A gentle breath of wind dragged its long fingers over the still sea. Flat and transparent like glass, we bobbed gently as it blew through us. Our hammocks swayed gently, as did the leather and fabric walls of the shelter. Then, nothing moved. Everything returned to a marble stillness.
She sat at the head of the boat, a laconic figurehead with her legs dangling either side of the prow, two toes kissing the water, wetting her nails and barely anything else. I emerged from the improvised ironmongery, strapped together with rope and sheets, that we called our ‘house’. From a distance, we appeared to be a pile of junk on a small yacht, with shards of fibreglass teeth around the edges of the deck where the original cabin had been ripped away. As ever, the boat listed slightly to one side, and my knee constantly tweaked and throbbed on the side that took most of my weight.
I crawled up to her shoulder, peeling badly from sunburn, red raw and fizzing with the sea salt.
“Where are we now?”
She looked past her legs into the pale blue under us and I followed. We could make out the rippling, square shapes that were once the tops of buildings, divided by the invisibly deeper blue streets and roads. Here and there a deeper space would announce a park or a market, and we’d hold our breath as we felt the bottomless nothing trying to suck us down. Offices and hotels slept forlonly just below the waterline, crowned with seaweed, windows black against the grey concrete.
‘I think we’re still on Drovers. Old Winslow and Union Street ahead.’
I kissed her shoulders and she shrugged me away, grabbing a handful of the back of my head and squeezing. I walked back along the spine of the boat to the cabin, pulling out a small box that was once a chess board, with the pieces inside. Now it contained a dictaphone of looped birdsong. Climbing into the hammock, I closed my eyes to the harsh cries of starving gulls and watched her arms stretch out in a yawn, before she reclined back against the deck, like a tree falling in slow motion.
I woke up with the flickering of the lamp, strobing across the shelter. She sat, cross legged on the floor, twisting a crucifix over and over so the strap intertwined, before letting it go, helicoptering it against the lamplight. She looked up with pupils black as an eclipse.
‘I can see it ahead..’
‘No more than four or five. It’s big.’
“That’s fine. We can get lost in it, even if there are others.”
I sat up, rubbing the dried salt from my eyes and licking my cracked lips. My mouth tasted sour, and the corners were caked in a foul white cream.
“Can you see it now? In the dark?”
‘It’s a darkness in the dark.’ She smiled. ‘Someone has taken a huge chunk out of the night…’
I stretched and sat up. She clasped the crucifix in her hand and followed me out on deck. Above us, stars sprinkled across a moonless sky, smeared with deep purples and dull silver. Ahead I could see the shape. She put a hand on my shoulder and rested her cheek against it.
‘Four hours until daylight. Perfect timing.’
We carried on following the road, as the vast shape in front of us grew more distinct, details popping out and shining in the first sun. Here and there the sea broke on the tops of roofs. We briefly moored up against one, standing on top of an apartment block, the water lapping at our ankles. An opening led to a staircase that plunged underwater, the door missing. I sat on top of it, whilst she tentatively waded down a few steps to her waist. When she re-emerged, she picked bits of rotten carpet caught in her toenails.
By midday, we were in the shadow of a colossus. Once a skyscraper, now around twelve storeys launched upright into the sky. Dotted around the waterline were improvised jettys and rope ladders leading up to the first dry storey. The building seemed to be haemorraging, white and black guano and the green of weeds and mildew streaming out in deltas from the windows. Almost all of them had no glass, and inside you could see the bones of the structure – girders and pipes all exposed as the ceilings and plaster had been ripped away.
We bobbed clumsily towards a jetty and moored up. The stench from the birds, who circled overhead in a threatening patrol, gave the building a dense humidity, throbbing with a stagnant, virulent warmth. We made our way up the ladder and inside.
It’d once been a collection of offices, and the concrete partitions still remained, giving it the feel of a low-walled maze. We hurried through towards a staircase and climbed up a few floors. As we did, everything became drier, although the alkaline odour of damp gave way to the acidic stab of the birds leftovers. Here and there the remains of original paint clung on, but the first early nubs and bumps of stalactites dotted the ceilings, clustered around old light fixtures like mushrooms.
We made it up to the penultimate floor, one below the top and the roof. There were no partitions, just a vast space flanked on two sides by pillars. Fresh air blew through the glassless windows, and a small camp had been built in the middle of the room – intact mattresses, only mildly stained with brown circles where the springs had rusted; blankets, stoves, gas bottles and generators. In one corner, the ceiling had been punched clean through and the carpet removed so that a bonfire could crackle away.
She stood a few feet back from me as I walked over to the charred remains, her head cocked slightly to one side. I turned around to sleep and she put a finger across her lips and pointed upwards. A single piano key was being hit softly, but with increasing ferocity…. dang dang dang dang dang DANG DANG DANG DANG! DANG! DANG! then the player rammed all of their fingers down on the keys in a cacophanic, chiming rumble, like a thousand church bells striking at once. As the noise shivered through the walls, we heard a faint chuckle and a head appeared at the hole in the ceiling, long hair trailing out like a vine.
I ran away from the hole towards the staircase, and she followed. We stomped up the fragile stairs and burst onto the top floor. The room was much the same as below in layout, except it was completely empty save for a grand piano, lurched on only two of its legs. Next to it, a figure of what appeared to be a woman in a long ballgown lay on the floor on their front, the head disappearing into the hole in the floor. At the bottom of the gown, frayed and straggling, a pair of black-soled feet pursed together as if in a prayer.
I walked over, running my hands along the piano. A few of the keys were missing, so it grinned like an idiot after a vicious fistfight. The figure remained peering into the hole, ignoring us, so we got down on our fronts and did the same either side.
Did you like my playing?
She spoke in a strange sing-song accent, undefinable. Her hair still hid her face. I tried to move a lock of it, but was shooed away.
“I am D. This is…”
“And you are…?”
Meddle, she chuckled.
She began to lift herself out of the hole. I looked up, as Varlie started to wriggle back, sitting up on her haunches. Meddle’s hair cascaded over her, past her waist. Only the tip of a thin nose protruded. The skin on her arms looked young, if weatherbeaten. I got up off the floor, offering my hand which Meddle refused with a contemptuous shake. I looked over to Varlie, who was already giving me a look to suggest she didn’t want to be here anymore. I agreed. I felt a sickness in my stomach, more invasive and threatening than hunger or illness, a sense that all my limbs and organs could be shut down with a single look or word. I felt sure that Meddle, if that was her real name, knew where my killswitch was. Varlie circled her, inspecting her as one might a second hand car.
I nodded that it was time to go. We began to walk away. With our backs to her, we made our way towards the staircase and I could hear a faint rustling from her gown. I saw out of the corner of my eye that she was following us, albeit more slowly than we were walking, and now the great brown curtain of hair had parted slightly.
Varlie looked first and immediately grabbed the crook of my arm, digging her nails deep into my tendons and veins. I looked as well. Meddle stood a few feet from us, shuffling on her black feet, her hair now framing her face. Her eyes and the bridge of her nose were completely missing, leaving a skin-covered trench into which she had jammed a small, narrow book like a pocket diary. Varlie let go of my arm and walked back towards her, as if caught in a trance. Just before running into her, Varlie sidestepped and circled as Meddle began throwing out jabs with her closed fists.
Varlie was trying to snatch her book. Ducking and weaving in front of the woman, a fist brushed against her hair, another grazed her shoulder. Meddle felt emboldened and started throwing harder, more precise shots as Varlie tried to lead her towards the middle of the room. The pair of them spun away from me, Varlie still in her reckless orbit.
I ran at them both as their dance became more frenzied. I threw myself at Varlie to tackle her to the ground but missed, taking Meddle down instead. Varlie reached down like a crow and wrenched out her book. As we rolled in confusion, we stopped with myself on top of the bony woman, her gown spiked by hip bones and ribs, looking into the slot across her face covered in open sores and weeping. A single dribble of clear fluid ran out of the corner and over her temple as she lay on her back. I climbed off her and, taking Varlie in my hand, we threw ourselves down the staircase towards the boat.
We waited until we were clear of the building before looking back, terrified to see a figure in the sea coming at us like a torpedo. But the only movement was our own wake. When we dared look up, we both saw a lone figure on the roof, silhouetted against a clear blue sky, gulls swarming around her in devotion.
I looked across from my hammock. Varlie lay on her front, looking at the cover of the book. It had been an old pocket diary, the year eroded away. All the pages were empty.
She flicked through them all. Nothing.
Varlie swung herself out of the hammock and walked to the bow, framed by a deepening sunset. Nonchalantly, she flicked the book into the water and stared into the red and gold, the light illuminating her arm and leg hairs as though she’d spontaneously erupted in flames. The pages hit the water with a pathetic splash; downwind, the sound of a lone gull cackled, spluttered and fell silent.