They’re building a tower.
The witness knows that straight away. The construction site is clearly visible from his apartment’s guano-spattered French windows, overlooking the rotten little balcony that is never used.
It’s going to be a tower. Has to be a tower.
He stands behind the glass, sipping at his coffee, and waits to confirm his awful suspicions.
Fences have been erected, forming a grand defensive square all of the way from the pavement to the canal’s edge to the railway tracks that separate the town from the surrounding marshlands. These immense and militaristic barricades have been softened with corporate branding; a repeating pattern of handsome faces in hard hats and messaging about Careful And Considerate Construction, visible only to outsiders walking past.
Within the square itself, all vegetable and animal life has been extinguished. Only dust is left behind.
Tiny figures move back and forth across the construction site, casting long and spiny shadows across the sand.
The witness watches it all, unseen.
He gazes balefully down at the verminous cascades of workers, then up again at the empty sky over the marshlands, the gorgeous dull void which will soon be occupied by the hateful sight of - it can only be - the tower.
The tower does not exist yet. But it already feels like an invasion.
On the third day the workers begin hollowing out a pit for the foundations.
“That’s how it begins,” the witness observes. “Always. You have to excavate, if you’re going to build.”
Tarnished yellow diggers gather around the centre of the site, churning up oozing black topsoil between their teeth, seeking out the bedrock beneath the sodden marshlands.
The pit grows deeper, and deeper still. Workers vanish into its maw, and do not return.
This is a sign. The deeper you dig, the higher you’re going to build.
The increasingly monstrous dimensions of this particular pit, he estimates gravely, indicate an appalling height to come, twenty or thirty floors at least, a teetering horror plunging its stilt-like legs into the helpless earth.
The witness observes every detail in silence and in hatred, sucking hard at the straw from his orange juice carton in long, drawn-out breaths until he hears a nasty cardboard death-rattle and relents.
They’re building a tower, all right. There can be no doubt about that.
And when, in fact, he slopes across to the spattered balcony glass in his boxer shorts the following morning to observe that several lorries have pulled up into the square bearing a load of great steel struts, he swallows hard and whispers aloud,
“I knew it. I knew it. They’ve only gone and done it now.”
He spends the next hour taking up different positions across the cramped space of the apartment, testing the theory that surely - when the tower is built - there will be no single place free from its baleful sight.
He could be standing in the kitchen. He could be watching TV from the red leather sofa.
No matter where he is, the tower will always be watching him from beyond the white spatter of the French windows.
No doubt about it now. They’re building a tower.
But who are they? What is their greater purpose here? And most importantly, how can they be stopped?
Action is required.
Settling in front of his laptop each morning close to dawn, the witness rapidly initiates a war against the establishment on several fronts at once, taking on multiple identities and speaking in assorted tongues, agreeing violently with himself, spreading the discussion across every forum and every network:
It’s a disgrace. What are they going to do about the noise? Why weren’t we consulted?
My children have been up crying all night. Is it council flats? We don’t want any of those sorts of people here, this is a safe part of town
THE VIEW IS RUINED WHAT ARE YOU DOING THIS FOR WHY DOESN’T ANYONE TALK TO US
you tell them @Truth_to_power
tagging the council, hope they see how many people here have complained and walk this back
Eventually, his enemies seem to comprehend that they are being deliberately attacked by coordinated efforts; his accounts are blocked by unseen forces wherever they surface, and his letters go ignored.
One night, in a fit of beer-fuelled frustration and recklessness, the witness goes too far.
He posts an edited group photo of the town council online. Their faces have been circled, crudely and menacingly, in red.
Think people deserve to see the faces of the traitors who approved this eyesore of a building how MUCH DID THEY PAY YOU?? Fucking deserve what’s coming to all of you know what I mean justice is coming better watch your back
@carol_j_s How do your kids feel about you TURNING ON THIS TOWN you have a lot to lose better think about the voice of the people
@govpolice better investigate some of this lot fraud i’m certain
The witness wakes late the following morning, still dressed and sprawled across the red leather sofa, his mind clagged with achey self-loathing and the obscure amnesiac terror that he must surely have done something awful. (Was it murder? Theft? Did he leave the flat and stir up carnage across the town? Did he call someone from his past and tell them the truth of his feelings?)
Halfway through his shower, he remembers exactly what he did, and stumbles out in a towel to login, already imagining the sound of the riot squad hammering on his door.
The witness deletes all of the messages, which have not been engaged with.
He deletes his remaining accounts.
He resolves to be a cannier and more careful enemy to the tower from this moment on.
The tower is growing fast. It is becoming bone.
Tapering steel fingers have risen up from out of the polished ground, glowing white and hot in the dismal spring light, bound together by horizontal beams as if clawing ineffectually through the loops of a cage.
Multiple trucks and lorries have gathered in worshipful circles around the base. Colossal crimson cranes have been assembled, their heads tilted towards the imagined spire some hundreds of feet into the empty air.
“It’s disgusting,” the witness thinks. “An insult, a humiliation. Why did nobody think of us, before they decided to build it? Why weren’t we consulted?”
“It shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t have to look at it.”
On his free nights, the witness begins to make appearances at the bar on the end of the street, looking for allies.
He isn’t certain exactly what he has in mind, but he’s open to anything. Perhaps a volunteer group, or collective petition, or guerrilla warfare outfit that could be marshalled against the tower under his leadership.
Yet again he is disappointed by the rest of humanity.
The locals in the bar have already accepted the tower as a certainty, and refuse to brook any arguments against it.
They insist that the jobs (because there will be jobs, with a tower of that size) will provide a boost to the town’s economy, that the view of the marshlands beyond the canal was never that pleasant anyway (there wasn’t anything there to begin with, was there?), and that a little noise and disruption is only to be expected.
Something is happening in this town at last, they tell him. That’s the main thing.
The witness has rehearsed a passionate speech about the power of collective resistance and the need for solidarity in the face of oppression, but finds that people invariably begin drifting away from him before he can get into the meat of it.
Enough is enough.
Our species has always been corruptible, gullible and afraid. This is why exceptional individuals are so often needed to set things straight.
He slopes home, ascending the concrete staircase with wheezing, unhappy steps, and does not emerge again until the food runs out.
He’s barely had time to clean his apartment out since the campaign began.
Scattered, half-eaten four-packs of croissants and torn crisp packages litter the sideboards. There’s milk standing out in its bottle, several weeks old, and phlegmy tissues are still lingering in the corners of the floor where they’ve been dropped.
The symptoms of a noble life, dedicated to something beyond the ordinary.
Occasionally he begins to think that he can hear the scuttling and skitter of vermin, loose in the spaces behind the apartment’s walls, but he finds the sound a welcome respite from the usual silence, and besides he has far too much going on to be concerned with such things.
“I don’t need gratitude,” the witness tells himself, staring out at the tower in anticipated triumph, “and I don’t need wealth. So long as I do the right thing, I’ll be recognised in the end.”
The witness orders the ammonia and the nails online, as two separate packages, because these two ingredients are universally known and it’s good to get a head-start on things.
For the rest of the recipe, he begins to run incognito internet searches, choosing the wording very precisely to avoid any undue attention from the establishment:
How to make bomb research for novel
Writing book need to know explosive-making
And, just to throw the scent off,
Copyright secret agent storyline writing book
He begins to create a shopping list, based on the most plausible-looking instructions online.
That night, he notices that the skeleton of the tower has grown again, its fingers overlapping at the very height of the building’s frame, and the cranes have stretched their necks skywards, their heads tipped with satanic red lights to ward away low-flying aircraft.
It feels like a declaration of war.
It’s only once the first delivery arrives that the witness realises his mistake. Nails can be very effectively used in bomb-making to disintegrate human bodies, but have little impact on structural masonry.
The witness is a little unnerved by his own thoughtlessness. He’s been sleeping less recently, it’s true; the crimson lights of the cranes blaze unstoppably through the flimsy curtains in his bedroom from dusk to dawn, and the agitated noises from behind the walls come at him in uncertain intervals at all hours of the night.
But none of this is any excuse for thoughtlessness. Not when so much is at stake.
The nails go unopened into a cupboard. The rest of the ingredients begin to show up, one by one.
There is glass climbing up the sides of the tower, iridescent-blue shimmering mirrors curving about the frame, and the witness finds himself standing before his own windows for hours at a time, his coffee growing cold, awe-struck at the mental image of all his work coming to climax: the glass shattering, spilling out across the dust of the horrid construction site, as the tower’s frame caves in and collapses back into the fathomless pit beneath the town, vanishing into nothing.
It’s a lovely thought.
“I’ll still be standing here,” he promises the tower, “when you are lying in ruins and all the little people below are wondering what could have possibly become of you.”
Whatever is moving in the walls seems to be growing louder.
Sometimes it’s higher up, an insistent, multi-limbed scratching sound from near the ceiling.
Sometimes it sounds as if it’s coming from beneath his feet.
There’s a peculiar growth in the corners of the apartment, too, a speckling of black-brown mould or fungus that gathers around the plug sockets and the skirting boards.
“This is the tower’s doing,” the witness tells himself. “It becomes more beautiful and solid and sound, a monument to the wealthy and the powerful, while all around it, everything turns to decay.”
The unwashed piles of laundry upon the sofa and the discarded pizza boxes are becoming unpleasant to look at. He avoids them whenever possible.
Instead, the witness prefers to spend his free time standing before the French windows, bathed in the blue light of the tower.
There’s already an astonishing sense of permanence to the structure, half-complete as it is - as if the tower’s wholeness has been writ already in the coral glass and the great bony birds that bow to it.
“Not if I have anything to say about it.”
Masking his mouth with a damp T-shirt pressed around the lower half of his face and clamped into place with his chin, the witness finishes his first complete attempt at a bomb.
It stands before him, a mess of conjoined wires and turpentine in a thick can that was once filled with gloss paint.
He isn’t certain he’s got all of it right. But it already feels like a dangerous object, ugly as it is; ingenious in its complexity, savage in its crudeness.
To have given birth to such a thing fills him with unspeakable pride.
He has never felt so fulfilled, never in life, perhaps only playing some strategy game on the easiest setting where you trample countries and burn the great capitals and conquer the known world.
“This is the instrument of the tower’s unmaking,” he announces to the empty flat.
Alone in the endless birch forests beyond the town, the witness places the bomb down in a carrier bag, upon a tree stump in an empty grove.
He sets the timer, and begins to lope back towards the safety of the trees.
The explosion comes early, and it’s both too much and too little.
The noise freaks him out, the sheer spontaneous energy of the thing, arriving a few seconds early before he’s even had a chance to settle himself in his hiding place.
A big comic sound, an awful heat, a joyous rush of wind, the rustling of the leaves beneath him as he topples backwards into the bracken.
The rustling of the leaves, all around him, as the paint-can shrapnel embeds itself into the earth and amongst the trees.
But once he’s stopped shaking and whimpering and pulled himself back upright and walked to the blackened impact wound in the heart of the grove, the witness’s doubts begin to grow.
The crater is only small. The noise - although his ears are still howling - was perhaps more a puff than a bang.
Perhaps this kind of explosive will not be enough to bring down the tower. It will not rip the steel foundations from the earth. None of it will come crumbling down.
“But then again,” the witness hypotheses on the following morning, staring out at the glorious edifice of oceanic cathedral glass, “perhaps it’s better if the damned thing doesn’t come down.”
If the bomb causes just a little fear, just a little damage, enough to put an end to the construction work and frighten off the stakeholders and leave the tower unoccupied and alone upon the marshlands, an empty chapel to the witness’ own crusade…
“...well, that might just be the best outcome of all.”
He watches through the night, until the sun rises. The light spreading across his tower.
The light dimming across his tower.
At some point the witness becomes vaguely aware that this daily vigil has turned into a distraction; that the hours he should spend in bomb-making or practicing his parkour (jumping energetically up from the floor onto the sofa, from the sofa onto the table) in order to break into the construction site have slipped away from him.
He is spending altogether too much time behind the shit-spattered window of his apartment, gazing out at the tower.
And there are others in town, he begins to notice, who are doing the same.
An older lady, weighed down by her shopping bags and an excessive swaddle of scarves, lingers on the corner by the canal and stares.
A lonely teenager, slumped at the bus stop beneath the witness’s window, her hood overshadowing her face.
“Get a job,” he mutters jealously to himself. “Find something to do with yourself, you bums, you hopeless cases. What’s the matter with you?”
He tries drawing the curtains to prevent himself from staring at the tower, but the truth is that he can still feel the itch of it from behind the thin white cloth.
The tower will always be there, staring into the heart of him. Waiting for him to stare back.
The witness no longer sleeps.
Lying in his bed amongst the piles of mouldering laundry and chip-butty breakfast, he lifts his hands over his head, casting tall and noble silhouettes across the ceiling in neon-blue lagoons of moonlight.
Days and nights pass like this.
One evening soon, the witness will don his mail-order balaclava, slip out into the street and across the pavement, leap over the fence (he’s practiced this, it isn’t hard) and plant his explosive in the belly of the tower.
Perhaps he’ll circle around in the empty streets for a while first, just to throw off any security cameras that are watching, but this seems like something that can be settled in the moment of action itself.
And the glass will blow, and the ground will shake - and even if it doesn’t, this will all be according to his, the witness’s, design - and in the morning the tiny workers will be gathered around the base of his tower, not daring to come too close, not ever again.
It will be a glorious moment, the greatest of his life, when it comes. When he allows it to come.
Days and nights pass like this.
Until the morning he staggers across to the French windows behind the balcony and tears the flimsy curtains to one side to discover that he’s been betrayed.
There are new steel frames set into the ground beside the tower. To the north, to the east, to the west, new foundations have been laid; fresh skeletons stand across the widening plain of the construction site, waiting for their flesh to be filled.
They aren’t building a tower at all, the witness realises in growing horror. They’re building a village, a town, a city-
-and he turns back to his bomb on the table, ready to seize the unfinished thing up and bear it into the heart of the construction site himself-
-no, the witness does not turn.
It sits waiting for him on the side, wrapped in plastic bags, an ill-prepared and hideous mass of internet purchases and cobbled-together chemistry.
But he does not turn.
He stands where he is - staring, in absolute astonishment, at something he should really have noticed before.
The spire of the tower has come together.
A great twisted cone of glass, its sides converging and narrowing into a colossal rounded dome, the curve of something fleshy and ungainly and vast; a cathedral’s spire, not an office block’s.
He’s never seen something that felt so complete, so entire and absolute in its own sense of monstrous self.
“How did I ever think,” he marvels in silence, “that I was capable of destroying it? How could I consider myself its peer?”
Twilight passes over the glass of the tower, and rippling waves of blue and deep purple pass across his face and hands.
The witness cannot move; cannot avert his gaze.
Rapt, he watches the tower, and the world that’s reflected in it.
You could spend a lifetime charting the course of the great steel fingers, surging upwards and breaking outwards through a sea of fathomless glass.
The witness watches, quite forgetting to blink.
It’s only some hours later, his belly gurgling unhappily as the morning mist clears over the tower’s spire, that the witness begins to consider the possibility that he is confined here.
His legs will not move.
His arms will not rouse themselves from his sides to draw the curtains and block out the gaze of the tower.
And the more he dwells on the possibility, the more he begins to find that he’s resistant to the very thought of turning from it now.
He keeps his eyes on the spire of the tower.
There are others out on the street now, he realises, visible from the very peripheries of his weeping eyes. Dozens of others, occupying the pavements and the roads.
Frozen like him, and gazing blissfully upwards.
“That’s all right,” he thinks, happiness swelling in his heart. “I’ve lost all my jealousy. This is a sight to be shared with other eyes.”
Around the base of the tower, other structures rise and grow.
On the third night of his vigil, the witness notices that the noises from behind the walls have grown more distinct.
There’s the shuffling sound of something happily investigating his biscuit wrappers, like a small dog playing amongst leaves.
He can hear them gnawing on whatever entrails and leftovers he’d abandoned to the chaos to the apartment.
There’s the pitter-patter of many feet upon the kitchen counter.
There’s the itching pain of feet upon his trouser leg, the tiny claws digging into the fat of his lower back and then up, onto his shoulder.
He does not move; cannot move. His eyes remain fixed on the tower.
The expanding town beneath it is coming into focus; a sea of rooftops and spires and rolling glass.
If he were to look, he’d guess that the construction site has now begun breaking across the pavement to occupy the spaces that he’s coming increasingly to see as the old town. And if he were to look, he might confirm his suspicions that the distant grinding of diggers and tolling of wrecking balls was now emanating from the pubs and tenements and off-licenses of the old town, being torn to the ground.
He does not look.
There’s pressure around his ankles now, something fat and heavy exploring the exposed skin beneath his dressing gown.
He imagines them like a construction crew; slithering from floor to floor of his body, calling out to one another from above to below.
By the time the food runs out, he’s lost all track of the days and nights.
The city around the tower’s base has drawn both further and closer. The glittering steel-and-glass structures are rising up across the flat marshlands, breaking the level of the horizon.
In the light, he can hear the workers discussing idle things beneath the window of his apartment.
In the darkness, he’s left to himself with the creatures that swarm across his body and play tug-of-war with his unresisting dressing gown.
He waits patiently for change to come, as change must.
And when the first bite finally arrives, it feels cautious; a mere nip, as if two sharp nails are catching at the skin of his cheek, some tiny mind testing the outlandish theory that landscape may also be food.
The pain is a release.
The second bite is more confident, and as the skin rips and he feels the blood-trail swelling by his staring eye, he feels another of the verminous bodies driving its teeth into the flesh of his arm, and yet another is waddling up the vertical plane of his leg to burrow its head into his unresisting belly.
The sound of scuttling feet on linoleum is coming from every direction.
And the mouths are furiously at work across every part of him, finding new burrows and crevices beneath the skin, and he’s awash in delicate, widening streams of crimson.
His cheeks peel away. His arms distend into trailing fingers of ribboning skin. His legs burn as raw new territories are exposed to the open air.
He can feel the flabby and untended parts of himself being caved inwards, loose skin and fat being torn industriously away with each fresh bite.
“This is how it happens,” the witness thinks delightedly to himself. “This is what I was waiting for, all this time.”
He keeps his eyes fixed on the great glass monument beyond his window as the creatures feed.
“The deeper they excavate, the higher they’ll build.”
“I will become a tower.”