The man is broken.
It’s a strange turn of phrase, now that I come to think about it.
It’s one of those quirks of English, the kind of quiet inexplicable oddity you might not pick up on unless it was the second - or in my case, the third - language you learned.
When we say,
“He was attacked,” or, “he was spoken to,” we understand that we’re speaking in the past tense of an attack or a conversation that only happened once.
People don’t stay attacked.
But when we say, “he was broken,” we might be speaking of the past, the singular act of being broken, and but also a present condition, and an inevitable future; a state of brokenness that is everywhere, and deeply felt, and unshakeable.
That’s what I keep thinking of, as I look down at David Ward, that past, present, and future.
I can track the timelines of everything that’s happened to him, his past hurts and humiliations, in every twitching muscle and flinching movement of his present existence.
It’s...painful to look at.
The woman doesn’t make sense.
She says she’s just arrived here, as if Eskew was a place you could wander into at will, as if she’s come strolling into this city of nightmares equipped with a work visa and a zip-lock bag of local currency.
And a rifle.
Placed across her knees, it isn’t quite pointing at me.
One of her legs jogs up and down occasionally, as if to pre-empt a future in which it might be pointing at me.
She says she’s trying to find her bearings, that she was looking for a working map or a document of the city underground, but now that she’s found me, she supposes a living guide will do just as well.
I tell her my name, and she blinks, as if she’s surprised to learn that I can have a name, but then she nods and repeats it, softly, to herself.
“I’m Riyo,” she says.
I ask her how she got lost, to end up here with me.
“I didn’t get lost,” I tell him. “I came here looking for someone.”
He snorts and wipes the ash ineffectually from his face and says that they’re probably dead.
Well, not quite.
A small soft voice in me begins to hiss that I should tell him now that he’s the one I came looking for, but the man is clearly holding on by a thread as it is, and I don’t see the value in letting him know what happened to his mother after she began dreaming of Eskew.
Nor do I see the value in telling him that, from the flecks of premature silver in his hair and the thick bags beneath his eyes, he is some years older than he should be.
The Grey Room instructors were always clear on this point. There’s no benefit to undermining your own resources.
And right now, David is the only resource I have.
“I’m here now,” I say. “Wherever here is. And I want to put a stop to this.”
He runs his hands through his hair, wearily and uncertainly - and then begins to laugh.
Oh, she’s new here, all right. Full of humanity and righteous spirit, ready to change things for the better.
I can’t help myself. I begin to cackle, helplessly and spitefully, and the woman with the rifle frowns.
“David,” she says. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. But trust me, I’m not going to stop. I’m going to put an end to this place, and I’m going to get us out of here.”
She doesn’t say it kindly - but her certainty is really something, and it makes me hesitate, just for a second.
“I believe you,” I tell her. “I really do, and I’m sure you’re far more capable than me, or you wouldn’t have got this far, but...you have to understand where you are.”
“I know where I am,” she says, and no. No, I won’t have that.
I ask her,
“Do you have any idea how it feels to spend years at a time playing at being a person?"
"To have no choice but to keep going through the patterns, faithfully acting out the parts as you’re assigned to them, over and over, pretending that you could be respected or loved, that you could be a father or a son or human being, and every time you think, yes, I’ve struck upon something real here, I’ve found my place in the seething hive of bodies and apathy and hate and my stupid frightened, petty consciousness, my life has meaning now, that’s when it all turns on you, because your world has been listening to every word and every thought since the beginning, waiting for the most absurd and humiliating opportunity it can find to tear the shroud back.
"And it doesn’t even end after everything has been stripped from you, because this place’s final perpetual funny trick is to set its little pieces back into motion, and make you begin again, and again, until every memory of the stable person you might have been is adrift in the great grey sea and every scrap of hope has been snatched from you and every honest feeling is just putty to be twisted into a noose against you, and you’re left with just enough hope each time to keep on going, just enough dry scraps of hope, because the truth is that you are too stubborn and stupid to give up on hope no matter how consistently the tides of your existence demonstrate otherwise, that you would sacrifice everything and everyone in a heartbeat if you could just be sure of your own senses from this moment on, and so you will keep falling for that promise. Every. Single. Time.
"And then some brave soul parachutes in from the moon and says, David, this time it’s right to start hoping, did you never think to click your heels three times and go home, because the answers were inside you all along, and you want me to trust you? You want me to believe that Eskew will let either of us go? Where do you think you are? Where the fuck do you think you are?”
Perhaps he’s more alive than I thought.
I hold up a hand.
“All right,” I tell him. “I understand. I’ve only just arrived. You know this place and I don’t.”
And I would never say this out loud, but...at first glance, there are worse cities in the world.
The people here don’t seem to pay me any attention. The streets are old and charming in how they wind around upon themselves. Since I passed through, before my encounter with David, everything has seemed...ordinary.
There is something else, though. Like a kind of background noise in the corners of the stairs, a movement in the refracting light that spins from the dusty windows of our refuge.
Perhaps it’s the rain, keeping me on edge.
“You know more than I do about how this place works,” I tell David. “And there are rules, I’m sure. There are always rules. So. What happens next?”
He stares unhappily at me.
“Most likely,” he says, “we won’t meet again. You’ll open your eyes, or you’ll turn a corner, and the city will have found a place for you. Struggle free of it, and things will reset. And you won’t remember that we met, and that pop-gun will be taken from you along with everything else, and none of this will matter.”
“OK,” I reply. “So you’re telling me we don’t have much time. That it’s important not to lose track of each other. This is all useful, David. This all helps.”
“Sure,” he says. “Glad to be making a difference.”
She gets to her feet, staring out of the window.
“I was trying to get up there,” she says, and she nods up towards a patch of sky above the rooftops to the east that my eyes instinctively avoid, the shape of a great empty dome and spire. “But I just kept getting turned around in the streets.”
“It’s the cathedral,” I tell her. “Most people stay clear of it. I’ve never made it up there to the top of the hill. Like I said, Eskew...turns things against you. Isolates you.”
“I’ve got something that might help us get around that,” she tells me, and reaches into her rucksack.
Inside are two beetle-black, miniature radios, complete with earpiece.
“I bought these in Prague,” she says. “One for you, and one for me. I’ve been testing them since I arrived, and they don’t seem to be picking up anything outside of their own wavelength...but for keeping us in contact, they’ll do just fine.”
I ask her if she’s certain that she bought them in Prague, if she can be sure of it, and she just gives me a funny look and tells me yes.
I take the radio she’s offering me.
“I’ll stay here,” Riyo says. “Minimise my contact with the city as much as possible. Perhaps there’s something in the air that causes the...effects you’ve mentioned. I have enough rations of my own to hole up for a few days at least.”
“Tried it,” I tell her simply, but she ignores me.
“Find out as much as you can about the cathedral,” she says. “Ask around. Who built it. How do we get up there? Anything that might help me make sense of this.”
I’m crouched on the toilet, fully clothed.
Allegra is at work. My son is loose, somewhere in the apartment.
I raise the earpiece gingerly over my ear, adjust the radio’s wavelength to exactly 14.0, and say,
It’s a relief to hear another voice.
I feel as if I’ve been going a little stir-crazy, cooped up in this old apartment.
“David,” I reply. “David, talk to me.”
He says he might have found something.
Apparently his girlfriend - or wife, or living partner, he seems customarily confused on this point - has been talking for some time of a new project, a city expansion.
“Expansion into where?” I ask. “Expansion into what?”
He says he doesn’t know, in a voice that indicates he suspects.
“But they’re getting close,” he tells me. “I know that much. She told me before she left. She’s out tomorrow night, because they’re celebrating the launch of it.”
“How much do you think she knows?” I ask him.
He doesn’t know how much she knows.
“Can I come and talk to her?” I ask.
“That isn’t a good idea,” he says with sudden agitation. “My - her apartment is watched. Inhabited.”
I’m picturing something.
Spires and pointed rooftops, rising out of the wet earth. Like wet flesh.
This place isn’t so inexplicable. Wherever in the world there’s power, it only wants to spread.
I tell David I need to know who ‘they’ is. Who’s leading on the expansion project? Who’s giving the orders?
He says he doesn’t know.
He says he doubts there’s any ‘who’ to be leading on it, but this makes less sense than before, and when I press him on it, he just says,
“There won’t be any man behind the curtain, Riyo. Only more curtains.”
“Okay,” she says. “Okay, let’s not get frustrated at each other. You say they’re celebrating. Where are they celebrating? We can go along, I’ll take some photographs, and we can identify them.”
Tomorrow night, I tell her. Allegra told me, tomorrow night, they’re celebrating at a place called the Pendulum Nightclub. Champagne and booth tables, she said. She wanted me to come along.
She’s silent for a time, then says,
“All right. Then that’s our plan. We follow them to the club. You go and say hello, chat to them. I keep my distance; take some photographs. We figure out who we’re dealing with, and then we hunt them down and interrogate them until we know more about what they have planned and how it’s going to happen.”
I begin to protest, but she says,
“If this place is expanding, then someone has a plan. And if someone has a plan, there must be someone capable of thought and action, and where there is thought and action, we can counteract. Believe in me, David.”
She sounds so confident. Perhaps this will work after all.
I’m uncertain, I admit.
David has clearly established that this place changes when you aren’t looking. If that’s right, then a darkened nightclub, filled with crowds and with only a few exits, is exactly the worst place to be.
But he seems so confident about his plan, almost uncharacteristically so.
Perhaps that all it took, having a fellow traveller to help him get to the bottom of this.
“All right,” I tell him. “All right. Meet me here tomorrow night?”
“Yes,” he says, slowly. “If you’re still there then. If you’re still you then.”
“You still don’t trust me,” I say. I don’t mean it as an accusation, just a statement of fact. “David, I still don’t think you believe I’m real.”
A long silence.
“I have some remaining hope that you’re just another trick of this place sent to torment me,” he replies. “But that’s for your sake, not for mine.”
At dusk the broken man comes to collect me.
I should be bored. Cooped up alone like this.
But time passes quickly, almost inadvertently, as I sit in my chair and gaze into the window with a view of the cathedral.
It’s funny, how the rain falls against the glass. Coursing and pooling, creating new spires over the dome, an elliptical architecture of clear water forming over the structure. Always fascinating, never quite the same from one second to the next.
David’s knock wakes me from my reverie. I go to the door and let him in.
I’m wearing a longcoat and Doc Martens, my radio-device discreetly slotted into my belt. He’s dressed...in the same clothing as before, an outfit so faded and thoughtless and non-descript that I can only imagine it must have grown up over him over time without his input, as old ivy grows over old ruins.
I observe that neither of us are dressed for the club. He just shrugs and says that if Eskew truly doesn’t want us to get in, we won’t get in.
“Which indicates that if we do get in,” I reply archly, “it’s because Eskew wants us to and we’re in terrible danger, and therefore any measure of success is only an indicator of our approaching doom.”
“Now you’re getting the hang of it,” he says, and together we step out into the night.
The rifle I leave behind, under a floorboard, scattering the dust back across it with a single breath.
Pendulum, like all nightclubs of my limited experience, seems to have grown quite organically like a discreet parasite from inside the belly of a featureless patch of streets.
The surrounding neighbourhood is derelict, its staircases collapsing downwards on either side into private labyrinths of aluminium and loose cable wiring, inhabited by shapes of no gender and uncertain motives who step out to ask us whether we’re looking for a good time.
I assure each of them, in turn, that thank you, but there’s no such thing here as a good time.
I feel a little light-headed.
When we arrive at the club, perched at the very end of the ridge of the street, it takes us a moment to realise that we have arrived. There are no windows, no billboard, no reason for anything to be here, and certainly no whispers of music audible to the outside world; just an intimidatingly thick door and a winding, empty lane of industrial barriers with a colossal man waiting for us at the end of it.
Riyo goes first, meeting the bouncer’s eye with a nod, and I sort of scurry along in the wake of her.
As we step through the threshold and into the crimson-lit lobby, the music comes to us in a rush.
It’s the bass that hits me first; an impossibly loud thump, thump, thump, like an irregular heartbeat pounding through my skull, and the aftershocks reverberating from the floor upwards.
And the words, the words are nonsense, that kind of bubblegum semi-translated trash-pop that relies on simple repeated rhymes and heavy synth:
Don’t tell me I’m your baby
It’s time for us to party
Baby, I’m going crazy
I know I’ve been misbehaving
Only you can save me.
I can see the patrons all around us, their nodding heads silhouetted, their hips and shoulders spasming back and forth as they wave their arms and sing excitedly along.
The lobby corridor stretches out before us, up a set of steps, lit by glowing golden deco lamps.
And then I hear Riyo’s voice in my earpiece.
“Don’t stray too far.”
Probably good advice.
She asks me, quietly and urgently, if all of these people are real, or if they’re something else. I say I have no idea.
The corridors of the club are packed with shambolic bodies, drifting arhythmically along to a track that has no real melody and no stable beat, screaming excitedly along to a lyric that contains no clear sentiments.
They’re not even moving their legs, just shuffling on the spot, refusing to shift even an inch as we descend past them down the wide staircase, pressing through the mass of bodies…
...and suddenly Pendulum opens up into a vast mirrored hall beneath a balcony stage, and the song that is playing in here is entirely different from the entrance hallway, but somehow exactly the same, just as shrill and trashy as before, and the hundreds of clubgoers in here are all dancing just as hard and just as far from any kind of stable rhythm.
It isn’t that they’re off the beat. They’re on the beat, every single one of them. Everyone seems to know exactly how they should be dancing to this, even though the noise is so violently unpredictable as to make it impossible. But the beat is rotten and strange and every time they hit it, they flail with their arms and shoulders and heads and shriek in excitement, and nobody’s even trying to move their legs, as if this part of their anatomies hasn’t even occurred to them.
Either something is very wrong here, or everyone is on very good drugs, or I am just far too old for this kind of scene.
And the vocals that they’re singing to, it’s clearly a different song, but whatever genre this is, it’s so identikit and so synth-drowned that the lyrics sound as if they’ve just been patched together like a corpse from the lyrics of the last song:
Woooah, baby, let’s head to the club now
You know I’m in love now
It’s time for us to party
Save me with your love now
The noise feels like it’s coming from everywhere at once.
David hisses, in my ear,
“Head for the bar. We’ll be able to get a clear view of the entire dancefloor from there.”
People don’t move for us; we press forward through a sea of lurching elbows and spilling drinks, constantly beset by new obstacles and navigating circles of aggressive communal dancing. Which is normal enough in any club, I suppose.
We reach the bar; I flick a hand to get the tender’s attention.
“Not a lot of drinkers here tonight,” I venture.
The bartender stares at me for a moment, then barks out a laugh.
“Maybe people just want to enjoy the music,” he says.
I turn and gaze back out over the massed flesh of the dance floor, just as the track changes, becoming something parping and shrill with a faster beat. The clubgoers deflate for a moment, then rise back up into a frenzy, their throats bared to the ceiling, screaming along to the next song.
I feel like misbehaving
You feel in need of saving
This world is just so crazy
Time for us to party
“Maybe,” I say.
Her suggestion was a good one.
From the length of the bar, which is curiously empty, we can see the entire vaulted space of Pendulum.
Or perhaps not, I realise.
There’s actually another doorway to the right, through which you can just about make out the thumping beat of another track in an entirely different genre, and now that I’m looking there’s a long stairwell on the other side, leading up to a threshold with its own bouncer that could be some kind of restricted space.
I get Riyo’s attention, and point.
“There are other rooms,” I tell her. “Clubs within the club.”
“Don’t suppose your girl is standing out here in plain sight,” she says. “Sure she’s here?”
I check my phone.
I have, in fact, received a slew of messages from Allegra.
OMG so much fun
A photo of heaving bodies, so dark and so dim that.
A photo of her face, curiously lit from below, her eyes wide, a second grinning and troglodytic face rising up from over her shoulder, apparently unseen.
Hashtag it was the best of times it was the worst of times
This is just a shot of the tiled floor, I think, although there’s an eerie golden glow in the corner that might indicate a shot glass.
“She’s here,” I say aloud. “But she might be deeper in the club.”
Riyo turns away from me. She seems to be observing the sea of bodies with...contempt? Or just watchfulness.
“Then we go deeper,” she says, a hiss of static in my ear.
We take our drinks, and press our way through the dancefloor, through this space into the space beyond.
I think this place is getting worse.
It’s hotter in this room, a real sweltering heat of summer storms, and as we force our way through the dancing clubgoers, their sweat clings to us, drawing us back, slowing us down.
It’s darker, and noisier, the music thumping and roaring up from above and below all at once, the dancers screaming and flailing in excitement at every dropped beat, at every new screech of the vocals.
Baby love. Party crazy. Hurt me maybe. To the club. Fall in love. Crazy party. Time to party. Hurt me save me.
“Maybe we should turn back,” I tell David, but he keeps pressing forward through the crowd ahead of me, and I hear his voice in my ear,
“She’s in here somewhere. I know she is. We just have to keep going.”
I call out to him to stop,
We reach the end of the space, and pass under the threshold, and keep going, and it is so dark now-
-so dark that soon we won’t be able to see, other than for the strobe-light flashes from far above us that ignite the shrieking faces and extended hands-
Just noise…a raging torrent of noise, and bodies kicking and slapping against one another, and I can feel the song of rage as it’s screamed from a thousand helpless throats:
Party. Love. Crazy. Save me. Misbehaving. Love me party. Club me crazy.
Riyo is shoving her way forward ahead of me, I think, just visible, her voice hissing in my ear,
“Not much further now. We’re almost at the end, David. Just keep going.”
And something occurs to me.
I know what was bothering me, all of this time, and it was so simple, so very simple.
I stop moving.
The little gully of empty space between me and David remains open for a moment longer - and then is closed up with shining bodies, flailing their hands, dancing in place.
I can no longer see him.
“Wait,” I say, unsteady. I need to think. I need to get my head around this, but it’s the damned music, the beat, the hissing vocals, pulsing through my head, making it impossible to retain control over any form of clear thought-
“Wait, David, I’ve just realised something. You were right. I don’t remember buying this in Prague. I didn’t...David, what the hell is in my ear?"
This is when the music stops.
And the dancers are no longer dancing.
They’re just standing still.
Deflated, that’s how they look in the unforgiving yellow glare of the house lights. Their arms hanging limply from their sides, their heads fallen back into their own empty throats and shoulders.
Their skin is wan and drawn, almost translucent, as if they’ve been forcibly hollowed out from within.
But their eyes are still vivid and alive, the nearest of the dancers staring at me with a wide bulging look that gets across her confusion and pain and horror-
-and her dread, about what’s coming next.
Slowly, I lean down.
The sides of her shoes have burst.
The flesh of her feet has oozed out through the fabric, spreading over the floor in a thick pink molten puddle, sinking into the ground.
She’s caught in place, this hollow dancer.
And the man next to her, his shoes are broken fragments of lace and sole, caught up in the slopping mess of his feet, and its flesh spreads out and sinks into the floor, its veins twitching softly and painfully, and the man beside him, and beside him-
Every person here is caught in place.
I raise a hand to my earpiece.
“Riyo,” I say. “Riyo, I think you need to get out of here. This is a trap. She’s not really here, Riyo- she’s not really here-“
The radio crackles for a moment.
And then I hear Riyo’s voice, slow and malevolent, as if it’s coming from inside my head,
“No. No, she’s not really here.”
“Time for us to party.”
The lights go out.
And the music starts up.
I only see flashes.
The dancers’ bodies, engorging with the breath of whatever lies beneath the Pendulum nightclub, their arms stirring into motion as the rumbling bass makes the floor shake and the strobe lights flicker, on, off, on, off-
Their necks snapping upwards, their eyes still wide and panicked as their mouths split open and the next song comes roaring unstoppably up and out from every throat, a dreadful wind of babbling nonsense,
Time to party. Take me baby. Call me crazy. Misbehaving. Time to party.
I turn and run.
And I can feel the song shifting against me, as the dancers are tilted unstoppably into my path, their spines snapping as they’re contorted out of shape to try and block my passage, their fingers lunging for me, tearing at my skin-
I duck and punch, but the breath that’s rising up from out of the hollow dancers’ bodies is unstoppably strong, and I find myself knocked back, into the path of a screaming man who exults that it’s a good time in the club, scratching my face with his nails, until I fall back against a woman shrieking that we can make it all night, baby, baby, her hands around my throat, throttling, her ragged hair in my face, and I wriggle free onto the floor, and now I’m screaming as the hollow dancers reach down, dragging me up, hauling me over their heads, passing me towards the stage-
-what’s waiting for me on the stage? What is that scaffold? What is that pit?
What is the song rising in a single ragged breath from the void far beneath it, echoing up through the empty throats of the dancers?
“David,” I scream. “David, where are you?”
“David, where have you-“
Forth and up, like a laughing, helpless child being flung into the air.
Down, falling, into darkness.
I see her in flashes.
My wife is walking towards me across the dancefloor, and as she passes, the hollow dancers wither, their ribcages folding in upon themselves, bowing in deflation.
Allegra’s face is cut with blood-black lines, etched squares and streets.
Her face is a jigsaw. Her face is a map.
Her eyes are doorways.
“David,” she says.
“David, come celebrate with us. It’s time we caught up.”
She lays a hand on my shoulder.
I draw back from her, and the look on her face is cold, devastated.
She snaps her fingers - and the ground gives way beneath my feet.
Then I’m falling. Into darkness.
Now we’re getting somewhere.