My hand has almost healed.
It’s just a thick white sticking plaster now; no more than a resigned and constant itch.
They tell me I can take it off soon, but I have to keep using the salve.
In happier news. Next week, I start my new job at the Orion Building Concern.
In-house editor and translator. Quite the salary, too.
A small part of me wonders whether I’m ready to go back to the office - but it is a step up, and I’ve always been fond of architecture.
As a child, I always liked to imagine places. Draw up maps of made-up streets and alleyways.
It’s a habit I’ve returned to in my convalescence; trying to sketch out the streets and landmarks of North London, testing my memory and the strength of my hand; grey and stately Hampstead, the winding, tunnelling snake of Regent’s Canal.
It’s harder than you’d think.
I’m happy enough with the results when I first glance at them, but when I look back, my maps always contain a little too much of Eskew. Impossible corners. Spiralling streets, as fluid and divergent as the black branches of the sycamores that spring up in the alcoves and between the cracks of the bricks. A single thick foreboding X which can only be the cathedral on the hill where nobody goes.
It’s the loneliest part of a lonely routine; I wake, I walk to the mini-mart for bread and eggs, tossing away the ones that twitch beneath my fingers. I return to the apartment, try to find something on television that won’t upset me, and I sleep.
And I ask myself. How long can I keep doing this?
How long can I stay in this filthy apartment in the Stranger’s Quarter, walking the streets of this rainy and perilously steep city, raging against Eskew, shrinking from its embrace, unable to let it swallow me up entirely...or to make an escape?
How long can you keep listening to this...and not help me?
It’s possible that the only idea in the universe worse than the suspicion that you are truly, helplessly alone...is the hope that you might not be.
No one is immune to hope. Even the proudest sociopath, the most unashamed misanthrope, must occasionally dream of stumbling into someone who truly understands them, no matter how absurd and impossible that longing may be.
As you can probably guess from my tone, I’ve started dating again.
Dating in Eskew is difficult.
People seem to change unexpectedly here. Their reactions can be impossible to predict.
Sometimes you can find yourself in the middle of a perfectly pleasant conversation, turn to signal the waiter, and when you look back, your dining partner is looking at you with a deranged and mocking leer upon their face, staying fixed in place like that just for a second more before picking up the conversation again, as if you’ve witnessed nothing.
Sometimes the waiter brings unasked-for and horrible dishes to your table on a platter, and your date will laugh cheerfully and encourage you to tuck in, until you give up and close your eyes and swallow the struggling, writhing forkful in a single bite.
Or perhaps you go home with someone whose soft kisses linger on your lips as she presses you down against comfortable white bedsheets, and then she steps away, moving to the window with her back coyly turned to you, reaching up to unbuckle her dress and next reaching up to peel back her skin-
The language barrier, I’m certain, does not help.
Tonight, however...tonight, as I button up my shirt and force my hair into some semblance of order...tonight, I feel that curious, inconvenient sense of possibility.
She’s waiting for me in the bar when I arrive.
And when she glances up, and catches my eye, presumably recognising me from my photo...she smiles.
It’s a little shocking. Not just the idea that she’s pleased to see me. The familiarity of the smile itself.
Almost like she knows me, or she recognise omething in me.
I think I’m smiling back.
I introduce myself, of course. Order a glass of white wine and take a seat.
Her name is Allegra; like me, she’s from elsewhere.
‘My dad met my mother when he came to Italy,’ she tells me.
Allegra works in construction; she’s a planner for the Ministry of The Interior.
I tell her that I am about to start a new job with Orion, and she instantly assumes I’m an architect, so I have to backtrack and make it clear that I know nothing whatsoever about what keeps the buildings of Eskew standing, day after day.
She doesn’t seem to mind my ignorance or my confusion; and when I explain that I’m a writer, a travel reporter on the side, she shows a keen and genuine interest in this podcast.
I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to make a fool of myself.
Allegra keeps talking.
Eskew, for once, seems to mostly be behaving itself. The bar stays still and unmoving. The crowd of drinkers all around us are ignoring us.
The jazz pianist is playing something ragged and atonal and nasty, a mockery of romantic blues music, a deluge of notes smattering up and down the scale all at once, as if he has too many fingers and all of them are hitting the keys at the same time...but I’m accustomed to ignoring worse than that.
Allegra lives alone, down near the Seagull Quays, at the top of a black glass tower block that watches over other glass tower blocks built hastily, to accommodate the newfound fashionability of the river.
It’s like staring into a forest of mirrors, she says. Glass reflections before you, and behind them, the deeper, darker reflection of the river itself.
You can sit out on your balcony to watch the sunset, staring out over Eskew, trying to make sense of the shattered fragments of street lamp and billboard and tree poiled together from a million angles; a distorted kaleidoscope of the city.
And then the sunset hits the glass from the west and suddenly it seems as if there’s fire spreading through the forest, an unstoppable tide of blinding hot light swallowing up frame after frame, until there’s nothing but fire and it’s as if Eskew itself has fallen-
“I like it,” she says with a self-deprecating shrug of her shoulders. “It makes me feel like I might not have to wake up and go to work tomorrow.”
“It’s a good survival tactic,” I reply.
She tilts her head and looks curiously up at me.
“And what’s yours?” she asks. “Your survival tactic?”
I have the sudden, peculiar sense that we’re having a real conversation.
About the jazz pianist. About what’s all around us. About what we’re trying our hardest not to pay attention to, as we sit here together in Eskew.
I have to be careful in what I say.
“I’ve made a habit of forgetting,” I tell her, simply, and it makes her laugh, but I press on, insisting, “I used to think it was a function of living here, or perhaps just growing older...but the longer I’m in Eskew, the more I realise that I’m the one doing it. Every day I wake up alone, I set out into a city of ceaseless noise and distraction and spectacle, I come home...and when I fall into bed alone, I do my best to forget what I’ve undergone, what I’ve seen. If I couldn’t forget, I’m not sure I’d be able to keep going.”
“That’s what happens when you drink,” she says. “Chemically, I mean. When you black out, and can’t remember what happened, it’s the alcohol literally inhibiting your ability to make memories. Quite clever if you’ve found a way to do that sober.”
“We should probably have another bottle, then,” I reply. ”And do our best to forget some more.”
She smiles, runs a single finger across the rim of her glass to produce a light singing note, and then says,
“Shall we go somewhere else, do you think? I can’t stand the piano player here.”
All through our second date, I find myself holding back the desperate urge to ask Allegra: are you seeing what I’m seeing? Are you hearing what I’m hearing?
Is Eskew everything to you that it is to me?
But there are so many ways this could go wrong. She could laugh at me. She could stare at me as if I’m mad.
The city could notice what’s happening here.
And so we chat about safe and boring things. our favourite restaurants. About TV shows. About the way the golden light plays upon the river here at night.
Allegra is teasing, mocking, arch...and apparently in complete sympathy with me.
Am I still alone here?
What happens to us next is very possibly my fault.
I am full of hope; charmed enough to already be daydreaming about where this might go; desperate to share something meaningful with someone, with anyone, with, specifically, Allegra, for the first time in a very long time.
And so I book two tickets for a new ballet that’s starting at the Diamond Theatre.
The Diamond Theatre could be a second-rate venue in any city in Europe. Travel to Paris or Lisbon or Prague, and I’m convinced you’d find the same stuffy building on the corner of a once-prosperous street, plaster cherubs dangling over plaster colonnades, a lobby that’s coated from top to bottom in fake red velvet stained with a thousand spilled glasses of house red. Old posters of gurning stars in performances that have long since been forgotten.
Allegra is there before me again, leaning on the bar, with the expression of someone who’s been admiring the fixtures for slightly too long.
“I’m sorry,” I begin, but she steps forward and kisses me smartly on the cheek.
“C’mon,” she says. “I got you a beer. Time to take our seats.”
We grab our drinks, pelt up the stairs, and step through the threshold into the darkness of the auditorium.
The house lights are already down. A single bright spotlight focuses on the centre of the stage, and the thick velvet curtains masking the backdrop from view.
We shuffle quietly through the silent audience to take our seats in the very second row.
We sit, glance comfortably at one another, and face forward.
An absolute silence, none of the usual shuffling of feet or rustling of crisp packets. Even the noise of the street seems
As if they’ve been waiting for us, the curtains part.
A line of performers faces away from us, costumed in old-fashioned suits and ivory lace dresses, their heads bowed.
It’s a startling effect, almost funereal, and it’s made all the stranger because each figure is standing on the very tips of their toes, swaying softly back an forth, like a row of bodies hung from invisible nooses.
A single violin strikes up from somewhere unseen; it’s a madcap peddlar’s music, jagged and staccato, playing rapidly upon all of the wrong notes.
I shuffle my feet. The carpet feels thick and granular. Like ash.
One by one, the performers turn.
I know I’ve seen that face before. In the Commemoration Gallery. In the Greyfriars Hospital. In the corners of my eye.
That white chalk skin. That wide and grinning mouth. A face without substance, crudely sketched onto the darkness behind it, its features inky and fluid. Those empty eyes that lead to somewhere else entirely.
That face, replicated in a dozen identical faces, all of them staring right at me.
And as I glance quickly to my left and right, I know that the figures seated all around us, filling every row and every chair, are staring ahead with the same void-like eyes, the same patient, hungry, smile.
Not people. A facsimile of people.
An approximation. A rehearsal.
I feel Allegra’s fingers, soft and living and kind, press into mine and squeeze hard, and I know that she is seeing exactly what I am seeing.
That I am not alone in this.
The dance begins, and we watch in silence, as still and as silent as the horrid mannequins that surround us.
The performers gather into a circle. Their arms entwine. Their arms twist. Their feet kick higher than feet should kick.
They dance on their tiptoes, feet banging down hard against the boards, making the stage quake.
A chalk-faced performer in an old wedding dress falls into the arms of a performer in a ragged dinner jacket.
They embrace and contort, their faces burrowing into each other’s faces, converging until there’s only one stretching, fleshy ahead atop two bodies that continue to caper.
Three backing dancers race to the front of the stage, forming into a circle that begins widely and tightens as they spin, hands clutching wrists and then chests pressing into chests, finally, their mouths turning up to the sky, extended to the heavens in a silent cry of distress or exultation, widening in agonised silence until there’s only one gaping throat at the centre of six kicking legs and nothing else.
Something that is mostly a face crawls from stage right to stage left to fill the stillness between arias.
And finally, as the movements reach a demented kind of crescendo, all of the performers swing inwards from their own individual dances, forming a circle that grows tighter and tighter, swallowing each other up in a single mass of black cloth and white silk and tormented, howling flesh.
When they come apart again, not one dancer is possessed of a single chalk-fleshed face or four limbs, but each deconstructed, broken individual continues to dance and cavort in its own peculiar manner.
Allegra and I watch, with our hands clasped tightly in the darkness between us, and wait desperately for this to end.
I can’t remember how long we’re watching for, or all of the horrid shapes the performers take on.
I do remember hearing Allegra’s voice in my ear, quiet and hoarse and shaking with restraint.
All she says is,
“I’m so sorry.”
As if she thinks she’s responsible for this.
I glance across to look at her, but she’s staring dead ahead, her head cocked, apparently absorbed in the performance. Pretending that everything is fine.
The dance, marked only by the clacking of the performers’ shoes and the lonely screech of the violin, goes on.
Bodies winnow their way into bodies, fusing cloth and flesh and bone.
Bodies prise themselves apart, and as the ballet of the Diamond Theatre goes on, each individual forms and reforms into new dimensions of skin and eyes and tearing fingernails protruding from their cheeks and palms.
We watch, and watch, and we pray to be deadened to the horror. It’s a sleep that never comes.
But then all at once, I realise that something has changed, because the dancers have drawn back, vanishing into the vague darkness beyond the stage, and the boards themselves are empty.
And there is light in my eyes.
A single dazzling spotlight, shining down from the rafters upon Allegra. Upon me.
We’re both looking wildly around, trying to get a sense of what’s happening, marked out in a pool of golden light against the darkness.
The audience remains seated, gazing placidly forwards with empty eyes.
And then their heads begin to turn.
Revolving, quite comfortably, as one. Their clownish chalk faces coming about to face us, twisted right around.
The clapping, when it comes, seems to emanate from elsewhere; somewhere deeper in the theatre, beneath our feet and yet from all around.
The clapping echoes through the auditorium, and rises.
Allegra is already on her feet.
I stumble up, as well, although every fibre of my being is crying out to stay seated, to shrink back into the shadows, to remain unseen.
Pointless, of course. Eskew made this for us.
Their hands are visible now, long slender white fingers extruding from dark sleeves, the palms slapping lifelessly against one another.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
Without thinking, I vault up over the ghastly figure in front of me, stumbling into the aisle, as I feel Allegra doing the same, thinking perhaps that somewhere backstage there’ll be a door or a fire escape-
-but then Allegra shouts, in a mixture of confusion and revulsion,
The performers are coming back onto the stage. Walking in a single line, arm in arm.
Their masks are our faces.
Their masks are our faces.
The audience are on their feet. As I turn, I can see hundreds of bone-white faces, across the stalls, in the boxes, above in the dizzying heights of the gallery.
The cast are standing over us on the boards, clapping with their palms tilted against each other, grinning down at us with faces that are not their own.
We’ve become the performance.
Allegra is standing beside me, caught in the spotlight. I can feel her anxious breath rise and fall as she turns, taking in her audience.
Our hands entwine.
We turn, together, and we run.
Past the rows of figures applauding in perfect, awful unison.
Through the threshold and down the stairs, into the hideous red velvet lobby of the Diamond Theatre, out through the glass doors and into the cool air of Eskew.
Once we’re clear, we slow our pace, marching downhill in the middle of the street, glancing only occasionally back over our shoulders.
The doors of the Diamond Theatre are open, and empty.
Halfway down the street, I almost feel capable of saying something - but then Allegra’s hand squeezes meaningfully at mine.
She’s quite blank-faced, but her eyes are staring upwards, towards the first and second storey apartments overlooking the road.
I follow her gaze, and keep to her pace.
We have an audience.
Chalk-white, grinning masks gaze down at us from the windows.
Every face, whether it’s hung with curtains of long black hair or a short crop, is beginning to look a little more like either of us.
Like both of us.
And the violin is playing again, from somewhere just behind my ear.
We keep walking, keep holding on to each other, staring calmly ahead as if nothing at all is wrong.
On every block, the doors on either side of the street open in silence, and the spectators file out onto the pavement to watch our procession.
And then somehow, we’re climbing up the steps to my apartment. Fumbling with my keys, I get the door unlocked; we enter, hurriedly, and bolt it shut again behind us.
There’s no sense of relief, no moment of breathless laughter now that we’re home. I think we both know Eskew too well for that.
Allegra looks tired, and frightened. She peers through the living room blinds and says, quietly,
“They’re lining the alleyway now. There’s some on the roof. Some in the houses across the street.”
I go to join her at the window.
The street is filled with our faces, replicated in chalk-white skin and oily black whirlpools for eyes.
They don’t seem to intend to harm us, at least not immediately. They simply watch, carrying out their collective purpose.
The problem is that they’re multiplying, and the more there are of them, the closer they’re standing to us.
There are silent figures on the steps leading up to my apartment, tapping their feet against the stone, waiting for us to join in the dance.
They’re outside the front door. They’re gazing back at us, through the distorted glass of the window.
There are rules to this, of course. There are always rules.
“They’ve stopped,” Allegra says, uncertainly. “They’re not coming any closer.”
“It’s the door,” I reply, with a confidence that I most certainly don’t feel. “Doors and walls are important here, I think. No matter how things change, no matter how bad things get, the doors give access - and the walls stop anything from getting through.”
She shakes her head.
“But the walls move,” she says, and we’re looking at each other as if we’re speaking aloud for the first time in our lives.
“Even if they can’t get in,” I tell her, “we can’t stay here.”
Allegra runs her hands through her hair. She looks exhausted. Like someone who’s been keeping up a facade for far too long.
“This is my fault,” she says. “I said I hated the piano player. It heard me.”
“I booked the tickets,” I reply. “I brought us into another of its traps. I should have been prepared.”
“It’s always something new,” she says, quietly. “But it’s always the same. I hate it.”
We share the silence for a moment, before she turns back to the blinds and prises them open again.
“More of them now,” she says, with an air of finality, turns to me - and screams.
I spin around.
There are faces in the walls.
Grinning masks, bulging out of the plaster and the wallpaper, mingling white dust with flesh.
There are faces in the ceiling, and the curtains, and the churning glass of the window.
And then our audience is in the apartment with us.
They’re in the kitchen, standing in the shadows behind us, smiling blandly at us, as if supremely entertained by our panic, by our fear.
They’re in the living room, and the hallway, and standing on my stair.
The violin is screaming its way into a crescendo.
Allegra looks at me. I look at her.
I slip my sweaty hand back into hers. It feels comfortable there. It feels connected to something.
And we bow.
The clapping begins, as hard and heavy as Eskovian rain, and we bow again, staring down at our toes before rising up to be confronted by a sea of awful faces-
-and we bow once more, our final encore, and when we look up, we’re alone in the apartment.
The street outside is empty.
We’re no longer being watched.
And we stare at each other with something like relief, with something like suspicion, or anti-climax - was that really all it took?
We stare at each other with weariness, a great familiar weariness, because we both know that something like this has come for us many times before, and will come many times again.
It’s the morning now. About a quarter to seven.
The watchers are still nowhere to be seen.
Allegra is still here.
She’s lying in my bed, her back turned to me, her hair spread across the pillow.
I’m recording from my study, as quietly as I can, with the door open. Waiting for her to move.
Because she will move. I’m sure of it. Whether in a minute or an hour, she’ll stir, and sit up, brushing her hair away from her forehead, and as she smiles at me I’ll smile back at her, and whatever new horrors Eskew has for us, we’ll be prepared to face them together-
-but I also wonder whether she’ll remain lying there like this, deathly still and unresponsive, until I panic or lose patience and rush to her side, turning her over…
...and she’ll be staring up at me with hollow black eyes and chalk-white skin and a grotesque, grinning mouth.
And then the clapping will begin again.
Just another trick this city’s played upon me. Just another twisted semblance of the life I’ll continue to long for, and continue to lack.
I’ll leave you here; happy, hopeful, and afraid, in a moment that cannot possibly last.
Be with you again soon.