They smash the windows and drag me out of the car.
There’s a holding corridor, filled with shuffling bodies, and I am swiftly ushered through it into a private space with blinking machines, and beyond that another waiting room, and past that another, smaller room, each space shrinking imperceptibly in dimensions, until I feel as if my head is stooped and my back is hunched and I am staring down the length of the narrow sliver of light, towards a door that seems impossibly small.
Both of the long walls are mirrored glass, reflecting one another all of the way down into infinity. Two-way mirrors, I can only assume, with something watching me from the either side.
At the other end of the room, the long-bodied man is kneeling.
He, too, is too tall for this room, legs, arms and all. He sits on his knees, his legs folded out beneath him. His back curves and rolls out like the tail of a snake, flesh pressing against slender flesh, his grinning face at the end of an impossibly long neck and staring down into the floor.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
I tell him that my name is Riyo. I’m dual-nationality, British-Somali, and I’m travelling this way on personal business.
My inquisitor smiles and does not look up at me.
“Why are you here?”
I’m dreaming, of course.
I’m dreaming, or I’m mad.
There is no man who could look like this man, his neck ribboning out in front of his elongated, boneless spine, his tongue slipping gently from one side of his mouth to the other, his eyes and his toothy smile fixed on the cracked tiles.
He asks me again, softly,
“Why are you here? Why are you here?”
Sometimes, in this world, people go missing.
I think I’ve just become one of them.
When the interrogation is over, I’m returned to the holding corridor.
The queue barely acknowledges me. There’s a shuffling mother just ahead, clutching at an exhausted-looking boy. A couple of weary men in drab suits, rifling through their personal documents, checking to see that everything is in order.
At the very far end of the door, shimmering like a guillotine, is a pair of glass automatic doors, and an empty booth beyond them.
The doors remain firmly shut, and the stupor of the queue suggests that they have been so for a long time. A tannoy loudspeaker hangs above them, silent and unused.
I’ve been here before.
I lean forward and tap the mother on the shoulder.
‘Just to be clear,’ I venture, ‘you’re not real, are you? I’m imagining all of you?’
She looks back into my eyes and says,
‘I don’t think they like it when we ask those sorts of questions.’
‘Who is they?’ I ask, and she just shrugs and makes a sort of all-encompassing gesture that could mean: the people watching us. The people in charge, who have the power to end us. The world itself.
I press her.
‘How long have you been waiting here?’
She smiles at me and offers me a cough sweet.
My phone is working, but doesn’t appear to have any signal. There are no wi-fi connections available, and when I turn on Google Maps, it does a sort of electronic equivalent to a fainting fit, loads up, blinks, shuts itself down.
I glance back down the corridor, but there doesn’t seem to be any way out the way I came in. The corridor ends in a pot plant, and a filing cabinet, and a tourist poster that is not in any kind of language I understand, but depicts a happy, smiling family, the mother looking on from the pebbled beach as the wading father tosses their child in his arms high above the water of a great black lake.
The artist has clearly got something wrong, because the angle and position of the child in relation to the father isn’t quite as it should be, so that it almost appears as if the father is tossing the child up and out towards the lake, and the ripples that are circling outwards from the heart of the lake almost resemble a kind of maw or mouth, opening up to welcome the offering.
Perhaps I can make out the language. All languages are alike, after all, and the longer I stare at it the longer it becomes clear that the big word must surely be ESKEW, and the smaller text above it must read, COME AND SEE, or COME TO VISIT, and the tall trees that surround the lake must not be trees at all but buildings, and winding stairs.
It makes sense to me, now, the poster, in a way that it didn’t necessarily just a moment ago, or a few hours ago, or however long I’ve been waiting here.
And the longer I wait, shuffling my feet and bored out of my mind, the more it occurs to me that there may not be anything so awful or wrong about the poster, if the father is truly tossing his child up and out, towards the dark heart of the lake. Perhaps this is intended, in its own way, to be a positive message.
The child is gibbering, his or her arms extended in exultation, a clear and happy smile inked upon its face.
I’m still staring into the depths of the poster when they call my name.
They explain, kindly, that they’re carrying out a randomised safety check, and ask me to step this way.
Yes, I’ve definitely been here before.
The interrogation room is smaller again, and longer, as I return to it.
My shoulders are pressed against the mirrored walls to either side. My grimace is cast in the endless reflections.
And my inquisitor, too, has changed.
He’s a big man this time, his bulk raising him towards the ceiling and casting his infant-like bald head in shadow, so that only his great chin is visible from the temples downwards, as bald and as round as his scalp, and it wobbles fleshily when he talks and when he giggles.
‘Who are you?’ he asks.
I tell him my name is Riyo, although I’ll admit that’s not what’s written on my documents. I’m dual-nationality, British-Somali, and I’m travelling this way on personal business.
He giggles, and speaks again, in a softer, more high-pitched voice. I cannot make out his expression.
‘I said, who are you?’
That’s a more complicated question to answer, I tell him. Does he want to know my history, or my identity, or my personal thoughts on the nature of existence?
And to be quite brutally honest, is there really any point to me answering these questions if his reaction to them is never going to change?
My inquisitor shakes his head, and his chin, giggling merrily to himself, and all at once I have the absurd and unmistakeable idea that his chin is just the tip of another conjoined head, upside down and small, a second shrunken face obscured by shadow, and that both faces are talking to me.
‘Who are you?’ he asks, and all of a sudden I don’t know what to say.
The queue in the corridor has grown larger, once I’m finally returned to it.
There are too many of us in here now. Bodies are crammed against bodies, and the air smells of stale breath and unwashed clothes and a rising, unhappy desperation.
The mother is holding her son very tightly to herself, the folds of her coat half-enveloping him. Her face is clenched, as if she’s clutching him with every muscle in her body.
She wants her son to know that he’s still a person, and if he can only focus on the full force of her overwhelming love for him, he may suffer through the indignity of this, the apathy and hatred of the place that leaves us here to rot and will not allow us passage and whose approval we are expected devoutly to seek.
His big round eyes peer fearfully back at me from between the curtains of his mother’s coat.
‘So when do they bring us food?’ I ask her.
Her silence worries me. It has the feel of something that cannot, for the sake of any of us, be acknowledged.
One wheezing, elderly man a few places ahead sinks gently to the floor, his eyes closed in exhaustion, surrounded by uncompromising shoulders. The crowd around him shuffles to fill his place.
I am still at the back of the queue.
Nobody else comes in. Nobody gets through those double doors.
The hours pass, and I am still the last person who will enter - or exit - this corridor.
I avoid looking any more closely at the tourist poster, whose words are all the more evident to me now - STAY WITH US IN ESKEW - nor at the three figures inked upon it, who seem to have somehow waded further into the lake, the child itself plummeting helplessly into the depths of the water, its parents cheering it on from the shallows.
Instead, I focus on the great shining doors ahead, and try to think.
I was with Professor Henley. Then I was alone.
I was driving, through empty plains, along a long and impossibly straight road, through the rain. I’d checked the paint can dangling from the trunk over the exhaust pipe, which was still leaving a steady drip-drip of white at intervals along the tarmac.
And suddenly - I remember this so vaguely, so hazily, that I can’t be certain I didn’t imagine it - I was driving amongst ruins.
I slowed down, almost at once, to stare.
I can’t recall if they were stone or brick, because the moss and creeping vines were so heavily wrapped around them, and these were just low foundations, rising out of the flat countryside, the shape of a house, the frame of an empty window. Ancient or post-war or burnt-out, it was impossible to tell which, and they rose out of the earth so quietly and unobtrusively, cloaked in glistening foliage, that they might as well have been part of the earth themselves.
I have stood in broken cities before, in streets and neighbourhoods that lovingly held all of human life until the life broke free in stupid fury, and destroyed its own cradle. I have seen homes and shelters blackened and wasted, their kindness spoilt.
This wasn’t like that at all. It was a ruined place, but it felt as if it had always been ruined.
I remember thinking,
Some places are born, not built.
Such a strange thought to have. And I don’t know what came next, but I was still muttering the words to myself when they stopped my car and broke the glass and dragged me out.
Born, not built. Born, not built.
The third time they bring me in for questioning, they’ve given up on all pretence of choosing travellers randomly.
They simply lock eyes with me, nod, and beckon for me to follow them.
The mother who’s ahead of me in the queue gives me a sorrowful look, and I’m not certain whether she pities me or envies me - is it a positive sign, the fact that there’s so much interest being taken in me, or does it simply mean that I’ve been given multiple chances and am now due to be eliminated from contention?
‘Save my place,’ I tell her, and grin.
She doesn’t smile back at me.
I think I know what to expect from the interrogation room this time, I have a sense of the pattern, and so it catches me off-guard when I step through the door and find myself standing in darkness.
The two-way mirrors along the walls are no longer reflecting anything. They’re smoked glass, and I can just about see through them to the blackened watching spaces that lie beyond.
I have an audience, but I can’t make them out. Just shapes, slipping back and forth, back and forth, as fluid as oil.
From the far end of the room, I hear my inquisitor’s voice. A different voice.
A little girl, perhaps seven or eight, and you can already feel the wounds when she speaks, the hurt she’s suffered. The places she’s been, and everything she’s left behind.
I recognise that voice all right.
It asks me a question.
‘Where do you belong?’
Such a simple question. So very hard to answer.
Do any of us belong?
I have inhabited moments, instants of belonging, I know that much.
Holding my mother’s hand, in the town square, biting down into an ice-cream on a hot summer’s day.
In the Wandsworth town library, leafing through one book with a dozen more piled up beside me, and the librarian smiling down at me as she said I was welcome to stay right there, sitting on the carpet, for as long as I wanted.
Lying in your arms, once upon a time.
How can it be right, that all any of us are left with is moments?
But the voice is merciless, and it does not change, and it does not falter.
“Where do you belong?”
“Where do you belong?”
I give my answer.
The corridor has become a wall.
Flesh is packed into flesh, bodies struggling against one another, up to the ceiling itself. Faces gasping for air, but still gazing in hope towards those closed double doors.
The mother who is ahead of me in the queue stands facing away from me, whispering a prayer beneath her breath, crushed by those ahead of her and surrounding her.
Her son is no longer visible, a wriggling shape enveloped beneath the folds of her coat.
I have no more time for hope, I realise. Whether they let you in or they keep you out, there’s no kind ending here. If they don’t destroy you, they will make you complicit.
And so I don’t smile, when the walls of the corridor crackle with sudden sound and the tannoys bark out a simple, inescapable order.
‘Riyo Duale. Riyo Duale. Come on through.’
The people ahead of me in the queue turn back, and stare - and the mother’s eyes are on me for an instant before they collapse.
They don’t crumble, like a cigarette butt crumbles.
It’s as if they’re paper, being burnt away by an unseen flame. The edges of their skin and shape ebbing rapidly and curling upwards at the edges, their fingers just beginning to stretch out towards me in pleading desperation before they are worn away into empty stumps, into limbless torsos, into mere masks of screaming faces that float in the empty air of the corridor before withering away entirely.
And I know, in my heart I know as much as we can know anything in this world of sensation and hallucination and dreamings, that these people were as real as I am.
Maybe more so.
Their clothes remain behind - and crumple onto the floor before me. Jackets, cases, identifying documents. Empty underwear sat unhappily within empty trousers.
Pairs of shoes, all facing forwards towards the double doors - and as I watch, those doors slide gently to either side, to accommodate me.
I stoop to the coat that belonged to the mother, where the little boy was hiding himself, and peel it open.
There’s nothing there any more.
The tannoy says my name again, without impatience. I’m sure it could repeat itself for all eternity, if I stay where I am.
Before I step through the waiting doors, I do glance back down the length of the corridor, one last time, towards the tourist poster that’s blu-tacked to the farthest wall.
The three figures are no longer visible. The black lake is empty, three distinct circles of ripples spreading outwards from its surface.
The words are clear to me now, their meaning unmistakeable.
JOIN US IN ESKEW.
I turn back, and walk forward amongst the heaps of abandoned clothing, and step through the double doors.
Does it matter, what I see and hear next?
Is the truly important thing that I find myself standing in the great concrete confines of an airport car park, with the noise of rain hammering down against the roof above, beside the ruined shape of something that was once a car, but now has moss and creeping vines growing up around its wheels and breaking through its glass and over the bonnet?
Do I really believe, as I glance back over my shoulder at the drip-drips of white paint that curve away from the empty tin dangling from the trunk over the exhaust, across the concrete and into darkness, that it might be possible to retrace my steps from here?
If whatever is waiting out there for me can anticipate my thoughts, if it has indeed already got inside my head, then it must surely know what I decided as I stepped through the threshold into unknown, Eskovian territory.
It knows that I will not forgive its ruination of the mother and her child, of Mrs Ward in her empty apartment, of so many others who sought it out or found themselves entrapped by it.
I will not forgive its sparing me.
Eskew must surely anticipate that I will take the rifle from my trunk, and walk out into whatever is waiting for me beyond, and I will seek out the heart of this place and destroy it, if I can.
And yet it welcomed me in, all the same.
Perhaps it’s been waiting for someone like me.