Cities I have loved.
London, before I came to know its true face. The grandest of stereotypes. Citadel of big brands and white colonnades, Union Jacks, bright glass and ancient brick. A place where you could come from anywhere, and achieve anything…
...as long as you played along with its monstrous games.
Mogadishu. Much described to me, never visited. I used to dream of going there someday. Given current circumstances, this may be unlikely.
Amsterdam. A smoker’s city. Dress-down twenty-somethings in their hoodies sipping on their half-pints. A city of sluicing water. At seventeen years old, it felt like an escape.
Lisbon. City of hills. A breath of air, shore leave after the Grey Room sent me on my first assignment. Washing away the guilt in ceviche and sunlight.
Your hair, moments after waking.
And it is a city, up this close: a chaotic, senseless city of sprawling black towers, some springing bolt upright, others dilapidated and falling in upon themselves, caught mid-topple over the rows of your scalp, keeping watch over the vast and beautiful plains of your skin, your forehead, your eyes that open vividly as you smile and ask me how you slept.
A place of safety, and warmth, and individuality. It was the only city where I ever found what I was looking for.
And the feel of your body pressed against mine, the croon of your voice, your eyes meeting mine…
...these things are so familiar to me, so embedded in a thousand moments of my life, that I react with no surprise, this morning, when you rise from the bed beside me, and your hair is between my fingers, and your lips are on mine.
You let the kiss linger, and then you tell me you’ll see about breakfast.
The bed creaks, and then you’re gone.
I lie there. Tasting you. Smelling you. My hand reaching out to the imprint of your body in the mattress, listening to the rain pattering down on the roof from above.
You’re here. In Eskew, with me.
You were dead. And now you’re back.
You’re back, with me, in our bedroom. Those are our dressing-gowns, hanging on the back of our bedroom door.
The wallpaper is printed with white lilies on blue waters. Because you always loved white lilies. It’d always been in the back of my head that some day I might have filled our bedroom, our sacred, private space, with them.
That’s your watch, the watch I flung into the river seven years ago, placed neatly on the table on your side of our bed.
It’s a miracle.
I get slowly up, testing my aching arms, and you poke your head suddenly through the doorway and ask me if I had a good night at the club.
“Hungover,” you say, chuckling, when I don’t answer you. “That’s OK - we don’t need to leave the house today. I’ll do us breakfast.”
And then, off-handedly, as if you’ve been saying it to me every day for the past ten years, “Love you lots.”
And you snatch up your dressing gown from its hook behind the door and you vanish from sight once again.
Your breakfasts, those were things of legend, when you were with me, when you were alive.
The things you could do to an egg.
On the morning of our wedding, you crept into my flat, defying bad luck and all tradition, because you wanted to do us breakfast.
Scrambled egg, raining clumsily down between the plains of our sheets and the hills of our naked bodies.
The day itself - all flaccid public spectacle and two sets of stubborn relatives trying just hard enough to be offensive to let us know that they did not approve of this partnership; trying just hard enough to be civil that they could act shocked when we accused them of trying to spoil the wedding-
-the day itself could not compare to that shared moment.
I’d brought champagne, and we opened it early and toasted.
“To our temple.”
“To the pursuit of happiness.”
“To growing old together.”
And now I have you all to myself again.
You’re in the kitchen, scrambling the eggs. Flaking the paprika and salt over the pan as they cook, just as I like it. The walls are white and bright and glossy, and the cupboards are neatly stacked with every utensil that the department stores of the world could have to offer us.
Our pictures mark the walls. Endless years of smiling holidays, special occasions, private moments. Our faces are as happy and guiltless as stock photography models, shining behind glass.
You half-turn to acknowledge me, smirking wickedly at the sight of me, and then nod to the kitchen table where my coffee mug is steaming before a chair that has been set just to one side, before returning to your task.
None of this is real.
I know that. But I breathe this moment in for a few seconds more, just a few perfect seconds of you and me, pure sensation, absolute truth.
Then I come up beside you, and I slowly draw the largest of the carving knives from its rack, and I slit your throat.
I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps for you to vanish in a puff of smoke.
But you don’t.
You swallow, and stagger, and you raise a hand to the peeling lips of the wound as the blood runs forth, and you are mouthing something to me, your eyes displaying nothing but human incomprehension and hurt as you topple forward into my arms, and its your dying weight upon me, your blood spilling onto my chest and my face and I am screaming, oh, God, I am screaming…
...because I haven’t beaten back a phantom, I haven’t conquered an illusion.
I’ve killed you. I’ve killed my one true home.
The lightbulbs flicker. The lights go out.
Whatever Eskew is, it learns quickly.
Because when I open my eyes for the second time and find myself lying in bed beside you once more, the duvet draped over our bodies, I hesitate only for a second before I slip to my feet, sling the dressing gown over myself, and dash silently into the kitchen, leaving you slumbering, your eyes closed, your throat undamaged and whole - and find that it’s taken the knives away.
The kitchen sideboard is clear. There’s no rack.
And there’s nothing in the drawers, either, as I tear them open and find myself confronted with blank wood after blank wood. There’s nothing in them, not even a potato peeler or a spatula.
I have been left nothing to arm myself with.
Despite the work that’s gone into adjusting my current conditions, there are apparently some blind spots. There’s still a small, black puddle of blood cooling beneath the sideboard.
I step carefully around it, and continue my search for armaments.
An instant later, the door thumps behind me and you saunter through it, adjusting the belt of your dressing gown.
“Hungry?” you say. “I’ll do us breakfast.”
Then, as casually as before,
“Love you lots.”
You’re different, this time around.
It’s as if you’ve been adjusted to try and get around me somehow, your tics and tone altering ever so slightly to ensure compliance. Before you were teasing and playful.
Now you’re dutiful and focused, leaving me to my space, bending solemnly to your work.
For the next ten minutes, there’s only silence.
You scramble the eggs in the pan, calmly and happily, dusting them with paprika and salt. When they’re done, in the absence of any cutlery, you reach down and scoop them up with your bare hands to deposit them onto our plates.
You place both plates down upon the table at our respective seats, and begin to eat, with your hands, stuffing the gristly chunks of egg down into your gullet with the bowl of your palm.
It doesn’t seem to bother you that I’m trying all of the windows.
You only flinch slightly when I take the heavy steamer down from its shelf, fill it with water, and then toss it up at the glass of the window over the sink, as hard as I can.
The glass doesn’t budge. The steamer crashes down into the sink, busting the tap, which begins to hiss.
No way out.
“Breakfast is getting cold,” you tell me, with your mouth full.
I ignore you, turning and stalking to the doorway, and the staircase beyond it, leading downwards-
-and suddenly you’re standing in front of me in the threshold.
“We don’t need to leave the house today,” you say.
Your smile is pleasant, and fixed, and unyielding.
I tell you to get out of my way.
“Breakfast’s getting cold,” you tell me. “Shouldn’t you eat your breakfast before you head out? I’m only thinking of you.”
You side-step to match my side-step.
I won’t tell you again, I say, but I already know that there’s nothing in you capable of listening to me, of allowing me my victory.
Please, I tell you. Once was enough. I don’t want to hurt you again.
“Stay home today,” you insist, and your smile is cavernous.
Then I lunge to one side, trying to get past you, and you grab at me with your arms, holding me firmly in a bear hug, staggering backwards as I fight, shoving me and clawing at me, trying to force me back into the room-
-and the glass of the picture frames shatter as we slam up against the wall, and our smiling faces quiver and fray-
It’s ok, I tell myself. It’s not really you. I’m not hurting you.
You’re slow and clumsy, whoever you are, and as I shove out with both palms at once to free myself, I also trip-
-and I catch a glimpse of your face, baffled and hurt, as you fall headlong backwards down the stairs.
I hear the crunch of your neck snapping.
And as I step forward into the threshold, and the lightbulbs begin to flicker, I find myself staring down at your crumpled body, still seizing up, your head wheezing hoarsely from its crooked position, bent down upon its neck.
I get a moment longer, this time.
Because I see the next you, a second you or third you, its eyes still dull and animal and lifeless, as it trudges forward into the landing, gazes down at its dying brother, and then turns to look up at me.
Then the lights go out.
The bad news is this. My grab-bag has not survived Eskew.
There is still something in the hollow beneath the loose stone, but it skitters away from me as I peer inwards, crawling like a many-fingered hand away into the shadows, and it’s fair to assume it’s no longer a compass.
This is fine, probably. If this place has taught me anything positive, a healthy disregard for the permanence of material possessions may well be it.
I get back to my feet.
Allegra’s tower block is not what it was.
The shape and sense has been drained from it. Horizontals have turned to verticals. The inner staircase has been pulled out into the exterior, spiralling upwards like a creeper constricting around the branch of a great and ancient tree. The black glass persists in patches, whereas in others the walls have been overtaken by contusions of aged brick and stained mosaic-tile and grey spreading moss.
It resembles a colossal termite-mound of the centuries, and its sides have fallen away into the buildings on either side, which are themselves collapsing into the winding and perilous steps of the streets, which rise too high and fall too low.
Something is happening to this city.
Some of the roads have become tunnels, bore-holes plunging downwards into unfathomable depths. The lampposts are corkscrewing up and around upon themselves, like gnarled branches searching for light.
I need to find Riyo. I need to help her out of this before it’s too late.
And I think I know where she might have ended up.
No matter how much this place changes, it always remains the same.
When you come to me next, you’re all kindness and compliments, and the eggs come to me in bed, and I hold out until you’re brushing your teeth to try and escape, and when you stand in my way I strike you once in the face and you collapse like crumpled paper, your eyes rolling back in their sockets.
“Love you lots. Stay home today.”
The next time, you’re dull and meek and tell me you’ve been feeling down lately, calling out to me for comfort, and when I ignore you and make once again for the staircase, you trail after me, pleading for me to pay due attention to your pain, because we support one another in this relationship, and I kill you with a single inadvertent blow from the heel of my shoe as I try to tear you free from my ankle, your face flattening and the blood oozing forth from your steaming skull.
With every death, the air in this closed apartment becomes more stale and choking, and the artifacts of our violence litter the floor and walls.
Bloody trails. Broken glass. Our legacy of pain is tightening its hold upon this limited existence.
And the more desperate I get, the more I find myself second-guessing the mechanics of cause and effect, the invisible rules of our relationship.
Perhaps if I say the right words, or act in the right way towards you, the nightmare will shift, and your face will shift, and I’ll find myself talking to the real you, and we’ll escape from this place together.
If I can only get it right, perhaps things won’t go bad between us.
But it always goes bad.
I find myself wondering if your fragility is a ploy in itself, as if you want me to be afraid of my own power, my own ability to cause you harm. As if your sheer vulnerability will make me compliant.
Perhaps it’s futile, to keep trying to get away. But I will not comply. I will not be kept here.
I will get out, no matter how many times I’m forced to relive my worst moment.
No matter how many times I have to kill you.
And when I do kill you, in that split second before the lights flicker and go out and we reawaken in our default state of sleeping bliss, I am sometimes privy to the arrival of your successor, dull-eyed and bestial, sloping forward into the downstairs hallway or gazing at me from the shadows of the threshold, your face slowly resolving itself into new expressions of love, for the trial that’s to come next.
You have already died so many times.
You will die so many times again.
I open my eyes, and this time it’s different.
I’m alone in our bed.
And the wallpaper is peeling from the walls.
The white lilies are sloughing away in strips, like skin peeling away from flesh.
Scraps of it are floating through the air like ash. The mattress beneath me is oily with some grisly black mould.
And you’re nowhere to be seen.
I don’t know why the pattern has chosen this moment to break. Whether the city has had enough of me, or my tenacity as been rewarded, or this entire fucking cycle is random and beyond my control and in another world I might be trapped here forever.
But the pattern has broken. And I’d be a fool not to seize the chance.
I slip out of bed, and find my clothes - stacked neatly in a tower-like heap on the nearest chair - and put them on.
Halfway through the second sock, I look up - and realise something.
It’s as if the apartment has begun to decay before my eyes, and now that its form has been disrupted, I recognise the shape of the room, the floorboards beneath the mouldering carpet, for the first time.
This is the ruined apartment where I slept, when I first arrived here, before we went to the nightclub.
I’m back where I started.
Which means that my rifle-
I drop to my knees, shoving the bed forcibly to one side with a horrible grinding sound, and begin to prise the dusty floorboards back.
My rifle is there - but it is changed.
Growing across the butt is another you, a small and withered thing without legs or arms, the wood and metal conjoined with skin, a kind of coddled doll of flesh bearing your face and your eyes spreading itself over the trigger and barrel, and as it stirs it looks up at me and whispers,
“Love you lots. Love you lots.”
I drop the board, and run.
You’re in the photographs, your face shimmering and twisting against the glass, turning to face me as I dash through the kitchen.
You’re in the wallpaper, your hands pressing through the lilies, your face straining, open-mouthed in blue and in white.
I pelt down the stairs, and through the threshold, and the many forms of you are slipping backwards into the rotten walls and from the ceiling, whispering love, nothing but love, and as I push down the second flight I’m in the basement, the windowless darkness of the final room, and your many deaths are sinking back into the wood all around me.
A broken-necked you, staggering forth, its head wobbling as it retreats.
A slit-throat you, its jugular dripping with curtains of blood.
A faceless you, its cheeks sodden with falling skin and the dripping juices of your head’s interior.
I’ve killed you more times than I thought possible.
All of them repeating the same words through shattered jaws or bared, lipless throats, half-sunken into the wood and the fabric, beckoning for me to come and join you, enveloping myself into the walls of our apartment.
And then I turn, and the last You is standing before me.
Your eyes are bleak. Your jaw slack. You look at me, without curiosity or care.
I’m expecting a punchline, I realise. Any moment of catharsis, a brief instant at the end when you regain the light in your eyes and you say something meaningful and true before you go, but...it doesn’t come.
You take a step backwards, then another step, and the mouldy wallpaper coils to envelop you.
You just keep retreating from me. Keep repeating the same words that have lost all sense. And as you pull back into the dank basement walls, the shape of you deforms, and I can’t remember what you really looked like.
“Stay home today, Riyo. Just stay home with me.”
And then the wooden splinters break through your eyes, and burst through your lips to shut your mouth for the final time, and all I can think is this:
We were never home to each other.
You thought you’d found a partner in adventure. I thought I’d found a partner in revolt.
Both of us were dreaming. And just because there’s never been another human being on this earth who’s measured up to you...well, that means a lot of things, but it didn’t mean we should have stayed together.
I won’t ever let you go. Not entirely. But my home is not with you.
My home is somewhere I haven’t found yet.
There’s a door now, at the far end of the basement.
I hesitate just for a second before turning the handle.
And then I push my way out into the open air of the street, the rain dripping over my forehead and my hair, and I stand there, breathing in the free air, and open my eyes.
The city is changed. That’s the first thing I notice.
Like you, the life and the illusion have drained out of it.
The second or third thing I notice is David Ward, on the street before me, wide-eyed and frantic, clutching a length of rebar as if he intended to swing it at whatever came out through the door.
“I was coming to help,” he says, in a awkward and slightly put-out voice.
I laugh, and laugh, and collapse down onto the crumbling brick of the stairs, and I stay there.
‘What did you see in there?’ I ask.
Riyo doesn’t look at me.
Instead, she looks up, and her gaze falls across the altered streets before us.
“Well, what do we now?” she says.
Far above us, both looming and distant at the very highest precipice of the hill, we can just make out the ruined dome and spire of the cathedral, shining in the rain, a colossal skull struck through with a savage nail.
It’s as if I can see it clearly for the first time, the forlorn holes in its roof, the broken heads of the statues clinging to its buttresses and parapets, the tawdry plastic clinging to the empty stained-glass windows.
Between it and us lie the endless streets of Eskew.
‘Now we climb,’ I say.