“Gardening,” Allegra says. “You’ll like that, gardening.”
I look up from my breakfast.
For the past two weeks, we’ve circled each other like hyenas in this apartment.
She tells me that I will feel better when I’m working again, that the big city is a difficult place to be when you’re alone and without purpose, that things aren’t always as bad as they seem.
I mention idly to her that I’d love to hear more about her work with the Eskew town planner’s office, this expansion project she keeps referring to - what does it mean, exactly? When will it begin?
She tells me with a laugh that my curiosity is adorable, but that sort of thing is strictly confidential- for the time being, at least. She asks me whether I’d be interested in editing the city archives, as a part-time position?
We no longer converse; we only use words to trap one another.
Something has broken between us, and I can’t say in honesty whether she’s been changed by Eskew or if she can simply no longer trust me to say what she’s thinking.
There are work meetings now that go on until late into the night, and when she comes back to the luxurious apartment we now share her eyes are gleaming with the vision and promise of something unspoken.
There’s a drawer now beneath her desk that contains papers, and a laptop, that are locked safely away.
I do not know what the expansion is. I suspect that it means I have limited time.
Perhaps Allegra knows today that I am considering breaking into the drawer beneath her desk, to gather some clue about what the expansion is or what’s behind all of this or how I might escape, because she says, kindly,
“Gardening. There’s a friend who’s a trustee at the old Preparatory School in the Jeweller’s Quarter. They have extensive grounds, and they’re looking for some attendants to help them keep it tidy. Nice quiet work, plenty of time to think - and you’d be outside.”
She takes out her laptop, minimises a document that looks official, with some kind of sketch of the cathedral tower, and shows me a website.
A long, sumptuous gravel drive, leading up across the lawns towards a grand red-brick edifice, a coat of arms above grand-looking double gates.
Allegra and I stare at each other, both of us smiling.
It’s possible that I may have trust issues. Perhaps she’s simply worried that I’m turning into a parasite, another spoilt man-child who lounges on her sofa and refuses to do anything with himself.
Either way, my relationship is dying, one smile at a time.
I tell her I’d love to know more about the position.
Two weeks later, I’m kneeling in the frost and dew of the great lawns that roll downwards from the sullen red-brick of the Old Preparatory School towards the fearsome, knife-bright mirror of the lake, buried in reeds that fade away into tall ghostly birch.
I pick at the warty black roots that come roiling up through the grass, seeking out weak points and angles with my gloved fingers, with my trowel.
I flatter myself that I’m prising them up as fast as I can, and in fact since I started here I have developed several semi-efficient strategies for uprooting them, in the absence of any instruction in this groundskeeper’s position.
But there’s no end to these roots. They drop deeper, and grow thicker, than I could possibly have anticipated.
I was given the gloves, and a key to the groundskeeper’s shed, and a thick hand-shake from the headmaster.
Since then I’ve been all but left to my own devices.
Tonight, at least, offers something unusual. There’s going to be a concert; an outdoor recital, tribute to some great tormented, staccato Eskovian composer.
The extravagant spectacle will encourage the wealthy parents of the children who come here to make donations that will enable further extravagant spectacles for years to come, perhaps a new stadium or an opera hall or some other venue for future fundraisers of this kind.
I’m not expecting much, it’s fair to say - but it’s tonight that I encounter the first Magda.
I shouldn’t say the first.
I have no way of knowing how many Magdas there were before I began working at the Old Preparatory School, whether this is the timely glimpse of something awful blossoming into existence for the first time, or simply the perpetuation of some grander cycle.
The first Magda of my experience, let’s say, is the one I encounter that night.
My work ends.
And yet I linger on, like a shadow in the grounds of the school, unwilling to return to an apartment that is not mine and a lover I no longer recognise.
The sun has gone down beneath the dark trees.
The lanterns are lit. A miniature forest of colourful tents has been planted across the school’s central lawns, split by a broad gravel drive. Cushions are laid out beneath the canopies, with immaculately-assembled picnic selections and bottles of bubbly.
Tonight the rich get to play at being without a home.
And as I stalk the edges of the grounds with trowel in hand, careful not to stray too close to the illuminated spaces where I might be seen by a student or a guest, I begin to hear the whispers about Magdalena Marin, gathering in the eddies and the ebb tides of conversation.
It’s as if a celebrity is attending the concert tonight.
“Unbelievable,” one father mutters, adjusting his son’s bow tie. “Unbelievable that they never expelled her.”
“They should have expelled her,” the boy says, beaming upwards, “You know that, Dad. Everyone knows she did it. It’s just that her parents went to the Head of House-“
“They’re odd too, of course. The whole family. A real pack of freaks.”
“They are, Dad, everyone says it - and they went to the Head of House, and they threatened to kick up a fuss about it to the newspapers.”
“Everyone’s too scared to do anything these days,” a mother announces to her daughters. “Nobody takes action. They should have got rid of her. I don’t want someone like that in your school. I had half a mind to take you out both myself.”
Two giggling teenagers, running hand in hand, declare their intentions to find Magdalena Marin and push her down and spit champagne in her eyes and run away.
“Can you believe what she did?” they ask each other. “Can you believe what she did?”
As it turns out, the Marins have pitched their picnic blanket and tent right on the other side of the school grounds, close to the dark and empty lake, and by the time I arrive they’re already surrounded by three or four other parents, quivering with excited anticipation of a real blow-out argument to come.
One lead parent stands at their head, his two sons perched at his sides with one hand defensively on both of their shoulders, and spits a few opening salvos in hope of a response.
“Thought that was you.”
“I said, I thought that was you.”
He tries again:
“You’ve got guts coming at all, you know.”
That last one causes Mr Marin to look up from his half-empty can of beer.
He has a thin, ruined complexion; both sickly-pale and podged with purple-red.
The ears are far too large, the nose a gnarled alcoholic knob of nostrils and cartilage, and his eyes are somehow shifty from moment to moment, as if he suspects himself that he’s forever being observed and forever mere moments from being victimised.
Behind him, sullenly toying with a long metal tent peg, sits Magda herself; a shorter, scrag-haired echo of her father.
And as she looks up, her expression is one that I’ll come to know well.
It’s the same expression that will cross the faces of every single one of the Magdas I will come to witness, when some schoolmate confronts them over their lonely lunch trays in the dining hall.
It’s a face I recognise in myself.
Frozen and flinching all at once, hostile yet frightened,petrified in the literal meaning of the term.
Already wounded, by the insults or the blows that are still to come.
The good-looking boys and girls in the sixth form of the Old Preparatory will discuss that expression over and over, in reference to three dozen Magdas, and all with a scientific, enraptured disgust; how was it even possible to look like that? So hideous a face, arranged into so ridiculous, so pathetic an expression?
How can she look so awful and so foolish, they’ll ask themselves, and evoke so little pity in us?
Can you believe her? They whisper to each other from the depths of the crowd. Can you believe her?
The lead parent says,
“It’s a disgrace that your girl wasn’t expelled. I just wanted you to know that.”
“Is that so, Mr Brodsky?” Mr Marin replies. He swallows the rest of his salmon bite in one gulp.
Magda, all this time, says nothing. Her eyes are downcast again, and that itself feels like an outrage to the watching crowd, a refusal to accept their anger.
From beneath Mr Brodsky’s grasp, one of the boys shifts his feet unhappily and whines,
“Dad, let’s go…”
Mr Brodsky pats his son heavily upon the shoulder, acknowledging and dismissing the interruption in a single instant, and then bends down and gazes into Mr Marin’s eyes and loudly states that there is something wrong with Magdalena. That her actions are indicative of an abnormal psychology, of something not right, up here, in the head.
“She should have been thrown out,” he whispers. “It’s not normal, what she did. And we never got an apology.”
“Leave it,” the boy whispers ashamedly. “Really, leave it, Dad-“
But Mr Marin is up on his feet now, weakly insisting that if anyone is owed an apology, it’s Magda, who’s suffered far too much at the hands of boys like young Brodsky, cruel and spoilt little brats who’ve been getting away with it for years-
“That’s kid stuff,” Mr Brodsky hollers back. “Normal kid stuff. But your girl, your Magda, she had to take it too far. It’s not normal, what she did.”
Spittle flecks his chin. His eyes are wild, and as he points an accusatory finger I suddenly understand from my vantage point in the shadows that his outrage is not directed at any harm Magda may have caused, or any injury that his children are perceived to have incurred.
He’s angry, because he’s right.
There is something wrong with the girl who sits cross-legged on the picnic blanket, passing the long tent peg back and forth through her hands.
And everyone can see it.
There is something awful in the pitifulness of Magda’s cheap ill-fitting clothes, in her sullen expression and her refusal to act normally, in whatever it was that she did that is so clearly unacceptable, in the low adolescent stink that she’s been carrying with her from classroom to classroom causing the boys, as they retell the tale to one another later that night, shoved her into a broom closet and sprayed her with deodorant cans and soaked her in water.
To the adults, as to her peers, Magda is an insect; vile in itself, vile in its helplessness. You crush her beneath your heel, and you hate her for how she let herself be crushed.
There’s something wrong with her. There can be no other explanation.
Why else would children be so cruel?
But now, right now, Mr Marin is ready to fight on behalf of his daughter.
His red fists are clenched, wavering back and forth, as if he’s seconds away from swinging a punch at the lead parent but with no clue how to go about it, or what to do, or if he’s allowed. The can of beer crunches threateningly beneath his fingers, spilling foam.
He jabs a finger, and shouts, in desperation,
‘Leave her be, you hear me? Leave her be?’
I am relieved, at that moment, to hear the clangour of stringed instruments tuning up from across the grounds.
And Mr Brodsky, all at once, seems to feel contempt for the entire altercation, and steps back.
“Your girl’s a freak,” he says, and jabs one final finger at Magda, who still does not look up. “You heard me. A freak.”
The wind picks up that night.
About halfway through the third movement, the wind picks up and the rain drives hard and the parents and children are sent scurrying for their cars in their tuxedos and ballgowns, chased by bleating trustees of the school board with collection buckets, begging them not to forget the Old Preparatory Fund.
A few visitors remain behind, cowering under canvas, getting steadily drunker as the hours drag on and abandoning all pretence of listening to the concert.
Most of the tents have simply been left, for others to take away.
I have found a place in amongst the old black oaks, in soft wet grass and with my back against solid bark, away from everyone and everything, gazing out into emptiness.
The breeze catches the vile screeching and honking of the orchestra, breaking and lessening it as the noise carries, disintegrating pattern and order, so that it might just as well be the singing of the geese above or the whistling of the winds below, just one small cry in the night from one direction.
If I ever leave Eskew, this is what I want to come back to.
A place of my own, with four plain walls and windows, looking out over emptiness on all sides, just empty skies and plains for miles, and no sound but the sound of the wind.
Big windows. I don’t care if it’s cold. I just want to see what’s coming for me.
I close my eyes, just for a heartbeat.
When I open them again, it’s still dark, the music has ended, and there’s only one sound rolling through the night.
It’s shear, and horrid; the sound of a tent, loose from its moorings, rolling back and forth in the wind.
There’s a growl as the canvas draws back along the gravel, then lands with a sudden loud clap, and draws back again.
Further along the lawn, I find another tent fluttering around a tree trunk some distance away, frantic and pale, like a bird caught in a trap.
And then the voices begin to carry.
“-don’t move him, for God’s sake-“
“-did you call the ambulance? Did someone call an ambulance?”
Some way into the trees, surrounded by flailing torchbeams and vague concern, I find a small crowd gathered around Mr Brodsky.
He lies sprawled in the grass, unclothed and barely struggling. His palms and the heels of his naked feet are flat against the earth, pinned there by steel pegs that have been battered furiously in through the skin. His back is arched to the sky, rain dripping down his flanks.
A human tent.
He makes a small noise of distress, his eyes rolling up to meet us, and I understood that he is ashamed of his condition; that he does not want us to see him like this.
I stare at him in wonderment; at the thin lines of violin string that have been bloodily sewn into the soft skin of his cheeks and stomach and buttocks, stretching out thin lines that are pegged into the earth in every directions to either side of him, forming silvery and unmistakable guideropes for the still living body of the tent that is Mr Brodsky.
They find Magda in the lake, some time afterwards. I don’t know what becomes of her father, but I’m certain his fate lies at the bottom of a bottle.
The teachers and other groundskeepers say that it was guilt. That Magda attacked Mr Brodsky in a fit of madness, and then grew frightened and shameful when she saw what she had done.
The older children repeat Mr Brodsky’s own thesis; that there was something wrong with Magda. Something wrong with her. No more explanation needed than that.
The younger children theorise that Magda did not drown at all, but is in fact still living in the woods, roaming like a feral creature with a pocketful of violin string and a handful of tent pegs, looking for victims.
I don’t know which of these to believe myself.
But I am surprised, at the start of the next autumn term, when a new batch of schoolchildren arrives at the gates of the Old Preparatory for their first year, and Magda is amongst them.
I recognise her at once.
She’s in a different body, of course, she comes with a different set of circumstances, a different name; but her place within the school pecking order and the dispassionate revulsion she inspires in all those who persecute her is just the same.
She comes in through the gates, clutching at her books, and you can already hear the whispers gathering around her, the spreading anger at the sheer offensiveness of her existence.
Moved from upcountry? We’ll see about that.
Sitting right at the front of the class? We’ll see about that.
And what about that mass of tangled hair, spilling out over her collar in direct contrast to the straightened, bleached-blonde locks of her peers?
Isn’t it obscene, in its ugliness? Insulting in its absurdity and its chaos?
There’s something wrong with it, that hair.
Oh, we’ll make her feel welcome all right.
And the second Magda bows her head deliberately over her empty notebook as if she can already feel the hatred washing over her, and believes - wrongly - that the intensity of her silence and smallness is enough to fight it off.
They’ve stolen her medicine again; yanking at her hair as a distraction until she screams and loosens her grip on the bottle, they’ve scattered the little white tablets across the filthy cobblestones, leaving her to get onto her knees and pick them up, one by one.
Strangely, I watch from the shadows, as one of them strolls back afterwards, still half-smiling but condescendingly concerned - “That went too far, sorry, Magda, sorry” - and tosses the empty plastic bottle at her feet like a peace offering, as if he understands that Magda must be destroyed but also that he should play a morally lighter part.
Human nature is a fascination to me, in Eskew or elsewhere.
He lingers on. Something’s on his mind.
He asks her,
“Why do you do it?”
Magda stares back.
The boy presses the point.
“Seriously. Why are you doing it? Don’t you think you’d be much happier if you just stopped?”
Magda says, without looking up,
“I’m not doing anything.”
The boy shrugs. Stops thinking of her. Walks away.
Magda sits where she is, on the cobblestones.
She says it again to the empty quadrangle.
“I’m not doing anything.”
They don’t believe her.
They know it’s her fault, whatever Magda is doing. And they won’t forgive her for it.
Not that time, or the next.
It’s late at night, in the underlit, golden-hued swimming pool that had carelessly been unlocked, where they hold Magda down and shave her hair.
Her yells echo across the rippling water.
It takes two of them to hold her in place, one to do the cutting, and five to watch and laugh.
The hair falls into the water in great black cascades, like weeds spreading tendrils across the surface, and she kicks and yells, and I watch in sorrow from the darkness as she kicks and yells, as the razor slides across the nape of her neck to her forehead and they tell her mock-reprovingly to stay still, otherwise she’ll be nicked by the blades and she’ll only have herself to blame.
What happens next, the children say afterwards, should not have happened.
Because as the razor sloughs through Magda’s hair, quite suddenly a thick ribbon of Magda’s head comes away with it.
And then the razor streaks away more deeply a second time, removing a raw and shining streak of flesh, and a third time, and a fourth, and they’re all so busy laughing and holding her down that they simply fail to notice until their hands are slick with blood and the remaining hair is dangling loose from a missing scalp and Magda’s face is divided, in scraps, floating in the water and gazing back up at her.
And as I watch from the other side of the glass, the laughter turns to shrieking, and they drop what’s left of Magda and turn and run, stumbling over each other, skidding along the tiles of the swimming pool, stumbling through the doors, crying out for help.
All nine of the perpetrators require trauma counselling.
When they return to school after a six-month suspension, they return as wounded veterans of some grim foreign war; shell-shocked, only sitting together at lunch, muttering amongst themselves as if nobody else could truly understand what they’d undergone.
Perhaps it was her fault, the other children say in the canteen for as long as they remember the events of that night.
After all, she never let them know that something was truly wrong, that the razor was cutting flesh instead of hair.
She just kept kicking and yelling and pleading with them, the same as before - so how were they to know?
We keep finding hairs in the drains for months after that; long and slick and greasy, clogging up the chlorine filters, making us retch.
“How was your first week?” Allegra asks me, that evening. “It’s just for a little while, isn’t it?”
She has just caught me leafing through her work papers in the study, attempting to decipher the impossible scrawls and churning blueprints upon them.
I told her I was looking for a book, which turned out to have been prominently placed on the coffee table all along, and now I have to pretend that I’m worn out. Not quite in my right mind.
She asks me if it gives me the time I need to think, at least.
I don’t respond, because I don’t want her to know that I’m satisfied with her choice for me, but the truth is that I am enjoying my time working at the Old Preparatory.
I like the boggy and unkempt flats of the school grounds: the lawless sea of conifers that surround the pristine lawns and pompous little red-brick buildings.
I like the peace and quiet, the tedious and ageless task of prising up the black roots that grow beneath the grass.
It proves to be easy enough staying there, too.
There is always work that needed doing: mowing the sports pitches, seeding fresh trees and hacking down rotten trunks, battling in vain with the black roots as they emerge from beneath the bracken and sprout up from the gravel drive and from beneath the old paving stones of the gatehouse quadrangle.
And then one winter the head groundskeeper dies, and I find myself shuffled up the ranks with an increase in salary that allows me to sustain myself for the long-term in a little red-brick bungalow on the edge of the grounds, beneath the trees.
Eventually the last of my co-workers depart, and I began to spend my winters and summers alone in the facilities shed with the pungent oil heater and the racks of unwashed tools.
If Magda is an apparition, something inhuman willed into being by the collective of humanity for them to torment, then I am just the opposite; and that in no way inconveniences me.
There is joy in going unseen. It removes you from the moral equation.
And so I drift through the school grounds, pruning back the coarse thorny brambles that emerging from the treeline, threatening the pristine and level grass of the playing field.
My efforts are not acknowledged, but neither are they rebuked, and in time I set a schedule and routine all of my own.
And I want to keep watching, to see if Magda keeps coming back.
The answer is yes, of course, and it’s worse every time.
Some of the Magdas have mothers or fathers who showed up, quietly and humbly, to collect their belongings after their daughter is inevitably broken by the collective. Others are simply alone.
Some end things by striking out at the world that hated them so much; others submit quietly and unhappily and allow themselves to be destroyed.
Neither course of action, as far as I could tell, leads to any kind of good.
The third Magda picks up a flagpole from the corner of the school playing fields and thrusts the point through the chest of a boy who was abusing her. He is, the teachers announce with relief to a packed assembly the following morning, expected to make a full recovery.
The sixth Magda comes as a surprise; because she had been someone else beforehand, a sunny and popular girl who excelled at the arts, until she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and the corridors echo with hisses of ‘whore’ and ‘bitch’ and she is, unmistakably, a Magda, her eyes sunken and hopeless, her sketchbooks pressed across the weight of her belly.
When they find her, she’d made art from her own skin with a Stanley knife stolen from the crafts cupboard, and by this time there is nobody in the school who can decipher the messages she’d left.
The thirtieth Magda is sitting in an exam room in her final year, when she puts down her pencil, and sat on the floor, curling her knees into her chest and her head between her knees, screaming and shaking and contracting further into herself until she was only back and shins, and then only a tight shrieking ball of flesh and blazer, and then nothing but a scream that lingered a moment longer in the hostile silence of the busy hall.
The eighteenth Magda lingers on, scorned and ignored, for several years as a teaching assistant before finally fading from view.
And the longer I watch, the more I felt that matters must surely be escalating, or at the very least, complicating; that each new Magda’s pain seems to carry the echoes of an earlier incarnation.
Like the twenty-sixth Magda who is found in the pond with a fish-hook lodged in her own cheek where the boys had stuck it.
Like the thirty-second Magda who, before she vanishes into the woods, shaves her own scalp bald and leaves the long blonde hairs in the swimming pool for us to find.
If the teachers of the Old Preparatory agree with me, they dnn’t show it. Each new case is greeted with the same wry, tired smirk, and token suspensions or punishment for those who had been involved.
The adults, too, understand that there are some who simply do not survive here; and that it is those who, as they mutter in the staff room, “bring it upon themselves” who suffer most.
And it’s remarkable, as I watch, to see how each company of schoolchildren gain a greater understanding of their own selves through their rejection of the Magda that had been assigned to them.
Time and again, I watch as friendship is born from cruelty, as community is shaped by harm.
With each new atrocity, I watch a generation blooming into life.
There have been so many Magdas now.
Even when I leave Eskew - and as I fumble amongst the black roots that are spreading everywhere, hacking at the withered protrusions that crack a path upwards through the concrete, I am thinking more and more of my escape - they will only continue to proliferate.
More and more, I begin to hope that there is some deliberate purpose behind this long passage of suffering and humiliation.
Because this happy cruelty, this is not something born of this city.
Because I too was Magda, once upon a time, and might have ended up in a similar situation, if I hadn’t gathered up my things and run.
If Eskew hadn’t found me, and welcomed me in with open arms.
I find myself searching for meaning in the teachers’ bland, inscrutable expressions in the staff room as they announce that yet another Magda has scrawled bizarre yet by now, familiar phrases along the walls of the science lab with her compass; a Magda has leapt from the highest window of the belltower; a Magda is sobbing alone in the abandoned bathrooms on the fourth floor, and has been for hours; a Magda is unravelling amongst the trees, her flesh spooling out in thin and agonising strands of silver in every direction, like long hairs, like fishing line.
I have felt my way through the earth in that deep heart of the black woods, the centre of those tangled impossible roots, trying to find my way to some kind of centre.
Because I can accept the injustice, the damage, the annihilation of the young and the loathed, so long as there’s purpose and progress to it.
So long as the searing flame shapes what it kills.
Perhaps beneath the silent lake that lies at the bottom of the school’s sweeping gravel drive, the unseen heart of the black roots that drag themselves through soil and ash…
...perhaps there I might discover under clear water and soil the first beginnings of the primordial Magda, the mother of all us outcasts.
A clenched mandrake child of pain and sorrow, flinching at the world’s touch, poisoning the earth with her tears.
And so I’ll stay here, for just a few weeks longer. I will keep my watch over this immense crucible of pain, and wait to see what grows.