He had to live somewhere, so couldn’t be fussy. Moving to a new city was going to be almost as difficult as keeping the University bubble afloat in Manchester. All bubbles burst, after all. The job came up through one of the umpteen email bulletins Jack had signed up to. They became almost a full-time job in themselves.
He applied almost casually, copying and pasting the neatest version of himself onto the screen. But then - the letter, interview, discussion of start dates and farewell to the bar job and sense of hiatus. A paid-up, salaried, office-anchored Young Professional now. He took whichever flat he could get. They needed someone immediately.
Sealing the last box, this incumbent sense of adulthood sent something slippery sliding down his spine. He glanced at his BMX. Among the alien cardboard city its red tyres and a tiny black frame seemed even less the transport of a twenty-three year old. But there was no way he was giving it up.
The word ‘Mum’ started flashing on his mobile as it blared out ‘Eye of The Tiger’.
‘Hel-lo!’ Each hole of the receiver became a tiny, over-animated mouth. ‘How’s it going? Excited? All set? Packed everything?’
‘Yeah, fine – yeah.’ He wasn’t sure which ‘yeah’ even went with which question.
‘I’m really sorry we’re away, the removal men should be there in an hour though. What’s the time difference between Italy and England? Have the clocks gone back there? It’s so confusing!’
The BMX shrank again. Time is confusing, he thought. Italy and England. Here and there. Manchester and Bristol. Then and now. Voices liquid in the Earth’s air.
The first week of work was a crashing wave of water-testing, coffee-drinking and nervous shuffling. The sixth-floor office was many shades of beige, silver and wood-effect with large spiky plants in the window bays an obligatory nod to nature. These may or may not have been plastic, but never seemed to grow or alter as they quivered in the artificial breeze. The place had a sense of stasis, despite the administrative hubbub within it.
As Jack arranged his stationery ergonomically, with highlighters in spectrum order, a man approached. Thick-set and slightly shorter than Jack, he was sporting a snooker-player’s waistcoat and an off-the-hanger smile.
‘Hi there! I’m Dave – I’ve been appointed as your guide – think of me as Gandalf, but a bit less hairy!’ Most things Dave said had an exclamation mark after them.
‘Right. Hi Dave. Jack.’
‘So are you settling into Bristol well? Been out on the razz yet?’ Dave clearly did not go ‘out on the razz’ himself.
‘Not yet – I only moved into my flat yesterday. It’s a bit of a dive – a basement flat.’
‘So, here’s The Manual,’ he placed a book on the desk. It creaked a little under the document’s weight.
‘It’s all you’ll need to know. The MD has very specific ways of doing things – but it’ll take you a while to pick them up.’
The Manual extended to certain coloured pens on certain documents – red for pending, green for final – a prescribed system of ‘red follow-up flags’ in Outlook and a very specific format for email titles.
‘Just drop me an email if you need to ask anything – maybe practice your email titles? Section Nine.’ He winked.
‘Dress-down Friday’ saw Dave sporting a ‘kipper tie’ with an actual picture of a fish on it. Despite this, Jack joined Dave and friends at the pub as he hadn’t managed to engage anyone else in conversation – but did not stay long, for the genuine reasons that: a) he had to return home and start to really arrange his subterranean flat, b) he could not stand to make any more laboured conversation with Dave, John and Steve and c) he noted that he had started to think in bullet points – in letters, not numbers. Section Four.
Jack approached the dark wrought iron fence and stone staircase of his new home. A formerly grand Edwardian house of five or six stories, his fragment might have been the servant’s quarters or a store-room with limited daylight – from the pavement-level front window and horizontal slit in the bedroom. He would have house-shared, but the timing didn’t work out. And it wasn’t quite a bed-sit.
He descended the stone steps and put his key in the door. To his right, twenty feet or so along the corridor, there was another door painted very dark blue gloss. There was no number on it, but it had a black letter box and handle - perhaps another flat at one point. Jack noticed movement by his feet. A line of little woodlice were moving towards the steps, busily harvesting moss before returning to the blue door. Perhaps he would mention them next time he saw the landlady.
Before the weekend of unpacking and shopping for boring necessary items, he decided to shower. As he changed footing in the cubicle, he felt a crunch under foot. The flattened woodlouse looked like a trilobite – a fossil, something straight from the centre of a stone. Thankfully, it was much smaller than those. Jack cringed as its lifeless antennae waved in the current and it edged towards the plughole. He thought it might be blocked – water was gathering in the tray. He added it to the landlady list.
Jack had ensured two key items were easily accessible. He sat on the futon – object one - and pressed the on button on his TV – object two. On the single fuzzy channel available was a nature programme repeat. A whale’s carcass had sunk to the sea-bed and was being efficiently consumed by the inhabitants. A biology student he had once had a ‘thing’ with told him this is called ‘whale fall’. He sighed as, through the sedimentary interference, the vast body was time-lapse consumed by thousands of tube-worms, eels, prehistoric segmented creatures, primeval-eyed sharks and just at the end – giant isopods – the magnified relatives of the woodlice in his corridor.
Glancing up, he noticed people’s feet in his pavement-level front window. In their Friday night stupors, their heels and stumbling steps were the only indication of the person above. A drunken shout drew his head towards the door. Silhouetted by the yellow street light trickling down the stairs, he could see the wood-lice on their moss-commuter route under the door. They cast big shadows for such little things. He noted a draft excluder on the list in his head. And a TV aerial cable.
As the lift doors opened on Monday morning, Jack smelt the change. Something had happened. People walked differently, looking down and shaking their heads as you passed. He took a detour towards Dave’s desk. This may be something sad, but it was exciting in a way Jack couldn’t quite explain.
‘Oh – hi…’ said Dave, mournfully rearranging his giant paperclips.
‘So…What’s going on?’ said Jack.
‘The Managing Director,’ said Dave. ‘He’s dead.’
‘Really?!’ Jack let a little excitement seep through but quickly bunged it.
‘Yes – an accident. He was found, in his bath. He’d dropped his laptop in it. He was so committed.’
‘So will they send someone else?’
‘I assume so. Probably soon. He was an inspiration to this place.’
‘Yes, I can see that…Well, the show must go on I guess.’ Said Jack, cringing as if he’d trodden on something again.
An email came round later that day entitled ‘Memorial Service’ dash ‘Monday thirteen-thirty’ dash ‘Meeting Room’. The location should have come before the time. Section Nine. This, even though the email said the best tribute would be to ensure everything ran just as he would have run it. Jack’s fingers clattered across the keyboard, ever faster. He became more and more involved in the intricacies of The Manual: how Excel could be made to dance, how the red flags on Outlook could automatically change. Magic. A structure was clicking around him from the pages of the manager’s handbook, his posthumous masterpiece.
Putting his rucksack down on the floor to fish out his keys, it was about 8 o’clock on Thursday. From the corner of his eye, he saw them. Were woodlice territorial? They appeared to have been displaced by new and larger ones. He noticed there seemed to be water coming from under the blue door. He could look tomorrow. He went inside and switched on the television, but there was nothing on. Perhaps the woodlice hadn’t changed at all. Perhaps he was just seeing things. He muted the TV and let the dappled light fall on him as instead he watched the clockwork feet passing his window.
Jack switched his ring-tone from Eye of The Tiger to vibrate. This wasn’t a bar, after all. He was thinking about coming in on Saturday morning to get ahead. The reception in his flat was erratic or non-existent, so he’d given up calling anyone. None of this troubled him.
The next Friday evening, it a moment for him to notice the foam he had trodden into his flat. He gazed back at the long red draft-excluder, which appeared to have been gutted from outside - like that boa constrictor he had seen which ate a crocodile and exploded. On a list marked ‘Land Lady’, he crossed out ‘Woodlice’ and wrote the word ‘Rats’.
He ate dinner and watched the Shoe Channel, the footwear parade and its syncopated rhythms soothing him towards unconsciousness. This was better than counting sheep: clomping Doc Marten’s, precarious stilettos, the white flash of running shoes, a many-legged oval skittering past. He paused. Another and another. Like woodlice, but a foot long. A coldness rose up from his fingers as the window filled with their silver compound eyes, their clockwork antenna scraping at the glass. They massed and clawed over one other until the window darkened and started to crack under their collective weight. What were they doing? What did they want?
He started awake on the futon. Light was streaming in the tiny window. Perhaps he had been working too hard. He decided to take the day for himself. He would go out and ride his BMX again, see the city.
The shower was blocked again. Expecting a matted clump of ex-tenant’s hair, he braced himself and put his fingers in the plug. It wasn’t hair. He held out his hand and his face paled at the mass of sodden woodlouse bodies. On his list, he underlined the word ‘Shower’ and underneath ‘Rats’ wrote the word ‘WOODLICE’ (in capitals this time).
He went out towards his BMX, locked under the stone stairs. It was a cool autumn day, he closed his eyes as the breeze stirred the hair on his legs – he’d worn shorts for what might be the last time this year. Opening them again, he was winded: the BMX’s wheels were gone – its lovely red wheels. A noise from the curb above interrupted his grief. Ascending the steps, he saw a small crowd. Peering over an old lady’s shoulder, he saw the space where a post box had once been.
‘They’ll steal anything these days, won’t they?’ said the old lady. ‘I’ve no idea how they got it – looks like they ripped it right out of the floor with a car or something.’
But he would have heard that. Jack looked at the marks the post-box had made as it was dragged away. They appeared to curve towards his staircase, before vanishing. Following the marks like a monorail, he heard the old lady say:
‘Think of all those people who’ll never get their letters…’
He rushed back down his stairs and the other doorway caught his eye. The blue looked slightly darker, as if freshly painted. He walked slowly towards it. A thin stream of water trickled from underneath and a dark strand of plant – kelp? some kind of seaweed? He pressed his ear against the freezing wood and there was a low amnionic hum, the occasional clatter of what could have been walking – but not shoes. The steps got closer and closer to the door until he stepped back from it, shaking. Whose was this door? Why would they be stealing bike tyres? Post-boxes? He turned and walked.
He did just that – not knowing where or why until he found himself passing the severed post box and standing at the top of the stairs. He passed the sad BMX carcass and turned to face the blue door. It appeared repainted again, dark and glistening. The corridor pulled focus as he advanced and the door became monolithic, framing around him like the gape of a feeding whale. He pressed both hands forward and pushed. Freezing water started to dribble through his fingers. He looked down and more tendrils of seaweed were emerging from beneath. Sobs broke from his eyes and he was shaking from the icy water running down his arms. Suddenly he stopped. He stood up quite straight, looked the door in the eye and went inside.
When he woke in bed it was still darkness and he was still shivering. He patted round the bed for the duvet. It wasn’t there. Light on, he couldn’t find it. He was left with one red pillow cover. Post boxes. Tyres. Draft excluder. Duvet. Red. Realisation crawled over him. They were taking them. Red things. The close-up deep sea woodlice.
A bang from around the corner. His front door was still open. He heard the blue door slam fiercely. Running, he arrived just in time to see the corner of his duvet being pulled underneath from the other side. He knew that this time it would be unlocked. He turned the handle and pulled. For a moment, the water held – the surface tension of the nameless depth pressing against the shape of the basement doorway. Gazing in, the tyres of his BMX were being flung and torn and his duvet shredded like a rag of flesh in the tumult of sea-bed scavengers. The post-box, upside down, with lugworms spewing from its slot, the letters themselves strewn in the water like deranged confetti for this celebration.
There was a moment of total silence and then - it burst, and Jack saw rushing towards him huge dark eyes, spiny claws, pallid mottled skin, sensors relating only to sheer blackness, to scavenging sediment. Hundreds of gallons of dark water from hundreds of metres down engulfed him and he felt his body flung back along the corridor towards the stone of the steps.
Monday was particularly efficient. He knew the hand-book backwards now. Everyone was starting to notice. Everyone was realising that they couldn’t catch him out. He’d been given a company laptop. He was getting through almost a whole red pen a day.
The Landlady came round to see him that evening. The word ‘Woodlice’ was crossed out on his list. The word ‘Shower’ was underlined. More then ever, he wanted to be clean.
‘I suppose you haven’t had much of a chance to unpack?’ she said, gesturing to the boxes still piled around the room.
‘Not really. Anyway, I’m going to leave it like this. I don’t use most of it. It’s neat.’
‘Well, I’m only at the end of the phone if you need anything else.’ She said, edging towards the door. Her voice was a little like his mother’s.
As she ascended the stone staircase away from him, he felt his shell had hardened a little. That his eyes had moved a little closer together. That he was hovering just above the sea-bed, sculling in the darkness, looking for something to eat.