The Belly of the Beast

From a stand near the end of the corridor I select one of the less filthy umbrellas and give it a light shake to unstick the fabric. I believe the umbrellas were Henning’s idea. My colleagues used to be roughly divisible into two camps: those who believed it was better to have a full head of hair and those who believed it was better to be bald. Henning is bald and occupied the former camp. One morning last year he came in with a bright red burn running from between his eyebrows, over the top of his cranium and down almost to his neck. Everyone else was greatly amused by this, but Henning was not and two days later the umbrellas appeared. He was the first of us to realise that hair verses no hair was the wrong question to be asking.

The door at the end of the corridor is warped slightly from the heat; there’s a gap at its base, so I can see the faintly steaming liquid leaking in even before I prise the thing open. It always smells of hot oil here because we’re near an enormous piston that takes power from deep under the ground and sends it into a flywheel in the next hall that’s the size of most people’s houses. From there power is taken off using crown wheels and sent via about a hundred different shafts and belts throughout the rest of the facility.

As the door scrapes back towards me, sluicing a little wave of oil ahead of it, I’m greeted by a view of the piston corridor. The rear end of the piston’s cylinder is above me and to one side. It’s made of black iron and is fully twenty feet in diameter, lying on its side like a fallen tower from some great castle. A connecting rod the size of a tree trunk protrudes from its centre, crosses the corridor above my head and disappears through the wall. With an interval of about five seconds, it slides first into the cylinder and then out again with a noise like a wave breaking that makes the corridor tremble. On every power stroke a certain amount of hot oil comes out with it and showers the floor. Someone has handily laid out a series of blocks to act as stepping stones along the length of the corridor so that engineers can pass by without having to dirty their boots in the half inch deep slick. So sophisticated we are round here, I think, as I step daintily onto the first block and totter along with my umbrella.

Every time I’m here I wonder why someone didn’t fix up a gutter or even just a board underneath the connecting rod to catch the oil . I suppose it would have taken effort, and that can always be spent somewhere more pressing. Besides, Henning’s solution does provide a certain ad hoc utility. I deploy my umbrella as I approach the mid point and listen to the pattering of droplets overlaid with the thunder of the piston above me. The smell is almost overpowering, the noise almost deafening, the steam almost blinding. Speaking of which, there was a story doing the rounds recently about an engineer from one of the outlying departments who’d had cause to visit us one day. The story goes that this unfortunate fellow took a fairly nasty burn to the back of the neck and was so panicked that he tripped on the walkway, banged his head and knocked himself spark out. I heard he’d been lying there directly under the connecting rod in the old, gummy oil, semi-conscious for most of a minute while receiving a fresh round of burns every ten seconds into the bargain. Now he was lucky not to get blinded.

At the far end of the corridor is another door, with a stand beside it. I deposit the umbrella among several others and continue on my way, through several more halls, up a flight of wooden steps (the third and fifth are the rotten ones) until at length I arrive outside the final door. A small sign on it reads “Does your foreman know you’re here?”. Obviously that’s for the lower orders of the Company. Not me. Not for engineers.

Some effort is required to open the door, as though it’s aware I’m trying to get out and would very much like to stop me, but suddenly it swings aside and the coolest, sweetest early evening air falls upon my face. There’s a breeze, the sort that always seems to trickle hither and thither along shorelines. Up here, at some height, the sound of the sea reaches me across the town; it’s not too far away. I step out and close the door, savouring the feeling of shutting in the dirt and noise behind me, and take a moment to breathe deeply and survey the view.

I’m facing towards the sea. It’s hidden, unfortunately, not by the houses and sheds of the town, because most of those are below me, but by the high encircling fence beyond them, and the cliff beyond that. It’s not a very high cliff, admittedly – ten yards, perhaps – but it’s enough to make us feel psychologically as though we’re on an island, even though we can’t see it here inside this circular fence.

There used to be an outer-outside in my life too a long time ago, but I turned my back on it along with childhood itself, although doing so was nothing I noticed or chose consciously.

I recall the sea, but now I only get to hear it.

I walk to the edge of the small metal landing upon which I stand and peer back and up. A vast, shapeless timber building blots out the sky. It occupies most of the centre of the town. Chimneys protrude here and there from it, along with spurious bits of metal and wire that must briefly have held purpose when they were placed there, but which now, thanks to the passing of time, more resemble growths that the structure has put forth by its own initiative. Sometimes I swear the place develops every now and again in some subtle way, even though no one is ever visibly at work on it. (In fact, the whole place exudes an air of almost wilful dilapidation.) My colleagues feel it too, I’m sure, although we don’t talk about it. I see them staring at things occasionally, old fragments of the building, as though they’ve only just appeared. Not something we worry ourselves with, you understand.

The weak northern sun is dipping low as I descend the metal stairs to the ground, and the air is getting cold. Normally I wouldn’t be outside so early, but this is an unusual occasion. Tonight a colleague of mine is throwing a dinner party. Reminding myself of this fills me with dread. Josephine’s coming too though, which should be interesting for her, and after all, if I’m dreading it, how on earth must she be feeling? I must hurry home. I expect she’ll be nearly ready by now. I’m always the one holding us up on the rare occasions we find somewhere to venture forth to. I’m always the one taking too long to wash. I quicken my step at the thought of taking a good hot bath. Water’s what I need, lovely cleansing water.

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Forcing Yourself to Write: Results

In March I set out a challenge for myself – to produce a short story 1000 words at a time, and upload the sections each day as a way of forcing myself to produce something consistently. And it sort of worked!

Alright, so I didn’t finish the story, but I got far enough through that the general shape of it was visible. In fact, apart from the ending, it was basically done, so that’s a success of sorts. I’ve now decided to enlarge the story into a proper novella, which I’ll be giving away for free when it’s done

There was another benefit too! Not only does publishing each day’s writing keep me somewhat more productive than I would otherwise have been, it also last month gave the readers of this blog a little story to read along with. Take a look!

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Admittedly my blog is hardly setting the world on fire even at its most “popular”, but equally I know I won’t have to point out to you where it was I stopped uploading each day. The fact remains that while I was uploading this blog enjoyed its greatest popularity so far. Since then, um, not so much…

Having looked back over what I wrote last month, I’ve think the story needs to be a little longer in order to iron out some pacing issues, so I’m going to resume uploading one chapter at a time for your enjoyment, and hopefully see some more progress!

Are you a deadline writer? How do you approach the mechanical task of sitting down and producing something?

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The Boy Who Let Her Fall

I cut my hands on the sharp rocks as I scrabble back down to the path, half blinded by tears and trembling too hard to grip properly. It is nearly sunrise and a pale greenish light is filtering down into the cracked hillside, bathing everything in the same spectrum of grey-green. Once down, I run away back towards the town, away from the thought of poor, pale Min lying sprawled on the ground where the tree roots ripped it open. She must have come up here by herself all those years ago, when I alerted the men from the Confraternity to her presence as they arrested her father. Her father and mine. We were bound by that moment, the shared loss of family, but never had the chance to talk about it, to make sense of it together. That was the last experience we ever shared, that loss. Maybe she went up to our old hiding place when she was left alone because it was still safe and uncorrupted. Maybe it reminded her of me, the boy who let her fall.

At length the path returns me to the undulating grassy surface of the fells, and then to the safety of the town fence, through which I pass to hide myself. The town is a place I have come to loathe over the course of a lifetime shut in here. I realise now, looking back at the past, that the boy I was, who went up with his friend Min with such excitement to sit on a grassy sward in the sunlight, was also sitting at a turning point. I think of Min telling me she loved me, taking my hand as we sat up there together, and how we had a choice. We could have run then, but it would have meant leaving our families, turning our backs on the lives we had ahead. I mean, the life I had. Fresh tears force their way through my already aching eyelids. I couldn’t have done it; I’m old enough now to know that. Even though this is a cold, mean place that never really cared for or protected any of us, I would never have had the guts to do it. Even suggest it. I’m not sure I could have thought it. This town was my entire world back then. I was so blind.

The house is quiet when I return; Josephine is still sleeping, which is a relief. I close the door and pluck at my clammy clothes in disgust. I need to undress; I need to clean myself; I need to be alone, and quickly. If Josephine wakes up she will begin to ask questions, and I can’t have  that. There’s no chance I could explain what I’ve seen, and she wouldn’t understand. Water is what I need.

I pass the bedroom and wander down a short hallway, then double back up a flight of stairs that takes me to a space tucked into a roof just above ground level. The door ahead opens onto a small wooden bathroom, its walls laced with piping, a copper standing tub to one side. I close the door behind myself and lean against it for several minutes, panting and half-sobbing. Then I wipe my nose and stagger to the polished steel sheet that serves as a mirror, where I lean on the sink and stare at my reflection. It’s a pale, blurry face that stares back, eyes red, cheeks glistening and darkened by stubble. I begin filling the tub, noticing the blood congealing on the back of my hand as I do. That must have happened as I scrambled down the rock face from the grassy sward. There’s a cut on my shoulder too, a larger one, that begins to sting and ache when I notice it. Wincing, I peel off my jacket and the shirt under that, which has stuck onto the injury and needs loosening with a handful of warm water.

When I am naked I look at myself in disgust. The man in the blurry mirror resembles a ghost that regards me mournfully. If only I could reach through to it, I think, and swap our places, making what I lost real again and banishing this flesh-and-blood failure of a man to nonexistence instead. At last I can’t look any more.

The hot water elicits pleasure and agony in equal measure. The cuts on my body redouble their pains, loose skin stinging, bruised flesh protesting, but at the same time my body becomes weightless and all the dirt, sweat and blood that has adhered to me begins to wash away. I lie there in the water, wondering if this is how it feels to pass through the fogged mirror and swap places with the ghost boy I wish I could be again.

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The Room with the Press

Tomas sees his father through the narrow gap between two stacks of shelves, a spidery figure picked out in a shaft of light. He’s about to dart forward to warn him about the men who have arrived from the Confraternity, but before he can a loud voice shouts over the rattle of the printing press.

“Ah, Mr Blythe!”

Tomas’ father hesitates, looking around for the voice, and a twist of shock briefly contorts his face before being smoothed away. The owner of the voice emerges into view from the shadow where he’s been leaning, and Tomas realises with a shudder that the strange man must have followed him into the room. While trying to warn his father he’s led the intruder straight to him!

The man  steps into the room’s only illumination, a strip of radiance lancing down from a single row of windows high overhead. Tomas’ father turns, stirring up the little scraps of paper that litter the floorboards, and looks the man up and down. The long, blue habit the man wears in unmistakable: the uniform of the Confraternity, who exist to point at things that aren’t there, talk about things that don’t exist, and judge those who’ve done nothing wrong. Tomas huddles back into the darkness at the far end of the corridor, watching and trying not to breathe.

“Did you receive my letter?” the man calls.

Tomas’ father reaches into his cardigan and pulls out an envelope, which he waggles by way of an answer.

“Then my visit must come as no surprise. Where is your colleague, Mr Denbeigh? I was hoping to meet him here too.”

Tomas’ father doesn’t reply, but he holds the man a moment longer in his gaze, before coming close, his head slightly tilted as though he were encountering something mildly interesting for the first time down here in his domain. “I’m not sure where Calvin is,” he replies. “Shall I go and look for him? I can take a look if you want.”

“No,” says the man from the Confraternity with a shake of his head. “I expect he’ll turn up as soon as he realises something’s wrong. We told you to stop, Mr Blythe,” he says, narrowing his eyes at Tomas’ father in a less than friendly way, “yet here you still are. I did rather hope that you would have the decency to let the press go quiet today, when my colleagues and I have travelled so far to see you. It would have been a reasonable courtesy, but I sense perhaps you are trying to send me a message.”

Tomas’ father laughs and replaces the envelope inside his cardigan. “Ha, yes, yes. What we’re doing here is sending a message to everyone. The Confraternity bullies, it manipulates, it controls. All we do here is point out hypocrisy where we see it. It’s nothing personal, just a fondness for truth.”

“You astonish me,” says the man in the blue habit. “You lurk down here, in the belly of the most corrupt organisation this country has ever seen, you hide behind the legend of your employer, a man so slippery that only a few people have ever even seen him, and you lecture us on truthfulness! We can’t allow it to go on, so we’ve come to take you away. Mr Akkeri hasn’t made a move to stop us yet. I wonder what’s taking him. Perhaps he is afraid of real power, afraid that we’re more than a match for him.”

“We?” Tomas’ father raises his eyebrows and glances around the printing room. “Your friends have been remarkably tacit so far.”

The confraternity man doesn’t smile at the gibe. He clicks his fingers and at once four of his colleagues appear from various shadowy corners of the room and surround Tomas’ father, who merely tucks one hand into his cardigan pocket and nods to them.

“Come along, My Blythe,” says the man. “Let’s not waste any more of one another’s time.”

Before Tomas can move or shout they’ve got his father by the shoulders. Without further ado they march him out, and the door slams shut in their wake.

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From Out of the Stones

It’s the blue hour before dawn when I make my way towards the hills with Morty’s words still fresh in my mind. He told me that there was something up there for me, something that no one else was allowed to touch. I had asked him what, his mystery fresh enough to be exciting for a few moments, but now, having spent half the night turning it over and over, the question of what could be out there waiting for me now seems a good deal less fascinating. I had to get out though. I couldn’t sleep. The bedroom was stifling, but even so, as the hills raise their jagged heads in front of me, I’m struck by the awful sense of wandering back into a past I was glad to escape from.

I’m going back in time, to a place I haven’t been to in several decades. It’s a place I recall well, and I don’t think it’s changed much since I was there last.

The ground beneath my feet becomes steeper. I look down, watching my feet as though they belong to another person. I know where they’re taking me. As soon as Morty described the place to me I knew where he meant, and I wondered how on earth he had found out about it. How did Morty know about the significance of the grassy sward, the slope, the crack in the rock. Those things belonged to me, to my past, to Min.

My footsteps fall on close-cropped grass at first as I follow a path that leads away from the town and onto the fells. I’m well beyond the shadow of the fence now. The land begins to rise. Stones poke through until eventually the land gives way altogether and becomes gravelly under foot. I’m not sure what type of stone it is. Granite, maybe, or slate or shale or limestone. In the moonlight the stones all look alike, little more than sharp edges where two colours meet: cold blue and inky black. The night is constructed out of these edges, a landscape of craggy, razor pointed rock. In some ways it’s like veins and skin; the path leads into a chasm ahead of me that is utterly dark, out of which walls of rock rise up on either side like the wings of some massive bird stretching in its roost, or maybe rearing up to attack. I know not to go into the chasm. Min taught me that all those years ago when she led me to the place she’d found.

I turn off the path, remembering what lies ahead of me, a sense of dread twisting my stomach. There is something desperate about this venture. For a second I allow myself a moment of rationality. I think of my wife lying at home by herself in our bed. On one level, it’s absurd that I should be out here, chasing a shadow, but this is something I have to do. Morty told me it was for me, and I know he was right.

I did come back once, you know, after Min disappeared. It wasn’t as though I just forgot about her. Far from it. At first I didn’t dare come back. In some way that felt like giving up, like accepting that she was really gone. For a long time I almost refused to accept that anything had truly changed. I lied to myself. Was she still there? If I never went looking I could almost believe that she was, just out of sight, just around a corner where I never looked. And I was scared. I admit that. I’ve been scared for a very long time, a fact that I’m reminded of as I watch my feet stumbling across the jagged rocks at the side of the path.

I look up and fix my eyes on my destination. Above me, the point of the sward projects from the hillside, but it doesn’t look quite right. It’s changed, but I can’t put my finger on exactly how as I pause and stare up, struggling with this sense of timelessness.

I did come back. I did come back. At last, when several months had passed I forced myself to walk this route again, alone. Out from the town I slipped, leaving our little cottage beneath its pipe. Up here I came, up this very track, and what did I find, when I came back to the secret place that was ours? I had changed. It was no longer mine. The young me struggled at the crack for several minutes, refusing to accept the simple truth of growing up, refusing to accept that I no longer fitted through. I had outgrown it, lost it, left Min behind in a place she could never outgrow. I waited too long and I lost it. Fool.

“Fool.”

I whisper the word to myself as I struggle upwards. It’s one I’ve used to describe myself a lot over the years that have followed.

At last I reach the top, but I don’t turn. I don’t look out at the view that Min and I sat and looked at together one sunny day when she said she loved me. Instead I look at the hillside. A great holly tree growing into the rock face has fallen, brought down by age and a sudden gust of wind. As the tree tipped, so the roots have torn at the stone, forcing it open, widening the crack that was the entrance to our hiding place. The space behind is no longer dark. Moonlight strikes in, shining on the crumbled rocks, shining on something pale, almost wax-like, lying half-in, half-out of the cavity.

I start forwards, the shock and agony of recognition squeezing my throat so I can’t cry out. She looks exactly as I remember, her brown hair straggled from rain lying against her cheek, the freckles across her nose, the lips that used to register such joy or deep contemplation now expressionless, slightly parted but still.

My feet, which seemed to bring me here of their own accord, now retreat. The small, motionless shape of her, sprawled forth from the rock in the moonlight, is burned onto my mind as I scramble down the rock slope, tears pouring down my face, and flee back towards the town like the coward I am.

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Arrival of the Vultures

Tomas knows there’s something wrong as soon as he sets foot outside the town. From the road that leads west across the open fells two horse-drawn carriages are approaching. They are not from the town; he can tell that easily, and that can only mean one thing. Taking care not to be seen, he retreats back inside, closing and bolting the little gate after him. Once inside, he sprints back home.

The cottage is a self-contained building, unlike many in the town, which are part of a single, rambling construction at its heart. This is because it is one of the first buildings that existed there, older even that the town itself. Once it was the cottage of a farmer, who tended to she sheep on the fell. It stood all alone then, but the intervening years have seen it surrounded. Now the smoke from the chimney rises only three feet before hitting the curve of a massive iron pipe, which comes out of the ground a short distance away, passes straight over the roof, and disappears into a black jumble of walls some distance away. From a distance you probably wouldn’t even be able to tell what you were looking at, whether wall, roof, floor, chimney or door: all the pieces of buildings exist in the town, but they’re confused and chaotic.

In the shadow of the pipe, from which liquid drips onto the cottage, his parents made their home. The cottage is almost in darkness when Tomas steps up to the front door. His mother sits inside in the dark, a shapeless lump of mutton on the kitchen table in front of her, which she is preparing for the evening meal. He doesn’t know why his message is important; suddenly he feels almost foolish for what he has run all the way home to say.

“I saw carriages coming along the road.”

The whites of his mother’s eyes shift in the dim light. “Many?”

“Two. There were two.”

“How far?”

“Few minutes off. Not long.”

“Go along up, Tommy boy. Keep an eye on them for me.”

He stands there for a second, watching as she lowers the cleaver and wipes her fingers on her apron. “What about you?”

“I shall alert the press.”

Tomas nods, understanding but not liking what he is hearing. It should be nothing, two carriages coming along the road. Carriages come and go from time to time, but this is different. He understood that as soon as he clapped eyes on them. The carriages come from the Confraternity.

His mother’s voice halts him as he turns to leave. “Tommy, Tommy… If the worst should happen, get yourself back here, if it’s what we all fear. You keep an eye on them, and if things go amiss, you get yourself back here and wait fer me.”

He nods. His mother’s words are alarming. He wishes she had called him a fool (wouldn’t have been the first time). That way he could have put the issue from his mind and not had to worry. The only trouble now is the feeling that settled on his heart at the moment he glimpsed those carriages. Clearly his mother had been half-expecting this. Maybe she’d been waiting.

He directs his feet along the muddy street in the direction of the fence, and in its shadow he takes a flight of crooked steps to the parapet. The fence stands more than twenty feet tall, its jagged shape surrounding the town on all sides, cutting it off from the fells to the east, west and south, and from the clifftops and sea to the north. It’s a familiar sight for those who live in its embrace – for those who haven’t lost their sight, that is – and seems to exist in the mind as much as in the world. Sometimes residents even see it in their sleep, hemming them in onto a circle of mud below which buried machines thrum.

From the top of the fence Tomas sees the pale ground stretching away from below him, away south-east until it sweeps up to form the creased ranks of hills. The carriages are almost at the large eastern gate now. When they’re outside they draw up and a deputation goes out from the town. No one emerges from the carriages to meet them, but the men speak first to the drivers, and then to the occupants of one of the carriages through its window. They seem to be in disagreement about something, but then, to Tomas’ dismay, the deputation stands aside and the carriages rumble onwards. The gate is thrown open and the carriages pass right underneath the place where Tomas is crouching in fear. This is it. He was warned, and now it’s happened. Mother warned him; she told him to go back to the cottage and wait for her, but it’s not the cottage that the visitors are here for. Tomas already knows where they’re going to head.

Without consciously directing his feet, he comes down from the Fence. There is a patch of open ground inside the gate where the two carriages have stopped. The horses lower their heads and snort plumes of steam, and already several men in blue robes have spilled out of their vehicles are are pointing at things, discussing with each other and the men from the delegation. Tomas ducks back around a corner, but he’s too late. A voice suddenly reaches him.

“Aye, there he is. Fancy that. That’s Alexander Blythe’s lad. You’ll be wantin’ to speak with him then?”

Tomas doesn’t wait to find out what the strange men want. There are clearly only a few minutes remaining, and his only chance will be to vanish. He sits where he is in shock for a moment. What he does now may shape things to come.

He takes a deep breath and dashes out of cover. As he passes there’s a shout, but he doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t return to the cottage as his mother instructed, but rather speeds past the carriages, mud splashing beneath his feet, and heads for the heart of the town.

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A Clear Mind at Last

There is a gap between the curtains that lets the moonlight in. They’ve not been drawn properly. I lie in the narrow shaft of silver that falls across our bed, listening to Josephine’s breathing. I’m glad she’s drifted off. After the ordeal of Morty’s dinner party this evening I thought she might be up all night, and it’s hard enough for her to get comfortable at the moment as it is. I lie there for a long while, listening to her soft breathing, thinking about what Morty said to me, slowly becoming more and more agitated.

He told me of a place, staring at me through his glasses with those blue eyes. Everyone else at the table had become uncharacteristically quiet. I’m not sure why he felt the need to give me my task in front of everyone, but I suppose by that point I’d put my foot in it. I’d played right into their hands, getting angry with their taunting, rising to the bait, claiming I was up to any challenge. Fool.

I’m too hot. This room is too small. I’m too worried. No, afraid more than worried. My tongue sticks to the room of my mouth. Damn this suffocating bedroom and the mess I’ve got myself into!

Taking care not to disturb Josephine, I slide my legs from the edge of the bed and get up. I take a drink from the jug of water on the table and stand by the window for a minute, peering out through the gap in the curtains at the moonlit roofs and walls of the town, clustered together in one great conglomeration as though they’d washed up on some abandoned coastline. I want to stride around the room, down the entire contents of the jug, throw up the sash and lean out of the window, both hands on the sill and night air on my face. But Josephine is sleeping. That is more important.

Turning slowly I sink onto a chair by the table. Our quarters are a far cry from Morty’s grand, if crumbling, residence. Matter of fact, it’s a far cry from the living spaces of many of my colleagues, or at least those I’ve seen. We don’t do a lot of socialising, Josephine and I, partly because no one else seems to. Morty’s the only one who ever throws proper parties, and those tend to come no more than two or three times a year. I can’t imagine we’ll be attending the next one. Not after what happened earlier.

I stare at Josephine, feelings of longing and suffocation mixing in a horrible confusion that seems like an act of betrayal. My heart is not made up. Isn’t it normal for humans to wonder? Isn’t it normal for life to be too complex for the heart to exist in black and white? Surely only those who willfully simplify truth, cutting out the bits they don’t like, scrubbing away the patina they can’t deal with, end up living lives of certainty. Maybe that’s why my colleagues seem to enjoy more financial security than we do, and why they all seem to like one another more than I like any of them.

I let my eye wander over Josephine’s blank face, nestled among the sheets. She looks vacant in her sleep. I expect her mind is somewhere more pleasant, thinking about things that please her more than the reality I can offer. Maybe she’s thinking about the baby. It’ll be here soon; not long to wait. She’s been speaking to the midwife while I’m out of the house, and I gather that everything is going along as it should. I don’t know a thing about children. It seems strange in a way that I ever was one or had friends who were. Well, a friend. Such a long time ago now. I probably shouldn’t have waited this long to have children, I suppose, but there’s been this growing sense I am not quite like the others here. For so long I told myself that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. This isn’t a pleasant place in which to raise a child, and although there’s something slightly unclean about the thought, I admit I had been swayed by the consensus that my work would suffer. I’ve always struggled to keep up with the others, as we slave for day after day in our workshops beneath the ground, beneath this monstrous pile of habitation that we all hurry back to in the moments we’re free. Some of my colleagues never leave. There are two or three I could name whom I believe haven’t been above ground in more than two years. They have houses, just as Josephine and I do, just as Morty does, but they’re unused. For all I know they’ve probably got squatters in. In the end, I realised I was not like them and never would be. Josephine was receptive to the idea of a child. In fact, it may have been her that suggested it. I think she’s wanted a child for most of the time we’ve been together, over ten years, but I must have blocked out her opinion. Do you know, it’s a strange thing but even now, sitting here, looking at her, looking at the shape of the bump under the sheets, I can’t recall whether it was deliberate. Did we just let it happen, knowing we would never be machines?

Rising from the chair, I dress as quickly and quietly as I can. Josephine stirs, turning her head and sighing, but she doesn’t wake. My hand is on the door handle as I look back, and then, before I know it, I’m outside, pacing the long, crooked corridor that leads to a flight of wooden steps, down past chimneys and vents that hum and send forth plumes of smoke. You could drop a pebble into one of those and it would be five seconds before it hit anything.

Outside, down more steps, descending from the back of the hunched, groaning creature that we built, there is a muddy street, stark in the moonlight. There are not many people about. A few dark shapes I see near some exhaust vents shift slightly as I pass, but I don’t pay them any attention. If you spend time with such people you’re likely to join them. Everyone knows that.

There is a door in the black outer fence that surrounds the town. I drag its bolt aside, and a second later I am gone.

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