By David Martin
Distributed by Shakespir
Copyright David Martin 2015
For Al and Evie
Cover image by Louis Emmett
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NO ONE saw him fall from the sky the night of the strange lights. The lights themselves were only seen by the sleepless, the drunk, the late shift workers raising gritty eyes from their screens for a moment’s break. And they caused only a flurry of filler in the local news, and a brief effusion of conspiracy theories gibbering to themselves in the digital dark. But he lay undiscovered for days, weeks, embedded in the soft ground by the shattering impact of his fall, in the heart of the wood in a bare and clodded field on the edge of town.
No one was watching at the frozen hour when the lights streaked low overhead, or in their wake heard the crashing of branches and the outraged eruption of birds.
Close up you could see the marks of his descent through the canopy of trees, their broken limbs charting his passage, letting new shafts of light fall into the shadowed space where he lay, close by a silent pond. From outside the wood was undisturbed, keeping its secret. But secrets find their way out, too good to keep, but good enough to keep close.
We never saw what was inside the suit, it was still intact, but burned and battered, its identifying markings lost, the visor black and impenetrable. We liked to scare ourselves daft by imagining the broken and rotting form within. Because it was definitely occupied. You could tell by the heft and shape of it, even before one of us dared to poke it with a stick and then ran like hell after feeling something’s inert bulk shift within, a sound and movement we never forgot.
Someone said he’d probably been dead for decades, a remnant from the black and white days of moonwalks and spacewalks and Sputniks, some failed long-denied Cold War mission. Maybe there was only ever a dried-out skeleton inside, empty eye sockets still haunted by the years of staring into a greater void, while the Earth in all its blue-white beauty revolved forever out of reach.
No-one was quite sure who found it first, and it was a story that seemed to choose its own initiates. Somehow each of us knew the kind of person we should confide in. We weren’t all friends, came from all over town, had little else in common, yet somehow we knew to keep it secret from everyone else, even siblings, even our obvious best friends. Looking back, it was as though it could see something in each of us that we couldn’t. But soon a few of us were coming down regularly, clandestinely but never alone, always with increasingly elaborate cover stories. We would cling to the grassy path at the margin of the field, scouring the horizons for any sign of the farmer, or any bigger, older, harder kids, before half-running, half-hobbling across the cold, sucking, trainer-ruining clods to the wood, to the gap in the barbed wire fencing and the path to the stagnant central pond.
Kids before us had been coming here for generations to smoke, drink, snog, screw and scare the shit out of each other with tales of the ghosts and serial killers who had of course haunted this place. They’d recorded their visits for posterity with carved and penned initials on tree trunks and fenceposts, some already fading with age. But it looked as though this spot had fallen out of favour for a good few years, ever since the new barbed wire fence went up, the gaping hole in it had been made fairly recently.
I can’t remember what we did or talked about for the most part. All I can really recall is the quiet of that hidden space, the giant helmeted and booted figure prostrate in the gloom, holding all the gazes of all those people whose faces I’ve long forgotten. There was talk of telling, of fame and rewards, but the longer we delayed, the less convincing it became that we ever would. Soon we were talking instead about ways of keeping the secret, whether anyone suspected, and what we’d do to anyone who told. Soon it became clear that we were missing the point anyway. However secret the dead presence at the heart of the wood was, it was quietly changing us, and the world around us.
Gradually moss began to grow in the joints of the suit and cover the visor, the Earth beginning to reclaim the astronaut. And at night our dreams became filled first with the image of that inscrutable faceplate, but then the blackness behind it drew us in, opening out on to great abysses of stars. Utter silences, which once you learned to listen to them filled with the hissing of radiation from impossibly distant suns, the shiver of strange particles, the loneliness of the void.
It soon began to spill into the waking hours. Sometimes an ordinary street would seem transfigured, warped by a glimpse of some other geometry that lay beyond it, planes and spaces that defied human description. A single moment of time would open up into an infinite present, becoming a pool you could plunge into and be lost, sinking through the fine grain of the universe towards whatever final truth might lie at the heart of things.
While space and time opened up for us, the ground accelerated its attempts to devour the astronaut. Grasses grew up around his edges. Seeds propagated in the folds of his suit, tendrils found their way into the mysterious holes for the missing hoses that once kept him alive. More than once we saw a worm emerge from a boot or gauntlet. The ditches and streams that radiated out from the wood became his nervous system, spreading whatever he’d brought back from the cosmos into the ground, the water, the air. And at the same time feeding something back to him.
It wasn’t just us. We started noticing people lost in reverie, and houses with open doors, drawn curtains and abandoned cars, where the everyday routine of work and family had been replaced by far deeper, stranger rhythms. Some people never came home. We heard a rumour the minister at the Congregationalist church had started speaking in hexadecimal numbers in the middle of his lesson.
Our classes began dwindling but none of the teachers seemed that concerned, their own ranks were becoming increasingly chaotic. I don’t know now if I witnessed it myself or if it was just another story, but one became stuck in a loop, intoning a stream of seeming nonsense before heading for the doorway, only to flicker instantly back to the spot she’d started from, to repeat it all over and over.
We noticed the planes gradually stopped their regular groaning overhead, diverting their flightpaths away almost unconsciously from the airspace above our town. TVs began interjecting bursts of white noise and shifting fractal patterns in between the gameshows and weather bulletins, and nobody really commented on it.
Our dreams became darker, our visits to the wood uneasier.
We began to share a dream where we saw the astronaut not lying prostrate and dead but standing upright and waiting for us with silent command. We only saw him in silhouette, a figure cut from utter blackness. In these new dreams there was something profoundly wrong about that shape, that form, it seemed an absence, not a presence, a hole punched through reality.
Every time we visited the wood now, we knew that one day we would find him standing there for real, ready to issue some unimaginable instruction.
But as we headed to the field one morning we knew it was over. Something had changed. A passenger jet droned overhead.
As we crossed the clods we saw figures moving between the trees; bigger, older, harder kids. We heard a motorbike engine and a burst of laughter as we skulked on the periphery of bushes and barbed wire, shut out from our no longer secret kingdom. Moving like shadows, worming through the trees towards the centre, we got a glimpse of someone’s much-feared older brother bent over the suit, levering the faceplate off with a stick. A girl was calling out to him, half egging him on, half horrified. A twig broke. We scattered in all directions before anyone saw us, working our way back to our separate homes by our separate routes, dodging any imaginable pursuit through the town’s hidden arteries of tracks and alleys.
It was hushed up what was actually found in the wood, the papers said it was a fragment of a decommissioned satellite, there were hints about classified military hardware, and that was it. Who the astronaut was and what became of him I still don’t know. Decades on I couldn’t tell you what became of everyone else. Like I said, we didn’t have a lot else in common. And I struggle to remember anything of those glimpses into the unimaginable that the astronaut brought back.
Sometimes on a clear, quiet night, I still watch the stars. But all that’s up there is a belt of dead junk, babbling satellites dumbly bouncing our own distorted reflections back at us, with entropy gnawing at every image.
It’s past midnight and everyone is sleeping. A meteor slides down through Orion. Something snuffles in the field hidden behind hedges, but otherwise the night is still. I think about the darkness lying heavy across half the world, pressed up against the flimsy slats of my back fence, seeping through its gaps and cracks.
YOU cross the park as the evening gathers, the playground is deserted, streetlights spark up orange beyond the trees that veil the main road. You feel your journey pushing at your back, the last scraps of the energy of a train hammering north.
At the far edge of the open ground the last passers-by empty out into the shadows, called home by evening. A few cars pass, defying the descending quiet, but you barely register them.
The street is a long, slowly curving avenue of grand but neglected townhouses, subdivided into flats and bedsits, hedged in by darkly overgrown patches of garden and yards buried in drifts of junk. A cat glares from the wreck of a bin bag, ageing cars and white vans form an outer defensive wall at the kerbside. Traffic lights in the distance signal the way to the city’s invisible heart and what life may still beat there. And there is the house, second to last in the terrace.
Your feet guide you through the gate, that rusting shriek instantly familiar, as is the comfortable fit of those few paces to the door. But something jars.
You take out your keys and for a moment stand puzzled. The lock looks wrong. It is not the one you remember. The door itself seems different. You try your key anyway, it scrapes, won’t even go in, never mind turn. But the lock is not new, like the door itself it is weathered and discoloured.
You reach for the bell and find not the panel of six for the shabby bedsits, one of which you still call home and every shadow and smell of which you can instantly summon to mind, but only a single bell push, and no mark on the whitewashed wall where the panel should have been. You step back. This is the house, unmistakeably. This is the street, the number. But there’s no sign of life behind the curtains of the front room.
You push the bell firmly and then snatch your hand away, as an unfamiliar summons shatters the silence. A pause that lasts, then you hear movement. For a moment you feel relief.
You have never seen the man who emerges. An expensively-dressed but tough-looking 40-something, the hallway beyond him is brightly-lit and cleanly painted, there’s no trace of that musty twilight of junk mail and old bikes. You realise he has asked you who you are several times and looks unimpressed. “Who are you?” you blurt back, panicked. “I live here. What’s going on?”
It is not only the brutal fact of his presence, but the assurance which radiates from him of his right to be there, which makes your words wilt in your mouth. You don’t even convince yourself.
“I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’ve lived here for eight years. Now leave. Please.” The word “please” has never sounded so much like a warning.
“What’s happened? I’ve only been away for…”
You scrabble for concrete facts to fight back with, to put this imposter, this joker in his place, but find yourself grabbing only at images, as though a false floor has suddenly given way beneath you.
Light through aged curtains filtering into a room. That rented smell of gas and damp.
A woman’s voice, her silhouette in the half light of early morning, the smell of her hair falling down on your face, her bones hard against yours in a single bed. And then an echo of a feeling, like the sensation that sometimes lingers after awakening of that primal, childhood sense of loss which we only fully reencounter in dreams.
The feeling of a railway station on a winter Sunday, the tannoy’s ghostly litany echoing in its empty spaces like the names of the dead, the rails telegraphing messages of distance and absence. The need that drew you back here. But you can’t remember her name. How can you not remember her name?
The door shuts firmly in your face.
Who lived here? You saw the old house beneath the new in that brief glimpse of the hallway. An incomprehensible time has passed since you last stood here.
You stand for a moment and then shuffle away. But a few yards down the street (and where would you go?) a new, determination takes hold of you. This is a wind-up, a joke. You probably deserve it, but it’s cruel. You grasp for fragments of that purpose that drove you here.
The yawning mouth of the alleyway offers you a chance, to catch whoever’s pulled this stunt red-handed. You duck into it and find your way to the house’s back gate. It too is unfamiliar and heavily padlocked, but you heave yourself up enough to look over the parapet of the wall. The back extension looms shiplike in the blue dusk above you, upstairs windows bright with welcome.
There’s a yard, oddly small like you remember for such a substantial house, and a brightly-lit ground floor window gives onto a brand-new kitchen. A middle-aged woman with expensive hair is chopping something up, while a teenage girl sits at a table pretending to do homework. The girl looks out into the dark, she looks right at you without seeing you. And something about that look finishes it.
You walk away, dazed and purposeless, a breath of wind brushes along the brick walls. You gradually become aware of the alleys around you, a penumbral maze of secret connections, the grooves on the cerebellum of some vast stone brain. Unfamiliar side snickets open up, offering glimpses of the streets beyond: ancient tracks running unseen through the everyday life of the parallel terraces. You imagine or half sense someone shadowing your walk a few streets away, glimpsed in the moments when you both pass the same opening. When you look, there is of course no-one there.
Further in now, there should be an exit ahead but the alley keeps curving, the way obscure. The side openings grow darker and smaller, no longer gateways to new places but negative spaces, hungry voids. Rusted phone wires carve up the sky.
You panic now as you plunge on, walls and firmly shut gates flicker past, the alley is winding in on itself, you must have gone round in several full circles. There are no glimpses of the streets beyond any more.
You briefly remember this city, its long history piled up in confusion, where the shouts of drunks echo through the tread of ghostly legions, and the distant chanting of monks filters into the gloom of rented rooms where laden ashtrays and empty cans bear witness to the other ghosts, the lives that never properly began.
Airless summer nights when the city shares your bed, whispering to you, and the long winter of rains that labours to wash the dark ooze of life clean and bury all secrets in the murk and bones of the riverbed.
And for a moment, there is again her face, and again the echo of that loss, but clearer now, as everything else becomes obscure. For a moment she cries out and gives you a look of loathing, summoning a memory of a terrible rage welling up blood-red. Then even the face slips away from you as you lurch onwards, winding towards the centre of the maze. And then ahead a wall.
Once again you stand in front of the door to the house you are shut out from but cannot leave. A dead end. All possibilities finally swallowed by shadow, all options closed, streets, towns, railways and alleyways have all faded out. The world shrunk to a crumbling singularity, the point where it all began.
Above the wind rattles the old wires. The outlines of the wall and the door itself start to fade into the deepening night. All around you, the alley silts up gently with the debris of lives, a slow landslide of lost time, the knowledge that something vital was once lost, a turning missed.
Unfamiliar constellations wheel above in a ragged, moonwashed sky. You remember nothing.
Ten am, and the piledriver behind Rhys’s eyes shows no sign of mercy. Beyond the safety glass, caverns of empty air tumble down and out to where the edge of the city is lost in the murk. The figures on the screen pulse and phase with the hideous internal rhythm of his stinking hangover. Bollocks to it, he thinks. He removes his headphones and looks around the vast open-plan.
“Mate, you look like shit.”
Rhys can only manage a grunt in response to Rich Walker. He may have initiated yesterday’s ritual of post-work beers and grim speculation about who was next for the chop, but the horribly chipper Walker seems immune to hangovers. Rhys, however, had to get off the train two stops early this morning to barf in a bin, and only two espressos and a bottle of water have kept him upright through this first endless hour in the office. Calling in sick would have been a bad move. Only just scraping in for nine was risky enough with the axe swinging freely. Walker, mercifully, is distracted by something outside the window. “Now that’s a bad sign”. “What is?” “Looks like the window cleaners have got the boot as well. Look at that big bugger”.
Rhys has no idea what he’s on about until he sees the thread stretched outside the window at the end of their row of desks, twenty-three floors up. A dark blob is crawling outside the pane, articulated legs shuttling along the filament which sways heavily under its weight. He notices two more spiders static and observant at the top of the glass. And he sees more of the web now, the larder of flies stuck and trussed in it.
“How the hell did they get up here?” Walker asks. Rhys has no idea and doesn’t want to think about the sheer cliff of metal and glass the spider is steadily traversing, or the air currents that pluck at those fragile threads. He gets up and heads for the kitchen, feeling the building heave in great queasy waves. He’s not surprised the window cleaners have got the boot. Everything is falling apart, mirroring the company’s fortunes. At least two of the lifts are permanently out of order, any kind of cleaner is a rare visitor.
The windowless kitchen is dangerously close to Niall’s office, but feels more stable, away from the vertigous edges. The odour of stale milk from within the fridge doesn’t help but Rhys braves it for the sake of the cup of tea that is rapidly becoming a matter of life and death. He roots about among the half empty cartons, markered with the usual warnings to the light-fingered. He wonders if this same scene is repeated in every office of every organisation everywhere in the world, however prestigious, however feared. There was probably a pathetic fridge exactly like this in Hitler’s bunker, Goebbels’s semi-skimmed angrily labelled “Hands Off!”.
When Rhys returns the spiders have crawled up out of sight. He can see now that the web continues all along the side of this floor. The hot tea begins its damage control work.
Homeward bound, knackered but knowing he is under an hour from the blessed collapse on the sofa, Rhys knows something’s wrong the moment he steps off the underground. The dynamics of the crowd are all wrong, too much disorganisation in their movements for the usual disciplined rush of expert commuters turning in formation.
His suspicions are confirmed, the emergency warnings are flashing and the overground station is shut. Another bomb scare.
Emerging into the open air, the crowd jams pavements and spills into the road, hailing predatory taxis. Police vans hoot their way through, a handful of fluorescent jackets try to direct gouts of humanity spurting out of the city’s ruptured systems.
He hears it first, the unmistakable sonic signature of something bad happening.
First a muffled shout, then a thud of impact, hard momentum on bone, the sound of a body being broken, in that minuscule window of time before the screaming starts. An engine accelerates hard and he feels the car’s shockwave through the air. Horns are sounding, there are shouts for help. The fluorescent jackets pass at a run.
The crowd hangs back, making space. The road clears around the man, deadweight on the tarmac, his face upturned, his eyes frozen at the instant of registering the car accelerating deliberately at him. Everything hangs suspended for a moment then collapses into a swarm of voices.
Rhys finally gets home to silence. He’d barely noticed his journey through the sprawling southern suburbs, the final tram ride; all the way the dead man’s open eyes and shattered, useless limbs fill his exhausted mind.
The story of his day goes unspoken. Ruth hasn’t returned. Everything is exactly where he left it, which he thinks may be the strangest thing after years of sharing space with someone else, their unpredictable activity and their unknowable motivations. He can’t even smell any lingering trace of her, though her books still fill the shelves and all around him the dust is their mingled skin cells. He takes out his phone but can’t bring himself to call.
He wakes once in the night and feels dread crawling like tar. He’d dreamt of hanging from that great glass and steel cliff, fingertips white with strain wedged into the frictionless crevices between the panes, nothing beneath his feet but the shattering drop.
It is dark behind the glass, the city a sea of orange sodium light, refracted in the overcast. Rhys is at his desk, virtually alone in here. He’s on the night shift, showing willing. The numbers don’t sleep, the data entwines and powers the world outside, carrying messages of billions won and lost. The office takes on a bunker-like quality, the apocalyptic glow of the city reinforcing that hallucinatory tiredness of people who will next see the sun when it climbs back around from where it’s currently driving sweat from the armpits of yelling traders on the dealing floors in Hong Kong and Tokyo.
As far as anybody understands it, this company used to be some unremarkable support function spun out from something that used to be a bank – something that is now lurching on in a zombie afterlife while slowly collapsing under the weight of its own impossibility, the shockwave deflected through mazes of dummy companies and offshore accounts, but still unstoppable. Its current ownership, and that of the building itself, is hazy. It produces fragments of software for a project whose purpose no-one can quite remember. Maybe, somewhere out there, it will be one of its own long-forgotten subroutines, labouring to impose rules on to chaos, which finally notices the company’s anomalous existence and terminates it.
Rhys feels like he’s traversing the dark side of the moon, a trillion tons of frozen rock cutting him off from the world. At night, at least, all the options of the day are closed, and merely making it through the long haul to morning feels like an achievement.
There was a guy who used to work at the desk next to him. Lyndon, a thirty-something divorcee, who Rhys grudgingly admired for his convictions. He openly hated work and had as little to do with anyone as possible, in case he was sucked in and it did him permanent spiritual damage.
Then, about six months ago there had been a pronounced change in Lyndon. He seemed agitated, you could tell he was listening in to people’s conversations rather than studiously ignoring them. At times he seemed on the verge of saying something then drawing back.
Rhys occasionally tried to make small talk, and, as ever, his efforts were met with curt, functional responses. But Lyndon’s eyes were desperate. Soon after that, he stopped coming in. Rhys later found out from a guy in HR that he’d been sacked after a stash of pornography had been discovered on his machine.
No-one knew what had happened to Lyndon. Rhys suspected that whatever the one thing had been that set him scornfully apart, a lover, a circle of friends, whatever he was secretly writing in his garret, had gone horribly wrong. His own defensive structures now imprisoned him in a vicious spiral of decaying confidence. He got lost.
Rhys wonders what had become of him. He imagines Lyndon staring at the ceiling of his bedsit, paralysed by his own fears, his world contracted to four walls.
“Ballooning” says Walker triumphantly. “Eh?”. “Ballooning. That’s how the little bastards got there. They put out some silk like they were going to make a web. You get a massive updraft off a building like this so if you get it right you can float as high as you like. You’ll probably end up dead. But if you land in a good spot, that draught keeps bringing all kinds of little insects up. Those lucky sods outside just sit there getting fatter and the food just keeps on coming right to them. The internet, mate. It’s not just for porn, you know. Bloody hell you look rough.”
Rhys, hungover again, recoils from the lattice of over-familiar faces.
There is no disguising it. I have nothing to say to these people.
The clarity of the thought cuts through the blood roar and headache fuzz like shards of glass falling from the twenty-third floor.
Rhys feels the day’s tension, and the tension of the days before that and back as far as he can remember, pour off his body like dark shapes clicking and scuttling. Sweat breaks out under his stiff new shirt. He can feel himself collapse into a swarm of buzzing black dots.
Outside, however the colony had made it to this height, that tough little ecosystem was still thriving in the cracks of the building’s carapace. Rituals hardwired since the Triassic had turned the window into a remarkably effective death factory for lesser lifeforms which, captured and wrapped, awaited their turn for dismemberment, dissolving in acid secretions and a slow pitiless devouring.
One day there’d been about ten spiders, the next only three big ones. Perhaps some dispassionate battle for supremacy had ended in cannibalism. Or maybe the weaker ones had only been defenestrated. Perhaps they’d floated down to ground level to begin the slow and steady climb back up for a revenge served stone cold. “There’ll just be one huge one left”, jokes Niall. “One huge bastard that’s eaten all the others up.”
Niall’s left his office to come and wander aimlessly around the depleted floor that he used to believe he ran, staring at the spiders and trying to make lame conversation with the remaining staff. This is worrying in itself.
Rhys can’t handle Niall’s doomed presence, so he heads for the increasingly feral gents’ loo and locks himself in his favourite cubicle. And how sad is that, he thinks, to look forward to a few moments’ solitude between MDF partitions, the plastic seat leaving its imprint in your pallid arse cheeks, your colleagues straining and farting a few inches away, the muffled airbursts and splashes. Rhys gazes down at his shoes between his bare thighs. Then the lights go out.
Only for a few seconds though. They flicker back on before causing anything more than a few theatrical squeals and laughs to filter through from the office.
He smiles, amused by his own momentary sense of excitement. That pretty much sums things up, he thinks.
No-one saw Niall go, but his office stands shockingly empty, blinds wide open, stripped bare for a couple of days. Finally Louise, a rarely-sighted regional manager, painfully groomed and gym-tightened in a world of beer bellies and bad shaves, appears with a couple of nervous, shiny young men of indeterminate function and summons the survivors. She enthuses fearfully about the opportunities ahead, the new investors, the new boss they’ve sent in to shake the place up.
The next day, the blinds are shut but watchful, the new boss’s presence fills the room, but he or she does not venture out.
Rhys keeps his head down for a few days, cutting down on the booze. At home he even occasionally sleeps in his own bed rather than falling asleep on the TV-lit sofa in the early hours. At work all conversations are snatched, clockwatching exchanges. Fear and worry is a constant background hum like faulty air con or the wi-fi finally starting to microwave your grey matter. Hardly anyone wants a pint and if they do the conversations are punctuated with long stares into space, eyes seeing bills, mortgage demands, children’s faces. And sometimes they’re seeing as though for the first time the desolate estates that surround the building’s footprint, which the commuter trains sweep through without stopping.
Leaving the office late one evening, Rhys notices the window cleaners still haven’t been. The pattern of webs has grown increasingly complex and the sinking evening sun is making it more visible; the summer that he’d barely registered is collapsing into autumn. He wonders if he’d be cut out for a career dangling from a cradle off a skyscraper and shivers at the thought.
One filament of web is shining almost gold in the sun as it heads away from the building at a strange angle. He realises it points out into the void of air towards the neighbouring tower, hundreds of metres away. He strains his eyes to follow its track, but can’t for more than a few inches. Then he notices there’s another. There are several shining tracks heading out at the same angle, into that impossible gulf. He stares for a while at the other tower. He imagines it suddenly flaring silver beneath a net of webs, an outpost of a hidden city that stretches from tower to tower unseen from the streets below, built from threads trembling with complex codes of vibrations and chemical signatures, reading the air currents, humming with its own inscrutable data.
As he makes his way from the tram stop he sees the car parked up on the kerb, boot open, his front door standing open. Ruth’s back is turned as she loads a last cardboard box. A man Rhys hasn’t seen before is emerging from the door, locking it. Rhys steps into the shadows of a shop doorway. He watches them stand together as the man shuts the boot, something conspiratorial in their stance says they are the new centre of a story whose murky fringes he’s already being relegated to.
He remembers waiting for Ruth one evening, years ago, in the shopping plaza beneath her office tower. He’d sat on a low metal bench at 5pm, watching people steadily being extruded from the doors beneath the company logos, a wave front that rapidly built up and rushed towards him, breaking either side at the last moment, a sea of black and grey, patterns recurring, faces like computer-generated extras in a film. And he remembers seeing her the moment she emerged from the doors, standing out in all that rush. She was walking slowly, breaking the pattern, in that moment unaware of the surging crowd, looking only for him. The car door slams. Rhys ducks quickly across the street and into the off-licence.
He feels a deep sense of relief, of surrender to the inevitable. When he steps into the open- plan, unshaven and ashen-faced, people avoid his eyes or exchange the briefest apologetic smiles. Even Walker doesn’t ask where the hell he’s been for the last three days. The summons is sitting as expected at the top of his stack of unread messages. All eyes follow his back and then duck sheepishly as he walks the length of the room and into the new boss’s office. The door closes quietly behind, shutting out the rubbernecking stares and fearful whispers.
The gloom inside is thick, the blinds down. What little light oozes in is swallowed by heavy curtains on all sides, made of some kind of tangled material. The air is dusty and ancient, chemical and alien, fetid and organic at the same time. It is something quite unlike the air-conditioned and deodorised smell of the building.
Rhys becomes aware of a shape moving behind the curtain, the material stirs but he can’t make it resolve into anything meaningful. Now a scratching sound rises all around, white noise that somehow becomes a voice, a voice without any clear source. It is matey RP, its tone chummy condolence, but those inhuman sounds and odours don’t just underlie it, they somehow seem to constitute it. “Rhys. Good to talk at last. Name to a face. Sorry it has to be under these circumstances. Unauthorised absence. Serious matter. Tough times for everyone. Concerns. Dreadfully sorry to tell you this, mate.”
That vast dark shape swells closer to the curtain, pushing against the thick ropes of matted, twisted filth. The voice continues but that undertow of chattering, shrieking noises from all around now rises until only fragments of sense are discernible.
“Commitment. Time and motion. Skillset. Workflow. Competitive advantage. Thought leaders. Market makers. Did you see the match on Saturday? Human capital. Human resources. I’ve got kids myself. Evolve. Strive. Feed. Rebrand. Restructure. Regret. Never did me any harm.”
Rhys glimpses his own face reflected in a dark pool of an eye. Two eyes. Then four. Pressing intently through those dense, fetid rags of web. A shapeless moving, dripping cave of a mouth.
“Options exhausted. Regret. Lieu of notice. Evolve. Feed. Grow. Regards to the family. Pleasure. A question of attitude. Redundant. Sadly. Compete. Evolve. Strive. Feed. Grow. Regret. Regret. Regret.”
Sometimes in that grey space between sleeping and waking, where the mind floats free of its own story and snatches at images from which to weave a temporary and impossible self to inhabit, I find myself exploring a house that’s two houses or maybe more.
The front of it seems to be a grand high-ceilinged townhouse, slightly elevated above a city street I never see. Daylight swells somewhere behind heavy curtains that deaden the sounds of traffic and passers-by. The house feels as though it has never held enough life to fill its muted rooms. There’s unheated space all round, remote attics that conceal only junk shop furniture. There’s a strange first floor landing, disproportionately large, home to some mismatched chairs, an old chaise longue and a writing desk, like a stranded sitting room no-one has ever sat in.
Sometimes I discover a basement corridor that occupies an impossible space. A series of rooms like a deserted hotel furnished in tat and chintz, the light there has a blueish quality and comes from no visible window, it’s not a place where you’d want to linger, much less spend a night. I’ve never found the end of it. Its presence saps the warmth from the main house, creating a discordant note that can be sensed everywhere.
There are times, though, when I see the house from the back and things are different. There is no street, no terrace, no city. The house, an unremarkable low cottage, yet still somehow the same house, stands alone in a quiet, rural landscape. A single track lane passes in front, joining a larger road. I’ve never seen any traffic on either. It’s an undramatic setting, fields and woodlands press gently to the sky, enough to prevent me seeing far in any direction. But that dissonant note remains, something in the landscape stirs ancient reflexes. To the left, where that corridor would have led, are the remnants of another building that once existed. A few overgrown walls and mounds lead all the way down one side of a barely-defined patch of lawn.
When I wake it takes a while for the house to fade back into the reality of this one. A ghostly procession of remembered and imagined addresses falls away into the walls. Your pale back turned to me anchors me to a real place and time. The cold morning air settles on my skin. I fold myself into your warmth.
Walking home, carrying his guitar case, Jed felt the sums of his life adding up to dangerously high numbers, the deadly inertia of a vaguely comfortable apathy swallowing his time.
His moment would soon be fading. Because, like many young men before him, Jed was seduced by the myths and legends of rock’n’roll at an early age, and however much he tried to convince himself that music was something he did for a laugh and to meet girls, even now, when he’d been bandless for about 18 months, he still couldn’t shake it. Without it, he was just another guy with an entirely pointless job in a quietly decaying town.
He’d spent years playing in one band or another, watching each evolve and collapse according to some secret mutant DNA script, from his teenage days of after-school jamming sessions, the ineptness of the cacophony barely registering in the liberating power of making it, the endless horizons opened up by that unformed racket.
Years of pub, club and college gigs, shoving amps into rusty hatchbacks in the pouring rain, the cast changing, but the stories all variations on a theme; the beery camaraderie, the bitter ego clashes; the shining highs when nothing else in the world mattered, and the grim lows when reality came crashing back in all its grey, costly mundanity. Unexpected praise from strangers and the crushing defeat of polite applause from a largely-empty room. The inescapable laws of never, ever making money, and forever being reminded of being on the bottom rung. And even worse, however well things went, the inescapable feeling that this bunch of random lads with guitars were far from being the kind of band who made people like Jed spend their lives wanting to be in bands.
Jed was looking for a voice. He had the music, he knew he had, stuff he’d squirreled away over the years, most of which he’d never even shown to whatever band he’d been in, fearing the lumpen reality they’d make of them.
But he’d never met anyone with the voice he could hear in his head inhabiting the ghostly chords and harmonies of his secret music, the spark that would bring his sketchy compositions to life, and give words to the truths at the heart of them. In his room late at night, he strummed the secret shapes as quietly as he could on his acoustic guitar, the air barely reverberating in the sound-box, images unfolding in his mind.
The music was the hidden parts of him, his unvoiced thoughts, brightest and darkest moments made sound, but always lacking the voice to bring it to life, to take it from behind a door of a room in a shared old terraced house and stamp it on the world. His moment was passing and he knew however much he played his music to himself late at night, soon it’d wither and die.
Home, on a street where drifts of litter and leaves silted up the front gates, Jed stowed his guitar in the corner of his room and thought about the evening ahead. He’d taken to scouring the city on his own, these last few months, visiting anywhere where musicians could be found, with a growing quiet desperation at the back of his mind, from pub backroom folk sessions, to bands rattling the windows of live music bars populated by distressingly youthful students and depressingly awful people with ironic hair and glasses. Looking for the voice, feeling stabs of dreadful jealousy at the musicians up there doing it like he used to.
Before long he was out again, heading into town, feeling decidedly anachronistic with his overly-long hair and very overly-long coat, among the Friday night boys and girls heading for the bars.
Halfway down the grand old Georgian walk, someone called his name.
Rob and Dan were two old school friends of Jed’s, who, the town centre being below a certain critical mass, he inevitably ran into regularly, if with decreasing frequency as time moved on. Both had been in Jed’s last band-but-two, bass and drums respectively. Neither of them an awful egoistical tosser like some of the musos he’d dealt with, the band had just died of natural causes as interest waned. The town was becoming populated by my ex-bandmates, he thought. Some people have a group of friends where they’ve all slept together in every combination. I’ve got friends who’ve all had to sit through the same drum sound checks.
The Red Lion commanded a main junction, and outside Jed could see the steady townwards flow of people, neon shirts and the kind of dresses you could die of exposure in, even though the autumn night was mild. The pub was full of the harsh chemistry of cigarette smoke, and an edge of violence to the laughter and talk.
They’d got a table by the window, Jed’s scouting expedition put off for another night. Rob was married now, to Emma, a girl from their old school. Jed hadn’t seen her for a few years. Rob and Dan both worked in the office block by the station, and had been out since they left work a few hours earlier, their ties loosened schoolboy-fashion. Dan still lived with his parents in a village just outside the ring road, and occasionally talked about going to teach English abroad.
They were pacing themselves well for a Friday night session, already well down the road to being cheerfully pissed. Jed was working hard to catch up. They’d been over all the old names from school, updating all the histories, measuring their lives against each other. Now, they were onto their gigging misadventures in the last band Jed had been in with them.
“Do you remember that guy who looked like the bloke from Judas Priest, only in a wheelchair? Full leathers and all, parked at the front of the stage giving us the devil horns every time we finished a song? There was only him and the sound engineer in the whole damn place. And what was that place called? Fucking dive wasn’t it?”
“The Swan or something,” laughed Dan, taking a swig from his pint.
“Tell you what though mate. It weren’t as bad as that one in Middlesbrough.”
“Fucking nothing is as bad as anything in Middlesbrough.”
“Tell you what though, I sold my bass the other day on eBay. Someone must have been desperate.”
“Do you remember that guy at the uni when we played there? That 18-year-old student twat with the Manc accent who thought he was like Mr Big Shot promoter, because obviously him being from Manchester made him on first name terms with bloody Noel Gallagher. Bet he were actually from some posh village in Cheshire.”
Jed felt detached. The conversation kept sliding along its well-worn grooves, like watching a film for the hundredth time, where every line of dialogue was endlessly quotable, and keyed to a multitude of personal memories and references.
But the law of diminishing returns had gradually taken its toll, sucking all the life from it. Endlessly replaying these incidents was the only thing holding them together as time moved on in its tidal path. An eternity of bloody reminiscence about old times that were only great because you were a kid and it was all new.
I’m not even thirty and my life is becoming a TV nostalgia show, thought Jed, a sick, dull anger growing inside him. Everything’s in the past tense. Streets and stories and songs. Sometimes you want someone to drive a bulldozer through the whole lot and start over again. But you can’t escape the weight of the rubble of your past, because you are just the weight of the rubble of your past.
Jed made the trip to the bar, got the pints in and deposited them heavily on the table with some spillage. He visited the gents and, as he turned away from the urinal, suddenly knew he had to leave.
Making his escape, Jed, half-pissed, plunged into a faux-Irish boozer called Finnegans Wake, that looked as though the industrial unit in Indonesia where it had been assembled in kit form was the nearest it had ever come to Dublin.
It was heaving, as everywhere on this stretch was on a Friday, a hen party three deep and braying with laughter at the bar, bottles clutched like weapons. He needed to lie low in case Rob and Dan came looking, so braved the odd lewd suggestion from the decidedly non-spring-chicken-hens long enough to get a nasty pint of Guinness in.
He worked through the crowd away from the bar, feeling as awkward as only someone on their own in a crowded pub can, when there’s no place to find a space of your own. There was a side bar off the main one, and a ripple of applause drew him to it.
As he entered the side room, elbowing his way through in an apologetic, fight-avoiding way, he saw the words Live Music! Every Friday! chalked on a board, and realised the crowd in there were facing the same way, watching something, rather, half of them were half- interested, the rest talking about where else to go, and drinking up at speed.
The music started up again. Next door, the jukebox was still up full, so the guy with the guitar, sitting on a stool with a microphone stand in front of him, was only audible close up, through a tiny portable PA rig, his face partly hidden by his thick curly hair. He was accompanying himself fairly amateurishly on guitar, and then he started to sing.
Jed stood rooted. It wasn’t the words, he could barely make them out in the background pub racket. It was something in the tone of the voice, the play of the melodies, the cryptic flashes of decipherable lyric that had you straining for more fragments. It was like a void opening in the sky above the houses, the way he was singing Jed’s life, determinedly and quietly against the buzz of conversation, the laughter of the hens, the thud of the jukebox and the desperate air of his being totally out of place here.
“Cheer up, love,” yelled someone, to a peal of laughter from her friends. But the guy was in his own world.
At the end of the song, there was an even briefer ripple of applause, dissolving swiftly into the pub background din.
The singer smiled faintly, muttered “thanks” into the microphone and got up. He went to put his guitar back in his case.
Another man, presumably the wannabe promoter who’d decided putting an acoustic showcase gig on in here on a Friday night was a wise career move, spoke to him, his apologetic body language clearly suggesting the singer wasn’t getting paid tonight.
But they were all oblivious to what had just happened; Jed’s revelation. He knew instantly the singer had the voice, the one that knew and felt everything he did, and could express it just by the warmth and sadness of its tone.
It could drag Jed’s music out of the bedroom and into the world. It would set it in stone and drag it into the cold light of day for people to pick apart, or ignore, or fall in love with. It could make it real.
The young man with the guitar case was getting up to leave. His eyes met Jed’s as he walked away from the stool and the microphone stand.
He smiled apologetically at Jed, who was standing in his way, but Jed felt no words forming behind his lips.
He returned the young man’s smile feebly, evading his eye as soon as he could, as he stepped out of the way.
The young man threaded his way out through the crowd. He was gone.
Jed finished his pint slowly. He waited for the next singer to take the microphone. He was bloody awful.
Jed put the foam-flecked glass down and stepped out into the street. He set off for home, through the maze of terraces, back to the comforting familiarity of his room and his music.
You took up residence on the dark side of things, a bolthole in a wind-flayed right angle of a tower block where pigeons and suicides tumbled blackly on the air currents. You set about drifting off from who you were on a tide of cheap booze and bad poetry, graduating to recreational chemistry and the rhythms of pirate radio; ghost voices in the night which lead anywhere a sweaty mechanism of moving bodies can be summoned by beats and the burden of being a self surrendered to a ritual encoded in bass frequencies. You dissolve in the music as though someone has sawn off the top of your skull and let the universe flood in. But surfing the grey breakers of morning, you realise you’re back in your head, stuck in a bony jar like a dried-out specimen flinching from the light, a metallic residue on your tongue, toxic and digital. The day stretches out ahead like threadbare carpets, the world worn thin. One of those desperate mornings you even cracked and rang her number, but no-one answered.
The cursor blinks steadily, beating out non-human time without mercy. I break its gaze to look out of the grimy first-floor window. Above the parade of shops, the winter sky hardens and darkens with the presence of the snowstorm it’s trying to hide. A metal sheet stamped with the imprint of a cold sun, braced like a bell for the hammer.
I return to the screen. I swallow. It is an effort to type your name, it feels wrong and it looks out of place sitting in the search field. I realise why; I don’t think I’ve ever typed it before, then or since, it’s a remnant from a pre-internet age, strange as that seems. I hit enter.
I deliberately look away, though I’m aware the search engine has reacted in only a fraction of a second and already has results waiting in my peripheral vision. I concentrate on the sky, looking for any rainbow cast to the light up there betraying that darkness as its true self, a dancing chaos of ice crystals. I imagine a storm of ones and zeros plucked from servers across the world vortexing down to my screen. Then I look. And there you are. Almost at the top of the list, right date and place, a simple register of a death, a shocking number of years ago now. The rest of the results are just variations on your names, people bound to you only by coincidence, chattering about their lives on social networks that didn’t exist when you were alive, in a way that didn’t exist when you were alive.
But there’s one out of place. An address listing on the far side of town, near where we used to live. Seems to be recent, but no further details. I wonder what your imposter is like.
Stalking the dead, or the electronic traces of the namesakes of the dead. The ghost of a ghost of a ghost. There must be better ways to waste time.
It’s easy to convince myself that I’m not going to do this, while contriving a chain of coincidences to ensure I do. It’s not like my day has any structure other than the few rules I half-heartedly impose to ensure I at least get out of bed, maintain a basic standard of hygiene and spend a few hours sat at my desk trying to distract myself from the work I’m supposed to be doing to sustain this whole less-than-lavish lifestyle in the flat over the off-license.
I decide I need a walk before the snowstorm hits, or perhaps to better enjoy it when it does hit, either excuse is good, and anyway I should replenish my coffee supplies at a shop I remember exists on the fringe of the district where we used to live, which just happens to be near the address that mysterious search result pointed to. As I walk I’m fully aware that there are many, many closer shops, but at each corner, I convince myself that I’m letting my feet, or chance, dictate which way I turn.
The sky remains steel grey, expectant, but the snow continues to resist the inevitable. The cold deepens, seeps through clothes, I breathe in invisible feathers and needles of ice. It’s been years since I’ve been to this part of town. I catch a glimpse of myself in a shop window. Beneath the nondescript winter coat, I look like I feel, a sack of grey lard slung on a fragile armature of bone. I have no idea why I am doing this.
Beyond the shops, I find myself turning off the main road into the mouth of a cobbled alley that yesterday I wouldn’t even have noticed, waiting between the houses. It emerges into a warren of terraces. And as soon as I step out into that streetscape, I realise.
I know these streets intimately but I’d deliberately forgotten them. All the other places you and I used to go have been scoured clean of their associations by passing time, drained of magic by the everyday; they no longer belong to us. But here, as I set eyes on these roads for the first time in so long, every angle and junction awakens some anaesthetised memory. It’s as though you’re everywhere. Moments of ours rise up from old stone and new brickwork, each accompanied by its silent double, the absence of you. It’s too much. I press onwards, unable to do anything but feel this rush of lost, broken time.
Eventually I regain some idea of my surroundings. I don’t know how much real time has passed but I’m leaving behind the web of close-packed terraces, Victorian factory workers’ homes opening straight on to the street. I’m on a residential road that starts to border an expanse of grass, the houses growing grander, wealthier, deliberately uncurtained to better show off the warm, money-cushioned family life within to any unfortunates passing in the cold evening. Years ago these were all flats and bedsits, slumbering through the last recession with a cargo of students, crusties and professional dole-ites.
I’m wondering what became of them all, when something remarkable catches my eye on the far limit of the grass. I stop to try and make sense of it. A pattern has appeared against the sky, regular geometric lines and shapes in the air, traced by moving black dots.
The dots settle briefly then shift into new configurations, they seem both alive and artificial, analogue and digital, constantly exploring some pattern the whole of which can never be seen. A flock of birds, assembling on the telephone wires invisible against the sky. Their restless bodies partially reveal the outlines of the cables, leaping between them like filings drawn to the force lines of magnets, spelling out an ever-shifting code. With a rush, the entire flock rises as one, and passes overhead, the code collapsing into a swirl of noise and wings, whatever message it carried lost on the air.
And then I realise where I am, what happened here years ago.
The last time I saw you alive was an accidental meeting in the town centre. We’d had a brief natter, both on lunch breaks from whatever crap jobs we were killing time in. I remember no profundities, nothing I could later hang significance on. It was one of those conversations people have when they have very little left to say except for the motions that need to be gone through to maintain a connection. The fact was our lives were already heading apart in the usual way. Maybe we would never have seen each other again anyway.
But I do remember a real feeling of dread the night before I got the phone call. Not something I’ve retrospectively imagined. I remember cycling home across town after spending the weekend with a girl I was seeing, and I felt genuinely scared of something, something set all my alarms jangling as I rode back through the airless evening of an oppressive summer day and spent a sleepless night before I got the call in those distant pre-mobile days. And even in the bitter cold of this winter, I can still feel exactly how the sweat ran down my back, soaking my cheap plastic shirt, at the funeral a week or so later. I remember an almost crudely theatrical crack of thunder afterwards as the weather finally broke, my head muzzy from us all hitting the booze and spliffs till late the previous night. I remember your mum, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on her face as she struggled to keep it together, as she tried to thank us all for coming and her voice broke up. And the coffin, I think just seeing the blunt, heavy, awful reality of that thing, that obscenity of polished wood, was when it really hit me in the guts.
And I remember this bit of road is where I saw you again a few days later.
I saw you from a distance, heading towards me on the far side of the street. Your height, your build and clothes. That way you can pick out someone you know or someone you love from a crowd or from a long way off, something about their silhouette or their walk, long before you see a face. You didn’t seem to have noticed me yet, but you were walking purposefully, you knew where you were going.
I remember being drawn across the road to meet you, in a long curve so you could see me coming, I felt gripped by something, not in control of my movements, but not scared. I wanted to see you, to make sure you were ok, say goodbye properly. It wasn’t you of course. Up close they didn’t even look anything like you. But since that moment I’ve never felt like I’d laid you to rest, nor have I wanted to. I suppose you’ve always been with me since, quietly becoming part of me, as I grew around your absence and learned to forget about it, even while it was shaping me in its negative image, shaping me into this creature that cowers in a grubby flat, living this vegetable life. I inhabit a city with a void at its heart; I orbit a cold star.
I turn the corner onto the hill, climbing up through even grander houses with high attic windows, until I can see across the city, the landscape of spires and rooftops opening up. And as I reach the brink, even without looking at the numbers I know which one is the address I saw on the screen.
It stands out shockingly against the regular repeating patterns of the tall brick houses, its roof shattered and open to the sky. Timbers like blackened bones. The top floor windows gape empty, the brickwork stained. It has been gutted by fire, and recently.
I stand outside for a while. The people are gone, whoever they were. The ground floor windows are boarded up. You can still smell the ashes and see the marks on the pavements where the water ran off downhill from the fire hoses.
I only realise it has begun to snow when the first flake strokes my face. It descends in quiet armies, rank after rank against the grey sky, which is now shading into orange as the streetlights come on and the low cloud seems to rest its weight on the city, compressing the light. And then I feel something connecting this moment here and now, to all those others, as though there was something in them that was not visible when I lived them, but only this moment now, standing on top of this hill by this wrecked house in the falling snow, makes them resonate together across time, a circuit connecting itself, a loop closing, a work complete. You’ve led me here, you’re a story that’s sought out its own ending. And now I know those moments were and will always be ours, yet they no longer need us to tend to them. They can never be lost again.
The snow is falling purposefully now, settling fast, doing its silent work of softening edges and muting sounds, as I follow the hill down towards the town, towards home. The cold is bitter, but alive now with falling flakes, its crushing stasis broken. The orange light speaks of warmth, and the snow of a morning to come in a transfigured world.
Relic was first published in The Big Issue In The North New Writing Award 2013 anthology by Valley Press, ed: Jamie McGarry)
Returning was first published online by Dead Ink Books, www.deadinkbooks.com, 2014, ed: Nathan Connolly)
Spiders was first published in Unthology 7 by Unthank Books, 2015, ed: Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones
This Is A Warning was first published in The London Magazine, 2004, ed: Sebastian Barker
Thanks to Ryan, Ian and Louis.
David Martin @lordsludge
"Spiders, by David Martin, is infused with paranoia bought about by the combined effects of job losses, bomb scares and hangovers.The trace of horror gradually becomes something more palpable, as Martin satirises the violent ecosystem of business cost-cutting and downsizing, making for an effectively grim and darkly comic story." The Workshy Fop blog (workshyfop.blogspot.co.uk). "Relic is artistically drawn. Quite superb." - www.abctales.co.uk Short, sharp shocks and fragments from the darker corners of 21st century life. From the lingering legacy of the Cold War, to the surreal aftermath of the financial crash, to the ghosts of unlived lives. David Martin's debut short fiction collection draws together stories previously published by the London Magazine and Unthank Books, among others, together with exclusive new work.