Let me tell you what truly horrifies me.
When I arrive at work, descend to the basement floor of the Orion Building Concern, that windowless cubicle-filled vault where I settle into my chair with a strong cup of coffee in a humorously-captioned mug, I turn my desktop on, watch the monitor flicker to life…
...and from the other side of the cubicle wall opposite me, I hear the sound of Kenneth’s stress ball, clenching with a violent and constant squeak.
It may just be the worst sound in the world.
After a few minutes of intense rhythmic squealing, Kenneth’s head appears above the parapet.
He asks me, in his shrill whimper of a voice, if I did anything fun last night.
“I stayed in,” I tell him.
Kenneth says that’s good, that’s good. Nice quiet one, right? Keeping it fresh.
He asks me if I’m doing anything fun tonight.
“I’m staying in,” I tell him, and return my attention to my screen.
A few seconds later, I feel as if I’m no longer being observed - and the sound of the stress ball returns.
I have met people like Kenneth before; in Eskew, and elsewhere.
There’s more than a touch of the schoolyard about him; the perpetually-bullied adolescent who somehow only grew clumsier and sweatier and more helpless inside his own body as he became an adult, who never learned to pick a haircut or choose clothes that fitted him or to hide his desperate, lonely agitation when attempting to fit in.
The rest of the office, as if quite instinctively, ignore him, or speak of him with a scorn that’s so self-explanatory that even new starters understand by their third week that this is a man to be sent out on menial tasks, or bypassed in the queue for the printer.
Kenneth never attends any meetings, never leads on any projects. As far as I can tell, he seems to spend the vast majority of his time sat in that cubicle, silent or squeaking, where nobody visits him.
Our basement office is otherwise deserted. Nobody else comes down here. It’s as if Kenneth has been assigned to me as a particular kind of punishment.
Every day at 8.59, I watch him bounce into the office in an ill-fitting shirt, with an absurdly large camper’s rucksack on his shoulders, far larger than it needs to be to carry his packed lunch and notebook.
Every day at 5.01, I watch him rise from his cubicle, sling that rucksack heavily back over his sweating shirt, and depart.
I believe that Kenneth is as real as I am, if only because I cannot imagine Eskew creating something so impossibly human and uncertain and weak.
There’s no way he’s going to survive here.
I’m eating my lunch alone in the canteen when Kenneth’s campaign to befriend me begins.
Sliding the seat opposite me, with something grey and phlegmy slopping in a soup bowl upon his tray, he makes a sort of ‘can I sit here’ gesture, even though of course he is already settled in front of me like a gurning Buddha, rattling his glasses and saying something desperately crude and inane like,
‘Have you seen Sabine in Accounting, on the fourth floor? She’s something to look at.”
I answer, dully, that I haven’t.
“She’s something to look at.” He keeps nodding his head as if this observation is somehow meaningful.
I tell him that my work doesn’t often take me to the fourth floor, and, in fact, as a rule, I prefer to keep my eyes to myself.
I keep my gaze fixed on the fat wedding ring upon his finger.
To a more self-aware man, I have no doubt that this would be devastating, but Kenneth does not appear to notice.
“You should go check her out,” he whispers, like the last pervert in the shop. “Go check her out, then report back. I think you’d be impressed.”
I ask him bluntly,
“How’s your wife, Kenneth?”
His expression shifts. His eyes seem to glaze over very slightly.
“She’s grand, you know,” he tells me. “Everything a man could ask for. And the kids, too - my girls? Dynamite. I, I mean, when I first came here, if you’d have told me that I’d be so lucky as to find a local girl and settle down, I’d have said, Kenneth, this is only a flying trip, you don’t have time for a relationship, let alone children, you’ll be out of here before you know it.”
He takes a photo out of his wallet and attempts to show it to me.
“But I’m happy here,” he says. “She’s made me realise that. I’ve found happiness here with her.”
I rip open the lid of my yoghurt and begin to devour it as quickly as I can.
Desperately, he says,
“You’re with, uh, ah,” and waves his hand at me.
“Allegra,” I tell him, with my mouth full. “She works at the town planners.”
I finish the yoghurt, drop the spoon onto my tray, and get decisively to my feet.
“Must be nice,” Kenneth says, smiling up at me.
“Must be,” I reply. “Well, better get back to it.”
Like an idiot, he nods, echoing my words,
“Better get back to it. Well, isn’t that the truth. We should go for brewskies some time, y’know?”
“Mmm,” I say, and depart.
At the threshold of the canteen, I turn back and observe as Kenneth picks up his tray, sitting opposite another lonely diner, asking the same absurd, vulgar question:
‘Have you seen Sabine in Accounting? She’s something to look at.’
I don’t know if there’s an HR team in the building, and selfish though it might be, it does occur to me that by making any kind of official complaint, I’d only be yoking my fortunes, and my name, to Kenneth. I very much do not want to be associated with Kenneth.
Better to stick to myself. Better not to get involved.
Instead, I resolve just to steer clear of him from now on.
The following morning, and for a week after that, the stress ball is working double-time, a rapid squeal of distress from the cubicle opposite mine.
Eh-ehh, eh-ehhh, eh-ehh-
And my haunting begins.
Everywhere I turn, everywhere I attempt to find solitude or solace, Kenneth is already there. Like a parasitic rash that, as you turn different regions of your body towards the mirror, proves to have spread to places that you thought were safe.
Waiting for me on the sole unoccupied canteen table, waving amicably at me.
Hiding out in the empty meeting rooms on the eighteenth floor.
At the old cafe where I like to go for lunch.
I try my very best to avoid him, eating my lunch alone for days at a time beneath the grey colonnades of the church to the New Gods which stands beside the river…
...but somehow Kenneth finds me there one drizzling Monday, clutching a brown paper bag that turns out to contain a single poorly-wrapped burrito.
‘I have a problem,’ he says. ‘David, I really think I have a problem. And I think I just need to vent, y’know? Hope you don’t mind if I talk to you about it.’
I stare sullenly at him as he tears the tin foil back from his wrap, gazes at it in admiration for a moment, and then begins to eat.
The entire ill-conceived object collapses as he bites into it, spilling refried beans all down his hands and face.
Kenneth talks with his mouth full, spitting rice at me:
‘-it’s just the strangest thing, and I know that my wife loves me, she says as much all the time, sometimes I wake up and she’ll just be standing there over the bed, whispering “I love you”, and that feeling of certainty, there’s really nothing like it...but I keep having this dream.’
I should say nothing.
Or perhaps I could change tack. Mention the football, invent some convivial anecdote about getting drunk last week and vomiting into my shoes.
Instead I ask,
‘It’s the strangest thing. It really is.
‘I’m lying in bed, dozing away, and when I open my eyes, my wife and my two daughters are standing over me, dressed for school and for work, with the same broad smile on all three of their faces.
They’re holding yarn needles. About a foot long, and pointed, and thick.
They look at me, and they say,
‘Stitch, stitch, stitch. Stitch, stitch, stitch.’
And I know in my heart that my loving wife and daughter want to murder me, but as I flail upwards, trying to get loose from the confines of the duvet, they’re already on top of me, my daughters pressing their frail bodies against my chest, my wife straddling my hips, each of them repeating, happily and at speed,
‘Stitch, stitch, stitch. Stitch, stitch, stitch.’
And they tug at the loose skin around my neck and shoulders and arms, stabbing the needles down, winding the thread through my flesh, and I cry out, asking them, my loves, why are you doing this, you’re hurting me, but whatever they’re doing to me, they’re so happy to be doing it. Tearing the bedsheets, sewing the white silk through my skin, pulling it taut.
They start giggling, and I know that I must look both quite absurd and extraordinarily beautiful because they’ve given me white wings that pierce through my arms, white plumage that’s sewn in through my ears and cheeks and eyelids, the white and bloodied tail of some noble new bird, sewn into the bed and sinking beneath my own weight into the depths of the mattress.’
‘And then they lift me, and in that motion I can feel the weight of my body slipping away from me, my flesh sloughing loosely free, as if I am nothing but skin now, a taut sheet of skin and silk, gazing up at my family, blinking helpless tears as they hold my corners and yank me tight to pull out the wrinkles, marvelling at what I’ve become.’
Kenneth, perhaps understandably, is sweating again.
‘And the damnedest thing,’ he says. ‘The damnedest thing is when I wake up, and go downstairs, I take my place at the breakfast table and tell them, “Kids, wife, I dreamt you loathed me, I dreamt you were hurting me…”’
‘...that’s when they all start to laugh, together, as if there’s some shared joke here, smiling back at me from the other end of the table, saying, “Stitch, stitch, stitch, stitch.”’
I almost ask,
‘Are you so sure that it’s a dream?’
-but I catch myself. I’m staying out of this one.
“Did you ever hear of such a thing?” Kenneth asks me. He gives me a searching look. “Do you think maybe there’s some Eskovian game, some quirk of humour that I haven’t understood here? Do you think I’m being irrational?”
“The people of this city...can be difficult to read,” I tell him bluntly. “But I’m sure their love for you is as real as they are.”
That’s all he’s getting.
He begins to open his mouth again, so I quickly add,
“Or perhaps you’re just feeling guilty. About spending so much of your time ogling your colleagues.”
Kenneth stares at me for a second - and then laughs, anxiously.
“You mean Sabine,” he says. “Did you go up and take a look yet? I really think you’d have some opinions on her. I mean…wow.”
I roll my eyes and check my watch.
“It’s time I got back to work,” I say, getting to my feet. “Enjoy your burrito.”
I can feel him, staring hopelessly after me from beneath the shadows of the church.
That evening, I’m packing up my things in an empty office when I hear Kenneth’s stress ball, squeaking violently and rapidly,
Eh-ehh, eh-ehh, eh-ehh.
Apparently he’s working late.
I can’t blame him for that.
I gather up my satchel, and keep my head ducked as I creep down the aisle, safely hidden from the other side of the cubicle walls.
The emails begin.
RE: Our conversation. Things have changed. Need to talk.
RE: Feel like I can really speak freely with you. Be good to chat.
RE: Pub lunch? Know you’re busy. Just have a few home issues to talk through.
All of them go into a distinct, unread folder in my inbox, labelled ‘Kenneth.’
I can’t hide from him forever, of course.
Three weeks later, Kenneth corners me in the men’s toilets, sweating and pale, his eyes bulging and his lanyard swinging about his neck like a noose.
‘They bought the needles,’ he hisses. ‘Just left them out in the hallway, all wrapped up in brown paper. What does it mean?’
I gently shake myself loose.
‘When they came to me,’ he moans, ‘I thought things were finally looking up. I’d kept my head down, I’d behaved…’
I feel a twinge of sympathy.
If I die in Eskew, it’ll be because I believed in something that does not, cannot exist: a pattern and a righteous order, a final reward for those who persevere, beneath the random bloomings of cruelty and madness.
Kenneth glances to the corner of the ceiling, as if he’s looking for security cameras.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ he whispers. ‘I can’t take it any more. When I go home, they’ll come for me, and I don’t have it in me to fight them off. You need to help me, David. I need to get out of here.’
‘Kenneth,’ I tell him, firmly and clearly, in case the city is listening. ‘I’m very sorry that this is happening to you, and you don’t deserve it. But I can’t help you. If you’re concerned for your own safety, you should leave the house, maybe call the police-‘
He shakes his head.
‘They can’t help me,’ he says. “Nobody can.” There’s something accusatory in his tone. ‘One way or another, David, I’m getting out of this. I’ve made up my mind. Can you help me?’
I look into his eyes, and tell him I’m sorry.
I truly am. But I can’t get involved in something like this.
He hesitates for a moment - and then nods.
‘You’ve found someone,’ he says, after a moment. ‘That can be a gift, but it can also be an anchor, y’know? It can hold you in place.’
I reply that the Orion Building Concern might be able to help him find temporary accommodation, if he needs it.
That makes him gasp with sudden, hysterical laughter.
“Orion,” he says. “Goddamned Orion. Did you go and see Sabine in Accounting?” A bizarre grin creeps across his face, and he begins to giggle, running his slick hands across his sweaty face. ‘I told you, didn’t I? You should have checked her out. Really something to look at.’
I hiss at him to get a hold of himself, before someone hears, and he shakes his head, still chuckling.
‘No, I’m sorry, David - really, I am. I’ve asked too much of you. I shouldn’t have tried to get you involved in my affairs. This was mine, and mine alone to face. It’s just...when you spend all day at work, it’s only natural to reach out to the people nearby.’
He extends his hand. Baffled, I take it.
‘If I don’t come into work on Monday,’ Kenneth says, with a look of sudden, extraordinary sincerity, ‘You should raid my cubicle. Take my chair. It has lumbar support. Nab my stress ball, if you want it.’
‘Thank you,’ I venture, and he lets me go.
‘Good luck, then,’ is all he says, before he leaves me alone in the bathroom.
I do glance in at Kenneth’s cubicle before I leave the office that night.
He sits, squeezing that stress-ball between his fingers, rocking back and forth in his chair, surrounded by framed photos of his wife and children. His feet resting upon his heavy rucksack.
His gaze is, oddly, faraway. Like a man who’s trying to make sense of something in his head.
I walk on.
Hope may just be the worst thing in the universe.
I know, as I enter the glass doors of the Orion Building Concern on Monday morning, that whatever horrible event was going to happen to Kenneth, whatever grand climax his family had in store for him...will already have happened.
I know that I will never hear the hideous squeak of his stress ball again, or have to gaze into his sodden, quivering face as he attempts to make small talk.
But I hope. And when I sit in my chair and turn my desktop on, the empty silence from the cubicle opposite weighs upon me like a halter.
Like shame. Like I’ve lost a part of myself.
I stare at the blank wall for a second. And that’s when it hits me.
I get to my feet, and I run for the lift.
On the fourteenth floor, I stop, and it takes everything I have in me not to laugh out loud with joy.
Sabine from Accounting is easy to spot. She limps in a ragged circle, round and round in the aisle between the cubicles and the break room, her one foot dragging in the felt.
Her eyes are like blazing lanterns. Her jaw ajar, emitting a kind of mewling sound. Her pantsuit has begun to merge with her bulbous, shimmering flesh.
Her co-workers calmly navigate paths around her, giving no indication that they’ve noticed, or are capable of noticing, the aberration she’s become.
As I turn and run, back down the stairs to our floor, I have a sudden, marvellous mental picture.
Of a man who is so much smarter than he looks. He uses that to his advantage; keeps his head down, plays the fool, acts just buffoonishly and desperately enough that nobody looks at him twice.
Perhaps he wears a wedding ring, and talks proudly about going home to his family. And every day he sla ves away in a cubicle, acting as if all this is perfectly normal, and he is perfectly happy here.
A man who is much better equipped to survive in Eskew than I have ever been.
But when he’s looking for allies, trying to find someone who is still awake enough to see the same awful things that he sees...well, then he goes about the office, asking a question that would arouse no suspicion.
‘Have you seen Sabine?’
I thought Kenneth was a parasite. I’m somewhat unnerved to consider that he might be a partner in revolt.
I race down the aisle, and step into Kenneth’s empty cubicle. I grab one of the framed photos from his desk and I examine it closely.
He isn’t even in it. It’s a stock photograph of a smiling woman, standing with two smiling daughters, printed out on office paper.
The others are all stock photos. Sometimes the same models, sometimes just models that look similar enough at a glance.
And this time I really can’t stop myself from laughing out loud.
Kenneth suspected I was awake to the nightmare of Eskew. He thought he might have a friend in me.
He just needed to make me prove it.
And so he embroidered his existing lies, creating this scenario with his wife and daughters turning murderous to try and draw me out, and he kept pushing it harder and harder, hoping to force me to admit the truth about my life here…
...for what? To recruit me? To what end?
And why was he in such a hurry to do it?
I rest my hand on the chair with the much-vaunted lumbar support, and push it back into position against the desk.
It brings up a large square of felt with it.
I lean down, and yank the flooring up.
It comes up in a square about two feet by two feet, quite easily and neatly, as if it’s been lifted up a hundred times or more.
Beneath, through the wires and cables, is darkness.
I don’t hesitate; I lower myself down into the space, my feet gently knocking against the concrete below, and slip into darkness.
I feel my way along, wriggling in silence beneath the floor of the basement, my hands pressed against the concrete.
I have a lighter buried in the pocket of my jeans.
I take it out, faintly flicking it to try and produce any kind of glow, but I don’t achieve much other than burning the tips of my fingers and in the end I just slip it back into my pocket and resign myself to moving by touch alone.
It becomes impossible to judge distance after a while.
To begin with, I think I can hear my colleagues typing, their feet shifting against the felt, somewhere over my head, but soon enough the noise perishes and there’s only a low, awful hum, and then soon enough nothing at all.
Then I feel something rough beneath my hands, thick, cool silt and rattling stones, and the crawlspace begins to curve downwards.
I wriggle on, blindly, heading down into the depths beneath Eskew, and the longer I crawl the more I begin to feel that I have left the world of the Orion Building Concern behind, and entered another space entirely, somewhere dirt-filled and comfortable and not, perhaps, immediately hostile.
Was this your plan, Kenneth? Just keep digging?
Is this why you were in such a hurry to recruit me - because you thought the city might find out what you were up to?
You didn’t want to fight your way out.
You wanted to slip out underneath the streets and sewers, bypassing the distractions and Eskew’s hallucinatory streets that turn around in on each other, tunnelling on until the earth changes in texture and the air no longer tastes of rain, and you claw your path upwards like a newborn thing to come out in London or Sydney or somewhere else entirely.
A deserted basement office, and an empty day, an endless series of empty, lonely days, gave you the perfect opportunity.
Perhaps it’ll be a field on the other side. Bright and green, the birds singing to welcome you home, and the firm grit of a country path rolling out before you.
Perhaps Kenneth, the friend I never knew I had, will be waiting there for me, giggling like an idiot.
I want to hear this story. I want to know what gave him such an audacious idea. I want to know all of his tricks, how he must have been slinging dirt into that heavy rucksack of his for months on end, carrying it back out of the office at the close of every day.
I’m looking forward to finding out who he really is.
I crawl on.
And on, the world of Eskew behind me and long forgotten, as I shuffle into the darkness.
And on - until quite suddenly the texture beneath my hands changes again, becoming something that makes me halt my progress and lose all hope in a heartbeat.
The tunnel feels smooth. Taut, and slick, and smooth, like canvas drawn across the soil.
As I reach up, I feel the same smooth texture across the roof, although as my hands pick down I begin to find edges, overlapping and flapping loose, as if they’ve been sewn together.
Something brushes against my hair, making me recoil - it’s as if a hand has caressed my scalp.
And I can hear something, too. Something like breath.
I have the clear, unmistakable sense that I have run out of space; I can feel the end of the tunnel pressing in on me, just a foot or little more away from my face.
I wait, but nothing moves besides me in the darkness.
Slowly, unhappily, I reach for my lighter. Flick it, once, twice, holding it ahead in the cramped confines of the tunnel.
It ignites. And I’m staring into Kenneth’s face.
Drawn tautly across the end of the tunnel, a stretched-out tapestry of skin.
Dirt is crumbling down through his eyelids, dribbling from his mouth. It appears that his progress has been halted by one final, and very deliberately cave-in.
Everything is skin. Everything is Kenneth. The walls and floor of the tunnel around me. His fingers, and further back, his toes, dangling like lanterns or fungus outcroppings from the roof above my head.
Where the rest of him has gone, the interior, I cannot say.
I have been tunnelling into Kenneth.
Desperately, I try to shift, seeing if I can turn myself around in the tunnel, get back to the office and away from this ghastly, impossible barricade, when my friend’s eyes bulge violently open, white and alive and rolling in agony.
I drop the lighter at once.
The flame goes out, and Kenneth and I are left alone in the darkness.
I can hear his lips move. I can sense him trying to mouth the syllables of a horror which he invented, and which Eskew faithfully brought to life.
‘Stitch. Stitch. Stitch.’
I sit out by the old church, in the cool evening air, the inevitable rain drip-drip-dripping down from the stone eaves just inches from my feet.
Black soil beneath my shaking fingertips. The stink of sweat all around me. The memory of Kenneth’s foaming white eyes, still staring into mine.
He thought I didn’t want to come with him because I’d found someone. I suppose he thought I was happy here.
I don’t think that’s true.
I think I was just afraid.
I raise my head. High above the river, atop the towering, rickety architecture of this city’s hills, stands the great and terrible dome of the cathedral.
I don’t believe there’s mercy in you, Eskew. Nor do I believe there’s sanity.
But I know there’s power in you...and perhaps intelligence as well.
If you are capable of listening, I think, fixing my gaze upon that dome and whatever dwells within it, if you are capable of listening, then you are capable of bargaining.
So bargain with me.
Kenneth tried to escape, and was punished for it. He won’t do it again.
Make your changes. Do what you must. But don’t leave him down there, alone and awake in the darkness and the cold.
The city is still. It will not answer me.
I don’t think it ever will.
My lack of faith, it turns out, was misplaced.
Or perhaps this was Eskew’s intention after all, to return things to a state of normality - insofar as that’s possible.
Because when I take my seat on Tuesday morning, placing my satchel down, turning my computer on, I’m gratified to hear the rhythmic squeals of the stress ball from the cubicle opposite.
I get up, and peer around the partition.
Kenneth is in his chair.
He has been put back together; inexpertly, perhaps, stitched into something that is both recognisably him and entirely new, a misshapen, armless, legless, mouthless sack of skin, and something furiously writhing beneath it.
He cannot work like this, of course, but then he was never a useful or efficient employee anyway, and the stress ball has been sewn into the fat of his belly, so that when he rocks back and forth in his seat, it produces the same squeaking sounds as before:
Eh-ehh. Eh-ehh. Eh-ehh.
If his roiling white eyes express anything, I tell myself, it is surely gratitude.
I leave him there, and head back to my cubicle, where I pick up my work with a renewed sense of calm and confidence.
The noise of the stress ball has become a pleasant background beat, nothing more.
Sometimes it’s enough to know that you’re being listened to.