after that.
It seems a little intense. I begin idly wondering exactly how badly this project has been mismanaged to require this much attention.
Anyway, it's an opportunity to prove myself.
I hit accept, gather up my notebooks, and wander through the glass corridors in search of the conference room.
Some ten minutes later, on a different floor that looks very much the same as every other floor I've visited, I find myself in front of a frosted glass door, cut into the centre of frosted glass walls.
There's a gentle murmur of voices from within.
I take a breath, put on my most confident smile, and step forwards into the room.
Four people in grey suits stare uncomfortably up at me.
"I'm here for the kick-off meeting," I venture.
They nod, in silence. Apparently I'm in the right place.
There's something on the table.
It's about the size of a dog or a small child. Wrapped in a thick, rough-looking burlap sack, its end tied tightly with a length of brown string. Laid out on the white surface, writhing very so slightly back and forth, emitting a strangely rich and putrid smell of musty rooms or abandoned canalsides.
Everyone seems to be trying not to look at it.
I take my seat at the head of the table.
The woman to my right gives me a slightly desperate smile.
"I suppose we should go around the table," she says without enthusiasm, "and explain our roles on the project. I'm the team leader..."
The others join in, one by one.
"The lead designer..."
"The data manager..."
I say I'm very pleased to meet them all, and excited to start working together.
The thing on the table rolls gently over onto its side. Nobody turns to look at it.
I clear my throat.
"So," I begin, "perhaps you could give me a quick run-down of how much work there's been on the project so far, and the challenges you've faced in bringing it to fruition."
Their faces fall, as one.
"The project has run into some difficulties," says the team leader. She fiddles with her pen. "I think the scope has probably changed over time, and there've been some issues with creative direction from senior management. I suspect we just need a clearer sense of exactly what success looks like here."
I feel as if this is all the information I'm likely to get.
"So," I prompt, "could you tell me a little more about that scope? I mean, what is this project, exactly?"
The project team stare at me in silence.
Then, glumly, their heads turn in unison towards the burlap sack upon the table.
The Fitzsimmons Project is beginning to emit a high-pitched keening noise, something like an infant's cry of distress or the hiss of gas escaping from a pipe.
The architect says,
"It's never done that before."
"Last week it was very...fluid,” says the lead designer. “We had to keep a plastic bucket underneath it, so the drips wouldn't eat through the carpet."
The data manager adds,
"Before that, it was a good deal more mobile. It kept crawling - or slithering, or whatever - off the edge of the table."
The team leader says, "Every time we think we've got a handle on what it is and what we're meant to do with it, it changes. We started to think it was listening to us, so we'd sneak out of the room when we were trying to plan ahead. But things got worse when it couldn't see us."
"Like that time we lost it," the data manager adds.
"Yes, that's right - we came back in and the burlap sack was empty, just wide open, and there was a smear of something black like oil on the tabletop."
"What did you do?" I ask.
"What do you think?" she says. "We went back to our seats, closed our eyes, and waited like hell that it'd go back into the sack. When that didn't work, we tried luring it in with a kitten."
The lead designer says, very quietly,
"I felt it slip back over my shoe...and then the kitten stopped mewling, and you could hear a sort of struggle. When we opened our eyes, the sack was full again, and the project was back inside."
I consider the matter.
"Shouldn't we be securing it with something stronger than string?" I suggest.
"We considered that," the team leader says. "But then we started thinking - what if the string is part of the project? We didn't want to make it angry, and we didn’t want to disrupt the process we inherited. So instead we just take shifts here at night, watching over it."
"You have long nights," the architect adds, "working on this project. If you want to get the rest of your work done, you're going to have to be quick on your feet."
From within its sack, the Fitzsimmons Project makes a gurgling, slurping sound, like water being drained from a sink.
I arrive at my desk the following morning to find that my calendar has filled up with new meeting requests. Fitzsimmons Project brainstorm. Fitzsimmons Project budgeting. Fitzsimmons Project design briefing.
One appointment, stretching on from Thursday afternoon until Friday morning, is titled Fitzsimmons Project Safeguarding.
If I'm to stay in this role past my probation period, it's critical that my colleagues can see me as a team player.
I accept them all.
On Thursday afternoon, I enter Conference Room C with a thick duvet tucked under one arm, to find the data manager crouched on one of the chairs, a coffee flask clasped in one hand, his eyes beadily fixed on the wriggling sack.
"I'm here to take over," I prompt him gently.
He doesn't turn to look at me.
"It started talking to me," he says, in a hoarse whisper. "About an hour or two ago, I swear to God, it started talking to me. I keep waiting for it to speak again, but it's clammed up now."
"What did it say?" I ask, curiously.
The data manager glances around. His eyes are raw and red-rimmed.
"It said it wanted to be born," he tells me.
I spend that first night curled up in my sleeping bag, watching the sack as it shifts gently back and forth, steaming and howling, occasionally exploding with fits of violence, something from within the sack bulging and twisting, taking on what seems to be a new kind of shape.
Once, when I'm feeling very brave, I reach out and lay my palm against the surface of the sack.
Whatever's moving beneath doesn't feel like flesh, but rather something more liquid and indistinct.
I need to figure out how to get the Fitzsimmons Project to work, particularly now that it's been added to the list of goals for my yearly performance review.
Clearly management expects us to take something that is frankly rather unpromising, and turn it into a measurable and deliverable success.
The Project said it wanted to be born - but is that what's best for the company? Is that what's expected of us?
I gaze down at the wailing, gurgling sack as it inches from one side of the table to the other in jerky, distressing movements.
"I'm going to make something of you," I promise.
The following morning, I call a team meeting in Conference Room C.
"As I see it, we have two options," I tell the group. "Either we feed the project, encouraging it to flourish until it evolves out of its current state. Or we kill it, and see what we can make out of its remains. Does that sound sensible?"
The team leader is looking sullen.
"We tried feeding it before," she says. "We poured about twelve packets of sausages down its throat and it went completely still and silent for four hours, just dribbling oil. You can't just stroll in and start throwing around ideas as if we haven't tried anything before you came along."
The data manager says, softly,
"Perhaps the problem is that it can't be born while it's in that sack. Maybe we need to put it inside something else, something more suited to its purposes, a place where it can truly thrive..."
There's a sudden, uncomfortable silence.
"Are you offering up yourself?" the architect suggests, sarcastically, and the rest of us have a brief chuckle at the data manager's expense.
I begin to suspect that the data manager doesn't have what it takes to work on something as high-profile as the Fitzsimmons project.
"We feed it," I insist, "and if that doesn't work, we burn it. If anyone has any better ideas, you’re welcome to share them."
Our work begins in earnest the following morning.
We each bring in plastic shopping bags rammed full of food; raw and cooked meat seems to predominate, although each of us has shown some imagination as well: diesel oil, nuts and bolts, electric lightbulbs.
The lead designer gets the short straw, and dons a pair of rubber gloves before untying the brown string and holding the edges of the sack, very gingerly, open.
Each of us steps forward in turn to make our offerings to the Fitzsimmons Project. None of us attempt to see what's inside.
The data manager, who I'm increasingly convinced is simply losing the plot entirely, mutters a few words as he approaches the sack, a kind of crude chanted message that sounds a little like a prayer.
Some offerings cause the project to seize up wildly, shaking in anger or digestive convulsion, hot and vivid smoke emerging from its bowels. Others are accepted in silence, or with a high-pitched infantile whistle that at first we take as a demand for more, stuffing more raw chicken legs or tilting more grease down its throat until the noises stop.
After three or four hours of this, we're forced to concede that it's possible our efforts are having no impact on the project whatsoever.
We regroup. The architect brings some post-it notes and marker pens, the data manager goes to get sandwiches, and for the rest of the afternoon we brainstorm potential solutions across the wall of the conference room.
We sketch out a user-focused strategy based on an audience persona (how would we define the Fitzsimmons project? What, if anything, are its needs?) and attempt to create a journey that will lead us to a tangible success that aligns with the Orion Building Concern's wider organisational strategy.
I don't exactly recall when the idea of human sacrifice first comes up. I do remember that initially, the team leader rather unhelpfully dismisses it as "a first-draft idea."
“It’s more of the same,” she insists. “If the mice didn’t change anything, and the kitten didn’t change anything, there’s no reason to think that people would make any discernible difference.”
I like the team leader. I do. But there's no doubt that she's letting her sense of ownership over the project get in the way of her better judgement.
"But what if there is a difference?" the architect says idly, sitting back in his chair. He has coronation chicken crumbs all down his shirt. "It was built by people, after all. We wouldn't even need us to add anyone to payroll. We could get in an intern, perhaps even someone on work experience-"
"Virgin sacrifice," the lead designer says. "Very traditional, as these things go."
Nobody responds, but the lead designer writes down the words 'virgin sacrifice' on a post-it note and adds it to the brainstorming wall with a certain proud defiance.
"Or we could get in a focus group," the architect adds. "A whole mix of people from diverse backgrounds. Get them to enter the sack one at a time, and see if the project responds to any of them."
The team leader says, darkly,
"If we suggest this to management, and they decide there isn't enough budget to bring in additional resource...they'll want one of us to volunteer."
The room goes very quiet.
"So make it him," the architect says, jerking a thumb at the data manager, who is now prostrate on the floor, swaying up and down in a kind of bow as he mutters continuously beneath his breath.
"Just make it him. He's practically worshipping the damn thing already - and he’s dead weight to us."
The four of us exchange thoughtful glances.
It's obviously at this point that I should stand up for the data manager, make it clear that no matter how far gone he might be, it is my firm opinion that he does not deserve to be fed into the sack, at which point the lead designer and the team leader will agree with me, since they’re simply corporate cowards, the pair of them, and the idea will be quickly dropped…
...but there's already a kind of consensus in the air, and I'm not sure if I want to go against that.
Instead I make a kind of disapproving face into my notepad.
The team leader shrugs, resignedly.
“Well,” she says, “it’d be cheaper than a focus group. Management likes cheap.”
From that moment on, it’s settled.
We agree on the schedule, and divide the responsibilities up between us. The team leader will bring a hatchet. The architect will provide a hacksaw and plastic sheeting. I am in charge of duct tape, and the lead designer will set the agenda and, if necessary, take minutes.
I put a meeting request in Conference Room C for Wednesday morning. The subject is ‘Fitzsimmons Project: User Testing.’
We’re all surprised and a little shocked, when we arrive at the conference room that day, to discover that the data manager has apparently made a last-ditch and deranged attempt to out-manoeuvre us; because there are now two sacks upon the tabletop.
One is the rather larger sleeping bag of the data manager, sewn up from top to bottom, lying parallel to the Fitzsimmons Project and writhing blindly back and forth in a feeble imitation of its movements.
“The bastard,” the architect says. “He’s stitched himself in.”
He rushes to the table and begins to tear at the hems with his fingers. “Come out, you rat, you malingerer, you-“
The data manager’s voice emanates from the depths of the sleeping bag, muffled and a little sulky.
“I am the project now,” it says. “I have joined with it and I lie with it in sacred splendour, awaiting my rebirth.”
“Balls to that,” the architect says. “You’re an idiot stuck in a bag.” He glances towards the rest of us. “Let’s tear him out,” he suggests. “One limb at a time, if he won’t come quietly.”
The team leader is stony-faced.
“No,” she says, after a moment’s thought. “Feed him in, bag and all.”
And at once we rush forward, as the data manager begins to scream and cry from inside his bag, insisting that he is part of the Fitzsimmons project now and cannot be harmed, while begging and pleading with the project to protect him, to save him-
I get him by the ankles and the architect grabs his head in a gorilla’s grip, eagerly getting in a few punches with his free hand while he can.
The data manager is heavy; he kicks and struggles, but the sleeping bag impedes his movements and we turn him to face the Fitzsimmons project as the lead designer feverishly tugs the brown string loose.
The team leader rushes forward to hold the ends open - and just for a second, I see an unreadable expression cross her face and I think she’s caught a glimpse of what’s inside.
But then she shouts,
And we charge forward, propelling the data manager and his bag forward into the depths of the open sack, feeling, curiously, that he seems to lighten, as if something is taking his weight from us, and his head vanishes, and then his torso, and then I let go of his legs and feet as they, too, are drawn inexorably inwards.
It’s like a magic trick.
We stand back, breathless, and watch to see what happens next.
The Fitzsimmons project has not grown any larger. And yet there’s a new restless energy to it now, fresh palpitations of excitement rippling against the burlap.
From somewhere deep inside, muffled and weak, you can hear the data manager howling in pain and terror.
We sit with him for the rest of the afternoon, answering emails and doing a little light reporting.
At one point, when the screaming has become only intermittent and a gungy yellow material has started to seep from the base of the burlap, the others go to use the bathroom and make a round of teas, and I’m left alone in there with him.
I’m just replying to someone about another project when I swear I hear the data manager whispering, from the depths of the sack,
I lean in.
‘David,’ the data manager hisses, in a voice as dry and feeble as dust rolling across an empty factory floor. ‘David, they’re all in here with me. They’re all in here with me, David.’
He doesn’t say anything after that.
In time, there comes a kind of grinding noise.
The following morning, we troop back into the conference room - to be greeted by the lead designer, who’s smiling and wide-eyed with a kind of exhausted wonder.
“Come and look,” he says. “Come and look what it’s done.”
The Fitzsimmons Project has, somehow, grown brighter overnight.
There’s now a kind of dim, pale light emanating from somewhere in the depths of the sack, and it’s whirring, or purring, in a fashion that seems unmistakeably as if it’s pleased with us.
The lead designer, architect, and I are laughing, hugging, marvelling at the change that’s come about in the project, discussing how good it feels to have finally hit a tangible milestone.
The team leader simply stands there with a curious smile on her face, then turns and strides away out of the room without a word.
Later we see that she’s put a new meeting request in all of our calendars for next week.
‘Fitzsimmons Project. User testing - round 2.’
It is immediately clear to the three of us that the architect will be the next candidate to be fed into the Fitzsimmons Project.
He displayed a little too much cruelty, a little too much undue enthusiasm when we were feeding the data manager into the Fitzsimmons Project - I think that shocked us.
He knows that he’s been chosen just as soon as he steps into the room. His protests are half-hearted - focusing on just how hard he’s worked this year and how he was instrumental in making the Thebes account a success - and after he takes a few blows to the head from the hatchet, he mostly stops struggling.
I spend the night with him, tucked up in my duvet, catching up on my timesheets.
By the following morning, the aura of the Fitzsimmons Project has increased to a pulsing, pure-white glow - strong enough to be visible when the blinds in the conference room are drawn.
“We’ll be able to present this to management soon,” the team leader whispers. Her eyes are wide, and round, and wondrous.
I begin to suspect that I will have to move fast if I want to come out ahead at the end of all this.
At lunchtime, I take the lead designer down to the staff canteen, buy him a pad thai, and suggest to her as plainly as I can that I think the team leader is likely to turn on us both, feed the pair of us into the maw of the Fitzsimmons Project, and take the credit for herself.
“I’ve worked for people like that before,” I tell him darkly. “They do a tenth of the work but swoop in at the last minute to grab all of the praise.”
The lead designer, squeezing lime over his noodles, looks unconvinced.
“I’ve known Emma for a while,” he offers. “We play in the office softball team. I don’t think she’d do something like that.”
“It was her decision to sacrifice the data manager,” I insist. “And do you remember how eager she was to do away with the architect? She’s playing the game. Which means we need to be sensible if we want to end up with the promotions we deserve.”
The lead designer slurps up a mouthful of prawn.
“All right,” he says, in a tone that sounds half-convinced. “All right. During the next meeting, you conk her on the head, and I’ll help you once it’s done. You have my support - that’s a promise.”
It’s beginning to occur to me that I may not be able to trust the lead designer, either.
The next morning, I descend to the stationary cupboard in the very bowels of the building, and prepare myself in solemn silence for our weekly catch-up.
A craft knife, discreetly tucked into my sock beneath my trouser leg.
I lift my shirt, and awkwardly press a couple of thick notepads against my chest, securing it in place with a thick band of Scotch tape.
I do the same for my back.
Once I feel as if I’m as prepared as I can be, I take the lift back up, to the fourteenth floor, and step into Conference Room C.
The lights have not been switched on; we live and work by the glow of the Project alone, now.
Today the Fitzsimmons Project seems to be distressed; it’s still as bright as before, but it keeps rocking back and forth in agitation, dribbling some kind of oily black pus from the depths of its sack.
The team leader is waiting for me at the head of the table. Her face is lost in shadow.
“Ah, David,” she says, tapping idly away at her laptop. “Do you mind sitting down? We’ve got a lot of stuff to get through on the agenda.”
The lead designer is lurking in the shadows by the frosted glass windows. He doesn’t look up to meet my gaze as I come around to take my seat.
The team leader says, quite suddenly,
“You’re still on your probation period, aren’t you, David?”
I am, I tell her.
She reaches out to take a slurp of her coffee, then taps something into her keyboard.
“That’s a formality,” I add, as airily as I can. “Management are saying I’m a real asset to the organisation - and my lunchtime quizzes are becoming more well-attended by the week.”
The lead designer has shifted position imperceptibly. He’s now standing directly behind me.
I drop my biro onto the floor, close to my shoe, and lean down as if to pick it up.
My fingers reach for the handle of the craft knife.
The team leader snaps,
Compulsively, I glance up.
And then the cord of the conference phone is twisting violently around my throat, once and twice, and the lead designer is hauling me to my feet from behind, yelling out,
“Do it, do it now-“
The team leader rises from her seat, clutching the hatchet.
She swings wildly, catching its edge in my chest, burying it deep into the thick paper armour of the pad with a thud of impact that makes me wince.
I struggle and kick out, propelling me and the lead designer backwards together until we slam into the frosted glass, cracking his head back-
The Fitzsimmons Project is emitting a high-pitched shriek of alarm or triumph.
As the lead designer’s grip loosens, I drop to my knees, still half-choking on the phone cord. My fingers tighten on the craft knife.
I turn and plunge it into his throat, once, twice, three times-
The blood is spurting across the fluffy white carpet
And then the flat end of the hatchet thwacks me on the back of the head, making me drop, and the team leader’s fingers grip my hair, pulling my face and throat upwards, exposed, towards the ceiling.
She doesn’t say anything; only screams in fury and in victory.
As she swings downwards, I bring my arm back up, slicing desperately at her wrist with the craft knife, wriggling free as she recoils-
-and then the team leader is down on the carpet clutching at her wrist, and I am the one holding the hatchet, bringing it down with a thick thump to the rhythm of the Fitzsimmon Project’s happy, animal squeals, and then the team leader is quite still and the shape of her head is no longer what it was, and I am still breathing, still whimpering, bloodied and alone in the conference room.
I feed them both in.
It takes time, dragging them bodily up onto the table by a leg, my fingers slipping in gore, but once the first limb is inside, the Project takes the weight from me, making it easy.
I watch as the lead designer’s startled face slides squeakily along the table, as if moving upon a conveyor belt, until it slips into the burlap and vanishes.
I watch the team leader disappear.
Then I sit heavily down at the conference table, clearing out my inbox as thoroughly as I can while listening to the grindings and wet murmurings of my project with a warm feeling of intense pride, of genuine accomplishment, and wait for something to change.
My supervisor says,
“Well, now, David. We hear you’ve been a real breath of fresh air.”
“A GSD attitude,” my supervisor’s supervisor adds. “If you’ll pardon the expression. The Fitzsimmons Project has never looked better.”
I feel strangely as if they’ve switched roles since the last time I met with them.
“Thank you,” I tell them. “It’s been...really rewarding to see such genuine progression. I think you’re going to be very happy with the finished product.”
I slide across the table a business case and formal request for a team of three interns, working under me.
My supervisor slides it back.
“I have some bad news,” he says.
My face falls.
“It’s no reflection on your efforts at all, David,” my supervisor’s supervisor says. “The Board were reviewing ongoing projects for next year’s budget. They picked a number which they felt were less than relevant to our organisational goals, and nixed them - the Fitzsimmons project included. Obviously we appreciate all of the hard work you’ve done, and that’ll stand you in extremely good stead for your next task. Plenty around here that needs doing.”
She spreads her arms wide, as if to emphasise the enormity of the work ahead.
“Of course,” I say, with a slight choke in my throat. “Of course, I completely understand.”
My supervisor gives me a sympathetic smile.
“It’s up to you to wrap this project up, then,” she says. “Do you mind taking care of that, David? Just wrapping things up?”
I bury the Fitzsimmons project down by the river that night.
Truly horrible. It never stops struggling.
And even when it’s buried a foot beneath the soil, the trains roaring by overhead, I can still hear its muffled squeals. I can still make out its heady, dazzling light.
Just a few more, I think. Just a few more, and this really could have become something.
I’d have been willing to make the sacrifice myself, if necessary, for the sake of such a quality product.
I pile debris over the ground to obscure the unearthly glow; cardboard boxes, cinder blocks, sheeting, an old and twisted shopping carr.
Then I kneel down in the soil, facing the makeshift shrine, a cairn to greatness left frustratingly incomplete.
“Forgive me,” I tell it.
Then I go home. I even take a taxi, as a personal treat, and to ensure that I get home with plenty of time to spare.
After all, I have work in the morning.