The city’s spectral lights flashing across his bedroom walls, Unwin followed their progress like the last watcher from a burnt-out planet, surveying the sombre orbits of dying stars.
In the street below, a drunk was using the doorstep as toilet and vomitorium, his ill-born yarp failing to disturb Harmony from her slumber. You sleep then, love, he thought bitterly. You do the dreaming for both of us.
2:33 – such an improvement on the previous night’s waking that Unwin counted it as a lie-in. Reaching for the leather-bound ledger he kept beneath his side of the bed, Unwin clicked on a penlight and scribbled down the time in the correct place. Like the printout from some demented Richter scale, his waking times dated back for almost a year, their wavering columns still offering no answer to his condition.
Shambling out of the bedroom, Unwin paused to listen to similar steps traipsing across the ceiling: a kindred insomniac, then. Perhaps Unwin and his lofty neighbour now simultaneously sat at their respective tables, brooding in shadow as they cursed the sleeping world.
Unwin eyed himself darkly in the side of the chrome toaster, as luminous threads that knew no stemming absconded from his nose. Work was becoming more and more unlikely, Unwin realised, his accumulated sick days already a cause of concern to his office manager. Mr Pickevance had raised the matter during Unwin’s recent appraisal.
“An unsustainable level of absence,” Pickevance had warned, his craning, lizard eye fixing on Unwin’s. Taking this as the natural conclusion to his annual routing, Unwin had begun to rise from his seat – prematurely, it had transpired.
“What’s all this? Sit down, Richard. Will you not be appraised?”
Getting up to use the toilet, the kitchenette shifted as the dizziness first hit, forcing him to grab the mock-marble counter for balance. Vision dimming at the edges, Unwin held on with palsied arms, a cold sweat beginning to coat his body. The dread eventually passed and he shuffled to the bathroom again – the increasing insistence of his bladder another addition to Unwin’s pre-dawn routine.
He aimed his languid arc around the rim of the bowl so as to minimise splash – a futile measure as he flushed anyway. Unwin suddenly visualised a cross-section of the entire building, at every floor of which stood a sleepless urinating man; blinking idiotically at the fouled shadow in each respective toilet bowl.
Unwin returned to bed to lay in darkness, to examine all aspects of the long dank tunnel of his administrative soul, evoking little but alarm and dismay.
The drunk outside had departed for whichever home would have him.
Unwin heard the front door slam as Harmony left for work, the tenant upstairs also departing unnecessarily loudly. Unwin closed his eyes again, giving up on the day at its outset.
He lay perfectly still, arms at his sides as if being measured for a coffin – every tick of the bedside clock mimicking his own pulse precisely. He speculated about phoning the office, weighing up the heroics involved in extracting himself from sheets melded to his body like a second skin; of crawling along the hallway to the Siberia of the living room.
Unwin thought better of it, praying to the Accountancy Gods that he would see improvement by the noontime.
The Bonieck Cash Flows! Flashing through Unwin’s sorry skull in burning neon, the realisation semi-roused him from his squalid blankets, affecting his gastric regions in various and original ways. The meeting with the new clients was scheduled for tomorrow, Unwin now realised, and Pickevance wanted him there – adopting the style of a Premier League manager, dragging a reserve team drudge into the cup final team. Arnold, Pickevance’s usual lapdog, had looked on crestfallen at this decision.
Unwin slumped out of bed as if rendered invertebrate overnight; dark seasons permeated his brain, shadowy horrors jabbing in his peripheral vision. He somehow slithered across the room to the computer desk, dragging his dead weight up into the fake leather swivel chair.
At the screen his shaking hand violated the mouse, his entire body shuddering in the draught escaping from the ancient window frames, insinuating in his ear, Bonieck! Bonieck! Bonieck!
With relief he found the correct spreadsheet and began to drag numbers into their respective columns. It wasn’t until ten minutes into his work that numbers began to pool in front of his eyes, becoming sinister as inkblots used to determine psychiatric state.
Unwin closed his eyes and the mocking shapes were still there; the tap-tapping from his keyboard reverberating in his ears, building and building as if the dull clamour from every accountancy office in the world was compounded, pervading Unwin’s entire consciousness until he finally collapsed from the chair.
9:01 and Unwin moved through the open-plan office, trying not to show in his stride that the ground threatened to give way at any moment.
The rows of phosphorescent lights seared into his brain, as the three secretaries simultaneously remarked, “Good Morning, Richard”. Jenny, the newest, blushed and returned to the business of her nails. Blonde hair bundled like a pan loaf of bread, a slight reddening of the cheeks was evident, even beneath her sunbed-induced tan.
“Morning,” Unwin mustered, his voice sounding drained of humanity. Crumpling at his desk, he was aware only of his own impending doom. The coffee he grasped offered no comfort, every sip invoking a seismic eruption in his stomach-pit. The air- conditioning unit lurched into life overhead, turning its icy attentions toward Unwin, and briefly he felt the cold shadow of the gallows caress his twitching cheek.
Coats hanging from their hooks like cast-off souls in The Last Judgement, Unwin felt time slipping through his body’s hourglass, grain by grain. The wooden clock high up on the office wall growing increasingly audible, he realised he had never seen anything burst from its miniature doors at the strike of the hour – not one solitary cuckoo in the seven years he had been working for Pickevance & Pickevance.
What kind of Spring did this suggest lay ahead? Unwin stared at the clock’s doors and could not imagine what horror lurked behind them; what kind of cuckoo would greet him after seven years.
Conversation in the office centred on the errant coffee granules, discovered in the sugar bowl that morning by Mrs Brandish. Unwin studied the looks of disgust on the faces of his colleagues as each inspected the bowl.
A crackle over the intercom soon interrupted the sugar bowl inquest. “Richard Unwin, please report to Mr Pickevance’s office promptly. Thank you,” said a secretary’s voice.
His colleagues possessed the knowing eyes of death-row inmates, still hopeful of a reprieve themselves, as Unwin was summoned. This was it, then – a wretched career down the pan. How on earth would he survive without the cosy routine of accountancy?
With a tentative knock on the oak-panelled door, following several aborted attempts, Unwin entered his manager’s office to find Pickevance leafing through a set of expertly bound accounts – ‘Bonieck’ embossed on their front cover.
So Arnold had beaten him to it, finally seizing his chance to impress Pickevance as Unwin had lain stricken on his deathbed. Arnold did look more smug than usual, hovering beside Pickevance like an unpleasant fog.
“Remarkable work, Richard,” Pickevance said, peering over bi-focals attached to his neck by string; his leathery, tanned face beaming up at Unwin over the report.
“Hardly needs a penny adjusting. What’s this now?” Pickevance gestured at the scraps of botched accounts in Unwin’s trembling hands.
“Oh, these? Nothing much, just some rough figures.”
“Well you can ditch those, Richard m’lad. Christ, we’ve got this nailed now!” His eyes skittered back to Unwin’s. “Got to be honest with you though, Richard. I wasn’t too confident of your abilities before.”
Unwin continued to stare at the work far exceeding his capabilities- not a single coffee stain in sight as Pickevance ecstatically flicked through the set of accounts.
“You see, Arnold,” Pickevance said, addressing his downtrodden minion. “This is what we are trying to achieve here.”
Arnold’s expression paled, desperately wishing to pour out all details of Unwin’s wastrel career to his superior, but not knowing where to start.
“And delivered a day early to boot,” Pickevance continued. “Imagine that, Arnold, if at all possible in your sordid little fantasy world!”
“Remarkable progress, Richard. I’m sure there will be plenty to discuss at your next appraisal,” he winked at a still disbelieving Unwin.
“Mr Pickevance, perhaps we could now discuss- ”
“Badminton, Richard!” Pickevance suddenly said, silencing Arnold, as though answering a crossword clue that had vexed him days ago. “You do play, don’t you?”
Unwin glanced at Arnold, Pickevance’s usual opponent. “Er, yes. Yes I do.” If a half-hearted game with Harmony counted, five years previously in the Algarve.
“Excellent! Wednesday it is then.” Suddenly aggrieved at the presence of his assistant, Pickevance said, “Are you still here? You must leave us now, Arnold!”
Unwin held onto the rubber noose on the train home, thinking of the possible promotion for work he was certain he hadn’t done. In the rest of the stagnant, malingering carriage, he saw scattered a multitude of Unwins, all at various stages of their careers.
Whether engrossed in the free newspaper, ear-phoned, or staring dead-eyed at their own feet, all Unwins lurched with the stop/start rhythm of the train; all perfectly in time, adhering to the commuter boogie.
Unwin was brought out of this reverie by his mobile phone trilling against his inner leg- undoubtedly Harmony with one of her all-important teabag stocktakes.
Fishing out the phone from his cluttered pocket, the screen seemed to be insisting that ‘Myself’ was calling. An unfamiliar photograph of himself was assigned to the present caller: naked, he loomed indecently behind a woman poised on all fours, her face slightly obscured by dark coils of hair, but still undeniably Harmony. One bicep flexed in a mock-muscleman pose, the other hand clenching Harmony’s hip as he rose above her.
The man standing next to him was slyly peering at Unwin’s phone, eyes skittering over his decoy Financial Times, as both men hung on to their overhead grips. Rumbled, the man lewdly grinned at Unwin before returning to his newspaper.
The train disappeared into the next tunnel and all reception was lost. Unwin quickly recovered the list of missed calls, finding that the latest logged was from Harmony.
Unwin traced his own number in the contacts list and pressed ‘dial’. No picture appeared this time as the phone rang through to his answer-machine; just the silhouette of an avatar still to be given identity, a blank soul yet to be corrupted.
“This is Unwin,” the recording said. “Leave some kind of informative pleasantry and I might get back to you.” Three beeps followed, as the train blindly continued along its track; all past, present and future Unwins jack-knifing in their carriages.
Twelve flights of stairs conquered, Unwin walked along the dingy corridor towards his flat, catching a glimpse of himself in the dark reflection of the fire doors. Struggling with laptop and briefcase, he booted the doors open, leaving his image thwacking to a standstill behind him.
The thought of collapsing on the couch for the evening was all that sustained him, a chance to let the bizarre events of the day arrange themselves in his crumbling mind.
“I know it was you, tea-leaf!”
Unwin turned to look back along the corridor, to find the source of this irate outburst. He backtracked along the viscous floor until he caught sight of an apartment door opening slightly. A cracked, guttural voice, the result of a lifetime’s smoking, came from it again – a map of ruined blood vessels for a face manifesting itself in the doorway.
“Where’s my post? I know you’ve been stealing it!” “What are you talking about, your post?”
The man opened his door further. “Why do you think I’m waiting in this slum, you degenerate? Awaiting orders- I’ve seen you slidin’ those M.O.D. envelopes under your door.”
“Look, I haven’t got time for-”
“You think I don’t know you own this building? You’re nothing but a slumlord who steals his tenants’ post. I’m on to you, tea-leaf!”
With this final warning, the man slammed his door shut, drawing the chain across for safe measure. Unwin remained in the corridor for several minutes, trying and failing to process this exchange.
“That old nutjob downstairs? Accused me of taking his post!”
“And did you?” Harmony asked, carrying over two plates of what passed as food to the kitchenette table. A pile of ironing lay on the floor like the contents of a wardrobe emptied post-mortem.
“No. I did not steal an old man’s post.” Unwin sat at the table, studying himself in the back of his stained fork. The potato it spiked slowly dripped Harmony’s globular gravy onto his plate, forming a faecal pool.
“I was definitely off sick yesterday, wasn’t I?” Unwin asked.
“Collapsed like that at your computer, still in your Spiderman pyjamas- God knows when you dragged yourself up.”
“So you agree there was no way I made it into the office?” said Unwin. “They’re talking about promotion, Harm.”
“You never know, Richard. Maybe you’ve done something right at last.”
Flung awake, a born-again soul cast out into darkness, Unwin instinctively reached under the bed for the comfort of the ledger; pleased with the time he had managed to sleep until. Instead of the notebook, his fingers found only carpet, hardened by ancient vomit.
His fingers laboured like some blind arachnid, desperately feeling for the place where the ledger should have been. Delving down with his penlight to investigate further, a hand painfully gripped him by the wrist, shocking the breath from him. A hand of spongy quality, but strong as any vice as he felt the smaller bones of his wrist creak.
Another hand rose to cover his mouth, the taste of its palm repugnant, its skin sliding from the hideously soft flesh it covered. Unwin was dragged from his bed, silently screaming, bundled down into the carpeted underworld to meet his nocturnal attacker.
Unwin looked into the sewn-up eyes and mouth of the greening face, and realised it was his own rotting body that now embraced him. In thoughtless panic, Unwin began to bite through the flesh of the palm drowning out his screams, gagging as its putrid blood filled his mouth.
“Will you not be appraised?” its voice said from somewhere, as the decomposing Unwin’s eyes finally burst their threads to look into his.
“Very pleased, Richard,” Pickevance said. “Mr Bonieck and Mr Bonieck Jr are very pleased- even asked to meet the genius behind this work. Now, if you would do the honours, Arnold.”
“Not a problem, Mr Pickevance.”
Arnold turned to the combination safe sitting behind Pickevance’s desk, reappearing with a silver tray containing three cigars; ‘Pickevance & Pickevance’ emblazoned on each golden wrapper.
“Ta-dah!” Arnold said proudly, setting down the tray on Pickevance’s desk. “Whoa, whoa, Arnold! What’s the game? Only two cigars are required, you
gibbering fool! Remove yourself at once- cigars are only for clinchers!”
Arnold, drawing out the process, replaced his cigar in the safe before departing, glaring at Unwin as he closed the door behind him – slowly, in the hope that Pickevance might still call him back.
Ignoring this pitiful exit, Pickevance reached over the desk to light Unwin’s cigar.
The Financial Times reader looked blatantly at Unwin’s mobile phone, the screen again insisting that ‘Myself’ was calling. Harmony’s head lay buried in Unwin’s lap, still wearing the Spiderman pyjama top as he winked at the camera.
“Have you been fiddling about with my phone?” Unwin demanded of Harmony on returning home. “Received some very strange calls lately.”
“Maybe you’ve got a stalker, Richard,” said Harmony, gliding from bathroom to kitchen, hair bundled up in a bath towel.
“And what’s all this?” said Unwin, gesturing at Harmony in her silken dressing gown. “Bit of a funny time to be showering.”
“Don’t ask silly questions. Now run down and get us a takeaway, will you? I shan’t be cooking tonight,” Harmony said, curling up on the couch like a flush-cheeked Cleopatra.
Not even given the chance to remove his coat, Unwin left the flat again, confronted with the twelve floor descent to street level.
“Tea-leaf!” he heard behind him and did not turn around.
“Your game lacks finesse, Richard, but at least you take a thrashing well.” Pickevance zipped up his badminton racket in its miniature bodybag.
Black swarms invaded the edges of Unwin’s vision, providing a widescreen border to the retreating Pickevance, who whistled towards the changing rooms.
“Oh, and another thing, Richard, before I forget,” Pickevance said, turning back to his new assistant.
“Office fornication is frowned upon. Deeply. The girl’s mother was very upset, as I’m sure you can imagine. The pregnancy has come as a terrible shock.”
“Fornication?” But even as he uttered the word, the flashbacks started in Unwin’s sleep-deprived mind: Jenny, the new secretary; the stationery cupboard; a tray of individual Tippex affecting his movement, one foot trapped in a mop’s bucket; a till-roll whirring from an obsolete adding machine, activated by Unwin’s thrusts.
A shattering realisation struck him: how would he break the news to Harmony? “See you in the showers, m’boy.”
Unwin continued to recuperate as the hanging lights were audibly extinguished, one by one; the dark spreading. The work of some impatient janitor, no doubt, looking for an early dart from his duties for the evening.
One final pair of lights remained, casting an umbrella glow over Unwin – presumably to allow him to find his way back to the changing rooms, the showering Pickevance.
Between the white lines of the badminton court, he could almost see the ghost of Pickevance still holding sway; scudding winning shots beyond a spectral Unwin with unerring accuracy. Still exclaiming “Yowzer!” as he struck home, or, even worse, “Relish that point, Richard!”
At once, the sound of a slow handclap began to emanate from the gallery, rebounding from the glossed walls of the courts, as if in sarcastic response to the miserable sporting contest that had just been witnessed.
Unwin looked up at the viewing circle, just in time to see himself exiting, the port-holed doors still swinging in his wake. He really needed some sleep, soon; a chance for his shuttlecock-shredded mind to rejuvenate.
Had he just been heckled by his own come-alive mirror image?
4:01: this powerful feat of sleeping caused Unwin to grin idiotically in the darkness as he reached for the ledger. Have that, Harmony, my dear. I’ll soon put your phlegmy snores to shame, have no worries.
Harmony was not snoring.
A humped shroud in the gloom, she lay on her side, facing the wall. Moving closer, Unwin slid across the bed as Harmony slowly began to turn towards him.
“Hello, Unwin,” said Arnold, his face where Harmony’s should have been, smiling his smile that never quite reached the eyes. “Shall I do the honours?”
The demoted assistant’s face bloated, his eyes bulging, Unwin’s scream would not be expelled, no matter how hard he tried – trapped in the tomb of his throat, which stubbornly remained sealed. The scream would still not be forced, even after he woke to find Harmony snoring enthusiastically beside him.
“A senseless tragedy. Please join me in a toast to Arnold, a loyal soldier to the end.”
Unwin poured out two healthy slugs of vintage whiskey for Pickevance and himself, the semi-circle of employees assembled in the boardroom making do with sparkling wine. The two remaining secretaries sobbed, consoling each other; glaring at Unwin now and again through mascara-streaked tears.
“To Arnold,” came the disjointed reply from the staff – still coming to terms with the news of Arnold’s demise, but itching to get back to their desks. An accountant had died, Accountancy would persist, would not mourn.
Addressing the employees again, Pickevance said, “ You will have noticed my office has been commandeered by Detective Inspector Barrett for the morning. He will call you in one by one- please assist him in his enquiries and I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of this sorry business.”
The staff looked into their cups, avoiding the celluloid gaze of Arnold from the company photograph; the boardroom table an improvised shrine, complete with candles appropriated from the emergencies cupboard.
Most of Unwin’s colleagues huddled together, waiting for this unscheduled interruption to pass. Mrs Brandish provided a constant stream of tea, ignoring the sugar bowl that had been filled to the brim with coffee granules. Others pretended to work at their desks, moving documents from one place to another; jumping when Detective Barrett announced their name over the tannoy.
Let’s have you then, Columbo, Unwin thought as he was finally called in.
“Mr Unwin, is it? Please, take a seat,” Barrett gestured at the vacant chair opposite. The detective wore a grubby, mismatched suit, complete with half-mast trousers. Dried blood was evident on his unbuttoned collar, the result of that morning’s butchered shaving job.
“I suppose you know how Mr Arnold was found? Very peculiar circumstances.
Throttled; severely. Bent over your desk, Mr Unwin- would you happen to know how this occurred?”
Yes, it was my double, Inspector. Lives in the flat above me- why didn’t you ask sooner? Now that the case is solved, perhaps you’d join me in a whiskey?
The attic-dwelling imposter: not sleeping, as Unwin could not sleep; going to work in his place and creeping down the stairs to Harmony whenever Unwin was out of the flat.
“No, I’ve only been told this morning. Along with everyone else.
“Trousers down, a company-branded cigar inserted into the region of his person– do you understand what I’m getting at?”
“Peculiar,” said Unwin.
“Don’t go anywhere for the next few days,” Barrett said, rising to hold the door open for Unwin. “Keep yourself available, is all I’m saying.”
Being stalked by my double, Harm. That’s how he would break the news. Turns out he’s doing my job for me. Properly for a change. Oh, and he killed Arnold, and I suspect you’re having an affair with him.
In the commuter carriage, Unwin’s usual mobile phone voyeur was engrossed in the newspaper coverage of Arnold’s murder, as Unwin retrieved the vibrating phone from his pocket.
‘Myself’ was calling. The train clattered alongside the archways of the docklands tunnels, producing a strobing effect in the carriage windows, distorting the phone’s screen.
A goading Unwin could be seen in the intermittent light, holding the camera- phone at arm’s length, ensuring the entire scene behind him had been captured.
Look what I’ve done.
Unwin’s bathroom was now recognisable on the screen, the bathtub occupied with water overflowing its sides – tinged red, as if the photograph was still developing in a darkroom.
Pulsing white light filled the carriage, as though an old Kodak was flashing at regular intervals, and by it Unwin now saw Harmony in the phone – hair splayed in dark branches as she desperately broke the surface of the water again.
The phone continuing to thrum in his hand, Unwin could not shake the after- image of Harmony even as all signal, and the screen, was lost.
Unwin remembered the small cluster of moles on Harmony’s nape as she had slid under the water for the final time. What had he done?
Exiting the tunnels, the train seared into the endless night, howling with intent.
Eleven breathless floors up in the apartment building, Unwin almost tripped over the pair of dilapidated boots, jutting into the hallway in a Ten to Two position.
Their owner, Mr Tea-leaf, still seemed to stare accusatively at Unwin with unflinching eyes. A large padded envelope protruded from his mouth, as though he had died mid-regurgitation, the crumpled correspondence jamming in his gullet.
Crashing through the splintered doorway of his own apartment, Unwin stood frozen, facing the closed bathroom door. Steam escaping its cracks, he could picture his own hands around Harmony’s throat – the recognition in her eyes, then the fearful realisation dawning before she went under again; the knife shining briefly at the apex of its swift arc.
The ceiling creaked overhead, slow, hollow footsteps following, dislodging a sleet of plaster over Unwin. Rage overrode natural fear as Unwin took the stairs two at a time, thinking of Harmony flailing in the red bathwater.
The numberless door was open, revealing a narrow hallway filled only with amorphous shadows – where exactly was the fucker hiding? A shadow moved under the closed living room door, flickering the light briefly.
Unwin stormed along the short landing, giving little thought to what might be waiting for him. He stumbled through the lounge door as it swung inwards easily and found himself in a dismal sitting room that was all too familiar. A framed photograph of himself and Harmony, taken at a friend’s wedding, sat atop the ancient television set; its muted screen reflecting the surrounding tattered furniture in a dull panorama.
A lurching sense of displacement hit him, as if he were suddenly observing himself from a high corner of the ceiling, and he was no longer the occupant of his own skin.
“An awareness of the soul. That’s what makes us human,” Unwin heard himself say.
Unwin turned slowly, as though embroiled in dream-state, to finally confront his impostor: the Unwin who had been pervading his thoughts, his bed, even his mobile phone. Clad in a slim-fit, black Cashmere suit and skinny tie, his hair was slicked to one side in the latest fashion.
“Well, this is awkward,” he said, turning from the gold-leafed mirror.
“You!” Unwin blurted as they finally stood face to face, each scouring the other’s identical features. “You’re not me!”
“Idiot, of course I am,” said the black-suited Unwin. “I’m the Unwin you’ve always wanted to be, but never had the sack for it. Seriously, ask anyone.”
Unwin visualised how he would rush forward, aim a fist as the other attended to a cufflink, driving him to the ground. Disorientation fuelling this act of bravado, Unwin adhered to his reverie.
The attic-dwelling Unwin easily thwarted Unwin’s clumsy attack, performing a neat side-step, before applying a highly-polished, expensive shoe to the small of Unwin’s back.
From his fresh perspective, sprawled on the floor, Unwin saw that the flat was not quite a reproduction of his own. Everything seemed inverted: the television set positioned on the wrong side of the room, the paintings on the wall off-kilter. Even Harmony and Unwin had swapped places in the photograph.
“How can you be-”
“Stronger? You lack conviction in your own abilities. Don’t deserve to be the one representing us.”
“Us? You think you’ll keep getting away with this?” The other’s face sneered at Unwin’s idle threat. “You won’t get found out?”
“Never. People just don’t look that closely.”
The doppelgänger loomed over Unwin, reaching inside the lining of his jacket. “You never really loved Harmony anyway, did you? Come on, let’s face facts,
Dickie boy. She much preferred me slipping it to her.” Snarling now, Unwin’s features becoming an exaggerated mask.
“Did you enjoy those mobile shots, by the way? Don’t worry, she didn’t put up much of a fight.”
Unwin flew at Unwin, no part of himself held back. A blade flashed in the gloom like a sickly grin.
As the naked light bulb dimmed to extinction, the old Unwin was already beginning to fade out of existence. The blood from his ear becoming translucent, seeping into the cracks of the laminate flooring until all trace of it had disappeared.
Unwin brushed himself down, his black suit crackling with static, and strolled out of the flat. The heavy door swinging shut behind him for all time, he descended the spiral staircase to where Harmony was waiting for him.
By John Paul Davies from Ireland