FICTION: The Tower by Stephen Mayne

Qutub Minar Tower in New Delhi, India

Sweat runs from his face, trickling into a wispy beard. Cranked up heating and nerves caused the trickle, sticking him to the inside of a blue shirt, the shirt in turn merging into the flowery deep-backed chair he’s slumped in.

The woman opposite, composed in ways beyond him at present, urges more. She can’t help unless he helps himself. At least that’s what she explains at the start of every session. Three months in and he can’t decide if it’s helping. But deciding anything right now is also beyond him.

“Jeremy, you were describing the dream?”

She has to prompt him. He’s lost inside again, drifting away into confused recollections. He answers, a little too aggressively.

“I’ve already told you.”

“Tell me again.”

“Why? Every time I close my eyes I see that damn building.”

“And you still have no idea what’s inside?”

“No. If I try to get near, something pushes me back.”

“I have something for you to consider. But you must promise to think carefully first, no rushed answers. Ok?”

Warily, he looks up and nods.

“In all your dreams, you never get within touching distance, correct?”

Another nod.

“Do you actually want to go inside?”

That’s the question, one he’s asked for five years. If he knew the answer, he probably wouldn’t be here.

Five years of nightmares. How do insignificant things become substantial? How do fixations that never end start? Questions without answer surrounded the unknown tower, standing apart like a sun watching over its galaxy. A shadow of immense length circled the building during daylight hours, creeping across all obstacles, creeping across him. Nothing could shake the tower from his mind; nothing could root it from his imagination. But whatever went on behind mysteriously sloping walls remained a mystery. As she’d astutely recognised though, the real question was never about the tower. It was why he cared.

His obsession arrived in stages, the first initial discovery an act that took place three days after he moved to the area. There was no grand plan to shift his life a five hour time difference from everything he’d ever known. He crossed an ocean for a woman. She left him there. Not that he blamed her. The tower stole him. But that’s jumping ahead.

First he had to find it, an innocuous discovery. New to the area, new to the city, and new to the country, his new world proved a familiar mystery. Ubiquitous American culture made it feel like home even as the small differences pulled him further away. Attempting to reconnect the two, a lunchtime burger van hunt led to the tower. Not that it made much of an impression, not consciously.

It certainly looked odd. A multi-story concrete monolith 14 floors high, it stood out like a sore thumb, parked on a residential street in unused land between wooden houses. It drew attention, as did so much did back then. He’d already stopped to look at dangerously uneven sidewalk bricks, street signs straight from TV, and ugly air conditioning units hanging from every window. A tower block, by American standards not even a very tall one, hardly seemed the most captivating of sights. So what was it? Maybe the way each wall curved upwards into a gentle taper, or perhaps it was the large foundational girders securing the structure front and back? He noticed these things, mentioning them to his wife when she came home from work. Then he promptly forgot all about it. Except it turned out he didn’t.

The tower, on a road too far south to casually stumble across, kept appearing on his walking route. For a while he didn’t really notice, looking up each time without fully recognising this new force in his life. Then came the dreams, and nothing was the same again.

Two dreams changed his life, forging a distinct demarcation line in the process. Everything before faded into fuzzy insignificance, everything after fell in-step to an all-consuming obsession. Sleep became a dazzling agitprop display authored by the tower, a confusing symbol of alienation that forced him to stand apart just like his new obsession did from its surroundings.

At first the dreams were little more than curiosities, idle conversation fodder for the breakfast table. Then they were more, experiences as disturbing as they were fascinating. Time passed and the margins between waking moments and unconscious dreaming merged, creating a permanent purgatory.

The first dream, the most frequent, began with a noise. Far off, too far to judge, he’d hear a rumble, growing into a guttural roar. Darkness encased him, only a slight breeze to suggest open space. He could never move, something between fear and hypnotic interest rooting him to the spot.

Then came the lull, the sound fading until it disappeared completely. He’d remain motionless, straining to hear what was coming next. His waking self knew, a result of endless repetition, but in the dream it came fresh every time. It started again with a faint scratching noise before a deafening explosion flattened him against the ground.

Pinned to a cold floor that felt like concrete, the space above became a raging vortex that couldn’t stop until it was spent. The aural hurricane preceded a blinking light far above. Then another light, and another, until they connected to form a line. The yellowy strip, continuing to grow, drew steadily nearer.

He always remained on the floor, every repeat the same. Nothing could induce him to break contact with the descending lights. Even more appeared breaking the line apart, revealing hundreds of windows. The north face of the tower was descending on him. Shifting around to sit up, propped on both elbows, he spotted the base of the tower for the first time. Halfway up it was bending, the upper portion heading in his direction.

At the last moment, fear ruled. If he could have cowered any further into the ground, he would have, but there was nowhere left to go. Down the tower came, leaning in all the time. Rushing wind confirmed its encroaching proximity. As the smooth, drooping building came within touching distance, he screamed. The sound never travelled far. Just before a thousand windows closed the final few inches, he woke.

That dream came first. A year after he’d accepted the nightly dose of terror, a new one burst onto the scene, different and no less memorable. It started with a kiss, the Hot Chocolate song, not physically. Standing alone in a draughty ballroom, the spotlight switches on and Errol Brown’s voice rolls from speakers mounted on every side, a velvety foot-tapping sound. He shuts his eyes and gives in.

Barely lifting from the ground, he starts to circle, swaying and jerking to the music, building up and up until he’s moving freely around the deserted parquet floor. Eyes open to find only his reflection in a bank of mirrors set into the wall. The music continues, inching up the volume dial. A film of sweat forms on his face, each drop growing in size until the first few break free, splashing straight down onto the floor. There they remain, briefly glistening before he spins past, losing sight of everything except the large entrance, both doors bolted securely shut.

As the song comes to an end, the doors slide open, previously impenetrable bolts simply disappearing. Transfixed, he can do nothing but watch as two oak panels fold inwards, revealing a blinding light. Sliding across the polished floor, he makes his way over. The same song starts again, this time playing only in his head.

At the door he pauses. The next step is a big one, out into glittery illumination. A feeling trapped somewhere between fear and excitement tingles across, hairs standing on end. Sweat continues to drop from his face, smearing a snug tuxedo his unconscious mind has magicked into existence.

One breath, one more. He steadies himself, shuts his eyes, exhales and steps forward. There’s a moment, an ever so brief moment, when eyelids spring back open and he sees everything. He’s crossing the threshold, about to step into the foyer of the tower itself. Before his raised foot can touch the ground, he wakes and it’s over. Pent up frustration lingers after the second dream. Fear and frustration, that’s what the dreams bring. Neither is good news, but now he’s experienced both, he can experience nothing else. If even his unconscious escape is consumed by the tower, where can he go? Certainly not to his wife.

She walked out two years to the day he first saw the tower. Packing a bag with only a sprinkling of clothes and a few personal items, she was gone when he returned from work. It didn’t come as a surprise. Sitting at their square Ikea table, he boiled a cup of tea and waited on tears that never showed. There was nothing left inside not already dedicated to the tower. It had his dreams, it had his waking thoughts, and now it had his wife.

Sitting on her pillow, the one with a picture of a brown bear she’d had since childhood, lay a folded piece of paper with his name scrawled face up in black biro. He saw it almost immediately, and chose to leave it. Opening the paper meant the end, and even though he knew their relationship was over, he couldn’t quite ring that final bell. He’d followed across an ocean, given over a half a decade to her. But he wasn’t angry. He couldn’t blame her for walking out, because in truth she hadn’t. He left first. That he remained physically only made it worse.

All evening he ignored the note, pottering around an apartment of belongings that would now have to be sorted, separated and moved on. All evening he wondered what could have been and knew it was far too late to change a thing. She’d called him absent, she’d called him withdrawn and distracted. She’d called him a lot of things: all true, to a point. Because she didn’t understand the tower, she didn’t understand the hold it had. She couldn’t know that he was lost to it. It made no sense the one time he tried to explain. She laughed and finally left in irritation when she realised he wasn’t joking. She snapped and he took it, because he deserved it and he didn’t know what else to do. And still he ignored the note.

At five minutes to two he picked up the paper. It was lined A4, taken from a pad on the small wooden desk she’d found on a street corner in London. A small sliver was missing, stuck in the pad where the perforation hadn’t torn cleanly. The paper sat in front of him, back at the table next to the latest in a line of steaming mugs of tea.

He thought of her, of her dark blond hair that turned a brilliant peroxide colour in the summer sun. He thought of her blue eyes that shined as if sprinkled with diamonds. He remembered how she’d crack the most inappropriate jokes, and how she couldn’t back down from a challenge, even a simple board game. They’d travelled the world and it wasn’t enough. They married, set up a joint account and pooled their life into one property and it wasn’t enough. They’d talked of a future that seemed so close and now didn’t exist. Because it wasn’t enough. Nothing was.

Shutting his eyes, he unfolded the note, waiting a minute before opening them again. She’d written a full page but he only remembered one passage. He could never forget it.

You already know why I’m going, you don’t need me to spell it out. You know I don’t want to and we both know I should have done this a long time ago. I thought by moving us here, away from the life we’d planned together, I was the one changing. But it didn’t turn out that way. I don’t know what happened to you, I really wish I did. I can’t understand it. Every explanation you attempted, not that there were many, made no sense. Why does it matter so much, that fucking building? Why does it matter more than me? Do you even know?

 

She was right, he didn’t know. She was also right that it did matter more. He wanted to explain but he couldn’t, not even to himself. She was right to leave, and he missed her. Not enough to change anything though.

It was this, all of this, he chose to lay at the feet of his psychiatrist, an educated, accomplished professional ill-equipped to deal with him. The crinkling of pages brought him back to the present. She’d been taking notes furiously as he spoke, scratching away with a chewed biro out of keeping with the sterile environment her bland office tried to foster. He paused long enough to draw her eyes back to him. They faced each other in silence until she felt her $250 an hour fee necessitated some input.

“How many times have you seen her since?”

“Once. From the other side of court when we finalized the divorce. I nodded. She smiled back, I think.”

“What did you do after she walked out?”

“You already know that.”

“Indulge me.”

He sighed, louder than strictly necessary. She wrote something in response, returning the end of the pen to her mouth. Two chewed up pens lay on the desk. Had she tried to kick the habit? Was it one she was even aware of? He used to pick his finger nails without realising until his wife complained one morning. The low-level scratching drove her mad, as did the method of disposal, namely flicking slivers of nail onto the cream carpet. Who buys a cream carpet? Someone, and by someone he meant himself, was always going to spill food and/or drink over it. So it proved, red wine predictably enough.

Not that it mattered anymore. He got the apartment because she left town completely. For a new job, not simply because he stayed around. Nothing much changed in his life for a further eight months. The dreams still appeared most nights, working in tandem to screw him up more than either one could manage alone. And the tower remained, always there wherever he went.  Without the dying vestiges of a relationship for distraction, he found everything turned to the concrete structure nearby.

Even with his tremendous capacity to soak up the obsession, a time came when he could take it no more. Sick of seeing nothing beyond its grey rectangular mass, he left. Not just the town and not just the state, but the entire continent. A fresh start where he could be whatever it was he used to be again. It worked for a while. Over a year of freedom. Tentative steps took him back into an existence he’d almost forgotten. Everything was better, until the dreams returned and the downward spiral commenced all over.

Which explained his presence today, trying to stay upright in a chair that conspired with worn down corduroy to slide him onto the floor. He wasn’t actually nervous. Therapy probably wouldn’t work. Nothing else did but he had to try.

Looking across at her, it was clear he had to be the one to ask.

“What do I do?”

“You go inside.”

Five hours, twenty seven minutes, and fourteen seconds is a long time to sit anywhere, never mind a rusty metal bench. In an ideal world he’d have avoided an ill-maintained public amenity that usually housed pigeons and the elderly, but needs must. Twenty eight minutes now, and counting. He couldn’t sit all day, just most of it.

Facing him stood the tower. It was time, though it had also been time five hours ago. Back for the week to complete this one task, he was faltering at the finish, afraid to find what lay behind the revolving door sucking in and spitting people out all day.

He thought back to his psychiatrist, attempting to summon words of encouragement. He turned to memories of his ex-wife. No solutions came but he did at least buy more time, keeping the required action at bay.

Enough. As some kind of will stiffened, three more people, all students, spun out the doors and a middle-aged woman went in. Two more entered and another left. It was time.

Pushing off from the bench, he smeared shards of peeling green paint across both hands. Wiping them on a cashmere sweater, he walked towards the entrance. Breathing grew ragged the closer he got. Panic rising, he shut his eyes and kept moving forward. Eyes opened again and there were only eight paces left. Another woman exited, striding past. Five paces.  A siren floated behind as a police car raced down the main road. Three paces. He could hear a buzz of voices behind him. Two paces. He was at the door. One pace. He stopped. One pace. He stood still. One pace. He turned and left.

Four years passed before he returned to town. The tower lay inside him somewhere, buried beneath a pile of unfinished memories that one day would need to be worked through. The dreams had stopped at least. Mostly. The first dream reappeared every few months, but only as an isolated incident. It left a tinge of nostalgia.

He couldn’t do it. Entering the foyer was too much. He never went in and never would. Some things aren’t meant to be known. Finding whatever was inside could only lead to disappointment.

Without noticing, an afternoon stroll took him near the tower. He was in town for a conference, giving the keynote. Life was back on track. At every opportunity, he grabbed free time to walk around his old neighbourhood. But after three days of random wandering, he’d never gone near the tower. Turning the bend, having dodged a line of three pushchairs side-by-side, he caught sight of the building. Something long dormant awoke again, pulling him in.

He moved past on the opposite side of the road, eyes fixed firmly forward trying to pretend there was nothing to look at. The tower had no hold on him now. The tower had no hold right? Poise fled when he needed it most and he was caught. He looked, straight at the tower, straight up the exterior, straight to the top and back to the door. He looked, and he wondered what was inside. Trying to shake it off, he pulled away and left without so much as a glance back until he was certain the tower had faded from view. It had and it hadn’t.

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Stephen Mayne

Stephen Mayne is a freelance journalist focusing mainly on music, film, and politics. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts after crossing the Atlantic from his previous home in North London in 2016.

Keep up-to-date with Stephen on social media here…

Twitter: @StephenPMayne

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