I didn’t think I would remember you.
I thought when the world changed I would change with it. And on the outside, at least, I did. Here I am, after all, in my Balenciaga coat and Jimmy Choos, striding along past ranks of fresh-built luxury apartments. Queen of the World. Only I made a mistake, top of my long, lifetime list, because inside I stayed the same. I remember how things were before. I remember every day of your life I was part of.
Bethany Frances Tate. My daughter.
I check the route on my phone. I haven’t been this side of the Wharf since the night things changed. I didn’t need any more reminders. And as for the flat, 3505—no, just no. I locked the place up and walked away—locked away the memory of you, too, as best I could, hoping it would fade with time. But it didn’t. You didn’t. You were waiting for me back in my own flat in Shoreditch. You sit in the corner of my office, scuffing your boot heels against the blond wood floor while you pick through your list of favourite complaints, deciding which one to throw at me next.
You never wanted me. Well, I did, obviously, because if I hadn’t—well, let’s just say it had been on the cards, even with Mum going to church, and all. I was only seventeen. It was the day I found out I’d got a place at Oxford. I went round to Keith’s after school… his mum was out, and we had the place to ourselves… it wasn’t the first time, or even the second or third, but it was the time I got pregnant. Couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it, but I kept you, at least, okay?
You left me with Nana and Granddad. Yes, and so what? Mum and Dad took a lot better care of you than I could’ve done. You never understood how lucky you were. I don’t know why you did it, take up with that bloody Toby and his mates.
Another corner, and suddenly I’m there. Angles, diagonals, cantilevered balconies jutting out into the blue. 3505 Waterside Foundry. An ideal investment property in an iconic development. Affordable luxury with a stunning view.
Affordable being a relative term, of course. I had to borrow, quite a lot, but still. I figured it was a chance to make a decent little profit for myself and maybe, also, it would mark the turn of the tide. At the bank, on the trading floor, I was a train wreck. I’d lost my touch and didn’t know why. Oh, I knew what they were saying, those nerdy twats who hung around the espresso machine. They looked at the data, while I did what? Toss a coin? Ha. Ha. But the apartment—I couldn’t go wrong, I thought.
The doors open into a granite-and-marble foyer. Stylish, minimalist chic. I punch in 35 at the elevator bank, then turn to check behind me. Paranoia, but whatever. It’s taken me three months to get here and I don’t want them trying to stop me. Toby and his lot. Those people. That’s what your nan called them. She’d doted on Toby, though, at the start. All very Brideshead, it had seemed to Mum. Until the rumours, all that shit in the graveyard—after that, they were those people.
Ding. The elevator arrives. It’s empty, and I nip in. Spotlights bounce off the mirrored walls, my reflection bleeding away down an infinite corridor of angles.
Those people. It was a thing, I told Mum and Dad. Your teen witch thing. You’d soon grow out of it. And when you didn’t—hey, I had the answer there, too: a job at Warehams. I still had a few favours due at the bank. Seriously, what was I thinking? And then: she could stay a few months in that flat I picked up… I don’t know why I said it. Maybe I was worried you’d otherwise turn up at mine. And then look what you did. But worse, far worse was the way you made a fool of me at work. What can your daughter do? I’d been asked, and Oh, anything, I’d replied. Exactly. Like storming out and dumping a dead pigeon on your supervisor’s desk. Mother of Psycho Girl. Pigeon Girl. Lovely. I didn’t need it, did I? Getting my ear bent, that last day, by a woman in HR, her pink little mouth pursed up like a poodle’s arsehole. What kind of a mother are you? She didn’t say it, but I knew what she was thinking. I knew what I was thinking, as well: enough, and that this time you were going to get a piece of my mind.
Ding. And now I’m back. Floor 35. Biscuit coloured carpet; cream coloured walls. Inoffensive, rentable colours. I count off the door numbers down to 3505, then unlock the door and step through into the dark.
More than dark. It’s like last time, three months ago: pitch black, dark as a cave, miles underground. I snap on the lights, stamp down the hallway, and fling open the door to the living room, and you know what? It still gets to me, what you did in there. I remember the day I was first shown round, tuning out the estate agent’s babble to more totally fall in love with the view. And now? Black paint daubed all over the windows to keep out the light, and all over the walls that weird-shit writing, along with a single word in English, over and over: LORD, LORD, LORD.
Lord. That was when I knew. I stood at the door, spitting nails—you were back with those people, I knew it, Toby and his sicko posho mates. You’d brought all that crap up to London, and you were doing it right there in my flat.
Down there. It’s still there, of course, that thing. Looked like some cheesy Hammer-horror pentacle, at first, except it wasn’t. My mind tries to make sense of it, all over again, but I still can’t. There are lines, and angles, but somehow more angles than the lines on the floor can account for. It hurts to look too long at it, so I don’t. I focus instead on the blood, crusted patches of blood, each one at the centre of a polygon shape. There’s a chilli pepper tingle on my tongue. That’s the words that need saying, but the time’s not right. Instead, I cross a line into the outermost court.
Last time I stood on that same spot, I spilled out my heart. I hadn’t gone to Oxford. I hadn’t had a chance. And now my life was half over and I was the know-nothing, no-hoper laughed at by twenty-somethings in vintage Star Wars T-shirts, with PhDs in things I couldn’t even pronounce. I was a joke.
Because of you.
I retrace my steps from court to court. The lines became walls and the walls rose higher. I was lost in a maze. I descended. Was suspended. I couldn’t feel my feet. I was at the bottom of a deep, dark pit, enclosed on every side by a seven-sided shape. Something cold and curved like a sickle slipped around my neck and cradled my head while a column of fire burned through my skull. It knew me. It spoke to me, in its way. It asked me what I wanted and I told it. Really, it was as easy as that.
And then I was back in 3505, cold and shivering. And you were there, too, standing in the doorway. You glared at me. You’re in my flat, you said.
I didn’t know what to think, seeing you there with a bag of shopping in your hand. A Tesco bag. Fuck’s sake. It wasn’t what I’d expected, for sure. It’s my flat, I said. I was still trying to work it all out, and anyhow, what else should I have said? Asked you whose blood it was on the carpet? And then I didn’t need to ask. It was as if a curtain had been pulled back. Oliver, I said. Toby’s older brother, the favourite son and heir. Toby had hated Oliver and now Oliver was gone—not dead, just not there any more, never-born, and Oliver, you said, repeating me, the world kaleidoscope-shifting behind your eyes, because now you remembered him, too.
You knew what Toby had done, but more than that—your face told me you’d guessed what I’d done, too. Maybe not so hard, given I was standing in the middle of your weird-shit not-pentacle thing with bits of lightning still crackling round my feet. I didn’t have a brother to blame, for everything I’d not got. I had you. Still.
Until I didn’t. It happened so fast: one moment we were alone, and then—well, we weren’t. It was like nothing I had ever seen, that One, so I made it tall, and I gave it taloned feet, horns like a stag beetle, and wings like a bat. But no face. It snatched you up and carried you off straight down into the solid floor. What I did—I know I shouldn’t have, and it didn’t actually work, anyhow, because the instant I grabbed your hand whatever magic was there went away. You were trapped. Blood burst from under your nails and ran down your fingers. I let go of you and you slipped away.
Click. Then everything changed. Just like that. The world around me unfolded itself and refolded, like origami, into something completely different.
Sweet. The Master of Disaster, they call me. I’d made a killing in the meltdown of 2008 and in every market downturn since. So much for the espresso club and the bleeding edge of data science. I have a different kind of edge.
Bitter. Your bedroom is Mum’s sewing room and has never been anything else. Dad’s ancient shed sits on the spot where you had your garden swing. You’re gone, never-born, but I even so remember you. I didn’t do it right.
Three months, it took for me to figure it out. Reasonably, actually, because I had no idea how any of those things worked, at first. Oliver had been cut up, that was my first thought, each part of him laid in its proper court… maybe it was because you’d gone through all in one piece? With even your hand still attached, after I’d let you go. Wrong. I had a lot to learn. I pushed my way into places I wasn’t wanted, quite often places I didn’t, either, want to go: five star hotel rooms, bars, backstreets, the ugliest corners of the internet, all the while looking over my shoulder for those people.
In the end, though, it was simple. I cheated on the deal. I was weak. I let go of your hand only because I was hurting you, and that One, it knew.
But I can fix that, now. It was an easy answer, when I finally got to it, and it’s going to be an easy fix. I cross the final line and the words I’ve been waiting to say burst into my mouth. They cut into my lips and tongue like razor blades. I taste blood. My mouth fills with blood, and I spit both blood and words into the secret spaces beneath me. The floor begins to soften—like toffee, at first, and then looser—like mud, like water, and then like nothing at all. I let myself fall.
And then I see you. Open mouth. Red gullet, like a baby bird. Bone-claw hand stretched out to me. I could reach down into that other-place and pull you back into the world. The world in which I’d sat in the kitchen, the letter from Oxford still with pride of place in the toast rack, and stubbornly, stupidly insisted to Mum and Dad I keep you. Dad said it would wreck my life. He was right.
My choice, again, and this time I make the smart choice. Wherever you are, you can stay there. I turn my back and head for the door. I’ve done what I should’ve done twenty years ago. You’re gone. Flushed away. We’re done.
3505. Brushed steel numbers on an oak veneered door. My keys are in my hand. I push them into my bag… it’s strange, I was in the flat, I know, but I’m not sure what I was doing in there. Checking on—no, I don’t remember. Never mind. It will come to me. I need to go. Though I’m not sure where. Down. Yes, down. I pass a line of silent doors and take the elevator to the empty foyer.
At the exit doors I stop, my hand lifting to an unfamiliar face. I’m not sure who I am. I don’t remember. But it doesn’t matter. I need to go.
Where, though? I’m not sure. I cross a deserted plaza and pick a direction at random. Walls rise up around me, glass-sided canyons down which my footsteps echo, my heel-taps a boom-boom heartbeat flung back at me from some great hollow space beneath. The ground doesn’t feel so solid, anymore—doesn’t look it, either, peppered with pin-hole inversions of the faraway stars.
A cloud crosses the moon—no: a shape—black, a winged thing that settles itself on the spines of a crooked, sky-high tower. I thought I was alone, wherever it is that I am, but I’m not. I smile up at my Lord. I’m still not sure where I am, but it feels right, when I look into that missing face. This is the place I’m meant to be.
Another corner. Two roads. I stop, unsure again. I don’t know where either road will lead me, can’t tell even if they’re headed up or down. I creep forward. I squint into a gap between impossibly angled slabs. I smile again. Now, I know.
I take the downward path.
Image: Th.Rioult / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)