I have begun to experiment with giving up on sleep.
It’s clear enough to me, when I listen back through these recordings, that certain experiences of mine are simply not being retained.
I have no memory of night-time visits to art galleries, of curious sicknesses, of a grinning white face in my bathroom mirror.
Something is being lost, or something is being altered behind the scenes, and most likely it’s happening as I sleep.
So. An end to that.
It isn’t so hard to keep yourself perpetually stimulated. The trick is to think of yourself as two separate selves, upon separate cycles: a daytime self, who will instinctively stumble out of bed at the noise of the alarm to begin again, and a nighttime self, who roams the darkened apartment, and requires the constant light and noise of the television, the phone screen.
I feed the nighttime self with endless distraction, and the daytime self, out of impulse or a vague sense of duty, takes care of itself.
The truly curious thing is that no matter how sick with tiredness I feel, no matter if I stumble or lurch into others on the tram or I mutter incoherently, nobody in the city seems to notice that there’s anything different about me.
It’s empowering, in a way. I feel as if I could starve myself into oblivion, transfigure myself into a grotesque parody of a man with twisted, bone-slender limbs, or even a gross and corpulent thing with bruised purple skin and champing fat jaws...
...and nobody would think to look, so long as I stood in line and went through the same movements as everyone else.
Perhaps one day I’ll do it, just to see how much I can get away with.
My name is David Ward. I am in Eskew.
I have, somehow, acquired friends, although it’s not entirely certain where they came from.
It feels as if they’ve been handed over to me as a gift, almost an apology, so sympathetic are they to my opinions, so unthreatening they are to my intelligence.
They’re content to let me sit in silence at the edge of their circle, while they discuss ordinary matters and boast of their personal achievements, pausing only occasionally to ask me for my input.
When I offer up my thoughts about the awful inscrutability of the external landscape, our inability to know for certain if anything we are experiencing is true or illusory or random or coordinated by unseen and vindictive forces, they tend to chuckle indulgently and say things like,
‘That’s our David.’
I don’t think they fully understand what I’m getting at, but it is undeniably reassuring, a real confirmation of my belonging to a genuine social tribe, to hear myself referred to as someone’s David.
Hopefully this will begin to explain exactly why I end up in the Fish Market that night.
The Eskew Fish Market swallows up several streets passing through it and around it. It’s a many-sided complex of architecturally distinct warehouses, their tin doors perpetually closed, their walls pocked with sporadic outbreaks of frosted hexagonal windows, appearing at intervals as you walk around and around. Like a rash. Like barnacles.
And in the alleyways around this forbidding, hard-angled structure, kitsch parasites have made their nests; chic bars serving off-colour lobster, restaurants beneath the neon sign of a winking river trout.
We’re sitting on the terrace outside one of these, my friends and I.
I don’t recall exactly how we got there, whether I walked alone or was accompanied, but my friends are busily discussing some matter of local politics, slipping back into the Eskovian language at intervals when they wish to express a particularly complex thought.
There’s a cold beer in my hand. There’s a wicker basket of prawn tempura on the table between us.
Gingerly, I take one, lifting it by the flaky pink fin-tail that extrudes from the batter, and bite.
The white gunge underneath the batter is shapeless, and indeterminate, and delicious.
I take another, and sit in a comfortable silence on the outskirts of the group, ignoring everything except for the vague, pleasurable sense that I am part of a group, and fitting in.
It doesn’t last.
Because a moment later, I glance up, and see the man who’s running through the shadows, underneath the steel canopy of the Fish Market.
He keeps tripping over his own feet, stumbling on the pavement and into the road, begging passers-by to help him, please, to help him.
We watch him curiously from a distance and with increased alarm as he gets closer, and closer, the greasy stains on his greatcoat shimmering revoltingly in the dusklight.
‘There’s something wrong with him,’ one of my friends says.
A second friend agrees wholeheartedly. ‘‘There’s definitely something wrong with him.’
Somebody has placed a protective napkin over the prawn tempura.
The man’s face is vague. He isn’t actively disfigured as far as I can tell, but none of his features seem to possess a force of will; his cheeks and mouth hang slack, his eyes dimly open.
He isn’t looking anywhere in particular, and yet he keeps staggering in our direction, making tottering detours and course-corrections to the right and left.
I begin to feel, privately, a little frightened that I, somehow, am the one drawing this man towards us.
Perhaps I stared at him a little too long or too sympathetically. Perhaps I give off the kind of air that attracts this kind of unwanted visitor.
And when he comes to join us, slapping his palms dramatically down against the table, I find it so very hard to look away, as my friends look away.
So very hard not to listen to him, as he raves and howls and repeats the same ugly and unwelcome phrases, over and over, staring right into my face even as his eyes wander everywhere else, before a waiter comes out and briskly shoos him back into the street,
“They’re asking for you. They want you to see them.”
“It’s not meat in there. Not even close.”
I sit in my corner, in silence. My friends order their main courses; cod, river trout, sea bass.
It’s all indeterminable to me; white slushy fillets of gunge, possessing neither texture nor form, served with chunky chips and oily courgette platters in the place of vegetables.
It all liquefies as they chew and guzzle and talk with their jaws open, the mulch of the fishmeat sticking to their teeth, barely pausing for breath before they duck their heads to their plates for another bite.
It sickens me to look at, and I coil moodily back into the warmth of my coat and sip at my beer.
I keep thinking about what the man said.
Eskew wants to be witnessed. I know that.
And so it serves me up these wanderers, these shabby figures and sirens, to lure me down dark alleyways and strange paths, isolating me from other eyes, all so it can open up something awful in front or me. Something I can’t turn away from.
And yet his words keep coming back to me.
They’re asking for you. They want to see you.
It’s not meat.
It’s a direct message. To me personally.
Could this be the moment the nightmare is explained?
Am I about to wake up?
My friends are talking amongst themselves, eating, laughing, spraying white flesh across the table.
They don’t see me and they don’t hear me as I get up from my chair and stride out purposefully across the square towards the looming domed roofs of the Fish Market.
And then I’m standing alone in the vaulted, impossibly-empty heart of the market, surrounded by stacked plastic crates and abandoned stalls, and a pungent odour that’s rich and writhing and not quite fresh.
On all six sides of the market, aluminium doors have been slid shut, and locked with chains and padlocks.
I walk along the edge, turning each corner, rattling at the handles, hoping to find a way in.
I’m halfway along the second wall when I hear a noise behind me; the nasty jittering sound of a metal gate being drawn up.
A woman looks out at me. She’s wearing white overalls, her hair is long and lank, and she too has the greasy look and odour of someone who has spent too long around fish.
‘Here to pick up the empties?’ she asks.
She doesn’t seem surprised to see me.
Naturally I reply that yes, of course, I’m here to pick up the empties. I just wasn’t sure which door to use, because they all look so similar in the dingy light of-
Halfway through my spiel, she turns with a grunt of annoyance and vanishes into the doorway, leaving me to follow her inside.
It’s almost pitch black in the corridor - or perhaps I should say tunnel, as it dips so alarmingly as I follow its course - and when I put my hand out against the wall to steady myself, it comes away sticky with something oily and fluid.
I nearly turn and head back up to the surface when I hear the mocking voice of my guide, from somewhere up ahead.
‘Come on, then. It isn’t far.’
The fish-stink is everywhere, but with every step it becomes easier to bear.
At the very lowest point of the tunnel, the floor feels slippery beneath my feet, even a little spongy, like moss - and I think I hear water lapping, somewhere off in the darkness.
A chilly draught whips around my ankles.
Eskew has sewers, of course. Underground rivers and Docks. And it’s even been said that there are hidden pathways beneath the Lowers, following their own peculiar routes, where policemen fear to tread and the gangs of the Old Town worship their bloody, feuding gods.
I steel myself, and walk on.
She’s right. It isn’t far, and soon enough I find my feet confidently hitting stone steps that lead upwards, rising back into the golden light and the murmur of voices-
-and I’m standing in a great vaulted hall of glass ceilings, ruddy and glorious in the dusklight, fresh white meat hung from the rafters and steaming with ice and frost.
Men and women in white fishmongers’ aprons stroll back and forth across the space. Clutching crates, laughing and gossiping to each other, weaving between the gigantic glass tanks of slopping water that contain today’s catch.
I forget, you know. I forget that Eskew is a city of wonders too.
My guide steps up into my vision, impatiently gesturing for me to follow her.
‘Come on,’ she says, and nods to the great steel claw that’s hanging from the centre of the hall from a thick, sopping chain. ‘Come on, we’ll do you a fresh one.’
I go to follow her - and then I see what’s in the tanks.
Pressed against the glass is a mouth, a great round puckered mouth with neither teeth nor tongue nor lips, dilating and retracting horribly with a muted popping sound. A mouth so large and awful that it’s swallowed up the white, fleshy face of the creature beneath it - two black nostril slits and two wart-like black eyes are all that can be seen.
The thing slaps a soft, pudgy hand against the glass.
I lean in. And then the thing must see me, and either it wants to consume me, or flee from me, because it begins to thrash, its horrible mouth rolling in and out, its fat white tail madly hammering up and down, protruding from the surface of the water, slapping against the faces of the other great-mouthed worms that float in the tank beside it, staring placidly at me with black and empty eyes.
I stand up. I have, suddenly, the strangest feeling.
‘How long have these been here?’ I ask.
My guide chuckles.
‘Started showing up in our nets a few months ago,’ she says. ‘They’re selling it as royal trout in the cafes. Just as well, because the damn worms keep eating all the real trout.’
I remember these creatures. They were people once. People trying to escape the city by any means necessary, by burrowing down into the dirt, twisting and changing themselves in the hope of wriggling free.
And now they’re in the river.
My guide slaps me on the shoulder.
‘Come on,’ she repeats. ‘We’ll do you a fresh one.’
She gestures to a couple of her co-workers, who stroll unhurriedly to the controls set against the wall, tugging at the levers.
Overhead, the great winch squeaks and turns, and the claw swings on its chain, its jaws opening and widening, as it’s lowered heavily and purposefully towards the nearest tank.
I watch in silence.
The claw drops. And the chain yanks hard as the jaws close on something that writhes and thrashes in the water, and the bored workmen pull the levers back.
And there’s a great white worm rising from the surface of the water, caught in the clamping jaws by its hideous face, its fat tail whipping uselessly in the air, its mouth dilating and retracting frantically in a nasty helpless popping sound.
It doesn’t sound anything like how a human might scream.
The winch pivots, and the chain clanks downwards, until the worm is hung just a couple of feet from the floor of the hall.
Two workers come out to grab hold of its tail, flailing and slipping as it thumps against them.
My guide ushers me over to the nearby worktable.
There are knives here, and saws and drills, and - worst of all - great sledgehammers, their heads spattered thickly with translucent oil.
She picks up a large butcher knife, and hefts it, like someone about to perform a particularly interesting trick.
Then she steps up to the worm, holds the knife steadily to the tail, and cuts deep.
It takes her a few seconds, and she grimaces in satisfaction as she begins to cut around and through, and the white gungy flesh comes spilling out onto her apron and onto the floor, spreading out in all directions, spilling so much more readily and easily than flesh ought to spill, and as it comes out, the worm writhes and twists and deflates, its mouth falling away, its eyes mere black stalks on either side of a skin that’s empty and limp and dead, held loosely now in the grip of those implacable steel claws.
The white flesh lies scattered and soft across the factory floor, pulsating gently to the same rhythms of the horrid white worms that float, calm and serene, in their tanks all around us.
My guide wipes herself down, laughing, and tucks the knife into her apron.
She reaches up on her tip-toes to lift the empty worm skin from the claw, resting it in her arms like a blanket, and holds it out for me to examine and touch.
It’s useful for all kinds of trades, she tells me. They sold a whole batch to be used as sausage-skins just last week. Incredible, isn’t it, how every part, every isolated element can be taken and changed and utilised for a greater purpose?
She looks at me as she says it, and it’s as if Eskew is looking back at me through those dull grey eyes.
I almost retch. I turn, waving my arms silently at her; no, no, no, and stagger back to the worktable.
I can hear her and her fellow workers guffawing with laughter, half-feigned and wholly mocking, joking about the company boy who sells the parts but doesn’t want to see what happens to the animal.
My fingers reach down. And with considerable effort, my arm shaking with the effort, I lift the sledgehammer from the table.
As I turn back to face them, swaying my path into the corridor between the tanks, I’m aware that there’s a sudden, nervous silence.
I suppose I can only explain what happens next like this; I don’t think, not even for a second, that the city will let me do it.
And so when I swing, two-handed, bringing the head of the sledgehammer to bear against the glass of the nearest tank, I’m expecting it to bounce off, or simply fail to connect.
I am so used to being powerless that I’m really not expecting the glass to shatter like it does.
And the fishmongers are running forward towards me, shouting threats or possibly warnings, as the broiling water of the tank bursts forth like a breaking dam, washing over my knees and making me stumble back, as the monstrous white worms surge out onto the hall of the fish market.
Bodies collide, wetly, slipping over each other. I take a step back. And another step back.
One of the workers is screaming. A worm is crawling up behind him, balancing itself on two pudgy hands as its tail thrashes, propelling itself forwards, its round mouth opening and closing over his foot, his ankle, his thigh.
My guide steps over the pair of them. She’s grasping her knife in one hand, and she’s looking at me without a great deal of appreciation.
She yells at me to stop.
So I turn, and I break the glass of the next tank along.
I run, a few steps further from her, dancing as much as running, laughing with wicked delight at the tide of hideous bodies spilling free behind me, and I break the glass again.
My guide is screaming, desperately trying to reach me as the worms swell over and around her like a rip tide, tripping and falling into the oily water.
I laugh. And I caper. And I swing the hammer at the next glass again, dodging the flapping tails, vaulting the hungry mouths as they reach out to kiss me.
And then I reach the end of the hall, the entrance to the tunnel, and the space behind me is churning with lolloping, struggling worms behind me, and no human beings are anywhere to be seen.
No, that isn’t quite true - all hope is not lost for the fishmongers. I can just make out my guide’s arm under the writhing mass of bodies, a single limb without anything attached to it, stabbing fiercely but blindly with her knife in every direction, then stabbing more feebly, failing to meet with white flesh, and then, eventually, stopping entirely.
I drop the hammer, turn, and plunge back into darkness.
It’s harder, on the way down; my feet keep slipping on the steps and more than once I have to catch myself against the oily walls in the blackness.
I find my way back down to the bottom of the tunnel, feeling my way along to the gentle, lapping sound of water, when I hear it.
The sound of wet fleshy tails wriggling against the walls and floor and ceiling of the tunnel behind me.
The sound of round mouths widening and narrowing, snapping and popping with horrid satisfaction, searching for me in the darkness.
I am no longer alone in this tunnel.
I walk faster. Not running, walking rapidly with both arms outstretched, no longer able to feel the walls, desperate to keep a steady footing, because I only have to reach the steps on the other side and I’ll be safe, they’ll just go back to the river, and I’ll be safe-
My foot steps out into thin air instead of stone.
And I fall.
Down into the unseen river, hitting the side of the stone dock on the way down against my leg, against my back, the dank and freezing water rising up into my face, making me choke and gasp for air, rising up in the shallows once again-
And I can hear it. Louder and louder.
That horrible slithering. Those bodies. Those mouths.
I fumble, trying to find a chain, a rope, anything I could use to pull myself back up to the tunnel, my fingernails raking against unyielding stone, and then I can hear the worms, all around me and above me, slapping their tails as they fall hungrily and happily from the side of the stone dock, hitting the water all around me, their greasy wet bodies unspooling over my face and chest even as I splutter and scream and fight for space to breathe-
...and then the water is churning, and I am still alive, and then the water is rippling as the worms furrow down and away beneath the surface, and then the water, at last, is still, and the darkness is still except for my sobbing.
When I return to the cafe table, it becomes very obvious that my friends have failed to notice my absence.
Nor do they take note of my ruined clothes, sodden with river-water and worm-grease.
One of them seems to believe I’ve been there all along, because he asks me if the ceviche was as good as it looked.
I sit there with them for a minute or two, dripping and stewing in a silence that now seems inescapably lonely, and then I get to my feet, taking only my unused fish-knife from the table, and leave them to order their coffees.
I sit alone in the restaurant’s sole unoccupied toilet stall, and clutch my head weakly in my hands.
One thing, at least, is certain. I have won a victory tonight.
I’ve taken my fate into my own hands. I’ve acted against the city and its peculiar occurrences, instead of suffering them in silence.
It’s simply a question of whether I remember that, this time tomorrow.
Whether Eskew takes this away from me, as it takes everything else.
I keep thinking of a butcher knife sliding into a thrashing tail; of white meat spilling out, and leaving only a limp shell behind.
And so I lift the fish-knife, positioning the blade against the back of my left hand, and begin to cut.
I’m barely past the M when the pain is almost too much to take, and my fingers are shaking too much to hold the knife steady, and I have besides anything else almost run out of hand...but it will have to do.
This is something tangible. This will help me remember what I’ve done. And what Eskew has done to me.
Hopefully, when I speak to you next, I’ll be a changed man.
Be with you again soon.