I came to crawling, my ears screaming. The fire door had blown open and was going whump, whump, swinging to and fro as quick as my heart, and as it flipped open and closed I saw through it to 2F, where the swallowed cries went on.
Maybe it was just that I was disoriented but I hope it might have been bravery that made me stumble towards the room. I think I was shouting.
Amid the rush of air something skittered. The dusty hat. It flipped over and over and rolled on its brim. I half-stumbled past the hat, a shoe, a long rag, to the threshold.
A glimpse only. No sign of the old man. A whiteboard covered in markings too small to read. The History Man waving his hand and coughing, his eyes wide. The air seemed thick as if with smoke. The hack, impassive, looking up at me, holding something hidden in her hands, something alive and twitching.
I ran back the way I’d come in a panic I did not understand and could not control. I scooped up the dusty hat and kept going, almost falling with every step, hurtling down the stairs. Maybe I’d have slowed if I hadn’t heard something coming behind me.
I ran, ran out, ran into the night and through the main building, down the main street to where the trains waited and on to one, begging it to drag me away.
I don’t know how to say what I have to say to you. If I say, ‘I find that my choice is whether to not be or to be,’ it’ll worry you. I could maybe say, ‘My choice is how to be,’ but that leaves so much unsaid.
When a robot vacuum cleaner hits the sofa leg, it might veer left, might go right. Is that choice? I don’t know yet which way I’ll veer.
The time I’m talking about is just before you got that last text from me, to which you didn’t immediately reply, because it was in the middle of the night and it made no sense. I know later you came to my ruined house and couldn’t get in, and no one could find me. I got your messages, but I couldn’t answer. I saw how you all looked.
How do I tell this?
It’s hard to think sometimes amid the clamour of argument. The politics of objects. All our conversations compete.
YouTube videos might be conversing among themselves – their lists and references and cuts parts of their dialect. When we bounce from song to nonsense to meme, we might be eavesdropping on arguments between images. It might be none of it’s for us at all, any more than it’s for us when we sit on a stool and intrude on the interactions of angles of furniture, or when we see a washing line bend under the weight of the wind or a big cloud of starlings and act like we get to be pleased.
I rushed through the city as if it might open up under me. My heart kept on like that swinging door. When I got back to my house I sank into a chair as if I was deflating. I sat against the dark. Hours seemed to skitter. I thought of calling someone. To say what?
I didn’t know what I’d seen. I didn’t know what I was thinking about or why my heartbeat wouldn’t slow.
The crack in the ceiling and the wall could have been wider than when I left. It seemed plausible to me. I felt as if I should get out of there, and then, in a rage, as if I was fucked if I would do that.
I poured myself a glass of water. I didn’t like how it looked at me.
In my study I sat under an inadequate lamp and listened to a scratching within the chimney. I’d never begrudged that perch to whatever bird it was, where it flapped and softly banged and scritch-scratched, and sometimes sent down little lumps of sooty brick. This time though it sounded as if its mission was to descend.
I made sure the iron flap was closed and smashed my glass in the fireplace where anything would have to come down.
Outside my window the darkness pooled between the roofs. I didn’t know when I’d picked it up but I had the hat in my hands. I held it over my head as if I would put it on but God knows I didn’t.
I still couldn’t get those accidents out of my head. I flicked again through a list of them on my glowing phone. At last I found what I knew the man’s words had put me in mind of: the Boston slick, a century ago, the bomb-like explosion of a silo and millions of gallons of molasses rushing in a tide to reconfigure North End into a sump of ooze, a brown swamp broken by a few tough dripping verticals like the front, in the recently halted war, the city stinking sweet as a pitcher plant and the alleys made troughs of syrupy slop that rose in moments of upheaval, the engulfed thrashings of drowning, the dead in a sugar-trap, to be found glazed days later, dogs, stiff-limbed horses, rats, twisted women and men, sticky, terrible candies.
I don’t remember sleeping. I don’t feel as if I did, but there was a moment when I sat alone staring at the light and the tiny words in my hand, then a moment of shift and a moment that I blinked and tried to rise into a lurching room and a huge breaking sound, an effortful breaking sound. Everything swayed. I gripped my chair. My phone went flying and I dropped the hat. My room pitched. I started to slide as if into a sea.
The motion stopped. Grudgingly the floor righted. I got to my knees. I got to my feet. The floorboards vibrated too much but they held. I stood in the sepia light of my lamp, gripping the hat.
The old man was by the door.
I was still. I held my breath. He stood with his hands together. There was no more sound in the house and none in the street beyond.
The man looked down at where my phone shone. Still the screen describing that old disaster.
No war without class war, he said, as I grabbed. The company blamed anarchists for that explosion, he said. A stab of class spite. As if anyone was behind that vicious viscous salvo but urschleim. The Great War was not finished whatever they said at Compiègne. There were other combatants, still are, weaponising ooze, he said. That was a salvo of something against something.
I lurched for him, yowling, trying to get past him and out to take my chances in London. To push him was to push a thing with curious weight and texture. He pushed me back and stood between me and the door watching with a calm sad stare. I shrank from the attention.
The reason I’m here is to say thank you, he said.
The reason I’m here, he said, is because you have the platform.
It isn’t safe, he said. It’s only the solidity and solidarity of the wall with you against the break that keeps you standing. Your house is done.
He looked at me beseechingly. He said, the platform.
I held out the hat. He took it and breathed out and it was as if smoke came out of his nostrils. Thank you, he said, and flipped the hat in his hands like a jaunty fop and put it on his head. For the first time in my company, he smiled.
The fissure’s been watching you, he said. It’s a loyalist crack. The split was against you in the split.
He flicked the brim exactly as I’d pretended to, and just as when I’d pretended, dust billowed. It went up and stopped. It didn’t dissipate or settle into a chalky layer. It stopped and waited in a cloud that looked around while I watched, and while I watched like a film run backwards it de-billowed, un-gusted, anti-plumed to snap back to the felt.
It’s a viewing platform, he said. For a scouting layer.
Dust rose and fell from it. He hadn’t flicked it.
Thank you for taking them and keeping them safe, he said, they were disoriented and who knows what might have—-? Then he interrupted himself and said, Meat and matter’s on its way. You have to come while you’re quick.
‘What did you do to History Man?’ I said. I was glad I didn’t have a cat or a dog because I thought they’d die from being in the room with him. All the wood was creaking. My floorboards muttered and he muttered back.
It knows you helped one, he said.
He didn’t sound posh: the way he said it the word ‘one’ was guttural and class-weird. He looked at the books on my walls. I had an image of him standing over me while I lay by a quarry under light as grey as bones while water hit the rocks. (That was when I took out my phone again and texted you my last text. A FLOODED QUARRY, I wrote. In the morning when you found it you responded ???????.)
You might think I’ve read it all, he said, but it’s a rare day in someone else’s house if they’re a reader that there are books I don’t not know.
‘What happened in that room?’
A contentious meeting of the tendency, he said. He looked out of the window into a night getting blacker against shines of neon. We heard the clawing within the chimney.
He said, There was a split.
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