“My name is Markus Mahoney. I am an employee of Mr Howard F.Milk, senior. Mr Milk is a partner in Milk & Milks. A senior partner. Mr Milk, sir, is a developer. He puts up buildings. Real big ones. Glass-fronted numbers with exposed lifts and fish tanks in the foyers. Mr Milk creates space. There are many floors to a Milk building and on every one of them you will find space. Mr Milk is no architect, sir, but he knows a building when he sees one, and answering to him directly – as I do – I know a few buildings myself.”
Markus paused. Across from where he sat a man and his wife gaped at him from their sofa.
“Now Mr Milk has asked me round to see you today. He himself, personally, asked me to pop over and say hello to you good people. He asked me to talk to you, to listen to what you have to say, directly, on his behalf. Communication is something Mr Milk is passionate about and he has asked me to make a point of telling you that. Now, I’m no fool Mr…”
Markus paused again, this time to check the sheet of headed paper in his hand.
“Leavitt. I’m no fool Mr Leavitt and I can see you’re no fool either, just like Mr Milk himself is no fool – people say a lot of things about Mr Milk but I’ve never heard anyone call him a fool, and they’d be wrong to – and so you see none of us are fools here. And we all, Mr Milk, myself, and your good self, understand that if you see something with your own personal eyes you have to take on board what you saw.”
Mr Leavitt reached out a hand to pull his wife’s arm onto his lap. From the sofa she looked up at him briefly, her head tilted slightly skyward, the lids of her eyes stretched. Mr Leavitt’s eyes remains fixed on Markus Mahoney. Somewhere in another room an immersion heater kicked into gear; people were saying how cold it was out, for the time of year.
“What I’m saying Mr Leavitt,” said Markus, putting down the sheet of headed paper and lacing his fingers across his knee, “is: we know what you saw. We all do: Mr Milk, me, the whole damn lot of us. So you don’t have to pretend here. Christ, we’ve surely got the whole thing on tape somewhere, I could stick it on right now if we liked.”
Mr Leavitt grimaced.
“So rest assured Mr Leavitt, when you tell me – and I can see that you’re eager to tell me – I’m not going to try to deny you what you saw.”
Mr Leavitt opened his mouth. The immersion heater pounded on. For a moment Markus thought he saw Mrs Leavitt try to get up; no doubt to go and shut the door to the hallway to try and drown out some of that noise. Mr Leavitt, though, had his wife’s hand tightly clasped to his thigh and she was unable to move. It might be exceptionally cold out for the time of year, but the Leavitt’s house was warm, warm and comfortable.
“So, Mr Leavitt, swing from the hip, what did you see?”
Mr Leavitt said nothing.
“On the 12th October 20—you were waiting on platform 2 at London Bridge Station, looking south by south-south west at 2.19pm and you saw something. Tell me, what was it that you saw?”
The immersion heater buzzed.
“Talk to me Leavitt. I’m here on behalf of Mr Milk, it’s like the man himself is in the room and he wants to know what I want to know, so here it is from him to you, what did you see?”
“I saw a man fall,” said Mr Leavitt.
“Of course you did,” exclaimed Markus. “We all did. Mr Milk did. I certainly did. And so did you. How could anyone miss that? A man falling from the top of the tallest building in town – that does not get easily missed. Not by human eyes. No sir. But let me ask you one more question, if I’m not being too bold, if you’ll consent to a little more of Mr Milk’s time, let me ask you this: sure you saw him fall, but did you see him land?”
Mr Leavitt stopped and his wife’s hand leapt up from his lap to half cover her mouth.
“Yesterday afternoon a man fell from the Shard. We have 202 confirmed witnesses. I have now spoken with 201 of them, and they all, you included, agree that they saw a man fall. But what they also agree on is that they did not see him land and do you know why?”
Mr and Mrs Leavitt shook their heads in unison.
“Because he didn’t. Not like you think he landed. Not like you’ve been picturing from last night all through to this morning. There is no tomato sauce stained square of tarmac at the bottom of that building sir. Mr Milk is the most successful developer of his generation and he did not become so by letting people land. Mr Milk takes account of things. He knows that from time to time people fall. That’s a fact of life. But knowing Mr Milk as you do, do you honestly think he would let a man land like that? Come on Leavitt we’re not in the Dark Ages anymore. We’ve got it covered. That’s why I popped round today on behalf of Mr Milk to talk to you and say, stand down Leavitt, we’ve got this.”
As he spoke these last words Markus pushed an unmarked envelope across the Leavitt family coffee table; tucked into the unsealed fold was his business card.
“If you ever have any questions,” he said. “Ring me. I report directly to Mr Milk, what I know he knows and what he knows I know. He’s a father figure and no doubting it, so when people ask you about what you saw – and they will ask you – you look them in the eye and you say: “Oh I was there alright, I saw the guy fall, but the funny thing was, I never saw him land.”
Markus Mahoney wore very tight pointy shoes that did not look a bit like his actual feet. Markus’s personal feet were squat slabs, almost square in fact. At their blunt end his toes splayed wildly and there were a number of short black hairs on the knuckle of each big toe. Every morning Markus would shower, shave and then squeeze those feet into his very pointy shoes. The shoes were actually some four sizes larger than he needed, but in order to fit into that tight point he needed width and with shoes width brought length with it. The upshot of all this was that when Markus walked – as he did now, firmly along the pavement in the direction of Milk & Milks HQ – the first 2-3 inches of both shoes were silent voids, pockets of air where nothing but the whiff of leather and Markus’s own perspiration would congeal.
Sometimes on site Markus would see an upturned nail and imagine a bolt of metal shooting through one of those pockets of air in his shoes. “Stand down guys,” he would say, “these feet are okay.” In those same dreams, Markus would then pull his size seven feet from their size eleven shoes and walk away, leaving the point of his shoe pinned to the floor behind him.
Howard F. Milk’s office was on the ground floor of Milk & Milks HQ. A great many of Milk & Milks employees believed that this was because Mr Milk was afraid of heights. Markus occasionally overheard sarcastic conversation in the lobby about the man who was putting up the tallest building in the city being too scared to go all the way up, yet he knew that the real reason behind My Milk’s ground floor office was his simple laziness; climbing stairs and waiting for lifts was for schmucks, being something Mr Milk often said.
“Are you here for Mr Milk?” asked Howard F. Milk’s own personal receptionist, after Markus had crossed the main lobby to reach a small brown desk and door.
“I certainly am Laura,” he said.
“Actually, my name is Martha.”
“No way,” said Markus chuckling.
The girl blew out her cheeks before, reclaiming composure, she looked down at her screen.
“He’s with Laurence currently. Do you have an appointment?”
“I don’t need an appointment Laura,” said Markus, already moving to sit down.
As he plonked down on the brown leather sofette, hoiking one of those oversized shoes up onto his opposite knee so that its pointed tip was aimed at the ceiling, Markus considered the mythology surrounding Milk & Milks. For instance, just as people believed that Mr Milk’s office was on the ground floor because he was afraid of heights, so too people remained convinced that Milk & Milks was the work of two men named Howard F. Milk and Laurence W. Milks. The truth was that there just was no man called Laurence W. Milks anywhere to be found, certainly not attached to Mr Milk’s enterprise. “People never trust a loan shark,” Markus once overheard Mr Milk say, “so why would they trust a lone magnate.” If partnership was what people wanted then partnership was what Mr Milk would give them. It wasn’t his fault that his partner was a recluse who only allowed himself to exchange with Mr Milk in the total privacy of his partner’s ground floor office. Markus knew that no way was Mr Milk in his office right now having a back and forth with Laurence W. Milks or indeed anyone else. Instead Mr Milk was no doubt leaning back in his deluxe office recliner, jacket off, tie loosed, with a flicker of hip visible beneath his un-tucked shirt.
“Any chance of a glass of water over here Laura,” Markus called out from the sofette.
“My name is Martha.”
“I like it,” said Markus, “I can see exactly why Mr Milk wanted you out here.”
“There’s a cooler in the lobby.”
Markus dropped his pointed shoe to the floor. “Do I look like I drink at the cooler?” he said. “Do you know what the cooler is? The cooler is just cleverly chilled tap. How about you reach down into the fridge there and see if you can put your hand to one of Mr Milk’s personal carbonated spring waters? The really good ones in the glass bottles with the funny writing on the side.”
“Do you perhaps mean the Bella Agua?”
“I don’t know where they are.”
“Come on Lor, I’m Mr Milk’s number two. Reach down into the fridge for Mr Milk’s number two.”
“If you’re Mr Milk’s number two why have I never seen you before?”
“If you’re Mr Milk’s receptionist how come you’re not called Laura?”
The red light above Mr Milk’s door flicked off.
The girl coughed: “I’ll see if Mr Milk can maybe see you now.”
Markus was already on his feet: “Buzz me in Laura!”
She stuttered at the desk, caught between another attempt to claim that her name was Martha, her belief in Mr Milk’s protocol and the whereabouts of the Bella Agua. Markus already had his hand on the door’s handle when he felt it pull suddenly away from him, taking him inside with it.
“How’s Leavitt,” asked a voice Markus knew to belong to Mr Milk.
Mr Milk’s office was dark save for a single white light that burned on the desk. Mr Milk was behind the desk in his shirt-sleeves. His growing belly was particularly prominent. He was also wearing navy blue braces that Markus had never seen before.
“Leavitt’s fine,” said Markus. “Leavitt is not going to be a problem at all.”
“Smashing, so we’re done; everyone is happy with their Milk-shake, delivered by my own personal Markus Mahoney.”
Markus blinked in the light. His eyes were taking their time to adjust from the daylight-heavy reception lobby to this dark and artificially lit room. He noticed a laptop open on Mr Milk’s desk and a single black notebook alongside, possibly it was a diary. Behind him were stacks of boxes overflowing with paper. It had actually been several months since Markus had been inside Mr Milk’s office. He remembered wide room-span shelves behind that desk and a good deal more light. Maybe Mr Milk was going minimalist again, or clearing out some old files.
“Talk to me Mahoney,” said Mr Milk. “Reassure me.”
“We’re so nearly there it’s untrue.”
Mr Milk coughed. “Nearly? I don’t like the word nearly. You know that. I nearly got married last July. I nearly bought a house in Marseille. I nearly kissed my son when he graduated but I have not done any of those things.”
Markus picked out a chair immediately in front of him in the gloom and managed to steady himself by holding onto its back with his left hand.
“Is it Leavitt? Does he want more? Were there more people lurking behind that pregnant woman on platform two?”
“No,” said Markus. “No, Leavitt is no problem at all.”
“Someone on a different platform?”
“We have everyone on the platform, sir, cross checked with ticket and oyster data.”
“Then who,” soared Mr Milk. “Who leaves us nearly but not there?”
“You’re kidding me?”
“No. I don’t…”
“You don’t what?”
“Don’t try and pull shit on me here Mahoney. Spit it out. Tell Mr Milk straight. What is the problem with 202?”
Markus took his hands from the back of the chair and wiped an invisible bead of sweat from his forehead.
“She says she saw him land.”
202 lived on the top floor of a new build apartment block that was part of the Millennium Village. Markus first became aware of the new housing project in North Greenwich in ’97, when he watched Mr Milk briefly consider an investment in the project only to abandon his interest in ’99. Mr Milk never gave an official reason for his change of heart but it was Markus’s personal opinion that people were the problem. Mr Milk did not believe in anything so overtly commercial. The Millennium Village was little more than flats to be rented, shops to be leased and services to be renewed. “I’m no landlord Mahoney,” Mr Milk would occasionally say. “And I don’t plan on becoming one.” And he never did. Mr Milk just had no interest in a building whose business function was on the surface. A Milk building was a building first and a cash proposition later. It was a thing of awe and stupefaction. It was, Markus thought, “art.” The astonishing irony of Mr Milk’s “art” was that by refusing to consider commercial concerns and instead putting up only space he ended up erecting some incredibly valuable buildings. It turned out that ignoring all business concerns actually made the most business sense, and interest in a Milk & Milks project grossly exceeded those of the rival, commercial spaces; all Mr Milk ever seemed to need to do was create space and the money would pour right on in.
202 lived in flat 101. That 202 lived at flat number 101 was not lost on Markus, but no way did he consider it a coincidence. There was just no reason why she would or should know that of all the people who saw a man fall from the Shard that day, she was the 202nd and last on Markus’s list. Neither could she know any of the other 201 – unlike the throng of commuters (No. 1-126) who stretched along the length of the London Bridge platforms, or those on the surrounding streets (27-184), or those in offices with a shard facing prospect (184-200), or even poor Mr Leavitt who had been missed on platform two because he had the misfortune to have his back to one particular security camera and a heavily pregnant woman obscuring him from another. No, 202 observed the man fall from the rooftop of a building on Towers Road, a full 100 yards beyond platform two, far away from anyone else. She was only picked out on a tertiary CCTV sweep, conducted by Markus himself, who saw a flicker of black scarf waving across her beige overcoat and zoomed in to find her staring directly at the Shard. Unlike every other person Markus had been to see in the frantic 24 hours since the fall, 202 was totally alone when she saw a man fall from the top of the tallest building on the skyline. The popular view amongst Markus’s colleagues in the CCTV room was that she had snuck outside to puff on an illicit cigarette, although one woman concocted an elaborate scenario around a rooftop meeting for an office romance that was yet to go sour. Markus didn’t care why she was on that roof, in fact all he knew for sure as he exited the underground at North Greenwich and set off for the Millennium Village was that 202 simply marked the last piece in his puzzle and that unlike a good many of the other pieces who knew each other and talked to each other and were expecting him, 202 would have no idea he was on his way. The only significance attached to 202 living at 101, then, was attached by Markus’s knowledge that she was the 202nd person he had seen and so it was possible to dismiss such superstitions as the swirling of his own brain and nothing more. After all, if some people had done their job properly and scanned the rooftops first 202 might well have been number 1. She certainly would be next time.
In the hallway of her apartment block Markus curled his toes against the roof of his shoes and coughed gently into his closed palm. Then he rang her buzzer.
Markus paused deliberately again, to allow her to repeat the greeting.
“Hello, my name – ”
“I know,” the voice said. “You better come inside.”
“She was waiting for me.”
Mr Milk sat down in his chair, flicking the black diary shut and leaning out of the light so that only his gut was lit.
“Of course she was, they all are, they talk to each other don’t they, they’re all on the same bloody platform.”
“Where was she then? The street? An office?”
“She was on the roof of a building 100 yards north of platform two. That’s why she was last. She was the last one to be picked up yesterday evening when we trawled the footage for the third time. I – ”
Markus was tempted to make it clear to Mr Milk that she had only been picked up at all because of his own intervention but he resisted.
“Either way,” said Mr Milk. “Someone will have talked to her.”
“That’s not possible. Our coverage shows that she left that office immediately after the event. She is seen entering the underground minutes later and is at home within the hour. She did not leave her apartment before I called round – ”
“Remind me,” interrupted Mr Milk, “what difference does it make that she was expecting you?”
Markus looked at the floor, he could really use a bit more light.
“Mr Milk, I should be clear. It wasn’t that she knew I was coming; she was waiting for me.”
“Don’t get clever with me Mahoney. Don’t play games. People have tried to play games with me before and I don’t like it.”
“Sir, this is no game. That roof is 102 feet tall. She was stood facing south at an angle of 163 degrees. She was looking directly at your building, and at that elevation and that angle she could…”
Markus could feel his heart thud as he held on to the chair in the gloom.
“She could what Mahoney? She could what?”
“She could see him land.”
Mr Milk spat.
“Impossible,” he said.
“No, sir, it’s not. I visited the rooftop this morning and she would have a clear line of sight directly to the spot where our man landed yesterday afternoon.”
Mr Milk leaned forward under the white light of his desk lamp, the sacks under his eyes dragging dark shadows down into his cheeks.
“What in God’s name are you trying to tell me Mahoney?”
“Sir, I’m telling you that she was waiting for me.”
In apartment 101, 202 instructed Markus to sit. The room was neat and tidy and the wooden floor clicked beneath his shoes as he walked in through the door. 202 wore slippers and stood silently in front of him. She smiled a great deal and held her hands together in a bunch just below her stomach.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked.
Markus was reminded of a nun. No doubt the clenched hands played a big part, but her posture itself seemed devoted to something. Markus feared that if a nail were to go through the hollow end of his shoe in this apartment she wouldn’t even scream. In the five minutes that had passed he was yet to even mention Mr Milk, or Milk & Milks or urge her to tell him what she saw. Instead she just stood before him, hands clenched, asking him if he was okay. Markus clear his throat:
“My name is – ”
“I know who you are,” she interrupted.
Markus tried hard to look blank.
“Or at least I know where you’ve come from. I’m sure you have your own name, a lovely name too I’ve no doubt, but let’s not worry about that now shall we?”
Markus managed to continue with a slight stammer:
“I’m here on…behalf…of Mr Milk, Mr Milk is a senior…”
This time 202 simply held up her hand.
“Let me save you your breath,” she said. “You work for Howard F. Milk. Mr Milk is a senior partner in Milk & Milks. He is a developer. Not some piss-in-the-wind residential developer either, the buildings he puts up are enormous. They dominate and they promote and they have made Mr Milk and people like Mr Milk a great deal of money.”
202 paused. Markus realised that his jaw was no longer attached to his skull and that his lips were flapping like a kite in the space in-between.
“Now I know you think you’ve come round to put my mind at ease. I know that part of Mr Milk’s “philosophy” is that, to quote the man himself: “a Milk building is not an imposition but an opportunity.” Because we all know that when Mr Milk puts up a building no-one and no-thing are harmed. A Milk building is harm-less. Am I getting this right?”
Markus found himself nodding. Both his knees were pulled tight together and he was reaching around them with his arms. By pressing his jaw against his knees he hoped to keep it attached to his face.
“And that’s where you come in, right? You visit people and you make sure that no one is harmed. You have visited people like Mrs Loris who needed to have it explained to her that losing her entire house and garden was not causing harm to her. You visited the entire population of Agarth Street who needed you to explain to them why losing their view of the sky was not something they need concern themselves with. You even visited the family of Jenny Bowyer, the girl who clipped her foot on a drain hood and will now always walk with a limp but to whom you were able to explain that there was nothing remiss at all about losing two of her toes. This last 24 hours I imagine you’ve been rather busy, sitting down before people like this, telling them that Mr Milk cares and how a Milk building is a family building and that these are not commercial projects but inspirational ones. I expect you even sometimes tell people that Mr Milk’s buildings are art? Don’t you?”
Markus let his head rise and fall.
“Have I met you before?” he asked.
202 held up her hand once more.
“No,” she said. “I think its time for you to ask me what you came here to ask me, Mr?”
“Mahoney, what a lovely name – like honey. Well, please ask me your question Mr Mahoney.”
As she spoke, 202 finally sat down in the chair opposite where Markus rested his jaw on his knees. He cleared his throat for something like the fourteenth time.
“On the 12th October 20—you were standing on the rooftop of 42 Towers Road. You were looking south-by-south west at an angle of 163 degrees and you saw something. What was it that you saw?”
“I saw a man fall Mr Mahoney.”
“Of course you did,” said Markus. “We all did. Mr Milk did. I certainly did. And so did you. But let me ask you one more thing, did you see him land.”
“Yes, I did.”
Markus’s knees took the full weight of his head.
“Yes, Mr Mahoney, I saw the man land. I saw him fall and then I saw him land. I watched him detach at the top of the building. I watched him pass all the way down that glass and steel and then at the bottom where everyone you’ve spoken to no doubt now assumes he was caught in some giant net or cushion or enormous trampoline I saw him career straight into the tarmac.”
Markus tried to speak but nothing came out.
“Have you ever watched a real live man hit the tarmac Mr Mahoney?”
Markus shook his head.
“While I wouldn’t wish it on anyone I’m almost going to suggest you have a look. I think it would be enlightening for you to see a human body kissed by gravity in that way. Legs and arms become indistinguishable Mr Mahoney. Flesh and blood spread out as one. We’re all just a composite of cells they tell you, but that only becomes a palpable fact when those cells get mashed. I sure as hell can’t forget that now, so, whatever you might have me think, whatever you might need to tell Mr Milk that I understand, I’m afraid there’s no escaping from the fact that I saw the man land.”
“Impossible,” said Mr Milk.
“Sadly, sir, it is possible. As I said, from that rooftop on Towers Road she could have seen everything she says she saw.”
Mr Milk’s hands were now clenched on the desk.
“What, might I ask, is the point of having a cordon of sight if people can see through it?”
“She didn’t see through it sir, she saw over it. The issue is elevation.”
“Surely we – and when I say we I mean you, Mahoney – would have considered the issue of elevation?”
“It would seem that that particular building on Towers Road was only recently completed, after we took the initial survey. Any subsequent surveys must have missed it.”
“Which jerk-off developer was responsible for that?”
“Actually, sir, it was us, the block was built to that height so the penthouse had a better view of the Shard.”
“Milk & Milks do not do residential, Mahoney. You know that.”
“No, sir, but Milk & Milks Investments do have a keen interest in any property company working on projects that overlook or are even proximate to an actual Milk building; in fact it is common for that interest to be so big that not only can they push past planning objections, they are also able to dictate what gets built where.”
Mr Milk lifted his head beneath the desk light.
“Well, if we knew the building was going up why could she still see our man land?”
“I think we’d have to call that a mistake sir.”
When Mr Milk’s left hand hit the black diary Markus never considered that the impact would be clean enough to send it flying from the desk. Not on his life did he imagine it possible for that diary to career across the room with such force as to hit him on the nose and cause him actual pain.
“Lest you forget,” purred Mr Milk. “Milk & Milks do not make mistakes Mr Mahoney. We are a glitch free organisation. Other people fuck up all the time, but we do not because we cannot. In our line of work, in our particular market of space we cannot tolerate bad vibes. Bad vibes will be the death of us. How is it that you do not understand that?”
“The thing is,” said 202, speaking slower than she had been whilst standing. “The thing we both understand is that when a building serves no function other than its own space, when a building is, as you say, “art,” that building can only be admired for as long as there is nothing that could offend anyone about it. A painting, however constructed, only brings a semblance of joy because it is incapable of bringing actual pain. We can only take pleasure in a Lowry because we do not feel the cold wind that whips across the picture. The moment L.S.Lowry’s work starts giving us the actual chills, our interest changes. With buildings the lines are drawn all the tighter. Buildings in the world are forgiven. Think of a brick that falls from a house-extension, killing the owner’s cat. The family are upset, the builder is racked with guilt, but because the house is functional first, the death of the cat is forgotten. The same can be said of playing fields eaten up by new schools, traffic disruption around new hotels and demolitions to accommodate new runways. Where there is function there is forgiveness. When a man falls from the top of a building designed to do nothing but stand there, the loss of that man’s life can only ever be a waste. If a statue of Poseidon dragged you down into the water to drown it would cease to be a statue and become just a marble weight. Who was he even cleaning the windows for? There’s no one up there. An empty room on an empty skyline does not need a crystal clear view of the vista. When…”
“Wait a minute,” said Markus. “Who said he was cleaning windows?”
“I do understand, sir. I understand all too well, but so does 202.”
Mr Milk waved both his arms in the air for a while, exhibiting quite extraordinary sweat patches but releasing no sound.
“So? What difference does that make?” he finally said.
Markus took his hand away from his face. There were brown lines of blood running through his fingers.
“I’m afraid it makes all the difference. 202 was only stood on that rooftop on Towers Road because she bought a stake in the development and wanted to inspect her investment.”
“So she is a jerk-off developer.”
“I don’t think she’d see herself as a developer, sir.”
“Although you would agree that she is a jerk-off?”
Mr Milk waved another hand but there were no more diaries on the desk. “What the hell am I meant to call her if not a jerk-off?”
“Sir, in truth, I don’t know what you should call her. All we do know is that at the same moment as our man fell, 202 was stood facing the Shard at the one point on level earth where she could see him land.”
“So her being there cannot be a coincidence.”
Mr Milk let out his first audible sigh.
“What are you saying to me Mahoney?”
“I’m saying that she knew that someone was going to fall.”
“Come with me a moment Markus.”
202 led Markus across an open plan living area to a wide, glass-topped table. On the table were arranged photographs and newspaper clippings and post-it-notes. Some were stacked up on top of one another; others were arranged side by side. A few of the images had thick lines drawn around them with a yellow highlighter.
“These men,” 202 said, gesturing to the faces on the table, “have all at one time or another been employed to work on buildings erected by Mr Milk. They have also all disappeared.”
Markus caught sight of a man whose smiling photograph had him in a hard hat balancing on a girder.
“These men have all been involved in accidents. This man was run over by a forklift. This one’s neck was on the receiving end of a high-speed drill bit. These four all fell from a height. This one over here came into contact with something in excess of 1,000 volts. Yet, Markus – it is okay to call you Markus?”
“Yet, intriguingly, not one of these accidents was fatal. Not one of these men died from their injuries. If you speak to the families as you and I have both done, you will hear talk of sudden emigrations, domestic fall outs, affairs, estrangements, divorce. Many of these men still manage to maintain email contact with their family. One mother even proudly told me how her son had always wanted to live in Los Angeles and it was a pleasure to hear he was getting on so well. She’s saving up to visit him Markus, but she’ll never quite manage it will she? She’ll never find herself boarding that plane to L.A. because her son, like all these men, has not been seen in the flesh since the day of their accident.”
202 pulled one of the photos off the table and inspected it briefly.
“Of course there’s no real reason for me to tell you any of this. You know far more than me. I’m not even really sure how exactly you do it, all those emails and backstories. There are probably many more men and women too, whose faces and whereabouts I do not know, but who you know of all too well because none of this is really news to you, is it?”
Markus was beginning to feel something akin to panic. He knew this because he was sweating. He was sweating so much it felt as if the voids in his shoes were filling up. He desperately wanted to take those shoes off, but knew he could not.
“What exactly do you want?” he asked.
“It was an accident Mahoney. How can someone know when an accident is going to happen?”
Markus coughed a little blood up into his hands and wiped it on the back of the chair.
“When it’s not an accident.”
“How can it not be an accident?”
“If someone jumped.”
Mr Milk sighed again. He began un-doing the clips of his blue braces as he sat back in his chair. To reach the clips he had to feel for them with his hands as he was unable to see over his gut.
“Why, Mahoney, would a Nepalese window cleaner on £6 an hour jump off a building to fuck me?”
“Well, firstly the man who fell was not Nepalese.”
“That’s not what the death certificate says. I’ve got it right here: Nepalese, it says. Exactly like the site-pass and the personal records. They all say it: 5’6” Nepalese man.”
“Yes, but if you go to the actual morgue as I did two hours ago, the body attached to all that paperwork is not a 5’6” Nepalese man, but rather a 6’2” Caucasian with a beard and a tattoo of two doves kissing in a tree.”
“Well that’s precious, but it’s beginning to sound as if you haven’t got a clue what’s going on.”
Markus shuffled, undecided whether his bloody hand would be more comfortable holding his nose or clamped to the chair to keep him upright.”
“I think you might want to open your laptop, sir.”
Mr Milk said nothing. Eventually he leaned a thick finger across the dark and after a brief struggle managed to pull open the lid.
“Tell me what exactly I’m meant to be looking at?”
“News,” said Markus. “Any news.”
“You know Mr Mahoney, I think we’ve taken up more than enough of each other’s time. You came to ask me your question and now you have your answer. I’m sorry it’s taken us so long to have such a simple conversation. I’ve never really thought of myself as someone who blabbers on, but today I seem to have made something of an exception.”
Markus was not so much ushered as led out of the apartment, away from the highlighted faces on the table top, past the photograph in the hall of 202 with her arms around a man with a beard. 202’s hallway reminded Markus somehow of Mr Leavitt’s. When he left their house he walked to the door unaccompanied, leaving the Leavitt’s holding one another on the sofa, maybe already peeking inside the unsealed envelope. Both hallways were nothing more than a corridor. It was strange how far the hall has fallen. The first buildings were all hall, but as more rooms have been added to the house it is the hall that has shrunk back. The hallway at the Leavitt’s, like the hallway at 202’s, was little more than a passage, perhaps 2 meters long, with room for barely two strides before you reached the doorway. Unlike at the Leavitt’s however, 202 was behind Markus the whole time.
“Do come again,” she said. “If you have any other questions, or anything else you would like to talk about.”
On the back of the door itself Markus noticed an etching of two doves kissing in a tree, it lifted and rattled against the door as 202 closed the door behind him.
When Mr Milk first saw it he sat up so hard his belly pressed over the desktop. Markus stood transfixed. Now the braces were off the thing was enormous. It ate into the table as Mr Milk’s jaw sunk lower and lower, making silent rotations as his eyes adjusted to the bright light.
Markus dug into his pocket for a tissue and set about cleaning his nose. By the time Mr Milk began swearing, the tissue was already drenched in blood but in that light it was near impossible to tell if his face was any cleaner.
Mr Milk’s “fucks” came out as squeaks, like a metal chair leg pulling across a stone floor:
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
Then, after a pause:
“Who is this bitch?”
Markus let go of the chair back and turned.
“Send Martha in will you?” called Mr Milk. “Tell her I’m going to need a cab to the airport – not a limo, a cab. Have it leave from the back. Tell her to use Laurence’s exit. Tell her…”
Markus was already out of earshot. Martha sat slumped in her chair playing with her phone.
“Is everything okay in there,” she asked. “I heard shrieking.”
“Everything’s fine,” said Markus. “Mr Milk has asked you to call him a limousine. He asked for it to be out front in half an hour. Don’t disturb him until it arrives.”
The girl smiled and picked up the phone.
Markus kept on walking across the lobby, out of the doors and into the afternoon light. He turned left, making his way towards the river. The shoes into which he had sweated so much were rubbing like mad. As soon as he reached the bridge he stopped.
It was only on the platform at North Greenwich, waiting for a train away from Millennium Village that Markus had finally understood. Even then he still had to check. The visit to the morgue was perfunctory, although the doves on what was left of the man’s shoulder caused a lump of Markus knew not what to leap into his throat. Even on the roof of 42 Towers Road he still wasn’t exactly sure of what was going on, until he remembered the cigarettes. 202 was on the roof to smoke, people said, but Markus has only seen her because he saw a black scarf against a beige coat. Markus found the video and re-wound and zoomed and zoomed some more until there it was: 202 stood on the roof, facing the Shard, holding a camera with a black strap flapping in the wind.
“Are you alright there,” someone asked as Markus leant over the bridge. His hands were still covered in blood. Judging by the look on the face of the man who was speaking to him so was his face. “Did someone clip you one?”
Some passers-by voiced concern, a couple of others made jokes about domestic violence.
“Did you fall down the stairs?” one man asked before running away with his own laughter.
Markus smiled. From the bridge you could see the Shard piling upwards. Other buildings clustered around its hem, but it took them all in. Without breaking sight Markus leant down and undid his shoes. His feet heaved their own personal sigh as they felt for the cold pavement. Markus balanced those shoes on the edge of the bridge, holding them up either side of the Shard. At that angle they were roughly the same height. If he moved them together it disappeared. For a while Markus stood on the bridge in his socks, covering and uncovering the Shard with his shoes, before, one by one he hurled those shoes into the river and walked back into the city, his flat feet easing into the pavement, as the points of those shoes bobbed completely out of sight.
Thomas Chadwick is a writer based in London. His fiction has been published by Popshot (forthcoming) Stymie and Litro. He was short-listed for the Bridport prize 2013. http://thomas-s-chadwick.tumblr.com/ @thomasschadwic1