We slosh through these places, Jorvy and I, with beeping equipment we don’t understand and in suits that keep us alive. Our breathing is laboured. Boluses build at the base of our throats, resting like half-swallowed pills. The gin they give us, which tastes like it had to cross a dozen illicit borders to get here, dissolves them.
Jorvy says things like: “Do you remember that light we saw? The one that looked like wax. Man, that was something.” And, “There’s a girl in the shadows. Look, there!”
I hear him through the intercom that overlays his words with a fine craquelure. Base hear him, too.
“Control him,” they say to me. “Or we will.”
There is, of course, a job to be done.
There are places things shouldn’t be. There are places things shouldn’t get the chance to exist. Gunfire in playgrounds, tumours on pregnant dogs, the sea in our homes.
The biggest fairy tale we told ourselves was that there was a natural order to things.
We are where water shouldn’t be. It sidles up to our hazmatted shins and knees, friendly, like a cat about to be fed.
Occasional shadows flit beneath and past us, quick as ghosts. They shit me up every time.
Once, off the coast of Hinchinbrook Island in Australia, I swam beyond a ridge of reef and found my legs dangling above a lightless world. A giant toothless gob. That was it for me.
I’m convinced that hell is personal, and that mine is reincarnating as a fish with human fears.
“Nearby,” says Jorvy. He’s better than me. The best in our unit. A real talent, which lets him get away with a lot. Drinking, sex, chocolate, disgust for the job. Jorvy doesn’t like what he does but likes that he’s good at it.
Base govern with the moral confidence of entrepreneurs, and the lack of skill and patience such confidence affords. Their rules are a nostalgia of film clips and misremembered family vignettes that recall sharply made beds, willingness to sacrifice, Rudyard Kipling and exaggerated beret angles. It’s powderpuff stuff. Our captains try but they haven’t got the heart. They wear uniforms but it’s just a step up from cosplay.
It’s different when we’re out there, in the hazmats. Base take over then, and they have a direct line to us. A cause and effect that’s immediate, that exists without the need for the delusional ritual and process and jingoism of empire. If we fuck up, they shock us, including Jorvy. Especially Jorvy, whose transgressions that require structural, hardwired belief to punish outside the suit become very easy to punish inside of it. They press a button and something happens.
Our problem is that they think they made it happen.
That’s how they’ve been allowed to think their whole lives.
“Shit, look at that,” says Jorvy. I follow his finger to a rustle of bins. One pitches over, spilling its contents. I can’t see what he sees but swear in amazement anyway so he won’t be tempted to paint a picture. “I’ve never seen something with angles like that,” he says.
We’re getting deep. The zone started with a row of terraces, light and television noise escaping from them. Parents admonishing their children: “Why are you so fucking quiet?”. The sound of an antique plate that once meant something to someone smashing against a wall. “You’re just sitting there.” Nearly normal. Some laughter, even. The water was barely conjoined puddles.
But it’s rising now, around our calves even though we’re going downhill. I cringe at the taut shapes and questing tendrils lit up by a runway of streetlights that bleed fuzzy crepuscular light into the smog. Instagram would love this shit.
“Look up, not down,” Base tell me. They track progress through a series of chest, rear and head cams that crackle with interference – a symptom of the liminal change.
We go on, Jorvy leading the way, as he always does. The air thickens, becomes wetter. We’re trained to slow and deepen our breathing against a growing sensation of saturation, of waterlogging. It isn’t easy – asthmatics need not apply – but it tells us we’re on the right track.
We pass a kebab shop, still open though the water’s a foot deep inside. A bell trills and a man emerges. He trips as he misses the submerged step and sprawls to his hands and knees. He loses hold of his thin, white plastic bag – his food – which is perforated again and again by an appendage of something underwater.
The man stares at the plastic bag sailing downstream, then looks up at me, his features broad and pale and confused. He gets up, pats himself down as if covered in dust rather than soaked in water. “Ah well, these things happen,” he says. I watch the kebab shop light fade off him as he retreats uphill into darkness.
“Here,” says Jorvy. And even I know this is the place. The air ripples with pollution. The water isn’t just high – at our knees – its rhythms are revealed by detritus. The building’s entrance is barricaded with Star Wars figures, phone cases, condoms, Lego, knots of charging wires, dead fish, pill packaging, Haribo and bags of dog shit.
Plus it’s a typical spot, a 1950s council maisonette. They’re nearly always found in places like this, though last week Jim and Ananya were called to a Wimbledon Village pied-a-terre. “Fucking hell,” Ananya had said, her accent a fusion of Gujurat and Tooting, “that was bad. That was very bad. Prey must have put up a fight but since when does that happen? Since when is Wimbledon fucking Village a feeding zone?”
Jim had said nothing; had let a bottle of gin do his talking.
A beep and a door popping open. Jorvy’s pulled out his skeleton card and got us in.
“Jorvy, got a pinpoint?” Base say. They don’t ask me, but I can tell it’s the third floor.
“Third floor,” says Jorvy. “Room looks back out over the street.”
“Be quick, then,” Base say, as if urgency is possible in a hazmat.
Thuds as birds hammer into the building-long strips of window that illuminate the communal stairwells. I watch the crushed things for a moment, a marvel of transferred energy as they hit the glass, stop for the smallest amount of time in which something can change forever, and then pitch to the rising tide below.
“Come on, Mike,” says Jorvy, in a role-reversal. It’s normally him holding things up, staring at things the rest of us can’t see. “Let’s get this over with.”
The climb gets heavier, as if each step burdens us with a truth we’d only previously guessed at.
On the second floor a helmeted Deliveroo rider, pizza box in one hand, knocking on a door with another. “Please open,” he says, his worn knuckles leaving tacky, bloody marks on the door. “I need to get going. I always need to get going.”
Up the final flight lit by a creamy light that flickers like a moth and that I imagine spells out an SOS in morse code. “This one,” says Jorvy, as if I don’t already know, as if I wasn’t also picked for my talent, as if I’m just along for the ride.
“I fucking know it is,” I say. Jorvy looks at me, nods. Puts a hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and my anger falls away, like wallpaper too heavy for its adhesive, exposing a sadness I’d have to repaper over in my own time.
“No, no, it’s me. Come on. After you.”
“Quit fucking each other and get in there,” Base tell us both, so we do. The door’s ajar, as they always are.
A small, dark hallway, punctured by our head lamps that illuminate bold-pattern wallpaper, a tidy shoe rack, two walking canes and full coat stand. Pictures on the wall. A crooked-backed woman with three boys in front of her, them beaming like they’ve been told it’s a snow day. Dogs with names and dates written under them.
“Fuck off,” I tell Base, and linger just long enough to make it seem like rebellion.
“Come on,” says Jorvy, tapping a shoulder. A kindness, so I can pretend to myself I’m obeying him instead of them.
In we go, into a cold light from a muted TV that bathes the family, who are naked and squeezed into a large sofa.
Of course, something in the middle of them. He makes them a grotesque whole. Skin punctured and melded and sutured together so these five people are a conglomerate mass. The two at each end, the mother and eldest boy, are atrophied, sunken, their bones exposed like branches in winter. The boys to either side are going the same way, their bodies conduits, half drained, half plump.
And in the centre, him, Mr Davies, MP for some forgotten northern town, gorged and stretched and eyes closed and smiling like a boy who doesn’t know he’s the moral of the story. Who doesn’t care that he’s reduced this home to a place something shouldn’t be.
“Jesus,” Base mutter,
“The whole family,” I say. “The whole. Since when did?”
“This one’s alive,” says Jorvy, who always sees more. “I can feel his pulse, but his body knows. His blood has the vigour of an unmotivated pen pal. His skin is mourning all things it will never touch. I can feel his pupils dilating, seeing snapshots of what his life was going to be. His mandible twitches, exposed to the secrets we all learn before we forget them again. He’s laughing, Mike. His dying heart tells me he’s laughing.
“He’ll be gone in under a minute.”
“I can’t wait. We’re not waiting. Let’s just do this and go. Fuck. Come on, Jorvy.”
Mr Davies is fat with the mass of four others so we have to really pull to get him out. After a few yanks that nearly make me puke, he comes loose, the skin tearing with the softness of wet kitchen paper. Blood gouts onto the leather sofa, hits it with a slap. Veins and viscera pull up with him, trailing in the way cheese does on pizza ads, before it scurries up and into the flanks of his body, skin sealing up behind it.
We prop him up between us, this buffet-drunk Epicurean fuck. I want to stab his neck. I want to punch into his guts and set free what he’s taken. But of course I don’t. This is why we’re chosen. Our uncanniness and our submissiveness. That’s why so many of us are recruited from private schools, where we’re taught to be scared of ourselves. To have our weirdness driven far enough down that it can be let out at the choosing of others, leaving us as proud performers.
As we bundle MP Davies into the hallway, the TV unmutes behind us. I recognise the Question Time theme tune. “One second,” I tell Jorvy. I pick up one of the woman’s walking sticks, go into that room without looking at that desiccated family and inelegantly in my restrictive hazmat suit smash and smash and smash the television into shards of glass and plastic destined to become part of the Mariana Trench food chain before going back out beathing heavily and feeling those familiar boluses rise in my throat and telling Jorvy to get a fucking move on and no whimsical detours on the way back for fucking once okay?
Base allow it. For them, this is just free therapy.
“Let’s go back and get pissed,” says Jorvy, and when we return, I’ll hug him for that.
As we go down, and MP Davies politely asks how we are as he burps up arterial fat and plasma, the water goes downs with us, back to I don’t know or care where. Just away from somewhere it shouldn’t be.
Image – dd