You were supposed to be getting another Shabcast – with another great guest – this week, but life had other plans. So, having staked everything on that, I am left without an essay to post. So you’ll have to make do with the third chapter of one of the novels I’m currently occasionally writing. Here are chapters one and two. My Patreon sponsors saw an earlier draft of this chapter ages ago (under a different title). And if that doesn’t make you salivate with an irresistible desire to give me money, I don’t know what will.
There were times when Iza envied Ria. Ria didn’t have spiders in her hair, or webs plastered across her face. She didn’t have dust falling into her eyes. She wasn’t losing the skin on her elbows and palms. Her fingernails weren’t splintering as they dug into brickwork. She didn’t have to hold on for dear life. She wasn’t alive. Iza felt guilty thinking this, but thought it all the same.
“This is amazing,” said Ria. For once, she didn’t sound sarcastic or cynical.
There was no room for Ria in the dark behind the walls. But she was there. She had followed Iza into the vertical passageway. Iza could hear Ria’s voice. It was as if she was behind her. But behind Iza there were just cold bricks, bare but for the filth of time and darkness. Iza had her back pressed against them. There was nowhere for Ria to be. Even so, Ria’s voice came from behind her. This was an old trick, of course. Sometimes, in the old days, Ria had spoken to Iza from inside bathroom cabinets, or toilet cisterns, or shopping bags.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” asked Ria.
She spoke aloud. There was, of course, no need for her to keep her voice down.
“I only found out about it after the last time you… left,” whispered Iza. She felt Ria scrutinising her. She felt guilty, despite the fact that she was telling the truth.
“I didn’t leave,” said Ria, “You sent me away. Remember?”
“If I did, I didn’t mean it,” hissed Iza.
She almost told Ria how many times she’d wished for her. Again, she wanted to ask Ria where she’d been, and why she’d stayed away for so long. But this didn’t seem like the time and place.
“We’re here,” whispered Iza.
They’d reached the top.
The cavity ran down the entire height of the house on the right side. It was only just big enough for Iza to squeeze into. Every time she did it, it was a tighter fit. She supposed that was good. She didn’t want to be small forever. But it meant that one day she’d be too big to get in. Too big to make any more secret visits to the top floor of the house. If when that happened… would that mean she’d never see her mother again?
Iza, with Ria somewhere near her, stared into Mary Park’s top floor apartment. The suite she’d chosen to make her sanctuary, her cave, her comfortable oubliette. The fortified place that the woman who wrote books about queens and princesses, and who had once presented television programmes about queens and princesses, had chosen to make into her castle. A turret for a self-imprisoned Rapunzel. London-greyed stucco for stone walls and ramparts. Barred and shuttered windows for arrowslits and embrasures. A lake of silence for a moat. A locked door for a drawbridge. An electronic keypad for a sentry.
Not even Mary’s Personal Assistant – a young woman called Jane Austin, much to her own apparent embarrassment – knew the code to get in. She had to wait for the door to be opened from the inside. And then she had to count to ten, slowly, before coming in, to give her employer time to scuttle out of sight.
Jane had been astonished to learn that Iza didn’t know the code either, which Iza thought was stupid of her.
“I’d be the last person she’d tell,” Iza had said, “after all, I’m the first person she wants to keep out.”
Jane had gone quiet. A perpetually flustered and self-conscious young woman who had worked for Mary since before her seclusion, Jane came and went regularly. She ferried in and out of the apartment anything that needed ferrying. She did all Mary’s shopping… which meant, in practice, that she told the housekeeper Mrs Chatterjee what to buy and then took it up to Mary. She usually stopped and talked to Iza for a while, insisting on making her tea and awkwardly chatting over the kitchen table.
Iza had eventually realised that this was Jane performing another task set by her employer. Iza had made her confess it. Jane had wriggled uncomfortably under Iza’s interrogation, as if being asked to reveal corporate secrets. But Iza had wormed more out of her than ever before. Iza learned that Jane rarely, if ever, saw the inmate of the shuttered tower. She told Iza, with the air of someone divulging a mildly shameful secret, that she and Mary tended to conduct conversations from opposite sides of an internal door, left slightly ajar.
Iza got the feeling that, uncomfortable as she was, Jane was relieved to be talking. And then Iza got it. The conversation made Jane feel that she and Iza were equals. Girls downstairs, talking furtively about the adult upstairs. It meant, for Jane, that she didn’t have to think of Iza as her responsibility. Which suited Iza. She didn’t want to be Jane’s responsibility.
Apart from anything else, the whole idea that Jane should ‘keep an eye on’ Iza had probably just been a vague handwave of Mary’s. An afterthought. Iza thought it was unfair on both Jane and her. Iza didn’t dislike Jane… though she suspected she only had her job because of her amusing name. She felt more or less the same way about Jane as she felt about Mrs Chatterjee. She was glad both of them turned up regularly, but she didn’t like the pitying way both of them looked at her. Neither of them knew that she actually saw her mother quite a bit. Not even her mother, who always made sure to keep her laptop camera switched off on the rare occasions that she would Skype with Iza, knew how often Iza saw her.
“How many times have you watched her from in here?” asked Ria, almost as if she’d been listening to Iza’s thoughts.
“I don’t know,” whispered Iza.
Even whispering, her voice sent little echoes up and down the cavity, as did her every movement. Ria’s voice didn’t echo.
Truth was, Iza had lost count.
In the taxi, on the way home from seeing Dad, Iza realised she hadn’t read a single word of the book. Just the title and the author’s name.
She handled it. She almost opened it to start reading. But no. She and Ria needed privacy. They couldn’t read it together and chat about it as they read, not in public.
That was always how they’d done it in the old days. When there’d been a book or magazine they both wanted to look at, or a film or TV show they both wanted to watch, Iza had found some opportunity to go off and be by herself – at least as far as everyone else was concerned. That way she could chat openly with Ria without people deciding she was mad. The sisters had discovered early on that they couldn’t communicate by just thinking at each other.
In the taxi, Iza had put the book down again, and checked her phone. Still no response from Mum. No messages or missed calls. Now that she thought about it, her last Skype conversation with Mum had been almost a year ago. But then actually talking to Mary was unsatisfying at best.
She held the phone so that Ria could see, but so it wouldn’t look odd to the taxi driver, just in case he looked back. Things like that had happened before.
Once, a few years ago, Iza had conducted a long conversation with Ria in one of the school squash courts, without realising there were sixth-formers in the viewing gallery. Her echoey, one-sided conversation had drifted up through the glass. Iza had been sent to see a counsellor. Iza told her she was rehearsing her lines for the school play. Luckily, the woman had accepted this – relieved to think she didn’t have a case on her hands – and neglected to check with the drama teacher, who probably didn’t even know Iza’s name.
“I’ll cancel the letter to your parents then,” the counsellor had said, smiling. Iza had smiled back.
Even so, word got around. Iza Park talked to herself. But she could live with that. It wasn’t as if the consequences had been dire. On the contrary, most people had just been kinder to her the stranger they thought she was. Getting bullied or taunted, she came to see, was far more about who you were than what you did. Some people could be as strange as they liked and never be at risk. Others would get it no matter how quiet and conformist they were. They unknowingly sent out the wrong kinds of signals, and those signals were picked up by the people who were always on the look out for them. Those same people saw Iza Park’s strangeness and interpreted it favourably. Iza Park was interesting. Iza Park was unusual. Iza Park was artistic and spiritual, probably, they imagined. Iza Park, of course, had a very rich mother who was on TV, and a very rich father who built massive buildings. Iza Park’s mother was a baronet’s daughter, and her father would be a life peer one day. And Iza Park sent no signals. Iza Park was a dead line.
Meanwhile, amongst adults, her parents were a get-out clause of a different kind. Both were almost always somewhere else. He was always rushing from skyscraper to gated community to gentrified street. She was always being chauffeured from location shoot to academic conference to book launch.
If any adult thought there was something wrong with Iza Park, they blamed it on Mary and George Park. Which suited Iza. And it seemed fair, a way for them to help her. A way that would suit them: from a distance, and with no actual effort involved. Iza also found that the less she criticised them, the more other people were willing to do it for her.
The only people who expressed any serious dissatisfaction with her had been her parents themselves. It had soon become clear to Iza that she was not the girl they’d wanted. That girl was outgoing, ambitious, a social butterfly in pupal stage, preparing eagerly for debutantery and ball-attendance, already networking her future career contacts in her house common room. But Iza hadn’t turned out like that. She’d become something different to the little child they’d adored. That child had been as gregarious as a dolphin. A particularly sociable dolphin. The kind of dolphin whose name is always at the top of the list whenever the other dolphins decide who to invite to the next fishing-and-splashing-around party. But as she got older, Iza withdrew, and came to prefer her own company… at least, that was what it looked like to everyone else.
On some level, Iza understood that her relationship with a non-existent sister, who tended to criticise her and analyse her, was probably not what people would call ‘healthy’ if they found out about it. But they persistently didn’t. Adults really weren’t much different to those kids who kept an eye out for the weakness or strangeness of their peers; they saw it in some places, and missed it in others where it simply seemed inappropriate. And in any case, she thought health, like normality, was probably overrated. Healthy people dropped dead from heart attacks while jogging. It happened directly outside their house at least three times a year.
The ambulance and the fallen jogger were long gone by the time the taxi dropped them back in Maude Square. To distract herself, Iza tried again to initiate a conversation with Ria on that topic, but was interrupted by the taxi driver calling her back to tell her she’d left her book on the back seat.
By the time Iza walked inside the house and closed the door, Ria was already in the hall, back on her step at the bottom of the stairs, looking out through the pillars again.
“Get the photo,” said Ria, unsmiling.
“I don’t know where it is,” said Iza.
“Rubbish,” said Ria, “it’s on your bed. You put it down and left it there before we went out. You kept on putting it down and leaving it somewhere and walking off when we were here before.”
“Did I?” asked Iza.
“You put it down in the taxi,” said Ria.
“Yeah but that was just…”
“But don’t you want to…?” began Iza, holding up the book.
“Don’t I want to… what?” asked Ria. Iza followed Ria’s meaningful gaze until she saw that the hand she was holding up didn’t actually have the book in it.
She’d put it down on the hall table the moment she’d walked in. She went to get it.
“I thought you’d want to read…”
“I do,” said Ria, “but you obviously don’t. I think we should just move on to the photo before you finally succeed in losing the book.”
Iza blinked at her. Under Ria’s assessing stare, Iza felt guilty… though she wasn’t sure what about.
This was another old feature of their relationship. The compromise negotiated. Accepted tacitly. With one of them conscious of it and one of them not. Until Ria – the conscious one – broke it. Iza had often raged at herself for understanding herself less well than a girl who wasn’t really there.
“Photo,” said Ria again.
They set off upstairs, Ria in front.
Iza glared at the back of Ria’s head.
“Iza,” said Ria, without turning around.
Iza stopped, wondering if Ria had somehow seen the face she’d pulled.
“Don’t you think you should bring the book?”
Iza went back to the hall table. The book was still there.
The book finally retrieved, they found the photo where Ria had said it would be.
Iza put it in the book.
Iza didn’t open the book.
She felt an almost overwhelming urge to put it down somewhere and walk off.
Only Ria’s gaze stopped her.
“I’m scared,” said Iza.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“I just feel like…”
She faltered. She couldn’t find the words.
“Like we’re about to do something we shouldn’t do?” asked Ria. “Like we’re about to find stuff out that maybe we don’t really want to know?”
“Yeah,” said Iza, “that.”
“I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do,” said Ria, holding up her hands.
“But you want to know, don’t you?” asked Iza.
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. And I don’t. I’m scared to know.”
“You’ve got more to lose than I have.”
It was just a statement of fact. Ria was never nasty about the really serious stuff.
“Maybe we could wait and talk to Mum,” said Iza, buckling, “She might get back to us.”
“Okay,” said Ria, “if you think so. You know her better than I do.”
A moment slunk past in watchful silence.
“Do you miss her, when you’re… wherever you go?”
“I don’t go anywhere,” said Ria. “Sometimes I feel like there’s somewhere I could go, or should go, when I’m not here. But I… I can’t find it.”
It was the first time Ria had ever said anything like that. But Iza wanted her question answered.
“But do you miss her?”
“Yes,” she snapped, looking down. And then, quietly: “I miss both of them.”
“So do I,” said Iza.
Ria looked up, as if to challenge. Then she saw Iza’s face and looked down again.
“Let’s go and have a look at her,” said Iza.
Ria looked up.
“I knew it,” she said.
And that was how Iza managed to get Ria to let her put the book down unopened.
She had discovered the way into the cavity one day during Half-Term the year before last, while rearranging the furniture in her bedroom for no particular reason. She’d moved a wardrobe that had been stood in the same place for as long as she could remember. She heard a ripping sound. Looking behind the wardrobe, she saw a rusty nail sticking out the back, and a tear in the wallpaper. She poked at the tear, and her finger went straight through it, into empty space. She’d torn right through a section of wall that was little more than paper and cardboard. She tore out the rest of the flimsy patch, only to discover an old recessed cupboard.
It was small, only just big enough for her to stand in. Ruined wooden boards and old nails littered the floor, and the bare bricks at the back were lined with narrow, empty shelves. She ran a fingertip along one of them and it came away caked in dust.
And then she felt a breeze ruffle her hair. It seemed to come from above. She looked up into empty blackness. That explained the ruined boards and the nails. The roughly-made ceiling of the cupboard had some down.
She fetched a torch and shone it up into what looked like the inside of an unused chimney. Old bricks ascended into darkness. It looked like it ran all the way up the side of the building. And that was when the idea had struck her. It might run all the way up. To the top floor.
She’d crawled up the cavity, finding her fear of falling lessened by the tightness of the fit, and the trainers with good grips she was wearing, and the mattress she’d hauled off her bed and wedged into the bottom of the cupboard. And there was determination too. To get up there. To see Mum again. Just to see her. Not a recording of her on an old TV show. It made the risk seem worthwhile. She found she wanted it more than she’d known.
There would only be one floor’s worth of upward passage to scale, Mum’s apartment being right above the floor where Iza had her bedroom. The ceilings of the house were not high. Sometimes Iza had lain in bed watching her bedroom ceiling, and imagining she could hear her mother’s footsteps above.
And besides, thought Iza, I do gymnastics. She wasn’t any bloody good at it of course… but then she’d never had a proper incentive before.
A nameless feeling pounded behind her eyes as she shimmied slowly and painfully up the cavity that first time. It wasn’t the fear of the dark emptiness above and below, or the dirt, or the cold. She felt as if she had broken through some kind of barrier she’d never known was there, some disguised boundary wall around the world she knew. She was somewhere else now. On the other side of a membrane. Crawling around in a hidden second world that had always been there, just next to hers, waiting. She thought about how the cupboard and the cavity had been there her whole life, adjacent but unseen, like a birdwatcher in a hide. And now the bird was inside the hide.
It made her think of Ria, and to wonder where she was, and wish for her. But of course, she hadn’t come. Not then.
At the top, Iza had been pleased to find that she could see straight into her mother’s apartment. There was a very conveniently-placed ventilation grille, set into the wall near the floor.
She was looking through that same grille now, through the empty space between its rusty, ornate swirls. The same mouse’s-eye-view of the same room. The room was empty. But the scratching of a pencil came from nearby.
The room was the same as last time she’d looked into it. It never changed. It was as tidy as ever. Every week, Mrs Chatterjee was allowed in to clean every room in the top floor apartment, except one. Except that there was something different about it this time.
Silhouetted against the unshuttered window, Ria turned and waved and grinned at the grille. Iza blinked in astonishment and outrage. She’d not expected this.
Ria walked up to the grille. For a moment, Iza got a close-up view of Ria’s feet, hovering just off the floor. Then Ria crouched down. She and Iza faced each other through the metal lattice.
“What are you doing?” hissed Iza.
“It’s cramped in there. I thought you might appreciate the room.”
“I’m not joking. You know this won’t work.”
They’d experimented with this sort of thing in the old days too. Iza would stay put while Ria ventured around a corner, or into another room. Ria could never report anything about where she’d been when she came back. She always tried to, apparently convinced she’d manage it, but always failed. Ria had wanted to try this experiment frequently, always convinced that she’d be able to do it next time. Iza had eventually refused to play along. Iza had grown sick of the moods it put Ria into every time it failed, which had been every single time.
They were still staring at each other in silence when the pencil stopped scratching.
“So what do we do now?” asked Ria, “Just sit and wait until she comes out? And then just watch her without saying anything?” There was criticism, even mockery in her voice.
Iza didn’t reply. She didn’t want to admit that this was exactly what she normally did.
That was when Iza’s phone rang.