Bantam knocked on the scarred, aged door and looked to the sky. The building progressed twenty one stories vertical.
Locks opened and the door swung inwards. The building manager stood on the other side, a gruff slouching figure. He eyed Bantam with an empty gaze.
‘J.H. Bantam,’ Bantam said.
No answer from the manager.
‘Of J.H. Bantam Asbestos inspection…’
The building manager’s eyes widened. He nodded. Bantam walked past the manager. He heard the radio from his office, a storm had struck. Animals had escaped from the zoo. A cassowary was unaccounted for.
‘Upstairs,’ the manager blurted. ‘The flats are empty.’
Bantam flung his breathing mask around his neck and pulled up his overalls. He was stout, portly and serious, worn eyes regarded the walls as he paced along the corridor. Curiously, he observed the remains of empty homes. The building was hollow, silent. The silence was interrupted on occasion by the scuttling of a lone rat.
Signs decorated the walls as he approached the end of the corridor.
“Danger, hard hat area.”
“No protective clothing? No entry.”
“Danger asbestos. Please take precautions!”
He sauntered by them, taking no notice. He passed through a clinical white curtain, behind which the walls were torn and ripped open. He could see insulation leaking onto the floor, an innocent white foam. Through the window he could see the whole estate. A group of children on bikes chased another child who was on foot.
He lay a thick plastic sheet on the floor, then sprayed the wall liberally with water. Producing a small file, he crouched down and his knees creaked. He jammed the file into the wall and levered out a thick chunk, placing the chunk into a sealed bag. He rose to his feet, groaning as his knees whined.
Noise radiated from the empty halls, footsteps, breathing. He spun a full circle, facing the direction of the noise. The footsteps scattered off.
‘Hello!’ he said. ‘There may be asbestos in the walls. You can’t be in here!’
Exhaling, he jogged in the direction of the noise, dropping the sample packet to the floor. The wall crumbled as he ran past it, leaking more insulation on to the floor.
He reached the end of the corridor, then saw a figure run into an empty flat and slam the door. He struggled to catch his breath in the mask and placed his hands on his knees. He huffed and cautiously pushed open the door. It was hollowed out, starting to rot, and it opened with an aged creak. Bantam eyed the room, probably the living room. Old sofa, lamps, no one there. Opening the door to the bedroom, he was faced with the same situation; old bed, wardrobe rotting from exposure to moisture. Empty. He opened the door to the bathroom, then he saw her. A young woman cowered behind the bath curtain curled up, knees tucked to her chest. Bantam was still panting when he spoke.
‘I didn’t mean to scare you. This building… it’s unsafe. Probable asbestos exposure.’
‘Who are you?’ she yelled, curling up closer to the far end of the bath to put some distance between herself and the panting masked figure.
‘J.H. Bantam… of J.H. Bantam Asbestos Inspection,’ he puffed. ‘Its too dangerous to be here. The asbestos can make you sick. You need to leave.’ Slowly, his breath returned.
‘Don’t have anywhere to go. I thought this place was abandoned,’ she said, starting to cry.
Bantam leaned against the wall, wiping his forehead with his hand.
‘It is, but only because the building is unsafe. So I can’t let you stay,’ he said. She began to weep wholeheartedly.
‘I-I thought for once I had found somewhere to be off the street. Please don’t make me go,’ she whined. Bantam shook his head and leaned on the wall at more of an angle.
‘My job would be on the line. I’m sorry,’ he replied. She stood up sharply, wiping the tears from her eyes.
‘No! I’m not going back out there. I have nowhere to go!’ she shouted.
‘I have no choice. I’m sorry!’ Bantam yelled back.
She look at him, sunken and defeated.
‘I will do anything,’ she said, calmly. Bantam coughed through his mask.
‘No! I mean, there is nothing you can do. You have to go,’ he pleaded. But his words did not match his actions. She dropped the tattered jeans she was wearing, then sat on the edge of the bath. Bantam walked forward and stood directly in front of her.
‘Let me stay, J.H. Bantam,’ she pleaded. Bantam pulled down his overalls, then, grabbing her by the shoulders, he pushed himself into her with a grunt. She looked to the side, not bearing to look this masked stranger in the face. He thrust into her with a few pathetic jabs, before climaxing heavily. He buried his mouth into her neck. Then stopped for a few moments, panting into his mask. Through the window he saw the children again. They had caught the one on foot and were dragging him into a building.
Eyes shot upwards, he thought he could see her. Maybe it was just a shadow. Maybe the building manager was fucking her too. The tower block loomed over him. He turned away and faced the empty car park. Bantam proceeded along the unmaintained asphalt. He looked back again, certain that a figure watched from the window. Was it her?
Thunder cracked as he slammed the van door. Rain descending, he was just in time. He cocked his head sideways and glanced at the diminished skies. With an unconscious twist of the hand, he turned the radio on. A local chat show. Nothing interesting; some road works, callers’ opinions, the zoo, the cassowary still unaccounted for, a dog killed mysteriously, presenting bird-like claw marks.
Bantam squinted. The rain had thickened and he couldn’t quite make out the road. It turned left possibly, or was it right? The wind had cut off the power line in the area, and the road was dark and murky. He slowed, lights on full beam, kept his eyes on the direction of the road. By now he almost knew it instinctively. How long had he been working on the estate? Five years. No, eight. Eight years. The radio crackled. No signal. Maybe a FM radio would have held out. Bantam cleared his mind and kept his eyes on the curving surface of the road.
Something shot across the road. A figure, a shadow, a creature. Bantam swerved, the creature collided with his van. He curved a crescent across the asphalt, the figure fell and moved into shadow. Bantam donned a waterproof and swung out into the cascading rain. A large dent marked the front of his van.
Looking around in a panic he wondered what he had hit. Hopefully it was not a person. Bantam: Asbestos expert and murderer. A prehistoric call echoed through the darkness. It was the shadow, the figure. He squinted through the rain, certain he could see a shape moving towards him. It emerged from the gloom and the downpour, a towering monster, a terrible bird. It howlsqueaked and slashed its razor claw across his chest. Bantam fell hard onto the wet road. He tried to sit up, his body racked with pain. The monster bird dashed along the road surface, then it turned and gazed at him with a prehistoric eye. He remembered the radio, the cassowary from the city zoo. The bird shrieked, then charged at him a second time. He backed up against the van. The file. He had the file. The bird slashed another claw across his legs. Bantam screamed, pulling out the file. He thrust the file into the bird’s abdomen. It let out a final prehistoric squawk, then collapsed onto him. He rolled the body off, groaned, and pushed the file into the back of the bird’s neck. The body convulsed. Running his hand along his chest, he felt deep cuts. Exposed bone. He moaned and pulled himself into the van. He looked at the bird’s lifeless body in the rain, file in hand, covered in blood.
Words echoed through the darkness. He could hear but he could not see or move. Pain he could feel. In vain, Bantam tried to open his eyes. His eyelids would not respond. His whole body would not respond. A calm, authoritative voice spoke from within the directionless gloom.
‘He appears to have normal brain function. It is likely he can hear us. For whatever reason, he cannot move. Perhaps it is psychological, perhaps it is some additional brain damage we have not yet pinpointed,’
‘Is there any further treatment you recommend?’ a subordinate voice enquired.
‘No. Time. Time and rest is what he needs now. The internal damage from the abdominal wounds are healing.’
Bantam felt as if he was sunk back into his bed, as if the sheets had closed around him. He drifted in the no man’s land between consciousness and oblivion. He could not feel the passing of time; one needs bearings to feel its rhythms. He drifted in this netherworld for what could have been days, years, minutes, or decades, he had no way to tell. Bantam was unsure whether he was alive or dead.
He was brought back from nothing by a voice breeching the gloom, strained yet powerful.
‘They say you can hear. Can you hear me? Hey, living corpse? I’m in the next bed, man.’ Bantam tried to respond but couldn’t. ‘It’s not a problem, brother. I know you can hear. I can’t move either, burned all over me,’ the voice explained. ‘I caught fire, man. Just caught fire, they can’t explain why. I was at work, just stacking fucking bricks. Then blam! I caught fire! Tried to roll, it wouldn’t stop. They say if the boss hadn’t found me, thrown a sheet over me, I’d be dust man.’
Bantam tried to move. He felt as if he twitched a little, although maybe it was nothing.
‘They wanted me dead,’ the voice continued. ‘I know, I know. Who? Right? The Threads. You’re about to hear the real truth, man. Threads are ancient filaments of one giant nanofungus. It has spread throughout all matter on earth, man. It was the first organism on this planet. The thing came from a distant galaxy, when the world was just being formed.’
Bantam twitched again. This time he did move. He was sure of it.
‘It spread its filaments through all things, living and non living. It manipulates time, matter, temperature, even your thoughts. The Threads have slowly controlled history, to turn the direction of the earth to their… its favour. The Threads wanted me dead, man. Heated the air around me, ignited my clothing. The Threads brought you here. That damn fungus has controlled your… our whole lives. None of it was our decision, man. All those choices we made. Just its damn filaments writhing through your brain.’
Bantam moved his leg. It jerked sharply upwards.
Bantam hobbled forward. Cane assisted, it was the first time he had left the hospital room in weeks. By the time he had woken up, the burned man had gone. He looked around for a while, but none of the staff knew who he was talking about. Bantam could not get the concept of Threads out of his head. Had his whole life been a fungus manipulation? He looked at the stained beige ceiling as he ambled down the corridor. Automatic doors granted exit. Probably can’t work again, he thought. Too many stairs for his injury. He exhaled. The tap tap tapping of his cane resounded down the street.
He tap-tapped his way down the thoroughfare. It was early morning and nobody was around. He was unable to drive his van with the injury. His leg creaked in despair.
Bantam placed himself down on a bus shelter bench. It was the first time he had waited for a bus in twenty three years. ‘I don’t even remember how to… it’ll be ok,’ he thought.
An old man sat on the bench next to him, smiling broadly at Bantam. Bantam turned his head sideways, looking at the man without making eye contact. The old man produced an orange from his pocket, then smiled again, an almost sinister smile. Again, Bantam pretended not to notice. With an ambivalent confidence, the old man took a large bite of the fruit, peel and all, then started laughing manically. Bantam continued to feign no interest. The old man laughed louder, and took larger bites of the orange. Bantam could see the bitterness of the peel rendered on his face. The bus arrived from amongst the gathering morning traffic. Bantam hobbled aboard. The old man continued to laugh and eat, keeping deep and focused eye contact with Bantam while the bus pulled away, then yelled out, ‘The peel is the best part!’
Bantam looked away, breaking the contact.
‘The best fucking part!’
He settled into a worn seat, cane resting at his side. Other passengers looked at him but he ignored them.
Cane supported, Bantam stood looking through his window. He eyed the vast expanse of fields between his neighbourhood and the estate. A dim fog had descended, but he could still see the towers. The building company had struck him off as unable to work. Bantam stared and thought of the woman in the tower, of the burned man, and of Threads. He turned on his cane, then waddled towards a table, tap tapping on the faux wooden floor. The house was bare and quiet. Things were missing, people were missing. He picked up a scrawled note and read it.
“You’ve been gone for days. It’s the last time. No word, no call, nothing. I’ve taken the kids. We are at my mother’s. There was no money left. I want to end it. I don’t want you around the kids or around me. Don’t come find me, I’ll call you.”
He crushed the note in his hand and threw it out of the window. He coughed and closed the window. She’s right, he thought. He had almost no money left, and with his injury, he could no longer work.
He took a bottle from a cupboard and poured a deep ruby liquid into a glass, then took a sharp drink. He turned on the radio. A man on the estate had been burned to death. Circumstances unknown.
Bantam clutched his CV to his side. Nervously, he waited in the lobby. His gait had improved but he still needed the cane. The room was sparse and white with silver strip lights and corporate artwork too generic to describe. He tapped his foot. Had he had been waiting for thirty minutes? No. An hour. Outside a group of students passed the great glass doors. They laughed loudly at nothing, ambling as if they had nowhere to be. Bantam watched them pass. The girl was nice, but she was far too young for him.
‘Mr Bantam?’ the receptionist called. She was not as nice. Professional but unapproachable. Maybe out of work she was different. He leaned on the cane and sat up, then approached the desk.
‘Yes, that’s me,’ he answered.
‘Upstairs. Room Fourteen. On the eighth floor.’
‘Is there a lift?’
He stared at her blankly. Beyond the glass, the students tussled. He looked at the girl and she looked back. Tap, tap, tap. With despair, he approached the staircase.
On the fifth floor, Bantam stopped. His bones ached and sweat poured from his brow. Any attempt at professionalism in his appearance was now ruined. Cursing silently to himself, he attempted the next flight, then cursed not so silently. He was a ruined man. Eight floors was hell.
He reached Room Fourteen aching and sweating. He attempted to clean himself up. The interviewer stood up and shook his sweat-drenched hand with a grimace. Bantam sat huffing and panting.
‘Did you get lost? Did they send you to the wrong room?’ he enquired.
‘No, I’m injured. Only recently out of hospital. The stairs were a shock,’ Bantam replied.
The interviewer nodded suspiciously. He was in his mid fifties but retained his hair in a short crop of grey fuzz. He looked too thin, as if he tried too hard to keep his weight off. He shuffled some paper. Unimportant forms. Or possibly, quite important.
‘So, Mr Bantam. Strange name. Like the chicken?’
‘What makes you think your suited to this job? The position of building manager is a broad one.’
Bantam stared at the man for a few seconds. Too thin. Perhaps a medical problem.
‘Well, I have worked with building mangers for my entire career. Twenty years, almost. I know all the duties involved.’
‘Yes. It says here you were an Asbestos Inspector on the estate for eight years. And you had the same role elsewhere, you’ve been a facilities manager in the past,’ the thin man said, reading off Bantam’s CV. He seemed distant, distracted. Bantam smiled. It was looking positive. ‘This is all very good. But I’m worried about the injury. There’s no lift in this building, as you’ve discovered, and the building manager needs to move around a lot. Are you up to it?’
‘Yes, I am,’ I’m fucking not. I’ll die.
The interviewer sighed.
‘I’ve interviewed fifteen people today. Tell me something unique, something interesting. I’m clawing my brains out in here.’
Bantam’s eyes widened. He struggled to think of a response. ‘Recently…I saw a man eating an orange like an apple,’ he said.
‘Peel and all. The whole orange. Ate it like it was an apple. An old man.’
The thin man sat back in his chair. As if satisfied, he looked up at the ceiling.
‘I see. I see.’
Bantam walked out into the mist, the great glass doors shutting behind him. He was certain he had not got the job. He rattled along the street with his cane. He shuffld past the students. They were still laughing.
Crossing the street, he entered the pub opposite. It was crowded for a weekday afternoon. Bantam ordered a beer. He leaned on the bar as he drank, looking around. All the patrons were young, with no cares in the world. He downed the rest of his beer. Through the crowd, a girl approached him. It was the student, the laughing one from the glass doors. She stopped at the bar next to him.
‘You’re weird,’ she said. Bantam chose not to answer. ‘Why do you use the cane? Is it like a genetic thing?’
‘I was attacked by a giant bird,’ he said. She laughed.
‘You’re funny. What are you doing tonight?’
Bantam huffed as he pushed her against the small bed of the room in student halls. There was just enough room for a bed and a desk. She slipped, with some effort, out of her clothes. Bantam eyed the posters on the wall, all bands and films he had never heard off. The world had moved beyond him. She pulled him in, wrapping her legs around his back.
‘You’re so old,’ she said. He squinted at her through the darkness. ‘Fuck me, old man! Grandad!’ she yelled.
He pushed his hips forward but nothing yielded. She winced.
‘Don’t worry about me, just get it in.’ He pushed forward with a sharp thrust, but her body tightened up. Panting, he started to move against her. Something was wrong. The air smelt dense, like charcoal. He squinted through the darkness and saw it; smoke. Best not tell her. Finish first.
‘Wait! Do you smell smoke?’
He rolled off.
Naked, he proceeded to the corridor. She followed, enveloped in a duvet. Smoke billowed out of a closed door, which was surrounded by students, chatting, shrieking and screaming. Bantam shouldered his way through and pushed hard on the door. It would not budge. He walked back to the girl’s room, picked up his cane and returned to the smoking door. He slammed the cane against the door with three powerful strikes, detached it from its hinges.
Inside was an identical room. A charred body lay face first on the desk, study material still open. The book was titled “Family Life in Early Modern England.”
Bantam looked back at the students, becoming aware of his nudity. He heard the howl of his phone. He picked it up. A message awaited.
“After careful consideration, we have decided not to accept you for the position of building manager…”
The girl returned to find him sitting on the bed, head in his hands.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked.
‘The Threads did this to him.’
‘The… Never mind. I’m ok.’
‘You’re a weird man. Really weird. You still wanna do it?’
He turned and resumed. He needed to find the burned man.
The bank statement was deeply negative. He threw it out the window. Still no mail from Mrs. Bantam… soon to be not Mrs. Bantam. Ms? He didn’t know how it worked. ‘I should start looking for more jobs,’ he thought. He had no money at all. They would start taking his things soon. Collection agencies, recovery firms…
He stared out at the estate and wondered if she was still there, the woman in the tower. He could not take his mind off her. Was she still there? Cowering in the cold, the wet, breathing in the lung destroying chemical compounds.
Bantam poured some more of the deep ruby liquid and began to flick through the rest of his mail, unattended for a few weeks. It would only be bills. He took a reserved sip. A letter stood out from the rest. He rose with a creak and a groan to his feet, no longer tap, tapping. He was cane-less. It was no longer needed. The letter radiated importance. Return address “CITY ZOO.”
He tore it open.
“Dear Mr Bantam,
We at the city zoo would like to express our deepest regrets,” he read on, drank some more of the ruby liquid. “Your injuries were caused by flaws in our enclosure design. We would like to offer you compensation of…” He read it again. He could not believe it. “compensation of £70,000.” Seventy thousand pounds! “Please contact me immediately. Muriel Conroy, Ornithology, City Zoo.”
He did not throw this letter out of the window. He folded it neatly, and placed it in his left pocket. The rest of the mail formed a little pile outside. The rain was turning it into pulp, a compost heap of junk information.
Bantam cautiously entered the vast aviary. The zoo attendant had told him that Conroy was somewhere in there. He scoured the spacious landscape of rocks and plants. On the left flank of the structure, a flock of birds gathered around a figure as if protecting it. He penetrated the avian shield, raising his voice over the incessant flapping of wings.
‘Muriel Conroy!’ The figure did not move. ‘Mrs Conroy!’ Nothing still. ‘Muriel!’ The figure turned. It was her. Birds jostled for position and squawked loudly. Chaos emanated from the birdseed in her hand. She dropped it to the floor and the tornado of feathers moved away. Bantam could hear better, but the noise of air blasted through feather persisted.
‘Mr Bantam. I’m sorry, I lost track of time. I was about to return to the office to see you,’
‘It’s ok. They told me you were here,’ Bantam said, ducking as a swooping bird barely missed his head.
‘Do you not find birds just fascinating? I do. To think our little feathered friends used to roam the world as great dinosaurs.’
‘Some of them are not so little,’ Bantam replied, eyeing his flanks suspiciously
‘Yes,’ Muriel said, gesturing to the aviary entrance. ‘My deepest regrets for what happened. The claims adjuster has your cheque and the paperwork. I do hope you find the settlement sufficient.’
Bantam looked at her. She was taller than he was, with short brown hair neatly tied back, everything adjusted in a practical manner.
‘Until yesterday, I had no idea there was even a settlement being offered.’
They passed through the entrance and Muriel closed the door. The birds shrieked a little at the noise.
‘The cassowary,’ she said, untying her hair, ‘is a dangerous bird. They are responsible for considerable damage in the wild. I told the department. We are a small zoo and should never have had one here.’
‘The damn thing’s still a dinosaur,’ answered Bantam.
‘In many ways, that’s true. That particular bird was very aggressive. It had some kind of infection, a fungal infection. We could not identify it and its behaviour became strange.’
Bantam’s mind wandered. His thoughts drifted once again to the tower, to its cold empty halls. She was alone in there. But he had money now. He could save her.
The door creaked. As gruff and slouching as ever, the building manager opened it. Bantam craned his neck towards the sky. The tower seemed different. It hasn’t even been that long since… no, wait. It had been two months.
‘You ain’t comin’ in here, Bantam,’ the building manager said firmly.
‘Where is she?’ enquired Bantam.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Don’t give me that. Where is she?’
‘Listen mate. I heard you went crazy. Guess it’s true. But whatever you’re here for, you ain’t comin’ in. You don’t work here!’ the manager barked.
Bantam pushed past him and he fell.
‘Wait! You can’t!’ the manager yelled.
Bantam ignored him and ran towards the stairs. The surroundings became familiar again. These buildings were all the same; featureless white walls, grey and blue flooring.
He dashed through the maze of corridors, remembering each twist and turn, like an ant which through some genetic instinct knows the thoroughfare of its nest.
He breached the white curtain. On the other side, the walls were still cut open. He had no mask. A few minutes can’t do any harm, he thought. Once more he saw the empty apartments. They seemed different, but that was impossible. He followed that trail of instinct and memory, and found the flat. The door looked the same, beaten and worn, just like him. It creaked open just as before, barely remaining on its hinges. His eyes shot towards the living room but she wasn’t there. The bedroom was also empty. He had hope for the bathroom, where he had first seen her but it was empty. He sat on the bathtub and looked out the window. He saw the children again, there were fewer of them this time. A police car turned the corner towards the tower. Too many things have happened over these last two months, he thought. The burned man…he said they have a grand cosmic plan. You figure it out, then Bang! One day, you incinerate.
Footsteps echoed as someone ascended the stairs. The bathroom door opened to reveal the bruised building manager and three policemen. Bantam looked their way. He nodded in acceptance and stood up with a wild crack of his knees. The pain in his chest had returned. He needed the cane again.
Bantam sat facing the cell door waiting for it to open. He was nervous. The officer had said his wife was coming. Briefly, he had spoken to her on the phone. She was steadfast, and said she would not bring the kids. He groaned and turned his head sideways. His neck cracked. Why had the damn pain returned?
The door open and a patched scarred figure entered. The figure turned. Bantam squinted at it. It was not his wife. It was the burned man!
His scorched, scarred face turned towards Bantam. His eyes fixed on him, eyes which were too dark, too deep. Bantam remained seated, his mouth opened. The burned man spoke.
‘The Threads got what they wanted.’
‘Bantam, it played out how we wanted it to.’
‘We, it, I. Don’t be ashamed, you’re just latest in a long line.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘We do not expect you to. The world is not fixed, Bantam, it fluctuates on its haunches. At the point of the death the soul experiences a moment of disorientation. You are thrown into life, turned around, and come out dizzy at the other end.’
The burned man retreated. The door closed. Bantam stood sharply. He hurt all over. His arms dripped with sweat. He felt hot. Not just hot… it was a searing heat, as if his blood was boiling. He looked at his clothes. Smoke. They were smoking. He banged on the door. The heat was unbearable. A spark flashed in the air. He yelled.
The officer outside turned, a bright flash emanated from inside the cell. He opened the hatch and screamed.
Birds circled outside.
Sanjay Bheenuck asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work