No but it has to be her, it has to be Laia, it has to be her, telling me to just tell the truth as the fever gale hassles that greasy kitchenette door and at any moment the first old man or the first boy could turn from their fungi basket and see me with the names between my fingers; Laia telling me again about those underwater ghosts you see on the windowpanes of a lonely city street and how they’d frisked her but not me, so what exactly am I going to do or tell her to make her shut up, guessing even she might at least think about shutting up, bound foetal the same as me on a carpet fading from emerald to ochre to tar, her wrists cable-tied and twittering at her own face, scrabbling for her own head. But she won’t shut up, will she, ever, no, so I drop the list to shut her up, thinking you are not the same person for more than a moment as the kitchenette door swings open in the gale, and that’s when I see the first old man, an underwater ghost made flesh, tweezering a brain-coloured mushroom up to a bare flyblown lightbulb, the first boy framed behind him in simple gloomy admiration. You tell me time doesn’t matter, and I never became a lipless corpse mugshot, but time does matter because by the time I drop the list to shut Laia up and see the first old man with the mushroom, it’s already been hours since I was at my triptych workstation in the Department for Languages, Sport and Culture HQ, the full name of which I must recite, yes, I know how much we’ve talked about that. The HQ where I worked for eighteen mediocre but not miserable years, a postulant in a civilised routine with zeniths through office leadlight triangles, surviving the big one and wondering if it had to be that dinner for dinner again and what puzzle Kîm would like for his birthday, chess or go or guess who or dinosaurs, and no there are no monsters in the corners of the room, the fake large-language model ready for upload on my HQ desk and the paper list of names folded in my secret waistband pocket. Yes, I do think about routines and past selves and time does matter and no I did not end up as a lipless corpse mugshot but I did not know I would not, did I, as I looked across that room and leaning on the corner shower cubicle with polka-dot mould veined in all its wrinkles, she’s about to bail her tuna, poor Laia, a person I hated more than any other person I have ever known, the sort of person who knows all about calculating herself out of an equation and all about circus-ring ethics rather than having a good soul. I know you said framing my relationship with Laia in terms of ethics and souls might not be the easiest or most honest route to untangling all this, so I can go back to work, demoted not demolished, after all these seasons of natural shock, but that is how it seems to be, whether I or you like it or not. This is how it seems to me. Sorry I lost the list: that’s what I’m going to tell the first old man. When they were marching us from the van where the air smells of pig creosote diesel, I must have dropped the list, sorry, and he can’t be surprised, not after he made Laia and me wear hotel eye-shades and used NEVER FORGET, NEVER FORGIVE silk scarves as gags, not part of the deal, all the while slapping us on the back of our heads and saying we were doing just great, really great, just fantastic. And the first old man might believe me when I tell him that the list which Laia thinks is the real fake is not really the real fake and the list Laia wants to give him is really a real decoy or a real fake fake created by me to confuse any curious officer or minister who needs to be deflected, and of course I can help them search streets or vans to find the real fake, no problem, at all, not part of the deal but no problem, I must have dropped it, sorry, no sprinting, no yelling, why would I try to trick you, having no cards to play, I must have lost my wits, keep me tied up if you want and maybe leave Laia here as a security deposit, we have no phones or wearables, okay. No, right, I didn’t say any of that and I don’t know what would have happened if I had said any of that and if they had agreed, no. But I do know Laia is too much herself to think of trying to hide the list for later or look me in the eye, too much herself to figure out that the list of names is our only escape token, our saviour blind-spot, and if they had planned to kill us, they would have done it by now, others have been killed, many others, so this is not melodramatic over-reacting or neurosis. Yes, I know you know that, you have the angelic advantage of your position here and now, but some people have questioned the truth of what happened, or the details, or the truth and the details, and so I do get defensive, because details matter, they do, details are where we live. So I don’t think they’re going to kill us, they haven’t got the names yet, and I know this particular terror group does publicly bighead itself for not murdering people. When we were children, Laia and I would pretend to be terrorists; sometimes we would be the murdering type and sometimes only the ransom type; we took turns playing the kidnapper and the victim, and I have spent thousands of hours thinking and talking about this with you and I am almost certain we both enjoyed the game equally, Laia and me. Sometimes you want me to talk about that first, the childhood stuff, I understand that, but you say I don’t have to know why and I should stop beating myself up if everything doesn’t seem totally rational and organised, we are not robots, to use your expression, and what happens in your life, is it always like a story, so well-organised and rational and designed to push buttons? Sorry? No, I don’t want to talk about the Father Christmas toy. So I’m waiting for the gale to open the kitchenette door again, not thinking, let me be absolutely clear, how Laia and I used to play terrorists when we were children, and there are many other things I’m not thinking about, waiting for the kitchenette door to open again so I can see what the first old man and first boy are doing. The fungi basket, the pencils, I’ve already seen them, and there’s a lot of fuzzy muttering and kitchen clanging and however I think about my future self I can only conclude that it is already way too late for any sacrificial bargain-stalling because we have not escaped in the first act. Yes, there are actually no first acts in human lives, as there are in dramatic productions, and stories, and I am just imposing an artificial device on reality in order to process what happens, and I take your point, as far as it goes, but I also have to tell you that we did not escape in the first act, did we, and therefore I know we were going to be strangled and I am still in that room, waiting to be strangled. Wargaming next steps isn’t helping and so I think why not simply lie to the first old man about the list which Laia is about to bite up from the carpet with her new Bucharest teeth, the list which is really the real fake, telling the first old man, who looks like one of Francisco Goya’s unluckier objects, that I do have sympathy with his aims and language rules, I do, and I could have sold him out long before this point, and haven’t I gone along with the plan so far, and their freedom group has a long and interesting history, and we need to respect everyone’s lived experiences, don’t we, and what’s real anyway, and I respect traditions and do not think of him or his comrades as terrorists or criminals, and I might flatter his tracksuit, his goatee, zealots are so vain, all artistic and ideological adventures are nutrified with vanity, and yes we must never compromise, dead right, never, but I can’t get to the end of that thought, not wasting breath on it, because half-light Laia has already pulsed like an adder to the list and bitten up all those names. People used to think we were sisters, especially when we were teenagers, although she was always taller, fleshier, darker, lazier, and certainly far more willing to look grown-ups in the eye with that look she had. Okay, yes, what would she say about me then, I get it, maybe I’m the monster and memories are all but synonyms for delusions, and all our delusions are but symptoms of our dreams, okay, and there are reasons I might attach certain attributes to the young Laia as I knew her, but there’s no way we looked like sisters, is all I’m saying. And I don’t even care that much. I think she was prettier. I’m not full of self-loathing about my appearance but I want you to have the right picture in your mind; it’s not like there are identical twin women in that timeless time-trapped apartment. No, that’s right, she did call me chubby, but I never took it to heart because I’m not fat. What you see today is how I’ve always been. Ruinous banality, that’s where we are: the kitchenette saloon-door river-gauge laddered with the groove-dates of a child who stopped growing or being recorded at one metre; the dog noise warbling through the extraction unit perching above the cooker; the closed porthole the only window in that Grimm woodland disguised as a room; the first old man earlier with the wizened beak of an HB snookered on my kneecap, warning me from behind what I hoped was a joke-shop disguise that he liked nothing more than making a point. Nothing sexual about his violence and nothing joking about the pencil, I don’t think, although men can be difficult to read on that score, and sneaky, but I think it was all policy with him, even when he quietly told me to just put down the fucking bowl on the bench right now and do not open your mouth and your kid will not be harmed I give you my word and nod if you can get the names within ten minutes as agreed and any calls for help covert or overt and I tap this message here and my comrades will have your wife and son immediately asphyxiated with plastic bags, immediately, Kîm isn’t it, and don’t even think about testing me, our nastiest men are literally hiding inside your wardrobes. Hours and hours in that room, webbed in their maze, our maze too, and just as Laia gets the list, the first boy tells the first old man any list of names is probably a tracking device of some unknown luciferin contrivance; not his exact words but something like that, some specific allegation of treachery, like you might be offended if someone you have kidnapped and threatened to murder kind of lies to you, even with all our cunning and sharp practices and switchback driving routes, his tone suggests, and this pessimism and implicit dismissal of the first old man’s strategy and tactical sense causes the first old man to remind the first boy not to get too clever and remember what happened with the one-eyed man in the supermarket. This is the first time I’ve heard them speak since we arrived and they walked backwards like misfit ballerina conscripts in a jail-yard pantomime, taking pins, eyes on me, shrinking back into the kitchenette with its banned alphabet posters I’ve seen prodded on the bulletins as if they are bestial pornography. And now Laia has the names and is about to hand them over, so we are destined to end up like those soiled hammer-toed exhibits you avoid in the Victorian seaside waxwork museum, because people who are taken by people like this to places like this in districts like, districts knocked up with reclaimed rubble and steamrollered crates of misprinted plaques and bomb-spun girders, do not usually enjoy the Christmas Carol finale. When we played terrorists there was usually an ambiguous conclusion to the game: one of us might escape but we would be informed by invisible telephone or sometimes telepathy that our horse or daughter had been done away with. So I am just another object in a world of objects along with the coffee table engraved with diacritic legends, the closed shoebox on the table, and the Bible-sized volume of historical calculus, the book which links all dates to all justifiable terror acts, AKA freedom protests, acts preferably using pencils but screwdrivers will do in a pinch. The first boy maintains an expression of vindicated malice, of thwarted acrobatics, as if he has not been allowed to enjoy a scheduled torment, his snaky walnut hair screwed back into a top-tail. A seagull the size of a Cockapoo keeps trying to land on the narrow window-ledge outside the porthole but the ledge is bristling with glass anti-seagull spikes. Laia, the list of names in her mouth, has stopped squirming and seems to be waiting for who knows what, maybe the first old man and first boy to free her, or for an accident to reveal a useful pattern, like our predicament is an optical illusion with a solution and a design, with a trick and a designer. She will not look at me. She must know I’m trying to get her attention. Laia was Laia but she could communicate normally most of the time; she knew when someone was trying to catch her eye. In that moment I close my eyes and imagine her laughing on the other side of the room with our kidnappers. I can see her teeth as she laughs, she always had a snarling face when she laughed, Laia, and the first old man is laughing too and even the first boy, although the first boy is not a natural laugher, so it looks a bit forced, a vision when I close my eyes. She will give the first old man the list and tell them I want to keep it from them and she’s on their side and she knows it’s a fake fake, not telling them I’m a person she has known since we were born, nor that I saved her life so dramatically and so against her wishes in the bright midwinter of 2005. The kitchenette door opens and the first old man comes out, like this, a slice of blank foolscap viced between chin and chest, bearing a very large object, a kind of tray I imagine being used to serve tea in an upper-class orangery, and but this tray is so big that the first old man’s arms are splayed horizontal in a crucifixion pose, palms flat under, ivory fingers curled up the sides like this, and the tray is so wide, and the first old man’s head angled such with the paper under his chin like this, that he cannot possibly see the east and west of the tray at the same time, let alone points north. I don’t think I know at all why he has this tray but I bargain with the universe, gum stuck between molars, deciding to let Laia speak before I speak because it always has to be Laia. That’s right: as soon as the first old man opens the kitchenette door, the room smells absolutely foul, of yesterday’s boiling cabbage, of rat litters in decayed plaster, of sea-damp textiles, of small animal events I would never choose to witness with any sense organ, and these odours seem to come from shallow earth or the past. Now the first old man tells the first boy to shut these two up, he’s had it up to here with all the whingeing, though we have been silent, and so the first boy re-gags us quickly with sugar-smelling fingers again using the slogan scarfs. We have to help each other. Yes, I hear it. Laia’s Judas whispering. Of course I ignore it. Laia does not love me and has zero intention of helping me. Sitting on the carpet, leaning on the sofa, wrists and ankles cable-tied, and now unable to speak, I wait for Laia to be Laia, to be pulled by me again from the plain dark waters where the river water is all blue mirrors and muscle, and as it looms closer, the tray, the tray which the first old man is carrying as if it has a spirit-level bubble, seems to become an archetypal plank of glistering material well beyond categories of tray, cut from thinly-hammered Swiss bronze and spiral-etched with what I can see are filigree diacritic whorls and alphabetic thumbprints. I think it must weigh ten kilos or more and I’m concerned the first old man might drop it on my head. Laia is tacking forward, God knows why, and the first old man is moving one step every two seconds, trying to level arms at nine-fifteen, not wanting to tilt, as the dog garble slips through the extraction machine. A mutilated noise but definitely dog, somewhere. Remember I’m thinking I might tell the first old man I have lost the list of real fake names and therefore I’m interested in what the first old man will do to Laia when he discovers she is hiding the names if I have already told him we must have lost the list of names on the way here and or he concludes I have secretly passed the list he wants to Laia because I saw her get frisked, and maybe, oh now he gets it, now the dawn lightens, yes, maybe we’re both in on some deceit together, and he was a fool to trust any government employee, no matter how well-bribed or threatened or compromised. So I want to make a decision about what to say about the list and I want to die and I want the first old man and the boy to die and I want to confess all the emotional backlogs of my normal lifetime, and I want Laia to die, and we’ve talked about this confession compulsion a lot, too much, but at the same time I want to feel relieved and nauseated that it is Laia who is perhaps going to be tortured and killed rather than me, and not only because she is even worse than me at thinking moves ahead, and I might escape, even by default, as a coward, even though the first act is over, perhaps because Laia has misread my strategic honesty, or the fact I might want to save her and hate her at the same time, but Laia is going to be the one to fuck it all up. Inevitable, fate, framing: these are all your words; and fuck it all up are mine. No, my point is this: what if? What if I tell the first old man that the list which Laia is offering up is in fact just a treble bluff? Sure, I faked the fake fake, think about it, man, think about it, I can tell the first old man, because I am being watched secretly and ineptly by my chief officers, they opened a red file on me years ago, and but if they take me back to HQ right now I can certainly find the real fake list of names for them, no problem, in the confusion of my sudden release I will have the opportunity to do that, think about it, and there is still time, there is always time, I don’t care why you need those people’s names. Yes, exactly, this is the precise moment when I feel and only feel immaculately horrified by a rattling of some infinite transcendence as the first old man tries a shuffle and there is zero logical hope. Endless cosmic going beyond: this is how it is. Laia and I do not speak or look at each other as the first boy re-gags us and the first old man progresses with the tray. What is this? A last supper? Initiation? Death before life? In life? And what is he, the first old man? Well, I don’t know how you might decide if a ruddy geezer in his mid-seventies is what type of extremist with so much overcast trauma washing across his face, those foggy eyes like battle-grazed marbles, a noble amateur, a knight, uncensored and honest in all this indecency, but I know that patient-faced men might have patient faces because they are keeping their impatience somewhere else, like in their boots or gas taps or tools, like in their gifts or hobbies or art, and so I pretend I do not know that sacrificing myself for Laia is my only exit strategy, my only heart clocking through weathers of violence, as the boy, the first boy, leans on the kitchenette door casing and his shadow joins the height marks of the unknown child, following lazy-mouthed as the first old man shuffles to me in the corner opposite Laia and as the first old man gets closer I see through our quavering blue that on his ceremonial are arranged certain items, which have since been catalogued and I will never forget them anyway and you have heard all this before but I need to do this: a frail teapot with a glaze-webbed illustration of lobstermen on its belly; a dozen frilled-rim teacups and mismatched saucers; a smaller, lidded dainty for sugars, also of fragile hairline-crack appearance; a steel toast-rack slotted with triangles which were actually rhombuses of stained balsa wood; a dinner plate punctuated with butter commas; insects in amber; dinky ceramic ramekins spooned tight with marmalade; a jar of tarmac English yeast-paste; a brick cutglass ashtray with a burning cigarette lodged in one of its four circumferential divots; boxes of extra-long oven matches; lit crimson-coloured plastic cylindrical grave candles; a saucer of white snails with diacritics painted on their shells in white paint; black plastic pencil-sharpeners; a wad of gory magazines gussied up with snapped elastic bands; mottled silver teaspoons; broken families of kitchen and dining-room knives; ditto forks; Victorian cake-distribution tongs; a professional-grade rotary wood sander; an automatic pencil sharpener made of steel; a bowl of mixed nuts with diacritics painted on their shells in white paint; an iced and marzipan-jacketed round fruit cake carved into the shape of an apostrophe; a box of firework rockets with code lettering on their tubes; a postcard of a fishing village with LLM? written where an address might go; paparazzi photographs I could not make out; a wood print set of the expected diacritic symbols and a wood print set of the expected slogans; a packet of artist’s sketching pencils of various weights; a brass mortar shivering with pen drives; and of course a contraband multi-kilo dictionary of names and diacritic legislation. I have my mouth open and I am going to betray myself but the first old man takes an extra-gravity step, the room evolving unpredictable ecosystems around him, and his shins meet with the patchwork umlaut-shaped pouf and he involuntarily launches the tray at high speed, discus-style, with some hard-wired get-out-of-my-face instinct. The tray sails over my head and hits with an orchestral crash the glazed doors of a floor-to-ceiling display cabinet, smashing to shit both of its windows, and the contents of the tray are cascaded all around. The cabinet, which I have not noticed before, is a museum of fragile objects which want to beat you up: pencils; dictionaries; framed examples of linguistic barbarisms; history pamphlets; incorrect flags; an oil painting of a family hanged from a bridge while a shooting star landed in a field, somehow, and a lucid human exploded, somehow, in the antic dancing moonlight. I mean there are no light-hearted moments or stoic jokes in that cabinet; it’s all terror cell NEVER FORGIVE NEVER FORGET kidnap team business. The two convex mirrors on the two facing walls (the walls which contain neither the barred porthole nor the door-banging kitchenette) make everything for me happen forever and forever bent as the first old man lands with a muffled smack between Laia and me and I get the draft of his unwashed body. Fuck, he says in a level tone from his new position. At this moment I would say seven on a terror scale of zero to ten, maybe even six, because now the first old man is on the carpet, maybe injured, and there seems to be an opportunity among chaos for redemption. Escape, redemption, whatever, the first boy just watching in silence, portcullis locked open, then going to Laia and unknotting her gag and now Laia saying calm and quick with a smile, the list hidden in her cheek, that this woman here, meaning me, has just passed some kind of document, and she does not know why this woman, meaning me, is hiding it and if he, the first old man, lets her go now she will not breathe a word. The first old man says nothing and Laia tells him she does not trust me, never has, has always known I was dangerous, and he should not trust me either but before the first old man can reply the glass and plastic-laminated door which seems bolted and which connects the first-floor landing slides on its squealing tracker and the second old man comes in, wearing the light-blue athletics tracksuit, both hammers aloft. The second old man is a rangy well-dined rural figure who wants new hips and under one armpit he has a cat-food bowl and under the other a short-handled garden draw-hoe with rusty clag baking on the blade and symbols I do not understand notched all up and down its hickory. The soprano yap of the dog through the extraction unit is a folkish drone, purse-lipped, stone-faced. The second old man is older by ten maybe fifteen years than the first old man who came out of the kitchenette with the ceremonial and who is now rising and meditating on furniture because furniture has intent, is guilty, and I promise the universe that when I have escaped, which I know is impossible, I will devote all my spare energy to helping the helpless. Having finished her little speech, Laia is squinting. Squinting and shocked by sunlight from a moving cloud, cheeks inflated to full bag, shoulders ear-high, lilac lips melting, thinking no doubt she has out-smarted a terrorist, again, her motivations tempered without love. Laia is Laia but I almost felt sorry for her in that moment. The second old man does not reply to Laia. He moves towards me, his eyes smears of cream without pupil or iris. He has an upper-back hillock which makes his line of attack eccentric, his jaw swung and face angled to the ancient constellations as my stomach and or the ground purr, I didn’t know why at the time, not really, because I have allowed these light-heads to kidnap me, how do you think it feels, despite all our training, and it has to be her, it has to be Laia, Laia from Accountability, yes of course that’s where Laia had to work, the girl my father fed and my mother taught to play chess. We played lots of games, not just “terrorists”. The second old man is side-carrying a colostomy bag in a leathery holster with a diacritic rule I do not understand tattooed on its casing and he is quickly followed by the second boy, who’s about the same age as the first boy who helped with the kidnapping of me and Laia from HQ. The second boy has a number-one shaved head and the sunny-cloudy face of a half-way-there sea-swimmer, his eyes reacting soft metal, blue-soft, more intelligent than the first boy but also more obedient. Although we were blind-folded, I knew from the distance driven and what I could glimpse through the porthole that we have been taken to one of the shipwreck quadrants slated for rewording. The air is mostly swimming from the exploding display cabinet and what I do not know is an earthquake and both old men are making lip smacks and throat clearings. The first old man is trying to stand up but he can’t quite do it. The first boy remains helpless, nastily observant. Dust is shimmying from the central lightshade. Fingernail flakes of roof paint are settling like diseased skin. The gum is between my molars, like this; somehow it seems useful to keep it. Laia is rocking over to the first old man, her skirt alarm-high and this is when I see the folded list of names in her mouth between her gag and tongue as she rolls over the debris to what I assume she assumes is an exit-able door even though she must know there is no exit, deep now in the second or third act, there is nothing like an exit, her intention presumably to roll down the staircase and out into the yard filled with alphabet block print moulds and failed diacritic threat scams or rare books on lines in waterproof boxes in soundproofed rain-wells or the codes and seeds they mash with hammers and anvils to stop us tracing them down. I know that if Laia eats the list of names I will not escape and am probably going to be killed by these freedom fighters who never kill people but I also know that if I call out to her now to stop eating the list of names for the love of God, she will find some new way to betray me for her own benefit, to force me to leap into the freezing whirlpool, her mind innocent, flagrantly innocent, with easy access to childlike cruelty, and me not convinced any lie or bluff or truth will save me. All six of us in that room, not including the devil, are now moving in an emotional flux of enforced calibration, negotiating spoons, butter knives, cracked porcelain, strangers, darkness visible shrinking back to the inevitable zero, undesired and undeserved odours, candle wax shifting into interpretable blots, tenets of the original credo, fungi, tea leaves, pencil erasers, geometry. So much geometry is what I see and battered fungi and preserved fruit spreads which stayed in their ramekins. The greasy kitchenette door claps. I change my mind. This is when I really change my mind. I am going to tell the old men that Laia has the list in her mouth and she is tricking them. I have known her all my life and I know what she is capable of. We might as well be sisters. They’ve targeted her and me because we both have access to the information they need, me much than her, yes, but I am going to tell the old men that they must know her too, her unreliability, how I protected her all these years, and yes, that list she is eating is the real fake not the fake fake and she is trying to get me killed to save her own skin, because I am the one who got the list off the mainframe and all she did was provide an alibi. All she is is an alibi. I change my mind again. I am going to tell the old men that Laia is actually trying to save us both, me and her, and I love her like a sister, she cannot help who she is, and this will convince them I am lying to protect Laia and put the onus on her to explain why she is eating the list of names, real fake or fake fake. As I switch between options and the old men and boys fuck about, Laia is wiggling on her side now towards the kitchenette; even she must know that nobody hides in a kitchenette like that in a moment like this, not even her, not even a person with a mind like hers, about to sell me out for nothing in return. The second old man does not see Laia flip on palms and toes and start to crab despite cable ties and limited space and so he falls back, the second old man, quickly backward over Laia’s back, like a dullard in a heroic wedding feast slaughter scene, all failures painted in his sky by his own personal Leonardo da Vinci. Topples backward but lands on his face, yes, on his face on the carpet, face-first into a powder-blue teacup which opens like a carnation and detonates his nose, flooding the world with scarlet, perhaps because the hands and arms which might have broken his fall are nostalgically coordinating the cat food bowl and colostomy bag and draw-hoe and I guess the hips and spine and shadiness do not mitigate. He grunts as he goes down, he’s done it before. She has the list, I start to tell the old men and boys, in her mouth, she’s eating the names, but my voice is lost in all the shouting. All of them talking at the same time, but mostly the second old man, and the first boy. Babbling behind the gag, tongue cutting itself on the edges of her freedom ticket, pinking the babbling edges, the folded paper list now somehow in Laia’s mouth, her self-control starting to crumble an hour or so into what we have come to call the enlèvement, not a thin and or marginal context in any context, a reality underlined by the next few minutes of argument among the old men and boys and me as I try to get my negotiation across, shouting at them, and they seem to ignore me and then there is some relative silence as the first old man and the second old man gradually hoist to kneeling, half-standing, and pretend they are not injured, as old men will, as every wall strut vibrates and the old men brush down shirts and trousers and flutter away offers of elbow support from the boys, the gale scoring a ballet with broken glass along and in and out of near and far. What I’m doing is waiting for them to calm down so I can make an offer and as I wait, I notice the ceiling decorated with a cartoon of an army of old men tooled up with scythes in the shape of diacritic symbols defeating an army of assorted devils, a Sistine Chapel on psilocybin, painterly and awesome even though it’s drawn in pencil on white paper and glued to the ceiling. A bubble of panic pops in my gut, which is where I think. All my love, it just explodes in my stomach, and I am not going to cry or not-escape. Not giving up, more like I stop struggling, or I notice that struggling will get me more suffering. The first old man reminds the second old man that, yes, he has reminded the boys about furniture and procedure. As the second old man says something to me I do not understand, almost as if in a foreign language, I notice his colostomy bag is apparently un-breached, but his nose has become very disordered and is melting red into his white hedge moustache and his large forehead is egg-speckled and strengthened by all our darkest light, tray pottery renting sowing furrows in the forehead journey-grooves, so many seasons have died in this race to civilisation, and as the first old man hauls up, the bolted door to the landing swings open with a womb hush and the third old man, whom I estimate is aged somewhere between the first old man and second old man, comes in pursued by the third boy, who is somewhere lower on the door flood-gauge than the other two boys, and all the boys are wearing flag-stitched tracksuits, and I can see the gyros have been screwdrivered out of their soles. The first boy is dry-retching and failing to open the painted-shut window, his ponytail pulled around his nose and mouth. A Cockapoo-sized seagull hovers outside the window and watches the first boy as it, the seagull, tries again to land on the anti-seagull spikes while the third old man, who has a face which I assume and continue to assume is his real face, starts inquiring from his position about what might in the sweet name of Jesus be going on and why are we not even quorate. As he shouts, a sun sets in my gut. A sun sets and I imagine I am at an auction with many inevitable bidders, because it has to be Laia praying out loud and me unable to hear what she is asking for or quibbling about now. The list, the third old man shouts and does not smile because no true zealot has a sense of humour about their own zealotry. I hold the chewing gum between molars and the planets move in what we call space and one of the old men tells one of the boys to shut his face. I am going to offer all our savings, every beat of every credit, take it all, and my secrets, and kidneys, all, have it. Upstairs behind the defunct railway, off-centre in a two-storey divided into two hovels, the only window painted shut with optimistic seasons of white paint, and the portholes on the landing and stairwell barely large enough for a head. The stairwell skylights are thickly blinded with a lot of hard guano and if I can get to any window and jump, I will shatter, maybe kill myself. Two small bedrooms off the landing, that’s all I saw, none with a window or a door that I see through the eye-shade. And there is a lavatory cubby, a toiletette, with a bead-curtain for a door which when undisturbed makes a picture of a humanoid face with umlauts for sideways-looking eyes and a Spanish tilde for its moustache and an open accent for its smug little mouth, so I know these people have been here long enough to invest in a petty grandiose toiletette bead-curtain, or it is unlikely to have been a coincidence. Also you have the balcony attached to the landing where somebody has been trying not to kill orchids among butchered racing bicycles and hydroponic lights and misting pipes. The first boy is telling the first old man to remember the front door downstairs but the first old man would, wouldn’t he, if he hadn’t been too busy jabbing these two, the boy suggests. It was on the stairs where I heard the first boy use the first old man’s possibly real first name when the first boy said, Amøs man, the chain. Amøs did not respond. Glass splinters from the tray-shattered display cabinet and butter commas land on Laia’s inner elbow and neck and there is superficial bleeding on her neck, red in gold, a tide against a current. Her blood is blue and purple and yellow with mirror reflections and some glinting offset on the composting carpet and the dust and I might feel sorry for her, even her, if I can stop thinking about my wife and son waiting at home. My only back-up of the latest edit of the large language model is hidden in the fake baked-beans tin in our walk-in kitchen cupboard. The huge teapot hit the largest whitest wall and leaves a forensic modern art spattering. Something sarcastic about the way the objects, especially the tray objects, seem in the room, as if they are subjects with bad intentions, as well as objects. Amøs pinches the burning cigarette from an armchair crevice, smacks the cushion, and inhales high altitude, happier on the out breath, telling the two other old men and the boys to start clearing this mess up because they have to start the meeting quorate or not and yes he does know how many uncorrupted epochs they’d spent planning this, unlike some, he knows history and ethics and why they do all this because although the enemy has all the power, the rebels have truth and justice and then he seems to lose his thread. These two, he says, waving at me and her. The kidnappers seem to be quorate in the sense that they have started squabbling and point-scoring and lying and sharpening pencils and, like apes, yo-yo scanning with heads. I am still chewing the gum. I feel simultaneously sorry for the seagull and pleased in a nasty fuck-you way that it can’t land. Laia sighs and I have to conclude this sigh is anchored in some low-draught port between irritation and frustration. Irritated! Frustrated! But not humbled or terrified or willing to co-operate with me. Her thighs are also looking slightly chubby, I notice without malice. The second old man is a falling-down wall next to Laia, talking about spelling and graphical accents and the most common names given to babies in the year ending December, young woman, him thinking of her as young, and he is just completely astounded that young people do not know the basics of science history psychology manners, not looking at her in any ten-commandants-breaking way. Obviously she’s going to tell the old men she works in Accountability and has no information about names or diacritics but if they let her go she promises to steal whatever they need and they should keep the other woman as a deposit. The aftershock runs through us all. I know why the sigh alarms me: Laia is tuning up for a bargain, which is when our kidnap will lunge into its most wrong phase and I will never hold my baby and feel his skin on my face, never hear him breathing, never watch him sleep, and in my final moments I will be thanking our insignificant universe, the most significant one, and saying sorry and accepting I can never understand why Laia has not thanked me when I risked my own life to jump into that fast-flowing river to drag her out, why she’d been irritated and frustrated when I saved her life, but I am also about to plead against my better instincts, thinking how best to checkmate myself to save Laia and get myself freed. The second old man kicks over a grave candle which someone has lit, the electricity having gone off, and now he has the posture of a hunted cleric about to unravel an unoiled and unmitigated diatribe, directed at this human mayhem in general and at the first old man in particular, but Amøs just forks his tongue in his cheek and nods as if this is simply a pleasant farmyard routine in May, watching the lambs go back in for the night as a hurricane bent ancient yews all up and down the blearing lane. The second old man opens his palms in a gesture of interrogation towards the third old man and the third old man does not reply. The seagull keeps trying to land despite the anti-seagull spikes because someone has dropped or lobbed or carefully lodged a toasted sandwich among the spikes and you can see the melted cheese, maybe a Cheddar or Cheshire or Lancashire, oozing in the bread. I am about to plead our case against my better instincts, keen to cut off any idiot treaty which Laia might be about to pluck and frame, and my offer is going to include a promise they be allowed to mistreat me in any way they please so long as they let me send a messenger, perhaps one of these good boys, to my apartment, after they have stolen the key to the funeral oration I had cloaked in baffle-code and locked in a fake baked-beans tin; if I give them my iris-replica, they can get in. Of course I’m not going to tell them at this point what is really in my fake beaked-beans can. Let me say goodbye properly to my child, I’m going to say, telling them I know they have to be moral decent people who will allow a mother to say goodbye to her child and this will be immaculate publicity for them in any death notice. This is what I am going to say and I am not going to change my mind again. The third old man kicks debris and tucks in his slogan T-shirt and slogan shirt and two slogan jumpers, a belt of blue diacritics tattooed around his slack middle body. The gale rehangs the kitchenette door. That’s what I think: hide in there and they might forget about me. No way I can get to the stairs. And what if I get outside? Shout for help? Who stays around here except for people like this and or people scared of people like this? I need to speak, it’s important, I say to the second old man. More than once I say that but there will be no reply from the second old man, who has covered his face with his knotted hands, because a Cockapoo has fallen from the sky and landed belly-down on the anti-seagull spikes and a very odd woman, odd but not that old, has emerged from a walk-in cupboard which also contains a coffin-sized bed spring-loaded and hinged to flip on the wall. When I see the odd woman’s figure slide from the gloam and glide despite the debris, kidnappers, boys, and kidnap victims, as the struts hum a minor key trill under another aftershock and the alarms go off all over the city, it takes me like a millisecond longer than I would expect, with hindsight, to assess the woman’s figure as human, as something other than pure chaotic shadow. Or perhaps my mind has conflated the woman’s figure with the dog trying to jerk free on the spikes and the seagull hovering over the dog and figuring out how to colonise this new short-grassed island or beak under to get the sandwich and all the shadows and shrapnel lying around and or sliding off and the second old man and the second boy throwing tray objects, like that might corner information, might organise sorrow and fear and adoration in the process of duty, avoiding by organising, and me very much hoping the odd woman is not coming at me. I need to speak. It’s important. Something shakes. A plane buzzed low. I close my eyes and see or feel or just know about blueing midwinter horizontals leading us to farms, to circuits, to cults, to gurus, to legislation, to Moon factories, to music, to political parties, to parties, to the beauty of an ordinary routine, to the glory of bedsheets and bread and clean clothes, to the click-clack of hearts failing, to my own grave collapsed into the softness of a closed churchyard furred with lichen and bullet dents, and the odd woman, elbows raised at ninety-degrees, a gold-hemmed priest-swan, wings adjusted for the midnight territory battle, shouting you clowns in a whisper at the second old man, hammers now dangling by his knees. The first old man points to me with his unbendable finger and the odd woman starts to shuffle as best she can in my direction as the first boy gives the odd woman a look of respectful disgust fuelled by great belly-boiling sadness. A hard look. I’m still trying to speak but they are ignoring me and the shapes of our bodies swim on the rippled ceiling and walls and the seagull is looking for a way to get the sandwich and I’m chewing the gum and it has to be Laia, it has to be her, no it really has to be her. She is here, I say out loud. It is her fault I am here. She is the unthinking universal creator. More than anything the first boy does well to look at the odd woman at all because looking at her is like looking at the sun. This is when Amøs says we all know and we have all talked about this. I don’t know what he’s talking about. Sheilă is not the chairperson, the third old man says, him offering a palm at her, possibly at her unusual tracksuit. The walls stop vibrating and or the rest of the world starts to vibrate and we are held in a negative relative position, is what I feel like, hardly able to stand it, not weeping. The grave candle is not providing brilliant illumination and the dust snowing from the rose-plaster corners makes a dry mist which scalds my throat. The kidnappers are talking among themselves about whether or not to let us go. They mention words like optics, publicity, honey-trap. I decide I realise I wish I have not faked every single one of the accents on the list of almost two hundred names of men, women, and children on the paper list Laia is now secretly pulping among her teeth. It makes no difference now, maybe, but I still wish it. Joħn wonders aloud if we should do something about that: the seagull turning tail to us, landed on the dog, scanning distance for novel continents. The dog is impaled on its side through belly and lungs but the body rises and falls. I feel nothing about the dog other than mild irritation about an added absurd complication; then I feel differently, and feel the dog is the only important suffering and if we only attended to the dog, we might be able to solve other problems; then I feel differently, and I do not think about the dog. At this point, when the dog is dying and the kidnappers are arguing, someone or something knocks on the front door downstairs. I try to place this knocking in terms of speed, force, duration and decide it is a polite knocking and therefore there is something dishonest in it and that it poses an immediate and or mortal threat to my life, as in armed cops or simple rival terrorists with index fingers on lips. Laia is looking from side to side, eating the list behind her gag, searching for secret or magic trapdoors. She does not look at me. No. She does not look at me. The cable-ties around our wrists and ankles will be weathered to snapping point in two years but the plastic will not return to elements for centuries. As the old men and the old woman and the boys squabble in distorting whispers about what to do about the polite knocking downstairs, and maybe they should free one of us or pencil one of us in the knees and then move to the other safehouse, to send a message, I am hoping someone will be able to kick out the porthole to finish off the dog and thin out the dawn-dock reek. I see my child like a spot of rain on a hot pebble, shrinking as it grows, dying as it breathes. The kidnappers are talking about open and closed accents on vowels, about decay symptoms, and history is history and soil is soil and they did that and then they did that and then they did that and hasn’t this all gone in the manifesto and Laia has eaten the paper list and she opens her mouth wide to show me like a four-year-old as our kidnappers talk about the knocking and which one of us will look better on the news and what about the dog and the fact they have not got the paper list, which was the only reason to kidnap us, wasn’t it, them having blackmailed me into obtaining and typing and printing the list in the first place, and they only demand courtesy and respect for the tilde and the circumflex, the dog struggling, and all they demand are simple decencies like clear policing on diacritic graves, and I try not to move or irritate anyone. Because I do not move and do not interfere in the universe, and because it had to be her, the second old man slips on the tray and falls without bodily restraint spine-first very hard and badly on the corner of the smashed-up display cabinet and at this same moment the greasy kitchenette door creaks open with a noise like an infant complaining he has been cheated in a game of ping-pong and the fourth old man crawls into the room. The fourth old man is somewhere in age between the second and third old men and he is fitted out in tropical jungle battle fatigues and march-cracked military boots and I think I assume when I first see him that he has been hiding behind that greasy kitchenette door a few metres away and maybe he has been the one opening and closing the door, not the gale, maybe there is no gale today, and this controlled and successful act of hiding by the fourth old man, and his pro wearing-out camouflage gear, indicate some type of leader role among what he would no doubt call a legitimate diacritics freedom pressure group. The fourth old man has a large serrated knife buttoned to his thigh and a rifle with telescopic sight sheathed on his back. This is the type of individual you would expect to have grenades in his trousers and now he is among us, stalactites of dusk light booming through brown and all these hanging structures of colour both like and not sunlight. The fourth old man yawns and smiles and looks bashful or charmed or cast in gentle shapes by his own entrance, a gorilla with a scorched grey-beard and the sour odour of a frustrated corporal. Laia has a partner and twin baby girls at home, and another on the way. Her eyes are pregnant black fire. One of the convex mirrors throws itself off the wall and the dog cools, stiffens, dries. The first old man kneels very close to me and tells the boys to hold my arms and legs as he aims a sharp HB pencil under my left kneecap. I see the pattern of leaves on the carpet get fatally lobate and then turn to hazardous mush. I see my child as an old man on his deathbed and then dead in a coffin before his cremation, the first old man telling the boys I am not such a bad person, no person is wholly bad, there are grey areas, and he is telling the boys as if they are his children how it is important to remember how lucky they are to have a cause and a people and now they search us properly and the odd woman says there is no paper list, they’ve tricked us, and I struggle, shouting but not shouting because of the gag, telling them and not telling them that Laia has eaten the list, and we agreed to make it look realistic but this is getting out of hand and they frisked me but not her or was it the other way around, was it another accident on another day, and the first old man takes off his massive glasses and is closing one eye to line up the pencil, and I get that smack of cold water on my body again. I see Laia’s clothes inflate and swirl like engine oil in a puddle. Just tell the truth and hand it over. Just underwater ghosts on the windowpanes of a lonely city street; tell me the truth and hand it over. We loved cycling when we were kids, me and Laia, and we made mud pies and pretended to be terrorists and watched Alice in Wonderland. My wife opens the front door of our apartment and I see my son, smiling shyly, knowing something good is going to happen, a gift. And it is a gift. I see my wife in our hallway with Kîm in his duckling pyjamas, the ducklings all laughter and dressed in emergency service uniforms, and him chewing Seőnie, his hair static in sweet bathing mist and a friendly person asking to come inside only for a moment. Then the fourth old man takes a hammer and hammers the pencil which has become a screwdriver as hard as he can under my kneecap. He does this many times until my knee is shattered but still attached to my leg. I struggle and kick and thrash around and try to hurt them and want to kill them and kill everyone they love and think about bargains and tricks. Laia is untied, ungagged and laughing with the boys and the men and the woman, there on the other side of one of our worlds. Yes, she primed all our laughter with sadness like that, or that’s what I thought then. I thought then that Laia only lived between the limits of my skull but now I know that Laia often wanted to go back to her childhood to see if that ugly impossible monster was still in its corner, unable to move, content and beckoning, despairing and repellent, invisible and soft to the lightest of touches. When Kîm was four-years-old and it was December he would talk all day, going on and on about Christmas and what he wanted and how exciting it was and he would gaze with genuine love at the tree and decorations and cheap ornaments and once he appeared at my bedside, crying, distraught, because he had been playing with the plastic Father Christmas with a snow-globe belly which had belonged to my grandfather, and Kîm had dropped the thing, accidentally, and it had cracked and the water from the belly had spilled on the floor, and he had come to tell me of this terrible unbearable loss, this betrayal, there in his duckling pyjamas, chocolate dried on his lips, and all of Kîm’s incessant talk about Christmas and his love of Christmas, and what he wanted, had driven me at times to fury with irritation and impatience and now Kîm is an adult, and has none of the love of Christmas, not in a Scrooge way, just in an adult way, and he has none of this natural repeating optimistic non-separating insistence of a four-year-old child.
Lead, Monster; we’ll follow.
Adam J. Wilshaw lives in Catalunya, Spain. His work has previously been published in a Salt anthology and in Litro.