Hell is Empty Teaser #3

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I headed back to the car. Gone two a.m. I felt as if my internal clock had been overwound and dropped on the floor and kicked against a wall a few times. I wasn’t even sure what day it was. Only the Christmas lights shining in the houses parted by the M1 gave me any kind of clue as to where we all were.

I thought of wrapping presents on Christmas Eve with Rebecca and trying, and failing, every year to get her to do it in the nude. While wearing a Santa hat. I would always write a letter from Father Christmas to Sarah after I’d had a few Bristol Creams, disguising my handwriting best I could. You’ve been very good this year. You know that Mummy and Daddy love you very much. Maybe next year you can sit on Rudolph… I’ve been very busy, you know. And then I’d scarf the mince pie and toss back the glass of brandy and put the carrot back in the salad crisper.

I might have wrapped presents with you in the nude if you didn’t get so piss-pants drunk.

It’s Christmas Eve. What else are you supposed to do?

But that’s your excuse for everything. Christmas Day. New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day. The first daffodil of spring. Having a shave.

You’re being dramatic. And more than a bit unfair.

Just think on the number of times you could have spent truffle time with my magnificent norks. But you forwent that because you had your gob around a bottle neck.

That was then, Becs.

Yeah, well, I was then, too.

Becs. Please.

The wipers keeping beat to the sad song that always played. The rain. The splintering of all those red lights on wet tarmac. So much blood. There had been so much blood. The amount we carry in these fragile vessels. And it had all flowed so feverishly for me, as mine had for her, all those years ago. Now it felt like cold porridge in my veins. What was left of hers was soaked into the fibres of the floorboards on Lime Grove or turned to ash by the flames at the crematorium.

One thousand degrees Celsius.

You always said I was hot stuff.

Hell is Empty Teaser #2

dsc_0009-2008-03-04-at-16-43-50A stiff breeze, riddled with winter, tore through the exposed bones of the building. There were other giants rising in concert with this one. London, irked by the knowledge that it was a global shortarse, had decided to tilt for the heavens. Across the way the Splinter was nearing completion. Nearly 800 metres of glass and steel fitted together with the kind of top-level engineer-fu that ensured there were no visible joins. There seemed to be no window frames, just a uniform smoked-glass look throughout, as if it had been fashioned from one stupendous layer. It was beautiful and terrifying and it felt as though I could just reach out from where I was standing to touch its gleaming, polished shoulder. The summit of the Splinter would be a jagged thrust of reinforced glass. Something playful the architect had come up with, to offset the dreary pursuit of money that would go on in all the floors beneath it. He wanted to replicate the shattering of some boiled sweet or other that had caused him to lose a tooth. Work was ongoing; the building was due to open officially in the first quarter of the New Year.

I admired it for a while and then tried to imagine a struggle and a person being thrown over the edge. Was there any chance, I wondered, that the Skylark had finally lost one of these skirmishes and plummeted to his death instead of his intended target? I made a mental note to check the details of the final victim, thinking that whoever had been in charge of the investigation back then ought to have done so as a matter of course.

I got so high that I ran out of building. Steel rods reached up from concrete cores. A guy stood there, slouched against them, observing my trespass. My heart pounced but it was just a hi-vis gilet and a hard hat jammed on a strut. Christ it was cold. Wind buffeted the heights – it probably did so most of the time, no matter if it was completely still at street level. I was about to go – cursing myself for not rocking up in hat and gloves – when I saw light on the uppermost levels of the Splinter.

I might not have been so surprised at that of course, in this metropolis of megawattage, but for the way the light arrived, and the nature of it. It bloomed into being and was softer, a buttery light next to the harsh burn of the halogen. It flickered and leaned as it was moved across the floors. A security guard whose torch had let him down, relying on a candle? Highly unlikely. Kids then. BASE jump researchers. I kept my eyes on the flame. Now it ascended. When it had risen as far as it was able I thought I saw something just beyond its reach: the pale round of a face most likely, looking out, as I was, on the yawning muddle of roads and buildings that meant home. I fancied, with a chill of recognition, that he, or she, was looking straight at me, though surely I was concealed by the dark. It didn’t stop me from moving back into deeper shadow, or whomever it was from suddenly extinguishing the flame.

Hell is Empty Teaser #1

wtrloobridgeI sipped my coffee while I flicked through the sheets, glimpsing ghosts. Nearly known names and addresses. Tip-of-the-tongue stuff. Slant-rhymes in a dissonant memory. Many of these people dead now. Many of these addresses turned to rubble or morphed into millions of tons of gleaming glass and steel. The misdemeanours on their criminal records, some of them almost laughably old- fashioned; cute, even. Ernest Percival, fifty-two, of 6 Walmer Road, London W11 had apparently, at midnight on the night of 20th December 1961, stolen two frozen turkeys from Pyrkotis Butchers in Camden and then tried to hide them in a tree when approached by police officers.

Jesus. I trawled through three or four envelopes until I realised I was sitting in an uncomfortable position on the kitchen stool and cultivating a cricked neck. I stood up and stretched and took the pile through to the living room and stretched out on the sofa. It was old shit, but it was interesting, in the way any document from the past is interesting. A window on a world you used to know but is now so alien it seems drawn from dreams.

One envelope in particular caught my eye. The word Skylark was written upon it. I tore it open and out poured a glut of horror. I saw the photographs first. Large monochrome prints of what at first seemed to be pictures of carelessly spilled black paint. But paint didn’t contain body parts: fingers and faces. These were bodies that had been obliterated. What could do such a thing? But I knew full well it had nothing to do with weaponry. This was catastrophic injury sustained in a fall from a great height. This was what we used to describe in the police as ‘pancaking’. We had to collect what didn’t stay inside the bodies with a scraper. I’d dealt with one, a couple of months before I threw my serge uniform and tit helmet at the Chief Superintendent and walked out. A Russian couple who had thrown themselves off the top of a multi-storey car park in West Kensington. They didn’t look too bad, all things considered. They were lying on their backs in the snow. They were still holding hands. Blood had leaked from their ears, the only hint of fatal damage, until we tried to transfer them to the ambulance. It was like trying to heft an octopus. There was no structure to the corpses, the bones having been pulverised. It helped, in a freaky way. You could believe that what you were wadding into the body bags was anything but human. Lover’s leap. Hellish romantic.

‘Skylark’ was apparently the nickname given to an evil bastard who’d been getting his jollies pushing construction staff from the top of skyscraper building sites in the early 1980s. London was enjoying a boom back then, and in-demand architects were sketching their erect pricks, passing them off as blueprints and pocketing acres of green. The capital was going up in the world in more ways than one. There was no obvious motive for what Skylark was doing, but there were a few theories written down on memos. Political activist? Anti-capitalist? Protesting against the verticalisation of London? Worth looking into. Anybody on file?

Presumably not, because nobody had ever been caught.

Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #5

train copyShe wasn’t coming. Nobody was coming. Nobody I wanted to see, at least.

All the lights went out. The departures board stuttered and died.

I felt my back bristle. I moved out from behind the ticket machine and heard the consternation of staff on the platforms, and passengers cheated of their information. A fire alarm went off. People began moving towards the exit. I stayed put, shrinking into the deep shadow of an entrance corridor. I heard the clatter of roller shutters as they crashed down.

About a hundred metres away, a figure moved out of a thick darkness that was wadded up against the far wall. I kept losing it in the gloom. It wasn’t Sarah, that was for sure. It was like a magnet shifting through iron filings. It coalesced and disintegrated. The absence of light, or of anything on the figure that might have reflected it – glasses, belt buckles, polished leather – meant that it sometimes shrank from view. I couldn’t track it. And then it would be over there to the left, a little closer now. It was ranging from side to side. I had the horrible feeling that it was trying to sniff me out. I imagined something blind, something monstrous with unhinged jaws sucking in the flavour of my warm body, homing in. But now I did see something gleaming, and it was a broad blade. I thought it might be a machete, but that could have been fear enlarging it. I was torn between running for my life and sticking around in the hope that I might catch a clearer glimpse of my stalker and put a face to the threat, level this playing eld. Maybe even disarm him, finish it tonight.

But fear was a series of tiny eggs hatching in my gut. The last time I’d fought a man with a blade, I’d almost ended up with a new mouth. I felt weak and tired, the comedown from a jag of adrenaline at the thought of being reunited with my daughter once again. And maybe this wasn’t about me. Maybe this was a guy coming to rob Paddington Station. With a machete. Yeah, right. The shakes intensified when I thought of that weapon piercing Gower, Treacle and Taft, making steaks of them, life spraying in trajectories created by a millimetre-thick edge of steel.

I got moving myself, but not before I decided to match the figure’s trickery. I slid my watch off my wrist and into my pocket. My wedding ring too. Buttoned my jacket and turned up the collar. I headed for the edge of Platform 1 and dropped on to the tracks as quietly as I was able. Hugging the wall under the lip, I made for open air, crouched low alongside the rails.

I passed under Bishop’s Bridge Road, and waited for a while in its shelter. The space under the roof of the station was utterly black. How hard could it be to replace a fuse? And then a footfall on track ballast; the harsh music of crushed stone. The weapon was fully brandished now; it swept the air before it in broad, slow arcs. I backed away, ready to run if need be. The sight of the steel made the scar on my face ache.

Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #1

I couldn’t look to my left: that was the side with the sheer drop. To my right was Underdog slapping the cosh into his hand. If I concentrated on my feet I’d be too aware of the abyss screaming away an inch or so from my little toe. Straight ahead was somehow easier, even though I’d have to trust myself to walk in an utterly straight line. In the distance, Peckham maybe, the cherry and ice-blue stutter of police lights. Burglary in progress. Man down. More likely it was a couple of night-shifters bossing traffic so they could pick up their coffee and pastries. Use that, I thought. Focus on that.
I started to walk.

I’d never had a problem with heights when I was a kid. I could climb trees and leap from branch to branch fty feet above the ground, where squirrels fear to tread. And then something happened – I don’t know what – and I was afraid of heights, to the point where my mouth would turn tinder-dry and my knees would become crucibles of molten metal. Maybe it was as simple as becoming an adult; more likely it was because I became a father. It might have had something to do with the fight I had on top of the railway shed at St Pancras four months previously. That kind of behaviour does nothing for your sense of mortality, believe me.

But this was going well – as well as I could hope – to the extent that I was building up some speed. Get it over with. Get home. Get vodkaed. But of course it’s when you’re feeling at your most confident and comfortable that something comes along to welly you in the bollocks.

Part of the parapet shifted underfoot.

I felt myself sway sickeningly to the left and my hand instinctively reached out for a counterbalance that was not there. I heard, very clearly, Underdog say: ‘Shit.’

I knew I was dead if I didn’t move, and the only move I had was a jump, off my right foot. But because I was already tilting left, unbalanced, there was a strong chance I’d only propel myself into dead space. So I had to keep right, which meant launching from my left, which meant little purchase because there was hardly anything below my left foot any more but concrete dust. All of this went through my head in the time it took for that syllable to fly through Underdog’s teeth. I pistoned my foot down and the parapet collapsed completely…

Dead Letters Teaser #14

L0ND0N, Nicholas Royle

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I wasn’t questioning my view about the likability or otherwise of characters, but I was concerned about what I might be getting into. A widely held opinion is that it is a mistake to conflate narrator and author, yet a convergence of Ian and his narrator was precisely what I feared.

What if Ian was like his narrator? Did it even matter? Well, yes, I tended to believe it did. Not in general, but in this particular case. I kept a Wankers Shelf – a section of my library reserved for authors so narcissistic they asked their publisher to stick their author photo on the front cover of their book, or they wrote a piece for publication constructed around extracts from their fan mail; for authors so convinced of their own greatness they refused to ‘get out of bed for less than a grand’ when invited to contribute to an anthology; for authors who were just wankers – wankers to their editors, wankers to their publicists, wankers to booksellers, wankers to their readers. Just wankers.

Advent Stories #18

PERHAPS THE LAST

SEIKO

Garner spent his days clock-watching in a room filled with timepieces, none of which could tell him how long was left on his shift. Hours crawled by. Maybe one day he’d be given a more agreeable timetable and things would go better – telling kids to stop climbing on the display cases, giving direction to the toilets, watching girls in their summer blouses take a turn around the exhibits on the balcony below – but until then it was was graveyard hours for him; in a room filled with relics from the past, Garner had never felt more dead.

In mind of the lower floor, he leaned over the railing and tried to see Della, but she was ensconced in the gloom. He could just hear the faint flick of magazine pages, the hot smell of cinnamon from the gum she liked to chew during work. He could occasionally spot her shadow, or the pale oval of her face as she moved around the exhibits in her domain, but more often than not she was lost to the hard shadows that filled that space.

The museum, situated in South Kensington, was split into two floors and again, laterally, between east and west. Ostensibly, four security guards patrolled each quadrant, but because of the various ways the sections were separated none of them could meet. The museum suits wanted it like that. The internal closed circuit cameras were switched off at night, for economical reasons. The lighting was also reduced by fifty per cent, to save fifty per cent. Management didn’t want any malingering, and knew that barring access to the other floors was the only way to ensure this.

Which didn’t mean that Garner couldn’t communicate, at least with Della, as she monitored the floor beneath his. In the crepuscular silence he would sometimes hear the softly squeaking tread of her boots as they passed from carpet to lino. He liked her measured stride – there was no rush to get anywhere – and the occasional sound of her nightstick as it lightly knocked against the wall, or the display cabinets. He had yet to meet her face to face; the shifts of the four were staggered by a couple of hours, again to prevent excessive crossover with the replacement guards. He had not drummed up enough courage to ask if she’d like to meet him for coffee. At least he could fill the stretches between ten and four shaping a face around that voice.

Now, he whispered: ‘Busy tonight, isn’t it?’

Her laughter rose into the domed ceiling like some soft unfolding: a flower, origami. ‘Yes, I’m run off my feet.’

He took a turn around his own area. He knew it well; could have walked it in the dark if the museum bean counters ever decided to go the whole hog and turn the lights out completely. Early on in his job he had paced the zone like a prisoner coming to terms with his cell, and found he could walk its perimeter in two hundred and seventy leisurely steps. The interior of his quadrant was dotted – seemingly arbitrarily – with display cabinets, others were lined neatly along the perimeter. All of them were filled with objects from the past devoted to the task of dividing time into chunks and offering it in a variety of faces in every way from the ingeniously simple to the shatteringly complex. There were Chinese water clocks, a congreve clock powered by a stainless steel ball that zigzagged along brass grooves. Stopwatches, pendulums, gnomons and pallets. Pocket sundials in beautiful leather boxes. Great iron intersections incorporating cogs and springs and gears. Every kind of escapement, from dead-beat to detent to recoil to floating balance. Cylinder watches, verge watches, repeating watches. Velvet-lined wooden boxes. Beautiful table clocks. Oscillators, winding barrels, anchors and counterweights. The turning of circles. Touch pins that had allowed the pre-electricity population to read the time in darkness. Skeleton plates, repoussé cases: silver and enamel, chased or damascened. Burnished zones where the fingers of people long dead had probed.

An incremental grinding of teeth. The bruxism of time.

It was all instantly recognisable and utterly alien in the same moment. Knowable and beyond him. But that was okay. All he had to do was guard it. He wondered if Della was similarly influenced by the booty she had to protect, and speculated as to whether he would prefer to be striding around glass cabinets displaying old surgical instruments. Bone shears, amputation knives, hacksaws. He didn’t like to think how his life might be coloured by that gruesome arsenal.

The high walls would sometimes dance with reflected light from all that metal and glass. Occasionally it would dazzle him, and leave him blinded for a second or two, his shocked retina flashing with greens and purples. The source of light, Garner mused, was sometimes difficult to identify. He guessed it must be generated by traffic, although the road outside the museum wasn’t exactly nose-to-tail, even at rush hour. It might belong to Della’s torch, but if so, her beams were wildly off target, lifting into his quadrant, twenty feet above her own. Perhaps it was tripping around the strange angles of her display cases, glancing off the ancient metal of her patrol a dozen times before rising to him. Perhaps she was just monkeying around, flirting with him. He could dream.

He paced. He drank the two-and-a-half cups of coffee that filled his flask. He ate his ham and English mustard sandwiches, his banana, his piece of fruit cake. He read the previous day’s Independent. He read a damning article about his team from When Saturday Comes, photocopied and sent to him in the post by a gloating friend. He read a chapter from a Michael Marshall novel. He paced. And another hour was measured out by countless immobile hands.

‘You know Frank Whittle?’ It didn’t matter what she said. How left field, how mundane. The way she spoke could have enlivened her recitation of a library’s opening times.

‘Not personally,’ he said. ‘But yes. Jet engine man.’

‘You know what he did when he retired?’

‘Um, no. Went to live in a really quiet place, I expect.’

‘Wrong. He bought a house at the end of a runway and watched planes taking off all day long.’

This was something else about Della that he liked. She was always coming out with this strange information. Trivia that had no bearing on anything they had talked about recently. It didn’t really help to pass the time, and he was never sure if she was telling the truth or pulling his leg, but it was fun to guess.

‘Well you won’t find me moving across the road from a security firm,’ he said. ‘Attractive though that might be to the ordinary man. What about you? What will you do when you retire?’

‘Long time off.’

‘I should think so. You don’t exactly sound as though you’re entering the autumn of your senescense.’

‘I’d like to live by the sea. Somewhere clean. And cold. I have a health problem. Ideally I should have fresh air. I’d like to spend whatever time I have left looking at the stars.’

*

The darkness at four o’clock in November seems so satisfied with itself one could be forgiven for thinking that daylight might never force its way back. Garner trudged home along main roads that could have passed for back alleys, so deserted were they. The refuse and shadows that once conspired to upset him on his return home now interested him only peripherally. He knew the darkness well. He had hung around at the end of his shift, knowing that Della would not be out for at least another quarter of an hour, but he didn’t see her leave.

Unusually, because of the light pollution in the centre of the city, the sky was brim full of stars. He stopped for a while and stared at them. The longer he stared, the more it seemed he could see. Patches of ostensibly black sky opened up to show him dusty whorls of light. The illusion of the curved sky flew away. There was no shape to what he was seeing any more. No end of depth. He reeled away when it occurred to him that his mind was too puny for the wonders he was being shown. He thought he had seen a pattern there, for one unbearable second. Something that put him in mind of fingerprints, or the bizarre constellations of brilliant muscle fibres that go to make up an iris. He felt cowed by the vision, such as it was, and the nearer he got to him home, the more he found himself doubting that he had seen anything. Another glance at the sky seemed to confirm this: just stars, just darkness.

He tried to do what most people who work shifts do: create the illusion that his working span was like any other day. So he took a bath, watched television, cooked himself some dinner and opened a bottle of wine. By six, although it still wasn’t getting light, the night’s thickness was loosening somewhat. Garner headed off to bed, pausing on the way when a sudden jolt of sound – a known, frequent occurrence – drilled through his head. He tried to find its echo on the short wave radio by his bed but nothing remotely matched it. He fell asleep thinking of Della, and the nature of her disease.

*

The sound of roadworks wakened him, or rather, the sound of the men powering the tools that tore at the Tarmac. Mechanical things he had never found disruptive of his slumber, but raised voices, swearing, laughter, especially the kind of forced laughter from labourers – as if it was important it compete with the ambient sound – always roused him.

A low parallelogram of light on the wall suggested it was around midday. He lay in bed wondering about Della. He wished he had asked her to accompany him for a coffee after work. The way they had chatted made such an invitation seem natural. He knew a great little place run by a Cuban called Paco that was open all night. He sold Turquino coffee that was so good it almost gave his life meaning.

It felt wrong to fantasise about a woman he had never seen, so when he felt the first twitches of an erection he rose and showered. He grabbed the Marshall novel and his digital camera, and headed for the river.

He could not shake off the feeling he had experienced the previous night. Although the stars were invisible now, he still felt able to see them. Garner walked down to the National Film Theatre and browsed the second hand books beneath Waterloo bridge. He found a film guide by Leonard Maltin and flipped through it but could find no reference to Guillame Angiers. He collected a film schedule and a pint of lager, took a seat, tried to immerse himself in the book he was reading. The words couldn’t bring him out of himself, which was what he always asked of a novel. It wasn’t the author’s fault. Della, and something inexplicable, capered at the edge of his reason, fouling anything he tried to focus on. He wondered what the other might be. Something to do with the strange light, perhaps. Or the snatches of sound that fizzed through his thoughts from time to time. He felt anxious, but in an amorphous way. It was as if the anxiety existed only because he couldn’t pinpoint the reason for it.

An old man with a white candyfloss beard played a violin in front of the book tables with violent panache. The river seemed hardly to move beyond him, but suggested its strength in the subtle ribboning of its surface. He shuddered as he watched the pedestrians crossing the Hungerford bridge to his left. Garner had always feared the bridges spanning the Thames. He thought they were too exposed. Any madman could wrestle you over the side and then you’d be done for, no matter how strong a swimmer. The London currents were brutal. In considering this, he suddenly felt close to unlocking the basis for his misery, but it wouldn’t come. He surreptitiously took pictures of women who passed him by, wondering all the time if one of them might be Della. It was beginning to worry him that he’d be disappointed if he ever found out what she looked like. Her anonymity was a powerful attraction.

The violinist stopped playing. Nobody applauded. He didn’t seem affected. He collected the change thrown into his violin case and walked away.

*

‘Have you had any more transmissions lately? On Radio Garner?’

‘Yes,’ he said, gingerly touching the back of his head. He wished he had never told Della about his accident, and the metal plate, and the occasional rushes of static, or voices, or music, that fled through his brain like something half-remembered. ‘I had one last night, before I went to bed.’

‘Go on.’

‘A film review. Well, part of one. I still get a bit of a jolt from it. Have to go and check the radio isn’t on. Before I believe it’s coming from me. Or coming through me, I should say.’

‘What was the film?’

‘A new film called Gnawed Hearts. By some veteran European director. Guillaume something.’

‘Guillame Angiers?’

‘That’s it. Have you seen it?’

‘No. I hardly ever get out to do stuff. I spend a lot of time indoors. Just me, a glass of mineral water, a relaxing CD and a nebuliser.’

Garner winced, grateful that the dark prevented her from seeing his expression. Her health problems were clearly more acute than he had understood. Her voice seemed happy enough though. She sounded as if she were describing something desirable. Like a holiday, or an unattainable man.

‘Don’t waste your time,’ she said. ‘Take advantage of the fact that you’re mobile. That you’re intelligent. Healthy. Fill each minute, because I promise you if you don’t, you’ll regret it.’

In the dark he was aware of the minute movement of things. The slow slide of the moon’s light across the wall, the epically tiny repositioning of teeth and coils, the settling of age in his bones. He had always thought of time as this linear thing, a real thing, that measured out your span for you in handy chunks as you bumbled around from day to day. In the midst of its mechanical fashioning here in the museum, he got an idea of time that was more fluid and yet less recordable than that; something that reached out in many directions beyond forwards. Something instantaneous with the lifespan shorter than the smallest particle of its own, immense scale. He thought of something being born and dying almost instantaneously. He thought of a world 4.5 billion years old and yet never truly existing beyond the super-immediate moment.

It was strange to think of his city, his street, this museum, hosting people from different decades, different days. It must have happened – there was plenty of photographic evidence – but it still provided a mental block for him. It didn’t exist any more. It was dead time. When did one ever live purely in the moment? Weren’t we all just memory slaves?

At certain times during the night, usually in the two hours or so before his shift ended, Garner could hear the ministrations of time more clearly: the skittling of the ball bearing in the congreve clock, or the ticking of the newest additions to the cabinets, the Seiko Kinetic watches, design classics from just a few years previously. Garner could imagine future generations goggling at these in the same way visitors gazed at the ancient sundials while they took for granted whatever future technology allowed them to keep their appointments. Something behind the eyelid. Something implanted in the brain. Time moved on. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe time was static, and it was us that moved through it.

Garner closed his eyes against these difficult thoughts and became gradually aware of a new sound, another ticking, although this time irregular, muffled and, he could somehow tell, not from his quarter of the museum.

‘Can you hear that?’ he asked Della.

‘Yes,’ she said, equably. ‘What is it?’

‘I thought you might be able to tell me.’

‘It’s a clock, isn’t it? Of some sort?’

‘I don’t know. It sounds as if it is.’ Garner couldn’t put his finger on why the museum collected such a softness, a vagueness, at this time of night. More and more he suspected that it was him instead, relaxing, becoming more attenuated, more responsive to the sensory krill as it floated by.

He rose from his uncomfortable moulded plastic chair and strolled the usual figure 8, in case a different position within the room might reveal the source of the sound. It didn’t. It seemed to come from all angles, and none at all. For one strange moment he thought it was coming from his own body.

‘It must be heating, or water in the pipes. Something like that,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘It’s an old building. Sometimes you just aren’t aware of it, but in quiet moments it can surprise you. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here. How well you think you know a place.’

‘How long have you been here?’

She sighed, and the sound flitted around the heights like a trapped bird. ‘Too long,’ she said.

‘It would be nice to talk to you face to face,’ he said, haltingly. ‘I could buy you a cup – ’

‘I don’t think so,’ she interrupted him. ‘It isn’t what I’m looking for.’

He was confused and hurt by her instant rebuttal. How had he misread their relationship? They conversed easily, she laughed at his jokes, he was interested in her. What harm could a cup of coffee bring?

He resumed his patrol, walking close to the rail and looking down into her quadrant. He thought he saw the twin gleam of eyes turned up towards him, and the sweep of a shadow as it too returned to its duties. She would be the one to build bridges between them after that, he decided.

Half an hour later he thought he heard her clearing her throat, but she had retreated to the furthest corner of the room, where she liked to eat her packed meal. He moved around too, until he was standing over the area she was occupying. It was gratifying to him, hearing a woman so obviously enjoying her food. The enthusiasm with which she chewed and slurped, and cracked what must be chicken legs, was so uncommon among women as to be attractive to him. But it served only to underline her snub.

Suddenly it seemed that the hours weren’t moving as fast as they once had. There was little for him to do. The newspaper had been read, the crosswords and Sudoku completed. There was nothing left to eat in his bag and his flask of coffee had finally become tepid. His frustration had no release; what could he do but pace the same old route in his cheap serge uniform? Through the large ceiling window he again marvelled at the talcum powder stars. He thought for a moment he might have unleashed their secret; something was threatening, like the storm behind a wall of black cloud, but then it was gone; maddeningly, because the patterns remained, as well as his belief in his capacity to read them. He almost asked Della if she could see what he was seeing, but he stubbornly stuck to his guns, no matter how much he needed some support about what was being played out far above him. And at that moment he heard her voice, moving through his mind like a memory. He recognised the rhythms and melody of it, but not the words. It was as if he was hearing her speak through a hot flannel. He almost asked her what was wrong, but he suspected at the last moment that her voice had come to him from a different source. His head burned with confusion; he wanted to shout out, ask what it was she wanted, but he couldn’t because of course she didn’t want anything.

It isn’t what I’m looking for.

What was she looking for?

He waited again when his shift was over, but she must have left before him; the soft noises occurring within her quadrant being produced by the wind, or the badly remembered weight of her on the floorboards and chairs. He tested the fire doors but they did not give. Suddenly it was imperative that he see where she worked. It was hard to comprehend that he had spent such a long time employed by the museum yet had never perused its stock. He returned to the front of the building and tried the main entrance. He rapped on the window but the replacement security guard for Della obviously couldn’t hear him. Angry, he stomped to Paco’s coffee shop, drank three cappuccini and scanned the previous day’s newspaper that he salvaged from a bin. Another hour. He felt older. He went back to the museum and the lights were on in one of the ground floor offices. He tapped on the glass and a shape squirmed into the elaborately textured square.

‘Who is it?’

Garner could tell by the voice that it was Joyce, the cleaner. He asked her to let him in.

He thanked her profusely, explaining that he had left his watch in the museum. ‘Funny, isn’t it?’ he said, ascending the stairs and looking back down at her in the reception hall. ‘I lose my watch. In a room full of watches.’

She didn’t find it amusing, and returned to her brushes and buckets shaking her head.

Garner retraced his steps quietly until he was standing by the main entrance again, checking that Joyce had shut herself in the kitchen. Now he moved quickly under the stairs to the entrance to Della’s quadrant of the museum. He pushed lightly at the door, but it was locked. Who replaced Della when she went home? He didn’t know. He tapped on the door, not wanted Joyce to come back and force more unlikely excuses out of him. Nobody came. He rubbed his face. There must be some way of getting in. He couldn’t understand the force of his need. It sat in the centre of his head as if a hot needle had been embedded there. And then he realised the only way he could do it, short of breaking the door down. He returned to the stairs and hurried up to his own domain. He knew the combination on the door lock that would give him entry here. He slipped inside, and saw the beam of Lievesley’s torch picking out one of the display cabinets. What was he doing? The beam did not waver. Garner wondered if he should come clean to his shift partner, or go ahead with his plan and hope he didn’t get spotted. When he came across Lievesley’s torch a few seconds later, his dilemma was increased. Why would a security guard leave his torch on the floor? Why would he leave it on? Had he dropped it? If so, then where was he? Garner felt the first tremors of fear, minuscule, but relevant, like the tiny, shivering chip of quartz in a wristwatch. Something had happened here, in the time it had taken for him to clock off, drink a few cups of coffee and break back in. He edged to the railing and peered into the darkness. Nobody walked down there. He wondered if the replacement security guards had actually turned up. But if they hadn’t, what about that torch? Perhaps a burglar. Garner again scanned his area, but there was nothing here to suggest that anything untoward had happened. He retrieved the torch and switched it off. The complete lack of sound was distressing to him, occurring as it did within an environment where he usually felt so comfortable. The museum was suddenly an alien place to him. A feeling that was intensified a few moments later, when he vaulted the railings and dropped into the centre of Della’s little universe. His unease was replaced for a short time with unalloyed excitement. It was the closest he had ever been to the woman that intrigued him so much, a bizarre feeling, considering her absence.

‘Some of those stars up there died a thousand years before you were born,’ she said. ‘The light you can see is ancient, of a thing that no longer exists. It might be a thousand years after you die that the light will wink out. Time comes into its own where concepts like that are concerned. It puts on its best frock and flirts with the camera. Minor elements, like you for instance, trouble time hardly at all.’

She was not there, but it was her voice. He felt it convulsing around his mind like a severed worm. He pressed his fingers against the metal plate in his head as if certain he would trace her features in it. A soft click: light flicked on upstairs, so faint it seemed to cling to the ceiling. He looked around him but down here it was still too gloomy to see anything that might open Della up to him. No books that she had left. No diary. No receipts or bus tickets. He didn’t know what he had expected to find. By this time he was half-crippled with fright anyway. He wanted to call up to whoever was in his quadrant, but to do that was to give himself away and he feared what consequences that might bring. He was drawn to one of the cabinets that was larger than any of the others. The lid had been pushed back, which surprised him as he had never seen any of his own cabinets opened for any reason. Inside it was a 19th century operating table, complete with a tray of sawdust beneath to absorb any spillages. He reached in and touched the worn wood with its collection of nicks from the amputation blades that had sawn into it over the years. His hand came away warm and wet. His eyes snagged on a placard referring to a failed operation that had been attempted on a female baby suffering from a terrible condition known as ectopia cordis, a congenital state in which the patient is born with the heart outside the body. Even now, the placard read, such a condition is likely to result in death.

Stackables

She said, ‘The cattle tic is capable of akinesis. It will sit on the tip of a branch waiting for the scent of animal sweat for as long as it takes. Decades sometimes. When the scent awakens it, it jumps towards the smell, drinks blood, gives birth to its eggs, and dies. Treading water for so long, waiting for one chance of life, of living.’

He shook his head and tentatively climbed on to one of the display cabinets. He had to leap to catch hold of the railing and pulled himself up as quickly as his unfit body would allow.

She said, ‘One man’s museum is another’s prison.’

Frantically, Garner stalked between the display cabinets, searching for something he didn’t have a name for. The clocks and watches all seemed different now the lights were on. Up ahead he saw shadows surge across the pale carpet, then recede into the relative murk against the wall, where the pendulum clocks were aligned. He heard the smash of broken glass. The torch had been switched on again. It was trained on the same cabinet he had seen when he entered the room.

Up ahead, the lid of one of the display cabinets had been shattered. At first he thought it must be due to something having fallen from the ceiling, but even as he approached he knew this was merely wishful. He tried to muffle his terror with the banal concern that the alarm had not been triggered.

Something had been added to the collection.

It was beautiful and awful in equal measure. A silver skull watch, blood-spattered and glistening. A latin phrase was inscribed into the metal. He could just make it out despite the splashes of red: ultima forsan. Next to it, another kind of timepiece had been crudely mashed into the broken display cabinet. Like the others, this one had also stopped ticking, but could never be fixed to do so again.

The hole in her chest roared wetly with air as she tried to fill her lungs. He could only glance at her, at the incisions in her body, at the twitching fist of meat that clung to her chest, beating so violently he thought it must tear itself away. His panic and fear were heavy, they dragged his gaze to the floor.

She said, ‘It’s later than you think.’

Advent Stories #15

O CARITAS

OC

Monck realised he had been here too long when he glanced down at his hands to find the knuckles turned blue. The flyover fled off to the left and right of him. Everything else was just scenery. An acid blue sky was crocheted with vapour trails. There were half a dozen jets up there right now, scraping the troposphere, edging 600mph while their inhabitants grazed on plastic trays of trans-fats and overcooked starch. The air shimmered with particulates. Blue tremors made the surface of the road uncertain. He stared at his hands, clenching and unclenching them, watching the tendons crawl beneath the skin. He remembered, when he was active in this city, that he had suffered from narcolepsy. He wondered if, now he was back, it would return too. Then he pulled the scrap of paper from his pocket and stared at the name. COLLEEN MALLORY.

He headed east. This section of road between Marylebone and Kings Cross had always been busy, as long as he had lived here, as long as he had been aware of the capital. The buildings that muscled against it were scorched with product: advertisements, tags, fliers, exhaust. Monck moved like something set free from a cage. His lungs burned. What passed for fresh air up top seemed much cleaner than anything he had sampled below stairs for the past five years, although he knew this was not the case. The pollution in Beneothan was oil-based, natural; not this chemical cocktail that twinkled in the lungs for a lifetime.

The tiny screws on his sunglasses were weak; he kept having to press his fingers to the frames to ensure they did not fall off. Midwinter, the sun like a torch fuelled by a failing battery was still strong enough to cause white-out and tears. And he must see; he must not be caught napping.

The city had healed, much better than he had ever imagined it might. Everything seemed sealed, glossy, like scar tissue. The rich had risen. Structured gossamer, the new form of transport among the moneyed, was sailed between buildings hollowed at their summits to receive it. Ground level was becoming ghettoised, a grid of poverty being redrawn in tar and carbon monoxide and soot.

Where is everyone going? Monck thought. The cars ground and bit and squealed around the peeling tarmac, surging along the Euston Road like some Roman army with its shields raised. Fewer people than he remembered were walking, perhaps because of the dangers. As the city grew taller, the light went with it; the depths were gloomy all the time now, lit up only by the ochre stabs of headlights or some reflected glory chicaning down from the heavens. Though he was tempted to stop and stare, Monck kept moving, remembering that he had a job to do.

Despite his years away, and the changes that had occurred, he still loved his city. There was enough of the old face left behind to offer reassurance, comfort even. Occasionally he happened upon ghosts. Bends in the road that he had swept down in a car with a girlfriend. Zones that pricked at him with meaning until he realised that he was standing where a park used to be, where he had read a novel, or eaten a sandwich in the sunshine, or met someone for a chat and an ice cream. The idea of food found a mate in his gut; he was suddenly ravenous. He hurried along a huge street, wishing for some of the old London kebab shops to still be around, but there was nothing but glass and resin and high-tensile steel. There were no doors. No neon. No human buzz. There was no way in.

Skimmers had delivered reports to Beneothan of gangs roaming these streets. There were horror stories connected to the elite in their penthouse acres high in the clouds. They were hiring muscle to rid the streets of old Londoners, the people who had existed here before the cataclysmic earthquake that collapsed forty per cent of the capital. With the streets cleansed, the rich could spread out, move into some of the big piles that sat idle in the suburbs, regain control of the roads and engage with the earth once more, instead of drifting around like chancing spiders. The rich liked their penthouses, but they liked their mobility too. They did not like to feel restricted in any way.

Monck could care less. Silk linings or age-shined viscose; it made no difference to him.

‘In here, quick.’ The voice was panic-scarred, and frothy with nicotine. Monck spun towards it and saw the grey blade of face sink back into the dark like a shark’s fin. Monck remembered when he had teetered on the brink of discovery: his true identity, his connection with the tribe that lived beneath the city, his talent for melting into the scenery. Fear had been behind it all back then; had partially fuelled the epiphanies he experienced. His scare threshold had receded much in the intervening years; when you spent your life scurrying around in true blackness, this twilight, this daylight, was hardly a place for nightmares to exist.

It was Jermyn, one of the Skimmers. He smelled of burnt grease and air fresheners. Monck saw him flaring his nostrils, perhaps in yearning for the underground. ‘Your shift over soon?’ Monck asked him.

‘Another twelve hours. My tripes are sweating, being in this shit pit. I’ll be glad to be back in the soil.’

Monck nodded. ‘Have you an in for me? Is there anything doing, this area?’

‘This used to be Marylebone,’ he said. ‘Very swish. Very Swedish, in its day. Over there, where the road bends off the main drag, Homer Street. There was a very good bar on the corner. Overpriced, but good.’

‘Anything doing?’ Monck pressed. ‘Anyone who’d look good in white?’

‘You think I’m here to grade skirt for you? I’m a waterboatman, Monck. Not a matchmaker. I’m here to make sure Beneothan remains beneath. Unsullied.’

‘I’ll cover for you. Last twelve hours of your shift. Go boating up the Fleet with your sweetheart. I just need a lead.’

‘You’re on,’ Jermyn snapped. ‘This arterial road is cut off at the top by what used to be Edgware Road. It’s grim as graves that way now. There’s a possible breach at the mouth of the old tube station. You have to make sure nothing gets in. I’ve got a few dogs on it at the moment, while I check the other weak point at the corner of Once Upon a Baker Street. Old video shop boarded up and ostensibly sterile. But don’t fall for it. There’s a storage room underneath. Something’s been at the foundations. Anything enters those hotspots means Beneothan is compromised.’

‘What about below stairs?’

‘Facers are working on the inner sanctum as we retreat. Strengthening the important sections to make sure we aren’t pierced, weakening others at strategic zones to ensure major kapow should any spelunkers get too warm.’

‘Do you really sense a threat? Aren’t we beyond that now? We’re burgeoning. Population’s on the rise. Slowly, I admit, but stil… I doubt anyone up here even knows about us any more.’

‘As long as Odessa breathes, there’ll be a garrison at the limits. No harm ever came from being cautious.’

Monck smiled. ‘You say that, but you’re getting chilblains.’

Jermyn touched his hat. ‘When you’re done, you might consider taking a shower before presenting yourself at the alleyways behind what was once Park Lane. The great hotels are all bandaged up like sore fingers, but you’ll find what you need inside them. Go tall. Enjoy the view. There’s nothing happening below the fifteenth floors.’

He was gone, then, as if the shadows had dismantled him. Monck thought he heard something by way of a farewell, but he couldn’t work out what it might have been. It sounded too much like Ivy for it to be anything like a goodbye.

Monck breathed into a stiff bowl made by his fingers, tried to work some feeling back into them. The light, such as it was, was failing, but still it was too painful to remove his sunglasses. As the dogs were on guard at Edgware Road, he decided to check on the video shop first. His mind filled with confetti, he headed east.

*

A darkness in waiting. A darkness with poise. The air here has not changed in half a decade. It sags like the final breath in a dead man’s lungs. A shoal of post lies on the welcome mat. Shelves prop up cinema ghosts. Anime. RomCom. Adult. Faded labels stained with perished Sellotape: Video Box Sets Half Price. Sopranos Season One Five Pounds!!! A different kind of shadow where the cash register stood. A corner of the poster carousel taps gently against its mate, spurred on by a draught, the only sound this space has known until the jemmy splits the halves of the entrance and pops it open.

Monck moves into this, knowing this species of dark as if it were something that might be alive, kept in a vivarium. The rods and cones on his retina spring awake: recognition of a friend. He breathes deeply and tastes air that would have fresh when he too was known to these streets more readily than the tunnels gouged beneath them.

He freezes, his hands behind him, pressed firmly against doors he has closed again. It’s as if no change has occurred. Behind him, cut-up voices in the street. A mish-mash of questions, challenges, rejoinders, but he can’t apportion them to separate mouths:

one seventy/scalpel/over/get that light close in/twenty/fifteen ccs/incision/clamp that/prep/black lung/reinflate/city boy, this is a city boy/bleeder

Street code. Gang slang. A patois of the pavement. He struggles to understand it while his eyes take in the denuded stacks. A few discarded DVD jackets lie on the floor. A price gun. A box that once contained deep fried chicken. The darkness deepens in the south-west corner of the room.

Stairs lead down to a tiny staff area: a sink, a chair, a counter. A box of PG Tips and a bowl of fossilised sugar. Fingers of mould wrap around the edges of a mini fridge. On the wall is a calendar from 1998. A stock room behind this is contains a single, empty pallet in the far corner. It is cool in this room. There is a padlocked fire door. A staff whiteboard bear the words Return stock by April 9th and Jenny says yes to Jake!!! and Someone else get the biscuits this week, please. Monck moves cautiously to the pallet and toes it aside. Here lies the breach, or one of them. A narrow blue-black throat sinking into another place. Top to bottom. Head to toe. Monck ducks to the edge and breathes. There is a smell of home, but of danger too. This tunnel is being used for something other than access. What was Jermyn playing at? Had he not been inside this building? Did he think, just because the main entrance was sealed, that there were no other crevices? He had lived for long enough in the city’s bowels, Monck thought he might have taken on some of the skills of rats by now.

Carefully, with the green stick of chalk he used to indicate area of danger, he ringed the fissure and scratched a line on the wall above it. He made another mark on the wall outside the shop too, after closing the doors.

*

Back along the old Crawford Road. He remembered many of the shops along here, and the people who lived in the flats. There had been a chemist with stained glass windows, a Middle Eastern sandwich shop that advertised FRESHLY SQUIZZED JUICE. A man with dreadlocks in his beard pushed a shopping trolley filled with televisions and cardboard; he drank chocolate milk from a carton and smelled of turpentine and plaster dust. London was coming back into Monck, reanimating him. He was almost running by the time he reached the Westway again. Ahead, the dilapidated entrance to Edgware Road’s Bakerloo line was a riot of broken masonry and lurching, concertina steel. He saw three dogs sitting on the pavement and knew there was something wrong straight away. These were not Beneothan dogs. They were bullets of muscle, all jaw and forward motion: bull mastiffs, bred nasty. They spotted Monck as he was backing away; they tore after him immediately.

Monck hit diamond link and climbed savagely, feeling the snarl of salivating chops at his trouser legs. He swung his leg over and dropped into a basketball court. Painted lines ruptured by tectonic upthrust, the aftershocks of the quake. The mastiffs were trying to chew through the fence and Monck spent a panicked few seconds checking for gaps they might have missed. He ran to the far end of the court and climbed the fence there, then doubled back in a large arc, hoping that he was downwind of the dogs and that their stubborn idiocy would keep them at the fence, waiting for him to return.

Inside the station, he slid over the ticket barriers. The lifts were buckled and powerless. The Beneothan dogs had been strangled, hoisted up on their leashes and left to hang on the exposed strip lighting cables. Monck took the spiral staircase into pitch, his mind thick with foam and bulging eyes. It was as if he could taste the secretions of foreign bodies in the air; feel the heat from their footsteps through the soles of his boots on these cold, stone steps.

These tunnels had not known trains for half a decade. On the southbound platform, Monck found discarded briefcases and handbags, umbrellas and newspapers fluttering in the breezes that funnelled through the underground network. How old was this air? It had no way out. It was being constantly recycled, a stale miasma, a memory. Monck stood and listened to its song, trying to detect something more sinister within it. His mind wandered. He thought of his long dead mother, and of his father, of women he had loved: Nuala, Laura. He had to bite hard against a sudden compulsion to cry. You could not live in Beneothan and entertain thoughts of visiting friends and family. It was too dangerous. It was too uniting. This city beneath the capital was insular, jealous and proud. It was the hypochondriac fearing infection.

From the tracks, a sudden sizzle of intent. A mechanical exhalation. A death rattle snaking its way along the dust-clogged tiles. Monck steeled himself for revelations, but none came. Only half-formed sentences, techno-babble, more of the argot he had eavesdropped at the video shop.

Swab/Clamp/Suture/I need 5 milligrams/

Frustrated by a lack of stimulus, Monck checked the other platform and the staff only zones, before repairing to the spiral staircase. He ascended swiftly, mindful that the mastiffs might return. He chalked lines on the ticket barriers and entrance and left a mark to convey that basic checks had been undertaken, but a more thorough search was needed. How many failed pressure points like this across the city? How many were accidental, unknown? How many had been created by invaders?

The constant burble of traffic on the flyover. The scurry and rush. Where was everyone going? Why was anybody still here?

At a Skimmer node – the private park for residents in what was previously Connaught Square – he passed on the details of his search. It was out of his hands now. The Skimmers would contact the Web, at the heart of Beneothan, and sealing manoeuvres would be coordinated within 24 hours.

‘Jermyn,’ he said, as he was leaving. ‘Have any of you seen Jermyn?’

Goldhawk and Frith shook their heads. Delancey suggested he might be in one of the midway zones – a central tunnel, platform or storage unit – catching up on his sleep before his next shift began.

Monck nodded, unable to shake off doubtful feelings. He hurried into what had once been named Stanhope Place and crossed the old Bayswater Road into Hyde Park.

The sudden vastness screamed into him and he felt afraid for the first time in so many years that it was almost crippling. Tired as he had grown of the enamelled feel of the new buildings, their brutal aloofness, that claustrophobia was preferable to this. He had forgotten about space. He began to sprint, unable to stop himself, like some newborn animal having found its legs. It was directionless, terrifying, thrilling. He ran until he saw a massive blade separating the park, glittering in the moonlight. He tore off his sunglasses, disoriented. Time was important up here. It was something that could be measured. Underground there was just the work and the sleep and the love. The compression of time up here, the compulsion to follow it, to be dictated to by it, reminded him that all those things he enjoyed now, he had to place into little boxes before. Life had been a series of tasks. Shape, format, rules, laws, all had been imposed on him. Time was all of those constrictions, and more. It ate through your mind from birth. Your first kiss was defined by how long you mashed your lips against someone else’s. We were at it all night long. How many years did you devote to the company you worked for? How many birthdays? How many anniversaries? The watch. The clock. The time, sponsored by Accurist.

The blade gleamed, clean and long, like an arrowhead that has fallen free of its spear.

Serpentine. He had boated on this with Laura in a year he couldn’t begin to give a number. They had drunk cappuccini and watched children chase pigeons. Looking back, you forgot about how time controlled you. You could erase it from the scene, but it was always there, tutting at you, pointing a finger at its own face.

He angled across the park, conscious of how conspicuous he was under this brilliant moon. He saw a fire up ahead, and shadows pass in front of it, running fast. He would have to negotiate the broad drag at the west edge – Park Lane as was – before he could search The Dorchester or the Hilton. There were enough distractions. A family had taken refuge in a black cab; the father was jabbing something like a poker out of a hole in one window, trying to ward off the pack that were trying to get at them. Someone ran through the wall of fire and gave the flames a piggy back. A horde took off after the screaming figure, although it was gone before Monck could discern whether a rescue was taking place.

OC2

He hurried across the road, dodging overturned vehicles and grinning cracks in the tarmac. A trio of children were sitting by the entrance to The Dorchester, playing with dice, or teeth or pebbles. He slipped past their upturned, hollowed faces and into the hotel lobby. He could hear music. There was a signal of some kind, too. It sounded like the pips of a timecode, or the indecipherable beats that untangle themselves from surges of static on a shortwave radio.

As with everywhere else, the lifts were no longer functional. He put his head down and trotted up the first seven floors before he had to rest. His breath came ragged and hot, deafening him. He crouched in the corner of the stairwell until his lungs had calmed, and then proceeded more carefully, rattled that he should have made himself vulnerable at the end of his search. At the seventeenth floor, he found corridors festooned with crepe decorations, silver and blue balloons, the mineral hit of champagne. At the other end of the building, as he turned a corner, he glimpsed a blur of white, heard the shush of silk rubbing against itself. Music came from an unknown source: it crackled with the warmth of vinyl. Cat Stevens, Sitting.

…if I sleep too long, will I even wake up again…

He pushed a door open and saw a room that could not be there. It contained a pine wardrobe with thin metal handles. Inside, the smell of the wood had been lost to time, and the things that were stored within: magazines and bottles of malt whisky; old sweet tins brimming with photographs; a cardboard box of births and deaths and marriages. A cricket ball. A tin of Kiwi boot polish.

A dressing table against which his mother had died writing a letter. Her perfume. For a moment, in the triptych of mirrors, he thought he saw her. The arm of her bottle green bathrobe swung clear of the door, stiff enough to contain her. He stepped back, his throat constricting. Those photographs. He could remember them without having to look again. Mostly from when he was a baby, a toddler. For some reason, his father stopped taking pictures once he had grown beyond the age of four. Maybe he was too busy. Maybe his camera had broken; they weren’t so easy with money that such luxuries could be replaced. The novelty of children wearing off; but he couldn’t believe that. His childhood had been happy, secure, until the seizure that carried off Mum. Cat Stevens was singing about a boy with a moon and star on his head. If he were to move deeper into the room, he might find his father reading a book about hostas, sipping at his Laphroiag.

A cork popped from a bottle.

‘Colleen?’ he called. He wondered where they had found her, and why they thought he would be a good match for him. Odessa had warned him of the population’s mismatch. Seven men for every one woman. Beneothan would die out within a couple of generations if they did not attract more females.

A door paused in the shutting. He hurried towards it. Inside, the hotel room was a riot of decorations. A partially devoured wedding cake stood on a pedestal. The window gave a view of Hyde Park that made Monck feel dizzy. He had to put his hands flat against the wall; he felt his toes try to dig through the soles of his boots into the carpet.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. She was sitting on a bed large enough for a small family to share. Her face was slashed shut by shadows.

Monck shot a look at her before his gaze was dragged back to the window.

‘Long way up,’ he said.

‘Long way down, too,’ she said.

Spanish guitars were still playing from the hotel room further down the corridor. Cat Stevens sings Latin. He imagined his dad nodding his head to the hand claps, the insistent pulse of the strings. Give me time forever, here in my time.

‘Will you come with me?’ he asked.

‘I’ve been with you all day,’ she said. ‘I’ll be with you for as long as it takes.’

Monck watched lights coil around the vast body of the park. Occasional fires burned at its perimeter. Gossamer drifted past the window: a man was pouring wine for two female companions while a Spider steered them towards some penthouse or another.

Colleen approached him, but the shadow would not slip from her features. He smelled apples on her, and her breath was spiced with nothing so exotic, or so intoxicating, as fresh air. It was as if she had drawn a lungful of the winter countryside into her and transported it here to pollution’s carbon-scorched heart. She plucked the piece of paper from his fingers and a shift occurred in that knot of darkness, a stretching, a settling. She was smiling.

‘You need to remind yourself who I am?’ she asked.

‘This is unorthodox, I know,’ Monck said.

‘Well, I’m here, ready. My big day.’

She returned to the bed and sat down, patted the area next to her. He stumbled towards it, certain that his vertigo was going to tilt the room as well as himself, and spill him through the glass. She did not reach for him, nor him her. They sat together like would-be lovers in the presence of a chaperone. His eyes would not grow accustomed to her darkness. But he felt very strongly that he knew her. The way she sat, the way she talked, the way she moved. Her fingers were busy with the paper. She folded it and refolded it. Sometimes it disappeared between her fingers, but then she unfolded, and the square grew. At one point, busy with it again, it fell from her hands. She didn’t pick it up.

‘We ought to go,’ he said. ‘Places like this, they’re vulnerable. Easy for street levellers to come up here.’

She leaned forward. It was only at the last moment, as her lips found his, that he realised she meant to kiss him. He thought she was about to share some grim secret. Shock reeled around his body.

‘Nuala?’ he said. But Nuala was dead. She had burned in a graveyard for trains. Everyone from his past died or faded away. He was like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle whose interlocking parts had become torn off.

When he pulled away, the kiss becoming at once too cloying and too insubstantial, the dress was lying on the bed, old and scarred. The walls of the room were peeling, the window starred with concussions from rocks or metal bars, which lay on the floor before it. Red paint had been sprayed around the walls. Outside, Hyde Park was a mass of smoking bodies, a disaster scene trying to be contained with man-sized pieces of charred tarpaulin.

The static in his head resolved itself into a sequence of beeps, of beats. He looked down at his arm and saw his blood’s motion, synchronous in the raised bulge of a vein. As if he had just drawn his arm clear of water, he saw it gleam, saw the shift of his face reflected in a glint millimetres wide. He was reminded of the Serpentine, but when he lifted his head to search for the water, everything went grey. He turned, his heart thrashing, and knew he had to get out of the hotel. It was a trap of some sort. Jermyn’s shark fin face leered somewhere out there. Monck was on his knees, scrabbling for the door, when his hand brushed against the paper Colleen had been playing with. Its folds seemed unfinished; her name was obscured. Well, part of it. The initial letters of her given and family names were mashed together. As he was cloaked by the strength of his own astonishment, he saw the word: COMA.

*

A tube leading from the cannula sunk deep into the meat of his forearm snaked into the soil. Wires turned the shaved mass of his head into a study of fractures. Trying to move, he noticed he was naked. A monitor beep measured the strength beep of his life and played beep along.

Colleen shifted into his line of sight. He knew it was her because of the smell. He wanted to ask her how she managed that, how she could retain the freshness of the surface after so long in the stale belly of the city.

‘Are you smiling?’ he asked.

‘Shh,’ she said. ‘Don’t speak. I have to give you something.’

‘What?’

He heard rumbles move over his head from left to right, dull, distant, but onerous. Trickles of soil fell from the ceiling. A large bang from somewhere. The room, and Colleen, shivered in his eyes.

‘You shouldn’t have woken up.’

‘What do you mean?’

Other figures crowded around him. He recognised one as Odessa. ‘Put him under, quick,’ she said. ‘Jesus Christ.’

He found strength to fight her as she made to release the seal on the anaesthetic. He tore the needle from his arm with his teeth and spat it out. He sat up. The others shifted uneasily, moving away, unsure.

Odessa said, her voice softer now, imploring: ‘Don’t leave us. We’re nothing if you go.’

‘What is happening?’ he asked.

‘We captured you.’

‘I’m with you. There’s no need to hold me prisoner.’

‘We captured your narcoleptic… other. The you that exists when you have an attack, when you sleep.’

Monck tensed himself for another rush at him, but everyone was keeping back. He wished they would attack him; it was something he could at least try to deal with.

‘Why?’ he asked, barely able to summon the breath required by the question.

‘We needed you up there, but we need you here too.’

‘Why?’ he asked again. He felt he might never be able to say anything but.

‘Storage. We’re in trouble. We’re under attack. We need to keep our functioning males safe. We’re building special, sealed hives. We have cryogenic technicians…’ Odessa’s voice petered out.

‘And what about this… other?’

‘Reconnaissance. We could read what was happening up Top without needing to imperil ourselves.’

Monck rubbed his face. ‘I remember a ruined hotel. Colleen was there. Hyde Park was burning.’

Odessa nodded. ‘We know. The city is dying. After the quake, well we hoped it would divert attention. But there were breaches. People came looking. There were deaths. No order after a cataclysmic event. No law to speak of. It was required elsewhere. Scum poured in. We were caught napping. People who lost everything in the trauma up Top found succour in the stores we had built down here. We are being routed and reamed. We are retreating so hard we’re meeting ourselves coming the other way.’

‘I have to go.’

‘No, we’re not finished. We need to find the other breaches. We have to repel and seal.’

‘Get Jermyn to do it. Or one of the other Skimmers.’

‘Jermyn’s dead. They’re all dead.’

‘I have to go. I’m going. I have to see for myself.’

‘Come back, then. Soon,’ Odessa said, and then something else, as she moved out into the tunnels.

He was pulling on his clothes, wiping his needle punctures with sterile tissues, when he realised what she had said.

At least one of you.

*

London was like a model for tectonic realignment, for climate change, for urban terrorism, all rolled into one. Fires and gangs roamed, seeking fuel. Monck noticed his lack of shadow, but it was night; what light there was came as a jittery, uncertain thing. He chided himself for allowing himself to be spooked, and chivvied himself along the old Oxford Street, with glances into the vandalised acres of glass and steel that flanked him, where at least his reflection – a pale craquelure – kept pace.

He approached the Dorchester from the rear, feeling strange at the knowledge that this was his first visit to the hotel, despite what his dreaming self had suggested. He felt light, reduced somehow, and wondered how long he had been lying on the bed. His legs were foal-weak.

He entered via a staff door that linked to the kitchens. The refrigerators had been raided. All of the knives and cleavers had been stolen from the hooks above the work surfaces. Dinner orders were still clipped to a carousel. A waiter’s bow tie hung limply on the back of a tea box filled with mouldering potatoes. He knew that there was no hope for Beneothan. You couldn’t put a finger in every hole; blocking it up only increased the pressure elsewhere. London was too big to police. It had accrued breaches for millennia. It was sieve city. It was groaning with collapse.

Monck methodically checked every corridor off the fire escape as he rose. On some levels he was unable to open the doors because of bodies or barricades. At the seventeenth floor he found cold sterility. Any evidence of the party had been cleared away, or had existed nowhere other than in the crevices of his sleep-brain. All of the rooms were open. All of the rooms were empty. He found the shadow of what might have been a wedding dress across the counterpane of a neatly made bed but when he pressed his fingers against it, shadow was all it was.

He heard something back down the corridor and turned to see a hand slide out of view, leaving a track of black in the wall that its nails had gouged.

He hurried after the figure, Colleen’s name on his lips, gritting his teeth against the feeling of faintness swarming around him. In the stone chasm of the fire escape, he heard hard, fast footsteps ascending. Monck stared at the risers as he pursued, expecting to see craters. Someone crashed through the emergency exit at the top of the hotel. Monck arose into a silent span of stars. Smoke smudged the horizon. London reared away from him, a mandala of fire, a thousand square miles of potential being forged in the flames of creation. It seemed. The truth was more prosaic, more dangerous. Distance did that for you. Whether temporally or physically. It prettified. It defused.

He/Monck said, ‘Long way up.’

Monck/He said, ‘Long way down, too.’

He was sitting on the edge of the world, a figure so utterly dark it was as if it wouldn’t be able to sustain itself. It seemed to tremble, on the verge of sucking itself inside out. It felt strange, saying the things that this narcoshade was saying, yet it didn’t for a second make him feel as though he were being manipulated.

‘I’m tired,’ He/Monck/Monck/He said. ‘I’m so tired.’

There could be no trickery here, no surprise ending. He knew what was coming. So no need to ask the reason they had come up here. No need to ask what kind of future they might share. No more why. No more who. No more where. No more when. The how of it was the easiest part. Monck/He reached out his arms and began to run. Like a mirror made of oil, He/Monck opened up for an embrace. It lasted for as long as it took Monck to wonder if they would create one impact mark on the road, or two.

Why Blonde became Dust

In the mid-90s I read all five of Derek Raymond’s pitch black Factory novels: He Died with His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home on Leave, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright*. I’d been of a mind to write a crime novel of my own for some time, and had dabbled with the odd short story here and there, but I wasn’t sure how to attack it. Reading Raymond unlocked the handcuffs. His nameless, profane (but intensely compassionate) Detective Sergeant was the grit in the grease of the police force, but he ground out results, identifying with the victims and immersing himself in the psychology of their killers to an uncomfortable degree.

Illustration by Paul Millner
Illustration by Paul Millner

I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of police procedurals, and decided my rogue element would be an ex-copper with a weakness for missing persons. I wanted it to be gritty and grimy, harrowing and horrific, and Derek dark.

I wrote Blonde on a Stick in 2003, the first in a planned series in which my protagonist would come to terms with the violent death of his wife and the subsequent disappearance of his teenage daughter.

I struggled though, to find a publisher, despite the enthusiasm of my then agent. The rejections were full of encouragement, however, and one or two houses had almost bitten, which kept me optimistic. But it wasn’t until my wife noticed a Facebook post by Maxim Jakubowski referring to the news that he was overseeing the launch of a new crime imprint – MaxCrime – at John Blake Publishing, that I felt my confidence return. Maxim had known Derek Raymond; indeed he had acted as Raymond’s agent for a spell (and still represents his estate). The stars were in alignment, it seemed.

I was thrilled when Maxim bought Blonde for his list and my mind turned to future books. At last Joel Sorrell was on his way…

blondeAlas, more bad fortune was to follow. John Blake is a publisher of repute, but its bread and butter is in non fiction. This first foray into novels lasted less than eighteen months before the list was cancelled. However, they had only purchased UK rights so it was not inconceivable I might be able to resurrect the series with another publisher. Luckily Titan Books showed an interest in Joel Sorrell towards the end of 2013. They agreed to publish two more books in the series, but they also wanted to reprint book one, albeit under a new title.

I was very attached to that original title, but Titan’s argument was that it didn’t quite sit comfortably with the content. It needed a more elegant name, so I came up with one and they produced a striking cover to go with it. I was happy with the decision (all three novels in the series so far are quotes from literary sources – William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare) and excited that finally, over ten years on from his conception, Joel would be able to reopen the file on his missing daughter.

I worry a little that people who have read Blonde will pick up Dust and Desire thinking it is a new book. It is not. It has been revisited, spruced up, modernised, but it is not substantially different. A brand new Joel Sorrell story – Do Not Resuscitate – set shortly after the events in Dust and Desire is included, along with a Q&A. Not that many people would have chanced upon the initial MaxCrime version – I only ever saw one copy in one bookshop and that was positioned ‘spine on’ – so I doubt much confusion can arise given that there was no worldwide or e-book release.

I believe the novel deserves a second chance and I’m grateful to Titan Books for granting it.